Howard Stark – the senior, not the junior – has his name changed at Ellis Island. He tosses his Yiddish consonants to the sea breeze and never tries to find them again. It’s 1901, he is ten years old, and he spends his first sweltering summer on the Lower East Side learning English wherever he can. He hawks newspapers for pennies on Sunday mornings, when all the good Catholic boys are in church, and learns to read from the headlines. America is the land of opportunity, and Howard Stark – the elder, not the younger – is making his way.
Forward, there is industry and progress and the battlefields of the Great War. Behind him, there is five-thousand years of human history, a map of persecution that traces bloody lines across Asia and Europe, and a Diaspora the size of a planet. Howard Stark stands at a crossroads, his mother’s old-world lullaby in one ear and telephones ringing in the other. Tomorrow is calling. It is easy to understand which one he picks.
He comes home from battle with a limp, and dreams that give him cold sweats. Goes back to the girl he married before the war and announces that he can’t keep living in a city with no air. It’s 1918, almost 1919. New York City stinks like the ass end of a hog and Howard’s seen cholera and mustard gas and trench foot. He’s got to get out.
They settle in Richford, close enough to Ithaca to be convenient and far enough away that it still feels quaint. It’s John D. Rockefeller’s hometown, and any place that gave rise to the wealthiest man in the country is fortuitous enough for Howard Stark.
When his first son is born, he goes against tradition and names the boy after himself, because Howard Stark (senior, now, finally) has noticed a thing or two about all these successful goyim. They’re all senior, junior, and the third. This is America. You play by America’s rules.
Howard Stark – junior – grows up in an auto garage where his father puts wartime mechanical skills to civilian use. Howard Senior buys the business out from the old owner when his eldest son is eight, almost nine, and Edward is five. Half a year later the market crashes and cars become a luxury their neighbors can scant afford when most people are living hand to mouth. Howard Senior still whistles while he works (when he works), telling his sons, “We are the lucky ones.”
He has seen pogroms and riots and looting. America is full of opportunities for those who take them. He has his wife and his sons and his health, a hip that aches to tell him he is still alive. He casts his vote for Franklin Roosevelt, whose ancestor took office Howard’s first year in America. The New Deal breathes new life into American Industry.
What is good for America is good for Howard Stark – both of him. The senior works and the junior learns, apprenticing at the garage after classes end. He has a natural talent for machines, an innate grasp of how pieces fit together to make a whole. The senior is just a mechanic, but he thinks his son might be more than that. “That boy will be an engineer,” he begins to tell customers. Word spreads through the county – Howard Stark’s got a son who when he fixes cars, they never break again.
Howard Stark Jr. applies to colleges – Cornell because it’s close and Harvard because it’s prestigious, Princeton because he’s a fan of Albert Einstein and thinks the future is quantum, Brown and Yale and Dartmouth and Penn because if you apply to one Ivy then you had might as well apply to all of them. He is rejected, and although no one ever says it out loud, he knows why. Because Howard Stark Jr., with his Ellis Island Anglo name and his success-bound suffix, is still Jewish, and the blood in his veins tells stories about shtetls and Sinai and slavery under the Egyptian sun.
He writes a passionate letter of appeal directly to Einstein, a fellow member of the tribe, and receives a reply that is deeply apologetic and full of righteous fury. In lieu of admission, there’s an invitation for a summer internship, but by that time mustard gas and the horrors of war have caught up to his father. There is a business to run and family to support.
Instead he teaches himself, experimenting and building and applying for patents until finally financers take notice. There’s a war with Germany coming, and America has a thirst for tanks and planes and guns. He learns his machines inside and out, because if you can’t fly it you can’t fix it. He makes his first million building for the US military, and puts it right back into design and construction. Experience teaches that the only safe person to invest in is yourself.
Howard Stark – he’s famous enough to drop the Junior now – wins the SSR contract, beating out a dozen other industrialists including That Goddamn Nazi Henry Ford. Colonel Chester Philips introduces him to Abraham Erskine, genius and soft-spoken, and to Albert Einstein, finally, in the flesh, as brilliant in person as he is in his correspondence. With their whiskery accents and travel-weary eyes, they both remind Howard of his father – men whose journeys began thousands of miles away, who, despite their accomplishments, are still struggling just to belong.
Howard Stark pretends it doesn’t hurt when he finds out that the Nazis’ nickname for him is Roosevelt’s Pet Jew. After the war, when none of the important country clubs will let him join, he writes seven different articles about how he didn’t spend five years and millions of dollars on the war effort just to deal with anti-Semites on American soil. He publishes none of them.
To hear him tell it, he is American-made: a prophet of electricity and steel. In his dreams, he carries his birthright like Moses’s two tablets, offering them up to an absent God. Please, take this, he says. I don’t want it any more. Nothing good ever comes of it. Church bells announce his marriage to Maria Carbonell.
Anthony Edward Stark is born the child of no true religion, denied descent on both sides. He outgrows God when he outgrows the tooth fairy. Science can be proven in ways no mythology can. The periodic table is better liturgy than any psalm King David ever wrote. Machines demand neither Hail Marys nor Hallelujah choruses (though sometimes he indulges in this last one, when he is feeling both accomplished and sarcastic). His half-Italian mother with her full-Italian name makes the world forget that Howard Stark’s parents were Polish Jews who traded their surnames at the gate.
Tony Stark is never turned away from a country club. No Ivy League University ever rejects him because their Jewish quota is full – he doesn’t attend one out of respect for his father’s old grudge, and because MIT appeals to him in ways Harvard never will. No one ever leaves threatening messages painted on his garage door. His windows are never broken.
He never feels kinship with Einstein or Erskine or Oppenheimer.
Sometimes he wonders if he should.
Tony Stark winds up flat on his back in a cave in Afghanistan, a car battery wired to his chest, convinced of two things. First, convinced that this is the moment when his father’s ancestry will finally become relevant. Second, convinced that he is going to die. Miraculously, neither happens. The only jury that will ever really matter unanimously declares Tony Stark a Typical White American Pig.
He wishes his father were here to see what three generations of assimilation hath wrought, Jewish roots buried so deep that even violent fundamentalist terrorists don’t see them to be worth killing him over. He even goes as far as to compare it to ironic button on an Arthur Miller play, though articulating the exact tragedy of the situation is beyond him in this state.
By the end of the week, he has the power of a small star burning inside his chest.
He really just wants a goddamn cheeseburger.