Tag Archive | "South Philly"

My Other Brother

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This is the story of the youngest of three brothers who shared a life experience growing up in a happy home in South Philadelphia.  Preceded by his older brothers Rocco in 1924 and Thomas in 1926, Anthony Petruzzelli was born to Donato and Rose Petruzzelli on Armistice Day in 1928, ten years after the guns of World War I were silenced at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

 

As was the custom in Italian-American families of that era, my older brother Rocco was named after his paternal grandfather and I after my maternal grandfather.  With no more grandfathers to honor, my mother chose the name “Anthony” for my younger brother simply because it appealed to her, having read a novel titled Anthony Adverse.

 

As to how much adversity my brother had in his life (all puns intended), I cannot attest.  Yet, there are many who believe that a name endows a special quality upon its bearer.  And, I believe that the same might be true of a nickname.  One thing I can state with complete certainty is that a nickname can and often does follow its bearer to the grave.

 

My younger brother was nicknamed “Fats” because, as a toddler, he was pudgy, and the name stuck.  In later years, after I was married, I would visit my Best Man Jim Tedesco and, as we exchanged pleasantries, he would always say “How’s Fats?” which always brought a smile to my face.

 

As a child, Fats was always getting lost on family outings.  When things would get quiet, Mom or Dad would say “Where’s Fats?” and my older brother Rocco would start the search. Despite life during the Great Depression, our family enjoyed many outings, giving Fats lots of opportunities to get lost.  In a far less complex world than that of today, our family enjoyed the simple pleasures of picnicking at parks, cruising down the Delaware River, hiking in Wissahickon Park, and viewing the many sights that the city of Philadelphia had to offer.

 

Then, along came World War ll, and we all participated – in our own ways – in the war effort.  During much of the war years, Anthony was attending Benjamin Franklin High School in Philadelphia, majoring in Aircraft Mechanics.  At that time, he also procured a part-time job as an errand boy at Central Type, a center city print shop.

 

 

His experiences at Central Type became a defining moment in his life.  His employer perceived in Anthony an industrious, eager quality and offered him a Union apprenticeship – an opportunity that Anthony gladly accepted.  Years of study and hard work produced a journeyman printer who would later run the business renamed The Composing Room.

 

Like his older brother Rocco before him, Anthony ascended to management status in his career.  Also like his older brother, he achieved everything through diligence and hard work, coupled with the love of a supportive family.

 

Anthony also found time to serve his country – enlisting in the Naval Reserve when he came of age after the War’s end.  As such, he was the only son to follow in the footsteps of his father Donato, who served in the US Navy as a seaman in World War l.

 

With the end of World War II, Americans across the nation turned their attentions homeward.  The Petruzzelli brothers were no exception.  We all got married and raised families.  Despite the changes brought on by marriage and children, our family retained its closeness.  Each Sunday, we would meet at our parents’ home in South Philly.  Here, we all enjoyed each other’s company and a delicious home-cooked dinner.  These Sundays together were among the happiest times of my life.

 

 

After 40 years of happy marriage, my brother Anthony lost his wife Dorothy to cancer and, once again, we rallied together as a family.  After a time, Anthony called and indicated that he would like to meet my wife and I to discuss an important matter.  We met at a local restaurant where he introduced us to a lovely woman named Palma.  He then said he was considering marriage and wanted to know if I approved.  I responded “if you’re happy, then I’m happy,” as I had experienced the same tragedy in 1975 at the sudden passing of my wife Midge.

 

When he married for the second time, I was delighted to be selected as his Best Man, an honor that had been bestowed upon me many years before when my older brother Rocco was betrothed to his bride Teresa Cifuni.  Prior to his nuptials, Anthony held a family gathering at his oldest son Robert’s home.  At that celebration, I met Palma’s son-in-law Tom who related to me a fascinating, true story about an occurrence during the Vietnam War.  With his permission, I wrote an article about his story entitled Little Flower – an article that was subsequently published and for which I won an award.

 

Anthony’s marriage to Palma Ferri commenced yet another chapter in his life, a life enriched by caring friends and family.  My brother Anthony knew that love was to be shared and share it he did.  He “cast his bread upon the waters” and it was returned to him a thousand fold in love and affection from his wives, children, grandchildren, and friends.

 

This was a fact that was brought home to me recently when I attended his funeral, for – on June 7th – his Heavenly Father called him home.  When his son Robert called to inform me, I was shocked, as I had just spoken to him days before discussing the pros and cons of immunization against Shingles.  Perhaps I failed to mention that my brother, among his many other fine attributes, was also a planner for the unexpected – probably the Anthony Adverse syndrome.

 

As we close the final page on the life of my brother Anthony, I am sure that his earthly passing   was the cause of great celebration in Heaven as Mom, Dad, and other departed loved ones welcomed Anthony into God’s eternal kingdom.  Those of us remaining are left with fond memories and the hope that we too will join them someday in a family gathering that will last forever.

 

In the interim, however, it’s time to say goodbye with love.

 

Brother Tom

Greek Hotdogs

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Growing up in South Philadelphia during the Great Depression was an experience I will never forget.  And, despite tough economic times and the winds of yet another war to end all wars looming in Europe, I still hold that era dear to my heart.

 

For kids, the South Philly of that time was a magical place to live.  I remember with great affection my family’s Holiday celebrations and the annual New Year’s Day Parade that originated on Second Street and wound its way to its conclusion on Broad Street.   Of course, South Philadelphia was also home to great food – both the food my mother made at home and the City’s many eateries.  The original Pat’s Steaks at 9th & Wharton Streets was and remains a landmark.

 

But, what I recall best are the colorful characters who inhabited the City.  Like the other major Northeastern metropolitan areas, Philadelphia exemplified the “melting pot” that was America.  People with funny names and habits added color to everyday life.  Every ethnic group added their own unique culture and food specialties to the cityscape.

 

Among my fondest memories, however, were what my family referred to as Greek Hotdogs.  We gave them that name, not because they were made in Greece, but because of the ethnicity of the family who ran the establishment in which they were made and sold.  Their store was at the intersection of Snyder Avenue and the Southwest corner of South Carlisle Street –  just a half city block from the Broadway Theater at Broad Street and Snyder Avenue.

 

No matter the time of day or night, you could always find a crowd of people enjoying with gusto a very special hotdog.  Anyone who ever tasted one will attest to that fact.  Like Lays Potato Chips, you “can’t eat just one.”

 

Although Greeks ran the business that made these taste treats, the unique flavor was really in the special sauce and fixings that accompanied the hot dogs – the exact ingredients of which were a closely-guarded secret.  In my opinion, you just haven’t lived until you’ve tasted a Greek Hotdog, as many members of our military who visited Philadelphia during World War ll learned.

 

After he was married and became a father, my older brother Rocco, who was born and died in South Philly, always dedicated one night of the week to the enjoyment of Greek Hotdogs.  He chose Thursday – perhaps, because of the Roman Catholic prohibition against eating meat on Fridays.

 

Since his passing, his daughter Donna has continued the tradition in his honor every Thursday night.  Recently, during a phone conversation with her, the subject of Greek Hotdogs arose, bringing with it fond memories of her Dad and those delicious hotdogs.  As we were ending our conversation, she said “Remember, Uncle Tom, when you order them, you cannot eat only one!”  As I hung up the phone, I smiled and reminisced of the taste of a lifetime, a taste I remember as vividly today as the day when I indulged in my first Greek Hotdog.

 

Walter Cronkite, the iconic news anchor for the CBS Evening News in the 60’s and 70’s ended each broadcast with the same refrain, “What kind of a day was it?  A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times.  And you were there.”  For me, Greek Hotdogs represented one of the simple pleasures of life, an anticipated change from the everyday.  And, like Cronkite’s audience, I was there.

Nicky Blue

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Lately, my email system’s in-box has been filled with out-of-the-ordinary messages.  Sadly, the last of these was from the grandson of a dear friend, informing me that his grandfather has passed on.  Thus, I am moved to write this tribute to an extraordinary man who touched my life.


My friend was baptized Nicholas J. Prestipino in 1923.  Nicky, as he would come to be called, was raised in an ethnically mixed South Philadelphia neighborhood, in the vicinity of 10th and Ritner Streets: my neighborhood.  Although he was three years older than I was during the Great Depression, we grew up together and even attended the same schools.  It was during these years that he was nicknamed Nicky Blue, a moniker that would stick with him until he was laid to rest.


En route to our manhood, something happened that would forever change our lives.  When World War II erupted, it subjected men between the ages of 18 and 45 to the draft.  Enlisted into the armed forces, many boys from our neighborhood were called to serve their country.


Nicky was inducted into the Army and trained for the Infantry.  His tour of duty would take him to the theater of war known as China, Burma, and India (CBI).  By chance, two other neighborhood boys serving in an Ordinance company were sent to the same arena.  Their names were Anthony Didio and James (Jimmy) Celotto.


Because of the different branches of the service into which they were inducted, these three young men did not serve together.  Anthony recalls that while stationed in China, he and Jimmy decided one day to visit a local airfield to watch planes arrive and depart for various destinations.  As they watched a plane taxiing along the runway in order to refuel, they were surprised and delighted to see Nicky Blue among the men deplaning.  For a brief period, all three had a joyous reunion.


Nicky told Anthony and Jimmy that he was assigned to Mars Task Force Company G, 475th Regiment, as a heavy machine gunner.  Nick said that his company was bound for Burma to battle the Japanese occupying that country. After the plane refueled, Nick had to climb aboard to continue on in his journey as a gunner. As Anthony and Jimmy watched him board, Anthony turned to Jimmy and said, “This is the last time we’ll see Nicky Blue alive.”


The story of the war in that region proved to have heavy American and Allied causalities; it had been a near impossible task to repel the occupying Japanese.  So vivid and poignant were these stories that Hollywood made two movies about this arm of the war, naming the films Merrill’s Marauders, starring Jeff Chandler, and Objective Burma, with Errol Flynn in the lead role.  Thankfully, Anthony and Jimmy had been wrong about Nicky Blue.  His courage and smarts enabled him to survive what so many had not.


When the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, World War II came to an abrupt end.  With its end came the return home of those soldiers who had endured this long conflict.  As the boys returned one by one to our neighborhood, they gathered on the corner of 10th and Ritner Streets to re-forge the connection that the war had interrupted. From these informal meetings, Club Gramercy was born.  This was a social club in which we spent many pleasant hours in pursuit of our past.


As time passed, many of the boys — now men — married and drifted away to pursue family life.  But in 1986, two members met across a meat counter in a Northeast Philadelphia supermarket and decided to bring the boys together again.  These two friends were Baby Joe Carabasi and Tony Griffoni.  Through networking, they accomplished the first meeting of 12 friends at the home of Amadea (John) Adelizzi in Palmyra, New Jersey, a conference of sorts for The Boys of 10th and Ritner.


Within six months, our numbers had more than quadrupled.  Fifty-four friends showed up at Vitale’s Restaurant in Northeast Philadelphia for the first official meeting of The Boys from 10th and Ritner.  These meetings continued for more than ten years at Cobblestones Bar & Grill in South Philly.  We celebrated our 10-year anniversary in 1996 at the Coastline Restaurant in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.


Over meals and a little wine, we relived our youth, told war stories and jokes, and shared news of happenings that pertained to us. Today, our members have dwindled to but a few.  Our ages and our accompanying ailments have put up roadblocks to our physical gatherings, but we do keep in touch by phone and email.


When I received the news of Nicky’s death by email, I contacted Joe DeGenova and Anthony Didio to inform them, and to ask them to pass the information on to our other surviving members.  Perhaps not surprisingly, both Joe and Anthony had the same response when hearing the news: “I can’t believe that Nicky Blue is gone!”  Neither could I, because Nicky had always had that “larger than life” personality. 


My wife and I used to gather with special friends every July at the Golden Inn in Avalon, New Jersey.  One year we were introduced to a new couple that spent the weekend with us.  In conversation, they told us that they resided in Hammonton, New Jersey.  This caused me to ask if they knew Nicky Blue Prestipino.  With a broad smile on his face, the husband   replied, “Everybody knows Nicky Blue!”  Indeed, Nicky seemed to touch the lives of all whom he encountered.


An unforgettable person, just saying that nickname, “Nicky Blue,” brings a smile to my face and the face of anyone who knew him.  Nicky has become a legend amongst family and friends. Not just an ordinary person, he exhibited extraordinary courage fighting in the jungles of Burma during the war, and the memories of that war haunted him until the end.  Perhaps that is why Nicky still retained his great zest for life.


In my last conversation with Joe DeGenova, as we reflected upon our lives, Joe told me:


“Treasure your yesterdays.

Dream your tomorrows.

And live your todays.”


I know Nicky Blue lived his life by that motto. A beloved member of The Boys of 10th and Ritner, he will be greatly missed by the surviving members of our group.  We offer the final salute in saying “Goodbye, Nicky Blue,” as we have to all of our members who preceded him into the Kingdom of Heaven.


The Best Years of Our Lives

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It is only when you accumulate enough years and experiences on this planet that you can truly assess the nature and quality of your life.  And, with time, you gain perspective.  As I look back on my own life, I see all of its trials, triumphs, sadness, and joys.  But, most of all, I witness the influence of love and family across time and generations.


Preceded by my twenty-months older brother Rocco, I was born in 1926.  Two years later, Rocco and I welcomed my brother Anthony.  My brothers and I were born at home, as was the custom in those days.


The roots of our family tree are embedded in the soil of Italy.  My father Donato hailed from the village of Castelluccio Val Maggiore, near Foggia.  In 1901, he crossed the Atlantic with a chaperone to land upon America’s shores and join his widowed father in Roseto, Pennsylvania.  There my dad lived until he was fourteen years old.  Upon my grandfather’s remarriage, the family moved to Philadelphia.  When my dad came of age, he served in World War I as a member of the United States Navy.


In his civilian life, my father was a barber by trade.  In 1923, he took my future mother, Rose, as his wife.  In South Philadelphia, surrounded by relatives and good neighbors, my parents began to raise their family.  This was the beginning of a lifetime of love.


When I was three years old, the country was plunged headlong into the Great Depression, where it remained for more than a decade.  These were the formative years for my brothers and me.


As kids, we entertained ourselves with good clean fun.  We’d play in the streets and, because TV had yet to be invented, we’d listen enrapt to the radio.  Our favorite programs were The Lone Ranger, The Shadow, Gunsmoke, and the creepy Inner Sanctum, the last of which was guaranteed to scare the wits out of us!   As a weekly treat, we enjoyed Saturday afternoons at the movie theater.  A single dime bought us Movie Tone News, a couple of cartoons, and the featured motion picture.


We also enjoyed visiting our relatives and celebrating the holidays together.  Occasionally, we would head out to the local parks and cruise on a boat down the Delaware River.  Via the Wilson Line, we’d travel to Riverview Beach in Pennsgrove, New Jersey.  On a hot summer day, we would hike through Wissahickon Park and stop at Valley Green for ice cream.  We’d listen to the creek as it rushed and gurgled through the valley.  Braving a climb up the hill, we’d stand beside a large stone statue of Chief Tedyuscung, the last of the Delaware Indians.  At the top of the hill, the chief knelt on one knee with a hand shading his eyes as he peered across the valley creek.  Sometimes, uncles and friends came along for these special excursions.


I remember when my paternal grandparents wanted to visit relatives in Roseto, Pennsylvania, and I elected to go.  I must have been 8 years old, and the relatives we were visiting only spoke Italian.  But they all got a big kick out of me and even offered me a glass of warm milk courtesy of the family goat.


When I turned 12, my friend Joe Carabasi asked me if I wanted to become a Boy Scout.  I told him that I would need permission from my parents.  But the $12 cost of the uniform — the only expense I was asked to lay out — was too dear for my hard-working family.  I was heartbroken, but my mother intervened to buy that uniform for me.  I don’t know how she did it, but a loving mother always finds a way to make her children happy.


My four years as a Boy Scout in Troop 107 were some of the most memorable times of my life.  No matter the weather, on weekends, my fellow Scouts and I camped out at a Camp Biddle in West Chester, Pennsylvania.  My brother Rocco made up a rhyme that went like so:  “When the weather is clear is not the time to go to camp.  But when the weather is cold and damp, that’s when the Scouts go to camp.”


Rocco was the leader of our gang, and it’s protector, whenever we ventured from our familiar street.  On these treks, we would go to League Island Park or hike eight miles to the watch airplanes take off and land at the Philadelphia Airport.


On Sunday mornings, my brother and I went to Mass with our mother.  My dad, who worked six days a week and who had declared Sunday his day of rest, declined Mass.  While we were in church, he would start our traditional Italian dinner, which was eaten midday.  My dad fried the meatballs, sausages, and other meats that made the tomato sauce delicious.   There was nothing as good as a fried meatball after Mass!  We would eat our main meal in the afternoon and afterwards, pay a visit to my paternal grandparents.  As my mom’s parents lived across the street from us, we saw them every day.  These Sunday traditions continued until my parents passed away.


Growing up, my brothers and friends encountered many people trying to eke out a living as street vendors.  In those days, a penny bought two pretzels with mustard; a nickel would buy a small ice cream cone with gelati.  Two cigarettes with matches cost a penny and an entire pack of smokes went for a dime.  Mail arrived by postal carrier twice daily and milk was delivered door to door.


In the summer, George the iceman would carve a one-foot square block of ice.  Before the advent of electric refrigerators, this ten-cent purchase was placed into our icebox to keep our food chilled.  In the winter, coal was the fuel that warmed the house.  Water for bathing or washing dishes was heated by manually lighting gas burners under pots of water.


People traveled by public transportation or car.  The average price of a new automobile was $800.  The Gold Standard limited the amount of legal tender that could be printed, and gold bullion, which sold for $35 an ounce, was stored at Fort Knox, Kentucky.   Credit cards did not exist.


During our lives, my brothers and I experienced many events; we saw much progress as well as much grief in our nation.  We lived through World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, the invention of television, and the shock of losing President John F. Kennedy, his brother Bobby, and civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to cowardly assassins.  We witnessed the mass move to suburbia after the Second World War as well as the emergence of modern-day appliances, credit cards, and the race to space between the United States and Russia.   We won that race.  Through television, on a humid summer evening, we watched the miracle of Neil Armstrong stepping foot on the moon and planting the American flag into its dusty soil.


Today, we live very differently.  The old-world custom of visiting relatives and friends on Sundays and special days of the year has all but vanished.  People are too busy trying to achieve affluence in a monetary world.  They have little time to spend a few enjoyable hours with family as they recall fond memories of the past. Maybe it’s my age, but I recall when the priest presiding over the burial of a family member or friend uttered the last words, “Remember man, that thou are dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.”


When Rocco passed away in 1989, I became the oldest living member of our family.  Recently, I reminisced with my younger brother Anthony at a family gathering about growing up in South Philly.  When we parted company, we both left with the feeling that those were the best years of our lives.


Come September

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In contemplating a title for this article, I could very well have lifted a line from a beloved old Grateful Dead song, Truckin’.  “What a long, strange trip it’s been” surely describes my life.  For the most part, it’s been a good life.   For everything that I have put into it and everything that I have gotten out of it, my life seemed to be headed in a certain direction — until I reached my golden years.  That’s when it turned strange.


Growing up in South Philadelphia with my two brothers during the Great Depression, the life lessons learned in my youth held me in good stead as I matured, carving the path that my life has taken.  Hard work and honesty were the cornerstones of my family.  Like most traditional families of those times, my father was the breadwinner, and my mother was the heart and soul of our household.   My dad worked long hours in my grandfather’s barbershop while my mother did the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry, and nearly every other household chore, including the most important one: the majority of the child-rearing.   My brothers and I pitched in to help whenever we could.  Back then, when the unemployment rate had skyrocketed to 25%, it took teamwork to get by as well as maintain our sanity.


We may not have been rich, but we were happy.  Simple, inexpensive outings, such as a trip down the river on the Wilson Line or hiking in the Wissahickon Park provided my family with downtime as well as quality time, in which we strengthened our bonds and celebrated being alive.  I remember those times with great fondness, as I do playing stickball and other games in the street along with the neighborhood kids.  Somebody’s mother or grandmother was always peering down upon us, making sure that we were safe and causing no major mischief.  If we were the cause of any trouble, may heaven have helped us as those watchful eyes would report back pronto to our parents, who then doled out appropriate punishments.


Back then, there was no such thing as a Time Out to curtail the behavior of unruly children.  There was no such thing as withholding television from us for our minor sins, because TV had yet to be invented!   There was no such thing as “reasoning” with us or facilitating the development of our “critical thinking skills” that would enable us to see the error of our ways.  In those days, parents had neither the time not the inclination for such approaches.  They were engaged in the very serious task of keeping the roof over their kids’ heads and food in their mouths.  The ideology behind “Spare the rod and spoil the child” was not a philosophy in my house; it was a way of life.   My brothers and I quickly learned that things could be a lot more pleasant if we followed our parents’ rules and mores, including respect for others.


As the years passed, my brothers and I were able to help the family in a monetary fashion.  After-school jobs, such as serving as delivery boys for local grocers, working newspaper routes, or clerking in stores allowed us to chip in a bit at home while still enjoying a little “blow money.”


At age the age of sixteen, we traded our short pants for long ones, for that was the mark of a boy coming of age.  Many of us came of age a lot faster than we’d bargained for, courtesy of World War II.   Two years after I’d begun to wear men’s clothing, I traded those clothes for a military uniform, at the command of the United States Army.


After the war, those lucky enough to return home attempted to recapture the years lost in the conflict by trying to meld back into civilian life.  But we were forever changed, as was the nation.  When the war ended, so did the jobs that supplied the war, mostly in manufacturing.  Because there were not enough jobs for the returning troops, many veterans took advantage of the G.I. Bill: a piece of legislation enabling vets to attain college educations or learn one of the trades by way of vocational schools.  With our newfound knowledge, we moved into decent-paying jobs, jobs that helped make our country the most economically sound nation in the world.


In the years to follow, we left our homes and the sheltering arms of our parents.  We began our own lives with the girls of our dreams.  Shortly afterward, we experienced the joys and responsibilities of raising our own families and understood, finally, our parents’ perspectives.   We worked, and we worked hard.  We put away for our retirement, to be able to enjoy our golden years with our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.  Never did we expect to find ourselves in a situation tottering too close for comfort to the same one we’d experienced as kids growing up in the Great Depression.  At least, I didn’t.


Now that I am a senior citizen, I am floored, dismayed, and disheartened by what I see, and I feel that I speak for many people of my generation.  We served our country; we worked within the system and paid into the system.  We had assumed that our honest and industrious work ethic would bear fruit, for it is karmic law that what you give out, you receive back.  We did not expect to lose our shirts when the stock market crashed nearly two years ago. We did not anticipate that our government would blithely fork over $710 billion in aid – not to a needy working class, but to the elite: those who own and run huge mega-million dollar corporations.


These events have left senior citizens up the creek without a paddle.  On fixed incomes, we must juggle the costs of necessities against the ever-rising cost of living.  In addition to food, shelter (including the utilities and appliances and everything else within those shelters), and of course, clothing, we must – by law – carry insurance on our cars and perhaps in the near future, our health.


Over and over, my mind spins with questions of how my dad managed just the basics on the salary he earned.  We owned no car.  Our home was not air conditioned, nor did it boast a hot water heater, a dryer, a dishwasher, or other modern-day amenities.  And yet, we still enjoyed life to the fullest.  As President George H.W. Bush recalled the era he lived in, “Life was simpler and kinder then.”  Where did we go wrong?  Is overindulgence the “reward” we must now reap?


If only we seniors could return to those carefree days of childhood.  Until someone constructs a time machine, that’s not going to happen.  For now, here is another hard to believe fact that seniors must swallow.  Although the estate tax for 2010 is zero, it will climb to 55% in 2011!  If you are interested in cashing in on some savings, please refer to my article on this site entitled, Single Shot 45.


I suppose the plight of the Over the Hill Gang can best be summed up in a song.  We’re not talking about the Grateful Dead anymore; we’re talking about an artist of my generation.  We’re talking about Frank Sinatra’s, The September of My Years:


One day you turn around and it’s summer.

The next day you turn around and it’s fall.

And all the springs and winters of a lifetime

Whatever happened to them all?

  

 

 

The Strange Saga of Private Joseph A. Ermilio

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Have you ever had the experience in which you’d met a person for the first time and felt as if you had known him or her before?  Here in the States, we deem this a form of psychic phenomenon; the French call such occurrences deja vu.   No matter what you choose to call it, the experience leaves you a bit awestruck, and perhaps more than a bit.  You realize that life is not random, that it has a pattern, and even a purpose.  And sometimes you realize that, through your experience, you are meant to share what you have learned with others for an even higher purpose.  That is my aim in sharing this true tale with you.


My own deja vu begins in South Philadelphia, when I was boy during the 1930’s. Growing up in the vicinity of 10th and Ritner Streets, my contemporaries and I were, for the most part, the children of hard-working, God-fearing immigrants.  Life was pleasant in my boyhood.  It would be years before the streets of Philadelphia were choked with cars, so it was easy for the kids in the neighborhood to have some good, clean fun playing stickball and other games in the streets.  Although I had my own circle of friends, I also had those “familiar strangers” that we all have in our lives.  Mine were the boys with whom I attended the same school.  I’d see them in the halls and around the neighborhood; although I’d recognized many faces and had casual encounters with the owners of those faces, I was “tight,” as we say today, with my own group.


In the blink of an eye, a single event forever changed my life as well as many other lives — an event that forced boys to become men overnight.  On the morning of December 7th, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, thus providing our President, FDR, with the impetus to enter the United States into that long, bloody campaign known as World War II. I was not yet of military age, and neither were most of my friends and peers.  But as the war dragged on and more birthdays passed, Uncle Sam caught up with us via the draft.


One of the boys drafted from my South Philly neighborhood was Joseph A. Ermilio.  While Joseph was not a close friend of mine, I knew him from the neighborhood.  Enlisted into the Army on April 22, 1943, he trained as infantry and was not the first member of his family to serve his country in WWII; his brother Vincent was drafted in July of 1942.  After fifteen weeks of basic training, Joseph was slated to see active duty in the European theater.  There, he found himself in the heat of an invasion of Italy’s coast, near the resort towns of Anzio and Nettuno.


There is an Old Italian saying attesting to the beauty of Naples: “Vedi Napoli, poi morire” translates to,  “See Naples, then die.”  Unfortunately, during World War II, many American soldiers did just that.


In the predawn hours of January 22, 1944, British and American forces stormed the beautiful beaches in a flawless attack that caught the German defenders completely off guard.  Their high command had never expected an invasion in the months of January or February.  One paratrooper attached to the 82nd Airborne Division remarked, “It was a warm, sunny day and you could hardly believe that there was a war going on — and that I was in the middle of it.”


Securing the beaches, the Allies drove the Germans inland, then stopped to regroup.  This small pause in our offense allowed the Germans to counterattack, with a vengeance.  In next four months, the Allied troops would see some of the most savage fighting in this war.


It was during this time that Joseph became a casualty of war, listed as killed in action. At home, the news of his death spread throughout the neighborhood.  By the time Japan had surrendered to the Allies, Joseph A. Ermilio would be the sole casualty of all the South Philly neighborhood boys who had served in WW II.


With the war ending, all of the neighborhood boys, who were now men who’d served our country, gathered at the corner of 10th and Ritner to form a Social Club, which we called Club Gramercy.  As time passed, we all got married and drifted apart, as people do when they assume family life and the obligations that accompany it.


Many years later, in 1986 to be exact, two members of our club, Baby Joe Carabasi and Tony Griffoni, ran into each other in a supermarket in the Greater Northeast section of Philadelphia.  They vowed to get the old gang back together by networking through people that they both knew.  Baby Joe and Tony cobbled together a list, a list upon which the names of the original fifty-four club members emerged. In October of 1986, the first meeting of the Boys Of 10th and Ritner (nee, Club Gramercy) was held at Vitale’s Restaurant in Northeast Philadelphia.


Over the years, my friends and fellow soldiers celebrated a ten-year anniversary at the Coastline Restaurant in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Today, we are but a handful of that old gang and do not meet as often as we did.  But we do keep in touch.  In the many meetings we attended together, one name always came up whenever we would discuss what we’d seen and done overseas, during the war. That name was Chatty Joe Ermilio, a nickname given to Joseph by one of the neighborhood boys.  In my youth, South Philly was famous for nicknames in our crowd.  We had Nicky Blue, Baby Joe, Happy Joe and Happy Joe Jr., Duke Campisi, Fishy Yellow Gooney Ercolani, and many more monikers that would bring a smile to your face, as they did to ours.


As a writer for this website, I have contributed stories of my experiences, including tales of some of the people who have touched my life.  These stories, which you can find here, include An American Hero and The Boys of 10th and Ritner.  At the beginning of this particular story, I had promised to explain my deja vu experience, and I’m going to make good on that promise.


In researching some of the material and quotes for my articles, I came across a man named Joseph, who commented on An American Hero.  He said he was directed to my article when he entered his name into Google, and the search engine indicated this website.  It turned out that this Joseph was the namesake of his Uncle Joseph A. Ermilio — the same person whose name appeared in the article I had written, the uncle who had died protecting our freedoms in World War II.


Since then, I have spoken with Joseph A. Ermilio II and learned that he has a son who also carries the same name.  Joseph the II wanted to keep alive the memory alive of an uncle that he and his son had never known.  He told me that he is the oldest living member of his family, and had little knowledge of his uncle, but for the fact that he died an unsung hero on an Italian beach in World War II.  As fate would have it, the Internet directed him to find some history of his uncle in an article written by me, the boy who had once shared the same neighborhood, a wider circle of friends, and service to our country with that uncle.



Joseph the II also told me that his parents and grandparents had moved out of South Philly to Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, and that Upper Darby is where he’d spent his youth.  His grandparents never experienced closure for their son’s death, even though the soldier’s remains were returned to American soil in 1948.  They brought their unease with them when they, too, were laid to rest, leaving Joseph the II to ponder the life of his namesake.


In my conversation with Joseph the II, I gave him a list of contacts that could shed more light on his uncle’s early days of growing up in South Philly.  I reminded him not to wait too long to contact the other members of club, because time is not on our side.  He said he’d spoken with Joe DeGenova, who is mailing him information.


Was it fate, deja vu, or the hand of Providence that allowed me to connect with a direct relative of the only boy who never returned to our neighborhood from the war?  Was it technology that enabled many intervening years between my boyhood and the present day to collapse for a brief moment, even as those years expanded to illustrate how Joseph A. Ermilio still lives on in his bloodline, through descendents hungry for information about the infantryman who had died on the soil of his ancestors?  Or was it Joseph himself, reaching out from the great beyond to direct his nephew, in effect, to me — knowing that nephew was searching for answers? 


As I ponder these questions, I have no real answers.  However, it is hard to believe that a story I wrote could have such a dramatic ending.   In the final analysis, I don’t think that this was a coincidence.  I feel that this seemingly chance encounter with Joseph the II contains a message for the American people. I believe the message is to remember those who took risks and offered the supreme sacrifice in protecting the freedoms we too often take for granted.  There are certain times during the year, such as Memorial Day, that our nation sets aside for just this purpose.  Too often, we enjoy that holiday as a time to relax, forgetting why we really have the day off and who, in effect, gave us that day.



The Boys of 10th and Ritner

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My friends and I grew up in a culturally diverse neighborhood in South Philadelphia, near the intersection of 10th and Ritner Streets.  Our childhood occurred during the Great Depression, a time of immense want for so many people.  Somehow, though, I remember it with fondness, as do my friends.  In the ’30’s (that would be the 1930’s for anyone who hasn’t studied American history as you should), the streets of the city were not clogged with automobiles or choked with smog; public transportation was the mode of travel.  To us kids, life was pleasant as our parents struggled to eke out an existence, keep the roofs over our heads, and food on our plates.


To get to our neighborhood schools, we wore out a lot of shoe leather; there were no buses to transport us.  We carried our books, pencils, and papers, as well as our tasty homemade lunches (no prepackaged chemical and preservative-laden stuff from a factory). After school, we would walk home and play in the street before suppertime.  The boys would play stickball or tag; the girls would write in the streets with chalk, play hopscotch, and tend to their baby dolls.  Occasionally, one of the girls would cross the line and we’d let her, provided she could hit, run, and throw … the ball, not us!  Gender equality had not yet fully blossomed, so we may have been just a bit ahead of our time for enduring the tomboys.


After our playtime, which cost little or no money, we did not waste electricity and did not fry our brain cells a la cellular technology.  Instead, we knuckled down to do our homework, sans Internet search engines and computers.  If we really needed to research a topic, we had the public library at our fingertips.  Rooms and rooms of wall-to-wall books, and nary a coffee urn or a gourmet pastry to be found!  And no chatting, either; it was “Silence is Golden” at the library, so that everyone could study in peace and quiet.  Before snuggling into bed for the night, we listened with rapt attention to radio programs designed to scare the pants off us kids (e.g., “The Shadow”).  Ah, the thrill of a delicious mystery conducted sight unseen over the airwaves!


Later on, a cataclysmic event occurred that would forever would change our lives. When the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor, America was dragged into World War II.  Some say that Roosevelt had advance warning of the attack, but allowed it to happen anyway, in order to better market the war to the American public.  We knew of no such rumor at the time; in fact, such a rumor would have been unthinkable.  All we knew is that our beautiful Hawaii had been bombed, with no prior attack on our part.  Everyone in my neighborhood was left reeling; in fact, most of us were unaware of exactly where Pearl Harbor was located, until the radio broadcast the stunning news.  Congress dove into action by initiating the Draft to conscript young men into the Armed Forces.  Factories and shipyards began to retool, run primarily by women as the men went overseas, to produce the materials and equipment we needed to wage war.  Japan had woken a sleeping giant.


When the bombs destroyed Pearl Harbor and so many lives, a lot of us kids were not quite military age, so it would be a few years before we were called.  But as the war progressed with no end in sight, we knew it was inevitable: as soon as we’d reached the age of 18, we would receive a notice from our local Draft Board. This was the summons to appear for medical and mental competency tests, to see if we were going to be accepted into the Armed Forces.   According to our ages, one by one, the neighborhood boys were swept off the streets by Uncle Sam, thus forcing us to become men practically overnight.  Since many of us passed the tests, we entered the Armed Services and remained there until the end of World War II.


During this global conflict, members of our neighborhood group fought in both the North African/European and the Pacific Theaters.  Some fought in Tunisia, Normandy, and the Battle of the Bulge; some were shipped off to the Pacific and China, as well as India, Burma, and following Japan’s surrender, the Occupation of Japan, as peacekeeping forces.


To mention a few of our friends, Nicky (“Blue”) Prestipino fought with Merrill’s Marauders in Burma, Andy Scrocca helped save the USS Intrepid after a kamikaze attack upon that noble ship, Jimmy Tedesco was wounded at the battle of the Bulge, Anthony Didio was awarded the Soldiers Medal in India, and Joe Ermilio was killed in action at Anzio.  Thank God, he was only casualty of the war, and he was very much missed and mourned.


With the end of the War, the neighborhood boys returned and began to congregate once again on the corner of 10th and Ritner.  Trying to recapture the best years of our lives lost due to the war, we decided to form a social club named Club Gramercy.  As time went by, we all got married and drifted away to pursue new lives with our spouses and ultimately, our children.


In the spring of 1986, two members of Club Gramercy met across a meat counter in a Greater Northeast Supermarket and talked about getting the old gang back together again.  Those two men were Joe (“Baby Joe”) Carabasi and Tony Griffini.  By networking with other members, Joe and Tony managed to contact 54 former members of Club Gramercy!  In October of 1986, at Viterelli’s Restaurant in the Greater Northeast section of Philadelphia, the first meeting of the Boys of 10th and Ritner occurred with all 54 members attending.  We had a joyous reunion!


Back in the old neighborhood, news of the Boys of 10th and Ritner spread, and more people clamored for membership, or at least, attendance at our gatherings.  We decided to have more meetings in the old neighborhood at the Holiday Inn, in South Philly, to accommodate larger groups.  This went on for a few years, after which it was decided to have our meetings more often and in a less formal fashion.  The site for these meetings was Sam Cobblestone’s Bar and Grill, where we met every second Tuesday of each month.


At Sam’s, we’d gather and for a few short hours, would share a dinner and relive our past exploits of glory. John Carosiello would chair the meetings and Romeo Celommi served as our recording secretary.  Our meal would start with an appetizer, usually mussels (in red and white sauce) with roasted peppers and anchovies; these were accompanied by fresh, hot Italian rolls, and were followed by the main course from the menu.


After dinner, the chairman would inform us about members who could not attend and any other news that concerned us.  After all the formalities were discussed, the meeting would be open to conversation by the members as we relived our youth.  This included jokes by the aptly named Happy Joe Jr. and stories by “Baby Joe” Carabasi, Nicky (“Blue”) Prestipino, Jimmy (“Pinerck”) Tedesco, and others among our band of brothers.


Although most of our members were of Italian descent, we did have one member of the Jewish faith.  Danny Rose, God bless him, could bake Italian pizzelles that would rival many Italian bakeries (pizzelles are a type of flat, crunchy cookie, pressed flat in a hot grill). Our meetings continued till Sam Cobblestone’s establishment closed.  Bidding Sam’s a bittersweet farewell, we then took up the torch at Tony Luke’s restaurant in South Philly on Saturday afternoons. As time went on, we started to gather at Serra Torres restaurant in Morton, Pennsylvania.


In 1996, The Boys of 10th and Ritner held our 10th Anniversary at the Coastline Restaurant in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. The members who participated, along with their wives, stood as a testimony to friendship born of a group of neighborhood boys who refused, despite a long, bloody war and various life circumstances, to let the camaraderie die.


Since then, God has called some of our boys home; due to attrition, our meetings have reduced in frequency and members.  But the spirit of the old neighborhood, and the good times we wrested out of some the worst times this nation has ever seen, still live on in the hearts of the remaining members of The Boys of 10th and Ritner. 

An American Hero

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Jim & Tom 2

We grew up in a neighborhood in South Philadelphia, bounded by Snyder Avenue to the north and the Philadelphia Navy Yard to the south and from Broad Street east to 7th Street.  It was an ethnically mixed neighborhood.  I lived in the 2400 block of Hutchinson Street, and he lived in the 2300 block.  As boys, we did not have a close friendship, even though we knew of each other.

 

We grew up during the Great Depression, but living in our neighborhood, as we realized many years later, was as close as you can come to Heaven.  As kids, we enjoyed the pleasure of playing in the streets without fear.  There was no television or home air conditioning or automatic gas heat, although we did have some modern conveniences, such as hot water, indoor plumbing, washing machines, and radio.  Life was much simpler then in an era when “spare the rod and spoil the child” was the order of the day.  Our parents worked hard trying to make ends meet.  It was here we learned family values, such as honor, duty, and respect.  The lost art of conversation still prevailed at family gatherings.

 

Pearl HarborThen something happened that would forever change our lives.  World War ll erupted in Europe. Initially, the United States remained neutral, until December 7th, 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  On that fateful Sunday, President Roosevelt announced to the Congress and the American people that a “state of war” existed between the United States and the Empire of Japan and its ally Germany.

 

With the Declaration of War, America rolled up its sleeves, as every man, woman, and child, pitched in to help the war effort.  The Draft was instituted to call up men needed for the Armed Forces.  Factories all over this great country set aside peacetime products and retooled to manufacture implements of war.

 

I was two years younger than he, and while I worked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, as an electrician helper, he was drafted into the U.S. Army.  He trained in the Infantry and was later sent to England as a replacement, with the Third Armored Division, for the Invasion of Hitler’s Europe.

 

Normandy D-DayJune 6th, 1944 the greatest Allied Armada ever assembled, crossed the English Channel and stormed the beaches of Normandy.  The German Army well entrenched, threatened to drive the Allies back into the sea, but by the end of a day that came to be known as “D-Day the Longest Day,” the American and Allied Forces managed to gain a beachhead on Fortress Europe.

 

Arriving in Normandy 13 days after D-Day, the Third Armored Division moved up to the line, for their “Baptism of Fire.”  Here at St Lo, the advancing American and Allied forces were stalled in what was to be called the Hedgerow country.  French farmers had planted hedges that surrounded their farms.  These hedges planted centuries ago, became a formidable defense for the German Army, who zeroed in on every opening with mortar, cannon, and machine-gun fire. 

 

A plan, dubbed “Operation Cobra,” was devised to break out of St Lo area. It called for the saturation bombing of the Hedgerow country in order to allow the American and Allied forces to break through.  On that fateful day, the sky was black with Allied bombers as wave after wave systematically dropped their bombs and opened a path for the advance of the stalled Allied and American armies.

 

Third Armored DivisionFollowing the break out at St Lo, the Third Armored Division raced across France, in pursuit of the fleeing German Army.  In a pincer attack they closed the Falaise Gap, trapping thousands of the enemy and causing their surrender.  In their rapid attack, they crossed the Seigfried Line, to become the first to enter Germany.  They penetrated into German soil, reaching the town of Stohlberg.  It was here they were ordered to return to Belgium to help stop the German attack called “the Battle of the Bulge.”

 

On January 3rd, 1945, near the town of Floret, Belgium, the hand of God touched him who was to become my lifelong friend.  It came in form of an enemy shell, ending the war for him.  As he lay on the battlefield with massive wounds of the arm and leg, the Medics who had picked him up informed him that he had “Million Dollar” wounds and would be returned to England for surgery and rehabilitation.  After his recovery, he was returned to his unit.  By this time, however, the war in Europe had ended and, in a short while, he would be going home.  With the defeat of Germany, and the introduction of the “Atomic Bomb,” World War ll ended on September 2nd, 1945 and with it came the return of the veterans of World War ll.

 

As the South Philadelphia neighborhood boys came home, they started to congregate at the corner of 10th and Ritner streets.  It was here that a long and lasting friendship began.

 

Jim & Tom

 

In the spring of 1951, we married two girlfriends, I married Madeline (Midge), and he married her dear friend Thelma.  He was our Best Man and Thelma was our First Bridesmaid.  A few weeks later, Midge and I would be the First Bridesmaid and Best Man at their wedding.

 

In the years to follow, they would become Godfather and Godmother to my first son born in 1954.  And, just a few years later, we would both relocate to the town of Maple Shade, New Jersey.  We continued a close friendship over the years, until Midge suddenly passed away on May 27 1975.

 

With her passing and the need to care for my two sons without the aid of a wife, my life became very hectic.  I altered my work schedule to allow me more time with my boys, and I didn’t have much time to socialize with friends.  In essence, I dropped out of sight.  With my children grown, I remarried eight years later and resumed my life.

 

In the fall of 1986, I got a call from my good friend who asked me if I had interest in attending a reunion of the “Boys of 10th & Ritner,” an offer I enthusiastically accepted.  This first of what would become regular meetings of all the old gang was a huge success – so much so that we held them every six weeks for more than 10 years!

 

We would meet at Sam Cobblestone’s Bar & Grill in South Philly on designated Tuesday evenings.  Here, we reminisced about growing up in the old neighborhood, told jokes, and related tales about our experiences in World War ll.

 

In 1987 I retired and, following a period during which I traveled about the country, took a part-time job with a local liquor store.  On occasion, my friend would stop in and shoot the breeze with me, discussing plans to attend our next meeting and any other news he happened to know.  

 

It was during one of these visits that I introduced him to my manager, Bob Sparks.  As usual the subject of World War ll came up.  Bob indicated that he also had been in the War and mentioned that he had trained together with Tony Lanciano from South Philly.  This coincidence almost blew our minds, for he had mentioned the name of one of the old gang.

 

On the 50th Anniversary of D-Day, he came to visit me at work.  He looked a little distraught as we discussed the Normandy Invasion.  Then suddenly, all the memories came back and welled up inside of him – then came pouring out.  Taking him aside, I calmed him down.  Then, I said to him, “50 years is too long to carry this burden, and it is time that you let it out.”

 

It was then that I came to the realization that, in all the years I had known him and all the times we had been together, I had been standing in the shadow of a real American Hero.  At that moment, I decided to set the record straight and give him the recognition he so richly deserved.  And so, whenever he was in the store, I would introduce him to customers upon whom I waited, saying “I want to introduce you to a real American Hero, from Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge where he was wounded.  This is one of the guys who kept you from doing the goose-step.”

 

As they would look at him in awe, he would laugh and say, “Don’t listen to this guy, I was only doing my job.”  Like all heroes, he did not consider himself one.  Yet, he held five Medals – Good  Conduct, Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Purple Heart, World War II Victory, and European Theater of Operations (ETO) with five Campaign Stars for Normandy, N. France, Rhineland, Ardennes, and Central Europe.  And, the memories of his experiences in the War haunted him for the rest of his life.

 

But, it was not merely the memories he carried with him.  Many years after completing his service, he fell down a flight of stairs during a visit to a relative’s home.  Following an emergency room visit and thorough examination, he was released, but not before being approached by the radiologist on call who queried “do you know that you have a piece of steel behind your right knee?”  In response, my friend stated “it’s probably a German shell fragment, I guess they didn’t get all of it out.”

 

Like all heroes, he was matter of fact about his injuries, wounds from which he suffered both physical and psychological pain for the remainder of his life.  Yet, he never spoke of either the memories or the injuries.

 

Jim Tedesco 2

 

They say “old soldiers never die,” and I pray that this is true.  For, the hero of whom I am proud to have spoken was my good friend and Best Man, Vincent {Jimmy} Tedesco.  On June 19, 2003, he took his memories and injuries with him to his earthly grave at Brigadier General William C. Doyle Veterans Cemetery in Arnytown, New Jersey.  Yet, I believe that his spirit lives on.

 

And, so that he does not remain among the nameless who took the risks, paid the price, and returned to build the greatest nation in the history of our planet, I wrote this tribute.  To my good friend Jimmy and to all the Jimmies whom I did not know, I salute you!

 

Jim Tedesco

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