My grandfather came to America from Italy in the spring of 1903, when he was 20, but almost four decades passed before he got interested in becoming a U.S. citizen.
Apparently the country’s entry into World War II had something to do with it. From his home in Malvern, Pa., Nicola Venditta applied to the Immigration and Naturalization Service on Feb. 9, 1942, two months after the Pearl Harbor attack.
He already had two sons in uniform. Sam was in the Army Coast Artillery, bound for Bora Bora in the Pacific, and Frank was an Army medic in Panama. Two other sons would follow them. Louie would enter the service in a year and serve with the Army Air Forces in England. My dad, Carmine, would join the Coast Guard in 1944.
With only a modest grip on English, Grandpop got help with his application from another son’s wife, a native of Italy. She wrote that he was born in 1883 in Gambatese in central Italy, came by steamship to New York in June 1903, married Mary Cugino of Philadelphia in 1905 in Landisville, N.J., had been employed by the Chester Valley Lime Co. since 1936 and now had 10 children. (There had been a dozen, but two had died.)
Grandpop’s application described him as 5 feet 6 inches tall, 135 pounds, with blue eyes and a scar on his left cheek. “Beats the hell out of me how he got that scar,” my Uncle Frank said when I asked him about his dad in 1998. “One of those stone quarries, I guess.”
Grandmom and Grandpop had left South Jersey for the mountains of central Pennsylvania, where he wielded a pick and shovel in a Bethlehem Steel limestone quarry. The family’s next move was to Glassboro, N.J., where Grandpop worked in a glass factory. Frank said his pop’s hair was burned off in an accident on the job and never grew back on top, just around the fringes.
The Vendittas returned to Pennsylvania’s Mifflin County, where they lived in Naginey along Laurel Creek and Grandpop again worked in the Bethlehem Steel quarry. Naginey was where my dad was born in 1927. “We lived in a big company house with pig pens and chicken pens,” Frank said. “There were two rows of company houses, separated but all alike, and a bake oven where women used to take their turns baking loaves of bread.”
When Grandpop lost his job in a workforce cutback, the family left Naginey for Camden, N.J. Grandpop would go out Saturday nights to play cards for wine, walking several blocks to a paisano’s house with Frank. The boy would curl up in a chair and nap until 3 or 4 in the morning while the men played Three Sevens. The game usually involved four to six players who formed two teams, and whichever side lost a hand would have to buy a bottle from the host. More card-playing determined the “boss,” who had the authority to award a glass of wine to any one of the players as long as another player, the “underboss,” agreed with his choice.
“The boss would say, ‘Should we give a glass to this guy?’ And the underboss would say, ‘No, he’s not my friend.’ They all ended up drinking all the wine,” Frank said.
It was in Camden that a baby daughter died after catching a cold, Frank said, the first of several tragedies to hit the family.
With the coming of the Great Depression, jobs vanished.
“There was no work, so my oldest brother Jimmy and Pop and Frank Passarelli, who was from the same village as Pop in Italy, and Tony Peccia started walking from Camden out in this direction [toward Malvern]. Someone told them there were quarries out here. They had a burlap bag, a couple loaves of bread, some pepperoni, sausage, cheese and wine, and that’s it. They got as far as Howellville [about 25 miles from Camden]. This car, a big Buick, stopped. A guy got out of the passenger side, Sam Gibbons. He was an enormous man, about 6 foot 5. No arms. He had a nephew driving. Sam said, ‘Where are you guys going?’ ‘We’re looking for work.’ ‘What kind of work you do?’ ‘Quarry work.’ ‘You’re the guys we want. Get in the car.’
“He had just bought a quarry down in Valley Store. Christ, they went down there and they opened that quarry up, and he had both arms blown off in a dynamite blast.”
Grandpop and Jimmy lived in company shacks. In the meantime, they cleaned up an old, abandoned stone house atop a hill at Valley Store. Grandpop brought the family there. The house had no running water or electricity, but he paid $17 to have a power line run to the kitchen. There were two wells, one for drinking water and the other to catch rainwater that Grandmom used for washing clothes. The family took in friends from Camden as paying boarders. Grandpop and his older boys worked in the quarry, shoveling stone, running crushers and planting dynamite.
Tragedy struck again in 1934, when Jimmy was killed in an accident with a drunken driver.
Near the end of the decade, my grandparents moved for the last time. Grandpop had left the quarry to tend the grounds and dig graves at Philadelphia Memorial Park. He took his family several miles away to the house in Malvern, where they spent the rest of their lives. In 1950, he lost another son when Sam died of a non-combat injury from his days on Bora Bora.
Grandpop died in 1971, outliving his wife and a grandson, Nicky, an Army helicopter pilot who was killed in Vietnam two years earlier.
But my grandfather never did become a U.S. citizen.
Uncle Frank thought that some local official might have offered to help Grandpop get his citizenship for a price, and he got angry about it and dropped the matter for good.