Adding to the picture: old photos, fresh look

Ever come across an old family photo you’d never seen, even though you’d thought you’d seen them all? Maybe you overlooked it while paging through an album, or a relative you have little contact with handed it to you. You’re surprised and delighted by the find.

I have three on this page I’d like to share.  

The first shows my dad the Coast Guard radioman at a ship’s gun in World War II. It was in an album of his service photos I’d looked through a few times over the years – and missed until recently.

Carmine Venditta (right) and a buddy on a Coast Guard frigate in 1945 or ’46.

Someone had written on the back of the small black-and-white print: “Battle stations!” But it’s surely staged. Dad and his unidentified shipmate look amused under their helmets, as if they’re just posing for the camera. There’s nothing to indicate they’re at sea. Nazi Germany had surrendered by the time Dad, at eighteen, sailed into the North Atlantic, so there was no enemy threat. The patrol frigates he served aboard collected weather data and could be called on to rescue fliers whose planes ditched or crashed.

It cracks me up to see Dad kidding around like that.

Which ship was the photo taken on? It could have been either the USS Abilene or the USS Sheboygan, both of which were based at Argentia, Newfoundland, while Dad was on them in 1945-46. The two Tacoma-class frigates had the same armament. It appears the gun he’s standing at is an Oerlikon 20 mm cannon, of which each ship had nine.

Sally Venditti with her baby Nicky in November 1948. (Sally’s husband, Louie, and another brother changed their surname from Venditta to Venditti to match how the family spelled it in Italy. Their parents and their ten siblings were all Vendittas. ‘Venditta’ was how my grandfather’s name was recorded when he reached Ellis Island at the turn of the twentieth century.)

Why didn’t I just ask Dad? To my regret, I never asked him about his Coast Guard service. By the time I was interested, it was too late. Alzheimer’s had eaten away his memory for years, until he died in 2004.

The second photo shows my Aunt Sally with her newborn son, Nicky. Twenty years after it was snapped, on the Fourth of July 1969, Nicky arrived in Vietnam as an Army helicopter pilot. He never got a chance to fly in combat. Just eleven days later, he died from a training accident involving a grenade.

Sally was the first wife of my dad’s older brother Louie, an Army Air Forces ground crewman in England during World War II. He and Sally had another son and were divorced while Nicky was in grade school. Both remarried, and Sally had a daughter by her second husband.

I wrote a book about what happened to my cousin in Vietnam, Tragedy at Chu Lai, published five years ago. The daughter, Nicky’s half-sister, gave me the photo while I was promoting the book in Malvern, Pennsylvania, where Nicky grew up. I’d never seen it before. I wish I’d had it for the book. It’s something to see Nicky, a fun-loving practical joker, as a baby.

His father died in 1997, his mother in 2001.

Frank Venditta in the Army, 1941

The last photo shows another one of Dad’s older brothers, Frank. It was probably taken soon after he was drafted into the Army in April 1941, eight months before the Pearl Harbor attack brought America into the war. I have other pictures of him in uniform, but none where he looks this young – and wistful. He was twenty-one at the time.

Frank went to Panama as a medic, then to the War Department psychiatric hospital on Long Island, Mason General, where he met the Women’s Army Corps technician who became his wife. He visited Dad at the Southeastern Veterans’ Center in Chester County just about every week, and died two years ahead of his only surviving brother. (There had been six brothers in all.)

The picture of Frank was in an album of Aunt Sally’s that her daughter gave me.

So, old photos newly discovered can conjure a fresh appreciation. I’m lucky to have found a few that did that.

2 responses to “Adding to the picture: old photos, fresh look

  1. Anthony Venditti,

    David,

    These photos are fantastic!! As you know I grew up next door to Uncle Frank. My dad, Frank Venditti (Big Frank Venditta’s brother Anthony’s son) and he bought those two houses from the same elderly “spinster” sisters, as I was told (at a discount, for $12,000 each) in 1962. As I became a young adult Great Uncle Frank and I would often meet in our shared driveway in an impromptu fashion. At that point in life he was retired from United Engineers and had lots of time on his hands. I was painting houses while in college and in the mornings, as my crew and I loaded up the truck for the day’s work, many times he would come out with peppers and egg sandwiches for everyone.

    At the end of the work day, sometimes the crew and I would sit at the bottom of the driveway and have a few beers. Uncle Frank would come out and regale us with stories of the time when UA revamped the Miller Brewery in Milwaukee (taps all over the place that ran with unlimited beer and was always flowing wildly in the lunchroom) and barroom brawls involving the Venditta brothers that were so serious that Pop had to be awoken and would have to come down in the middle of the night to contain the situation.

    Uncle Frank taught me a lot about life. With his own brand of saltiness he taught me how to golf (at least to not look “stupid” while teeing off), he taught me how to “effectively” split firewood with an axe, and he always had an intuitive observation that I would have to ponder for quite a while.

    Uncle Carmine and he had a great bond as you know. My grandfather, one of the brothers, Anthony passed away in 1976 at the age of 67. Uncle Frank would be sure to let me know my grandfather’s involvement in every story moving forward. He really wanted me to know how close the family was and how important they were to each other. Sometimes he did not have the kindest words when referring to my grandmother but as much as I loved her, I totally understood and appreciated his brutally honest approach to life’s realities.

    After my grandfather died, he and Uncle Carmine seemed to get together much more frequently. Carmine would pull up out front of the house on First Avenue in Malvern and they would literally stand out in the front yard for hours, just chatting. They might have a couple of Schmitz beers, or not. As a little kid, going about my insignificant business during the day, I always loved seeing that.

    I am cracking up at this photo because by the time I was old enough to fully absorb his facial features, in my mind he looked just like Edward G. Robinson, especially when he would have a half smoked stogie hanging out of his mouth.

    I loved him dearly. I think he felt likewise.

    It took for him to fall ill for the last time, for me to fully realize and cherish those conversations we shared together over those many years.

    Just thought you might appreciate my perspective as a kid and young adult. He had a profound influence on me and to this day, when I go to my dad’s house for a visit, I am overwhelmed with those great memories.

    Once again I want to thank you for being the family historian. I really appreciate the work you put into keeping these stories and people alive. I learn so much from your research and “older cousin” perspective. I hope to see you at Uncle Ernie’s memorial service in October.

    Anthony P. Venditti, Esq.

  2. Anthony,
    What a wonderful tribute to Uncle Frank! Thanks for sending it. I’ve read it several times and was struck by your connection to him, something I was never aware of. And I never knew that my dad would stop by and talk to his older brother for the longest time in the front yard. I chuckled over your description of Frank’s looking like Edward G. Robinson, because he always reminded me of Al Capone! In the ’90s when I went to Frank’s house to hear him tell about the family, he’d be in the kitchen making spaghetti and meatballs, and he’d be a chatterbox. He never needed prompting. When I was a little kid, it was fun whenever he came to visit. He’d bring toys for us, and I remember Mom saying with good humor, “Why does Frank always bring toys that are noisy?” Thanks for the kind words about my being “the family historian.” I wish I’d recorded more of our family’s stories. … Yes, I am am planning to go to Uncle Ernie’s memorial service. Looking forward to seeing you.

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