First of four parts
My dad’s brother Sam was a casualty of World War II, but not in a way you’d normally associate with war. He wasn’t killed, wounded or captured. He wasn’t hurt in an accident. He didn’t lose his mind.
In the South Pacific where he soldiered for a year, he never faced the enemy.
Yet, something happened to him there in 1942 that ended his honorable service in the Army, tormented him for years and, while he was still a young husband and father, took his life in a spasm of agony.
Uncle Sam was gone before my time. Mom says he was the nicest man you’d ever meet. He, my dad and two other brothers took up the fight against Germany and Japan when their country called. They were among a dozen children of an Italian immigrant and a farmer’s daughter born in Philadelphia.
Nicola Venditta and Mary Cugino were married in 1905 in Landisville, New Jersey. “Nick” had set foot on Ellis Island two years earlier after a boyhood spent herding sheep in the hills of southern Italy. He was twenty-two now. Mary had been under the thumb of a stern stepmother, forced to work in the fields growing vegetables instead of going to school. She had just turned fifteen.
Several years later, with two young sons in tow, Nick and Mary moved 200 miles to central Pennsylvania, where Nick toiled in a quarry. Their new home lay along a belt of the Appalachians in Mifflin County, between Harrisburg and State College. Sam, the couple’s fifth child, was born there in the fall of 1916.
They didn’t stay in the mountains. Nick hauled his family back to New Jersey, to Glassboro, where he worked in a glass factory and his hair burned off, never to grow back except on the fringes. On the pavements through town, Sam would ride a tricycle with his younger brother, Frank, on the back.
Elder brothers Jimmy and Tony once took little Sam and Frank to the shore.
“It was the first time I saw the ocean,” Frank said. “I couldn’t have been more than three or four years old. Jimmy and Tony and some of their cronies had this truck. ‘Stay right here,’ they said. ‘Don’t move.’ We just sat there on the beach. We weren’t allowed to go in the water or nothing, and they took off. Who in the hell knows where they went! Sam and I were sitting on the sand, we had to pee and we peed through our pants.”
By 1923, they were back in the mountains of Mifflin County, in Naginey, where the Bethlehem Steel Corporation quarried limestone for its blast furnaces. Nick worked in the pit. The family lived in company housing that had pigpens and chicken coops.
“Christ, we were kids,” Frank said. “Some of the things we did! We went up in the mountains and chased rattlesnakes. What else are you gonna do in the summertime? We’d go down to the quarry and steal dynamite, put caps in it, tie it in the trees, and then light it. A wonder we didn’t kill ourselves.”
Another son and a daughter were born, and then came my dad, Carmine, in 1927. He was still a baby when Nick lost his job at the quarry, and the family moved again. The next stop was Camden, New Jersey, where the first of several family tragedies occurred – the death of their tenth child, baby Elizabeth, possibly from pneumonia.
The Great Depression took hold, jobs vanished, and Nick hit the road again for Pennsylvania. This time he ended up at a rural crossroads called Valley Store, about twenty-five miles west of Philly. He and eldest son Jimmy lived in a company shack at a limestone quarry. They cleaned up an abandoned stone house atop a hill and moved the family there. It had no running water or electricity, but Nick paid $17 to have a power line run to the kitchen. He and Mary took in boarders and kept pigs and chickens.
Frank said their new home was a paradise.
“I used to love it down in Valley Store. Country, boy, nothing but abandoned farms, that’s all there was. I could walk for miles and miles and miles. Apple orchards, peach trees, vineyards. God, our cellars looked like a warehouse! Mom used to can and jar and send us out all summer long to pick whatever was growing.”
At night, Nick told stories as the family sat by the light of a kerosene lamp atop the fireplace mantel. They heard about King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table and Diogenes’ quest for an honest man. In the kitchen, the oven warmed sweet potatoes or chestnuts for a bedtime treat.
Nick played the concertina and twanged a Jew’s harp. He hosted bocce games using iron balls from the quarry and rewarded winners with wine he made from chokecherries, elderberries or mulberries, if not from grapes. He smoked corncob pipes, chewed Five Brothers tobacco and drank Old Reading and Valley Forge beers and, for breakfast, whiskey-spiked coffee.
He kept what he called his “good ax,” which he’d carry to show he meant business. Frank and Louie got the message when they played a trick on him once. Two fields from the house, a black tree stump looked somewhat like a bear. Louie stood at the stump and cried out as if the “animal” were attacking him. Frank ran to the house, where his dad was lying in the sun, and yelled, “Pop, some wild animal’s got Louie!” Nick grabbed his ax and was halfway to Louie when he saw it was a gag. He turned around and charged after Frank for waking him up.
A little older than Frank and Louie, Sam stood up to his dad from time to time. Nick made him pay for it.
“Oh man, he’d whack Sam one!” Frank said. “He’d punch him. He had this leather belt, must’ve brought it with him from Italy. He used it on Sam. … Maybe Sam didn’t do something he was supposed to do, or Pop just got mad because of the way the world was treating him that day.”
In 1930, Sam entered sixth grade at East Whiteland Consolidated School in Chester County. Years later, the principal remembered he “went in for sports and was fair in all of his subjects.” But he didn’t stay in school. He quit to tend the grounds at a cemetery, Philadelphia Memorial Park in Frazer, and drive a truck for his brother Tony, who had a limestone quarry.
Their eldest brother, Jimmy, worked for a nursery. One spring day in 1934, he was driving to a tree-planting job when a car crashed into his pickup truck near Newtown Square. He died hours later from skull fractures. Twenty-eight years old, he left a wife and two children. According to family lore, the other driver was drunk.
By the end of the Thirties, the family had moved for the last time, several miles away to Malvern on Philly’s Main Line. They rented a house on the main street and had friends as boarders, just as they had at Valley Store. Nick was now digging graves at Philadelphia Memorial Park. Mary kept house at a Catholic retreat, did other people’s laundry, and worked at a mushroom cannery in West Chester. Sam planted spawn at the same cannery. He worked there off and on until he was drafted into the Army in 1941.
But the year before his military service, something happened that presaged the trouble he’d have as a soldier in the South Pacific. His life, what was left of it, would never be the same.
COMING NEXT: Dropping anchor at Bora Bora