This I Believe

Sandro - Falmouth, Massachusetts
Entered on April 25, 2005
Age Group: 50 - 65

THIS I BELIEVE

WHEN I ASKED HIM ABOUT HIS DICISION TO DIE, MY 92 YEAR OLD GRANDFATHER TOLD ME “MY CHILDREN ARE GROWN, I’M TIRED. IT’S TIME FOR ME TO GO.”

NONNO, MY GRANDFATHER LEFT FASCIST ITALY, PERMANENTLY THIS TIME, IN 1937, AND RETURNED TO THE UNITED STATES. HIS ELDEST SON, MY FATHER, HAD BEEN CALLED FOR MILITARY SERVICE AND WOULD HAVE BEEN SENT TO ALBANIA OR GREECE OR ETHIOPIA TO SATISFY MUSSOLINI’S EXPANSIONIST GOALS. NONNO CAME FROM AN ITALIAN TOWN IN THE HIGH APPENINES AND HAD MADE SEVERAL LONG STAY TRIPS TO THE UNITED STATES. IN THE US, HE WORKED HELPED BUILD SUBWAY TUNNELS BUT MOSTLY HE WORKED ON THE WATERFRONT, BUILDING AND REBUILDING PIERS AND WAREHOUSES AND OFFICES. BETTER EDUCATED THAN MOST ITALIAN IMMIGRANTS, HE WENT FROM A GREENHORN MANUAL LABORER TO SUPERINTENDENT OF MAJOR PROJECTS. WHEN LUXURY LINERS AND RUSTING FREIGHTERS CRASHED INTO PIERS, NONNO WAS CALLED. DURING WORLD WAR II, NONNON WAS IN CHARGE OF MAINTAINING MOST OF THE BROOKLYN WATERFRONT.

WHEN THE NORMANDIE, ONE OF THE FASTEST SHIPS AFLOAT, CAUGHT FIRE WHILE BEING CONVERTED INTO A TROOPSHIP, AND BURNED, DAMAGING A PIER, NONNO WAS CALLED IN. HE PREDICTION, THAT NEW YORKS’S FIREMEN WERE PUMPING TOO MUCH WATER INTO THE SHIP WAS CORRECT. THE NORMANDIE CAPSIZED.

NONNO TREATED EVERYONE WITH RESPECT AND DIGNITY. HE BELIEVED THAT EVERYONE, FROM THE PUNCH DRUNK FORMER BOXERS WHO SWEPT THE PIERS ENDLESSLY, TO NEWLY ARRIVED IMMIGRANT WORKERS TO HIGH OFFICIALS NEEDED DIGNITY. HE WAS NOT AWED BY ANYONE. HE WALKED FREELY AMONG LONGSHOREMEN AND MOBSTERS WHEN THE DOCKS WERE MEAN AND DANGEROUS. HE PRACTISED WORKFORCE DIVERSITY BEFORE THE TERM WAS COINED. HIS CONSTRUCTION CREWS INCLUDED BLACKS, PURERTO RICANS, POLES, ENGLISHMEN, SCOTS, IRISH, AND ITALIANS. HIS FOREMEN WERE THE TOUGHEST, THE MOST ABLE. THE ONES WHO COULD GET THE JOB DONE.

WHEN, BY NONNO’S STANDARDS, I WAS OLD ENOUGHT TO WORK CONSTRUCTION, I WAS IN COLLEGE. HE PUT ME ON A CREW WITH HIS MOST DEMANDING AND MEANEST FOREMAN, A POLISH FIGHTER WHO SURVIVED WORLD WAR II AND WHO WAS NOT IMPRESSED THAT I WAS THE SON OF THE SUPERINTENDENT. I SURVIVED BECAUSE ONE OF THE FIRST BLACKS IN WATERFRONT CONSTRUCTION, A MAN MY GRANDFATHER HIRED, TAUGHT ME HOW TO SWING A PICK AND WITH A GIANT JACKHAMMER, DRILL INTO NEW YORK BEDROCK.

NONNOW KNEW WHENEVER ANYONE WAS INJURED ON THE JOB. SOMETIMES I WENT WITH HIM ON SUNDAYS AND WE WENT INTO BLACK HARLEM, HELLS KITCHEN, LITTLE ITALY, OR ANOTHER WORKING CLASS NEIGHBORHOOD WHERE ONE OF HIS MEN LIVED. WITH HIS STEEL BLUE EYES, NONNO DETERMINED WHAT WAS NEEDED. HE PAID PAST DUE RENT, ARRANGED FOR DOCTORS TO CALL, HAD COAL DELIVERED TO COLD WATER FLATS, AND EVEN ARRANGED FOR GROCERIES TO BE DELIVERED UNTIL THE WORKER WAS BACK ON THE JOB. HE FELT RESPONSIBLE FOR HIS WORKER’S WELFARE AND HE NEVER ASKED TO BE PAID BACK.

HE DEMONSTRATED CARING IN AN UNCOMPLICATED WAY. NOT A CHURCHGOER, I WONDERED WHERE HIS BELIEFS ORIGINATED. HE KNEW WHY ITALIANS AND OTHERS CAME TO THE US IN THE LATE 1800′S AND EARLY 1900′S. THEY WERE HUNGRY. IF CARING FOR WORKERS IS A GENE, NONNO HAD IT. TREATING EVERYONE WITH DIGNITY AND RESPECT, LEARNING WHAT THEY NEEDED, CAME NATURALLY TO HIM.

NONNO CHOSE TO DIE BY DECLINING TO EAT OR BE FED. I WAS WORKING ABROAD AND WHEN I RETURNED, WENT TO THE REAR OF THE FUNERAL HOME WHERE NONNO WAS LAID OUT AND LISTENED TO MANY OF HIS FORMER WORKERS, OLD MEN NOW, STOOPED, SCARRED, WITH THICK HANDS AND CHEEKS SPIDERY FROM WIND AND WINE, TALK ABOUT NONNO.

I HAVE OFTEN THOUGHT ABOUT THE DIFFERENCE HE MADE IN THIS WORLD. HE MADE IT AN EASIER PLACE TO LIVE BY THE WAY HE TREATED EVERYONE. TO HIM EVERY WORKER WAS IMPORTANT. SKIN COLOR, RELIGIOUS BELIEFS, AND MOTHER TONGUES WERE INTERESTING TO HIM BUT NOT RELEVANT. I WANT TO BELIEVE THERE ANRE MANY NONNOS IN THE WORLD. IF WE OPEN OUR EYES JUST A BIT MORE, I KNOW WE CAN SEE THEM. I BELIEVE WE CAN FIND THEM AND THANK THEM. I THANK MY NONNO EVERY DAY.