A while ago, my son Edward asked me to write about some of the family members he’s always heard about, but never met because they died before Eddie was born. As I am the patriarch of my generation in the Bonfiglio Clan, I thought the request an apt one, and am willing to abide. It took no reflection on my part to decide about whom to begin with, as that would have to be the original patriarch of my father’s generation, which was my father, Salvatore Andrew Bonfiglio, known to me as “Dad,” or “Pop,” and to all else who knew him as Sal.
To say he was my hero would be a gross simplification, as he exemplified to me what it meant to be a man, a husband, a father, a brother, a friend, a provider for his family, and a bona fide mensch — not by talking about these matters, but by doing what it took, every day, day after day, all the days I knew him. There is a Biblical passage that refers to a time when “Giants walked the Earth,” that describes the era when he was with us. I’ll do my best to tell you why.
Sal was born on November 23, 1925, the first child of my grandparents, Antonino and Carmela Bonfiglio, nee Aiello. Grandpa B, as I will call him here, had emigrated to New York from Giampilari, Sicily, where he was born in 1896, and Grandma B was actually born here in 1905. Sal was born just in time to be old enough to live through the Great Depression, and be affected by it for the remainder of his life. By that I mean not that he was emotionally scarred or depressed, but rather that he always had a deep appreciation for fiscal conservatism; for saving and making use of every scrap of wood, metal and other building material that came into his possession; and, having a deep affection for and commitment to his family.
All that I know of his early years is anecdotal, as he hardly ever spoke of them, and I wasn’t around to verify the details. What I know from my aunt (Domenica, known to us as Mamie) and uncles ( in birth order, Frank, Anthony, William and Richard) who grew up with him is that he had a hard life as the eldest son of a Sicilian immigrant, who still took the notion of “spare the rod and spoil the child” quite literally, and applied it with vigor and frequent use on Sal. What Sal could have been doing to warrant such harsh behavioral modification, I do not know, other than as I was, and remain, inquisitive, in an energetic and hands on kind of way, he was likely similar, with a parent far less tolerant of it that Sal was to me. To his credit, he never laid a hand on me. He tried once, but I’ll get there a little later.
He did sport a rather nasty looking scar on his right bicep, that went halfway around it, which has been attributed to a mirror having broken over him, that nearly severed it. Although I do not know who the doctor was that patched him up, I can attest to his skills as a surgeon, because as we will shortly see, it never deterred from his strength in that arm.
Although he finished high school, anecdotally in the same year and school, New Utrecht, as the entertainer, Buddy Hackett, his early years were not devoid of hard labor. Grandpa B, at the time, was working in the building trades, with his older brother, Antonio, as a lather, and all their sons were put to work learning one of the trades, after school and during their summer vacations. As was the custom of the time, their pay checks were handed in to Grandma B to help support the family economy, and they received a small stipend to buy some soda or cigarettes each week. I remember Grandma B giving me Sal’s high school autograph book. For those too young to know, before yearbooks with pictures and classic bookbinding, there were autograph books, which were roughly 4 inches by 6 inches in size and had different colored, blank pages on which your school chums wrote their wishes and comments to you. At the front end was a page where you wrote what activities you engaged in and a declaration of what you wanted to be in life. Sal’s was a simple declaration, “Lawyer.” He was compelled to realize that dream vicariously, through his son, me, and I hope I have done him proud, but he had the intellect, debating skills and personality, make that court room presence, to have been a good one, had he the chance. In later life, he got as close to the dream as he could, by becoming first a court officer, then a court clerk, ultimately working with the chief justice of the criminal division in Manhattan, Burton Roberts, who is alleged to be the basis for a character in the book and movie, “Bonfire of the Vanities,” but I’m ahead of myself again.
Working in the building trades did more than teach Sal the basics in carpentry, plumbing, masonry and electrical matters — it built him into muscular, powerhouse of strength and stamina. There are family photographs of him from before he went into the service, which depict a man standing roughly 5 foot 11 inches tall, with a Charles Atlas physique, inclusive of biceps you couldn’t circumnavigate with both hands and legs the size of tree trunks. My best estimate puts him at about 185 pounds at that time, and he would have been a high school senior or just past that. There are a myriad of family anecdotes that describe Sal’s strength, but the one that put’s it into perspective for me the best, having carried them myself, is that while working in construction, Sal could carry a 94 pound bag of Portland cement on each shoulder, and climb a ladder to deliver them to the floor where the cement was being mixed. If you did the math, he carried 3 pounds more than he weighed, and did it while climbing a ladder. Not too shabby. There are also family photographs of him anchoring the rest of his brothers in some pose where they all climbed on his shoulders and made some figure with their arms and legs sticking out, as was the trend to do at the beach at the time.
He was drafted into the then Army Air Corps, in 1945 and was sent to Guam for most of his tour of duty. He was fortunate to have missed seeing any action, as he didn’t get there until after V-J day (for those too young to know the acronym, “Victory-Japan” signifying the end of WW II.) He took the opportunity to grow a beard, which is depicted in other, black and white family photographs, but it is alleged to have been auburn, a trait mine had too, until it turned gray. The hair on his head was dark brown and very curly. His eyes were hazel, as are mine and even after the Army beard was shaved off, he wore a mustache for most of his adult life.
He was introduced to my mom through a cousin of his, from Grandma B’s side, then Angie Aiello, now Pellicone, in the manner of the day, which was long before Facebook, the internet and cell phones — they exchanged letters while he was in the service. He wrote his brothers and sister as well as my grandparents too, while in the service. My Uncle Will recently endowed me with one he wrote him, in typical “big brother” fashion, which gave him some counsel and spoke of looking forward to being home with family, a notion that Sal held dearly all the days of his life.
I know from recollection of having heard him discuss it, when he returned from the service he worked for a year or so at Remington Rand, in the days computers were first being developed, but in what capacity I do not know.
I myself am unsure of just when, where and how he picked up automotive mechanics as a trade, in addition to all of the building trades, but I do know that by the time I came around, he was officially employed as a chauffeur by New York City, assigned to the Brooklyn Borough President’s office, yet he was mostly assigned to the motor pool as a mechanic. Sal wasn’t just a grease monkey, he was a true master mechanic, and his knowledge of the automobile encompassed every mechanical and electrical system within it. In this regard, I do not have to rely on anecdotes, I got to witness his skills first hand. I recollect his salary with the City, when we were living in my maternal grandparent’s house on 58th Street, in the late 1950’s was $60.00 a week, not a lot of money for a family of four to live on. But hard work was nothing to be averted by Sal, so his evenings and weekends were mostly spent doing side jobs, some in the building trades, some doing automotive mechanics.
I can remember innumerable Saturdays on which my father would have family members and friends lined up outside the house to have him work on their cars. Tune-ups, oil changes, new brakes, whatever was needed, and the work was done right out in the street. Once in a while, someone would bring in a car or a truck with a more serious problem. Sal could listen to the engine, or drive the vehicle a bit, listen and diagnose precisely what the matter was. I can recollect such accurate diagnoses as defective valve lifters, wheel bearings, universal joints and crankshaft issues, that Sal determined through listening. This was done without the benefit of the extensive electronic analytical devices contemporary mechanics of today use. His test equipment consisted of a dwell-tachometer, an engine pressure gauge, and an engine vacuum gauge. That was it, together with a tool chest full of Craftsman hand tools and an ever present can of “DEP” which he used to remove most, but not all of the grease from his hands at the end of the day. Although mom constantly carped about the grease under his fingernails, I would give anything to see those big paws one more time.
In retrospect, I realize that all those afternoons and evenings spent lying on the cold ground, to do this automotive work was a leading contributor to the painfully arthritic knees he had in later life. But that side work not only provided much needed funds to our family, it also gave me a chance to spend time with him, and learn how to do these things myself. In true Sal fashion, he sometimes didn’t get paid in cash for his services, but in some form of barter, which could range from clothing for me or my sister, to food stuffs to a bottle of scotch or wine. Sal did the work for the barter customers just as professionally as he did for the cash paying ones, and never complained or ever charged enough, but I digress. As the apprenticeship program was in full force and effect in the Bonfiglio Clan in my youth, contrary to my desires, I did not begin as a surgeon, no sir. I was, at best, a surgical nurse, handing over a wrench, hammer, screwdriver, whatever was required, and watched Sal do the surgery. Then one day, when I was deep into my teens, he let me change a pair of rear brakes, which I did, without having to ask for help, and right down to the adjustment of the tension on the brake pads by using a flat spoon type tool to adjust them by turning the ratchet teeth on the disc connecting to the adjuster pawl, and bleeding them. This produced what I came to learn was as close as we got to a compliment, which was a grunt, that sounded a bit like, “Good!”, only not nearly as clear.
I don’t know how many cars and trucks Sal actually repaired in his lifetime, but they were in the thousands, and when you consider this was mostly done as side work, it remains impressive to me. Those of you who know from tires with inner tubes and what a tire iron looks like, will appreciate this bit of history, that underscores Sal’s power. When I graduated from Brooklyn Technical Highschool, in 1969, I was allowed to have a graduation party at our house, now on 79th Street, at which I could serve liquor. Before you gasp, bear in mind the drinking age then was 18, and the likelihood was if you didn’t go to college and get a student deferment, you were going to Vietnam as a guest of the government, and stood a good chance of getting shot, but I digress. One of my friends who attended, Frankie, had his driver’s license and a car, which he wished to use to take my cousin Janet out for a spin. When he tried to start it, he couldn’t. Out comes Sal. He lifts the hood, asks Frankie to try to turn it over, then stops him and says, “The engine is off the mounts. Give me a tire iron.” Frankie produces a tire iron out of the trunk, and to the shock and awe of all my friends, Sal wedges it between the engine (a Chevy V-8) and the chassis, and with one hand lifts it back on to the mounts, thereby ensuring Frankie could start, and return Janet to the party unmolested, as nobody was going to risk getting socked by Sal, no sir.
The other great story about Sal and cars centers on his beloved Volkswagen bus, which he used to drive to work with on weekdays, and to schlepp all kinds of building materials on the weekends. Those familiar with the vehicle will remember it was powered by a four cylinder air cooled engine that was not noted for power, or durability. But Sal loved his VW Bus and wasn’t about to be deterred by a little engine problem, no sir. His solution was to buy a spare engine, and alternate engines every few months or so. This one’s not working, no problem. Out you go, and in comes the spare. Whatever the problem with the removed engine was would be repaired to have it ready to switch again, when the time came.
If you’re getting the impression from this that Sal never owned a brand new car, you are correct. The closest he came was vicariously, through me, again. When I graduated college in 1973, and took a full time job with the House of Morgan, the first paycheck I got was applied to buying a new car, a Plymouth Satellite Sebring Plus, with bucket seats, an automatic transmission with a floor shift and a 318 cubic inch hemi-headed V-8 engine that had lots of power. This was actually a bit of rebellion on my part, a vestige of the long war to get my driver’s license. While all my highschool chums were getting their driver’s licenses, Sal was adamant that if I got mine, his auto insurance rates would go up, so no license. Bear in mind my earlier commentary on his having grown up during the Great Depression. Dad was far from cheap, but on monetary issues he was, shall we say, frugal. In his mind, there was no apparent need for me to be tooling around anywhere in a car, particularly his, and more particularly if that meant GEICO, his perennial insurer, would up his rates. To his credit, once I was employed, what I did with my salary was up to me, another departure from the way it went when he was a child.
Well, in1975 Sal’s spendthrift son, me, was getting married and buying a house, all in one fell swoop, and big surprise, the car had to go, as my fiancee had her own and I took the train to work. Dad stepped in and bought it off me, handing it over to mom, as he didn’t like bucket seats, even if he could fit into them, but it was the closest either of them got to a new car. I remember that it had just over 12 thousand miles on it when they bought it from me. 12 years later, just after dad died, mom gave it back to me, with 19 thousand miles on it, giving you an idea of just how much they needed it to begin with, but I digress.
The bucket seats reminded me of another family classic involving Sal. My Uncle Rich had acquired a Triumph Spitfire convertible, with bucket seats, that could hold two reasonable sized adults. He was at Grandma B’s house one day, when Sal, weighing in then at 280 or so, and Uncle Andrew, weighing in then at 350 or so, decide to take it out for a spin. How they got in, without using grease or soap, I still don’t know, but somehow they did, and the car actually moved — without setting off a stream of sparks from the banjo housing as it scraped along the pavement. It was quite a picture, but I digressed again.
If you can remember that far back, I mentioned automotive mechanics was one of Sal’s means of side employment, the other was doing construction work. This he did with his brothers, and, before he had a heart attack, Grandpa B too. Working with Sal on a job was both an educational experience and a body building exercise second to none. I learned every building trade as a laborer under his tutelage and can, and do, build anything and everything, to this day, and have taught my wife, Sandy, to do likewise, which she seems to enjoy greatly, as it is most fulfilling to build something with your own hands and have it be appealing to the eye and functional as well.
The side jobs consisted primarily of ripping up old driveways or sidewalks and pouring new ones; finishing basements; remodeling kitchens; painting houses; and, installing aluminum storm windows. Work began at 6:30 am and continued until Sal said we were done for the day, which was always 3 or 4 hours after everybody else thought it should be. Sal was a dynamo, working constantly, except for an occasional coffee and cigarette break, or lunch, that was it. Nobody could keep up with him, yet he never chided me or his brothers for not keeping up.
Laborious though they were, I have a lot of fond memories of those days, both because I had a chance to be with my dad, and uncles; and, because they had their humorous moments. During these years, Sal was now pushing 250 pounds, and most of it was between his waist and shoulders. When we were doing storm windows or house painting or anything that required a ladder, Sal would be the one on the aluminum extension ladder, which, when he got to the mid section of it, bowed in a manner that had me, and his brothers convinced it was going to snap, but it never did. More picturesque, and amazing was when he would walk it over to the next window, in the fashion John Belushi did in “Animal House,” only he never fell off or backwards.
The word in the family was to have Sal price out the job and Uncle Frank make the bid, as Sal had a soft spot a mile wide and never charged enough, even for customers who could afford to pay.
Sal was an innovator in matters of construction. I remember him mounting a two-bag cement mixer on a trailer chassis, enabling it to be towed to a job site and placed precisely where we needed it to be. He made braces to hold sheetrock over his head, so he could install it even when he was working alone. He built tool caddies out of wood that held his hand tools and power tools, such as they were, and stowed neatly in the back of the VW Bus. But Sal’s most famous innovation was a pair of sandals he fashioned for his size 11 EEE feet, out of an old tire. They looked pretty good and had traction, even in the snow…until he took his feet out, then they just curled up back into the shape of a tire, even after being pressed by his bulk all day. He never heard the end of that one.
Now if you were thinking that work and side jobs were sufficient to fill all of Sal’s time, you would be wrong. At night, he read voraciously, particularly anything and everything about the Civil War and the American West, although he also read history, crime novels and most of the classics — and was fluently conversant on these matters. In addition, there was the family construction program going on as well. This began in the mid 1950’s when Grandpa B bought land far out on Long Island, in a then one-horse town known as Ridge. Grandpa B being a frugal guy, didn’t believe in building a building with brand new materials, no sir. He bought a building that had been torn down, had his boys schlepp the lumber out to Ridge and used that to build his house. While construction was going on, we all slept in a one room shack on the property, with me, still a small child, tucked in a drawer of a chest of drawers.
In true Bonfiglio family tradition, nothing went to waste. Boards that still had nails in them were systematically de-nailed, with a hammer or pliers that could wrest the nail from the wood. The nails were not discarded either, no sir, they had to be hammered into being straight again, as close as possible, then sorted and stored in empty coffee cans, according to size and type, so that they could be re-used. Pipes were stripped of their fittings and those stored until re-use too. Somehow it all worked out, because by the late 1950’s Grandpa B had a 2 bedroom house, with indoor plumbing and heat, built by his sons, and largely by Sal.
Grandpa B’s house started a land boom in Ridge. His brother-in-law, my Great Uncle Edmund (Mondie) bought the adjoining property and built a house, my Uncle John, Aunt Mamie’s husband, built one next to Mondie’s; Great Uncle Joe bought one further down the road, then my father and his brothers got into the act, Sal buying 5 acres about a mile from Grandpa B’s house, Uncle Frank bought land a half mile from my father’s; and, Great Uncle Andrew bought land a half mile from Sal’s in the other direction. Then everybody built a house on their land, and Sal was instrumental in the construction of each one of them, not the least of which was his own. Legend has it that the New York City Department of Public Works may have contributed some of the building materials, in the form of beams that were four inches thick, twelve inches wide and twenty feet long, which I can recall schlepping to Ridge in dad’s flatbed truck, a forerunner to his beloved VW Bus. I remember at least one time we made three trips out and back in a single day, but as Sal never appeared to tire, is was all just in a day’s work. For diversion we would argue over which radio station to listen to. I would tune to a rock and roll station and he would bark, “Get that jungle music off,” and then I’d switch to the news station he preferred. When I thought he was not paying attention, I’d try to sneak it back to rock, but he was always paying attention, and that usually got the radio turned off altogether, which was his notion of a compromise.
Sal’s house in Ridge was the subject of much family conversation as it was big, in every dimension and should have been built in Texas, if you catch my drift. The living room was long enough to be made into a bowling alley, in case you needed some further data to get the picture. The basement had a 6 inch thick cement floor, which I mixed in the trailered cement mixer, then poured down a chute that dad made out of 2 by 4’s and heavy gauge aluminum sheeting, into the basement, where he would rake it out and float it while I mixed up the next batch. All the studding was hand nailed, as was the plywood exterior sheeting, the asbestos shingles over that, the asphalt shingles on the roof, the sheetrock on the interior walls and ceilings, and the hardwood flooring over the plywood floors, with each building material calling for a different nail. I will tell you, without an actual count, that is a lot of nails. So many, that I still have large and powerful forearms that I grew while hammering all those nails. For every nail I nailed, Sal nailed 3 or 4, sometimes more, as I still hadn’t mastered driving them in straight, whereas he could drive a 10 penny nail in two blows of his hammer.
It is another testament to his Depression era frugality that the hardwood flooring he bought was mostly made up of short pieces, as they were cheaper. As they were of tongue and groove milling, they had to be nailed with tapered cut nails, then countersunk with a punch, to drive it into the groove so that the next tongue would fit into the groove over the now embedded nail. This is all done while you are on your knees, and another contributing factor to dad’s and my arthritis issues in that location. When Sal wasn’t working on his own house, he was helping his brothers or uncles build theirs, often working into the summer night, with the light of a kerosene or propane lantern, to keep making progress. I never once heard him complain, or beg off because he was too tired to continue. He did all this labor because it was for his family, immediate or extended, and they both mattered to him greatly.
It was while he was building the house out in Ridge that Sal took the only shot at me that might have remotely made contact. I was playing with my sister Carol behind the house while he was in the basement, where I was sure he couldn’t see me. So when Carol does something I find to be disturbing, which should be read, “Not according to my instructions,” I give her a smack upside her head, and she starts to cry. I espy dad coming up the basement stairs with a stick in his hand, that had a nail protruding at the end, and that “Raging Bull” look in his eyes — because I had more than a few admonitions to never lay hands on her, or any woman, which I largely followed, except as regards my sister, when we were young. Anyway, dad takes off after me, looking mightily intent on getting that nail embedded in my head, growling something in the nature of “I told you to keep your hands off your sister!”, or words to that effect. I discovered two things that day. First, the old man could run surprisingly fast for his size. Second, I, fortunately, could run just a bit faster, but he did chase me to the end of the property line. As he never caught me that day, I can report he never laid a hand on me in anger.
The building of the house in Ridge not only gave Sal a chance to exercise his construction skills, and infuse them into me, it also became the means by which he got to own his own home. As fate would have it, no sooner had he finished construction, as his property adjoined lands owned by the Brookhaven National Labs, and they were in the bidding for a new cyclotron, which would require them to expand their safety zone, they condemned it and he used the cash to buy a house in Brooklyn.
True to form, before we moved in, Sal gutted the entire house down to the rafters, replaced all of the plumbing and electrical systems, insulated, sheetrocked, and built a new, modern kitchen, and a pair of bathrooms, one on each floor. This was all done at night, after work, and on weekends, with a few vacation days thrown in too. I got a new lesson in the building trades, as the plumbing in Ridge was mostly done by sweating copper fittings to copper tubing; but, the house in Brooklyn was done in the classic metals of the day, brass for the hot and cold water lines, galvanized iron for the heating system and black iron pipe for the gas lines — all of which pipe was hand treaded, by the apprentice, me. Dad, or his brother, Frank, the sibling who learned plumbing while Sal learned carpentry and masonry, did the layout, cutting and installation. That was in 1964. I earned my second grunt of approval from my father in 1986, when I had bought a new home and had a 2 inch water pipe burst on me one morning. By that time, I had possession of dad’s pipe vise and dies, and instead of picking up the phone and saying, “Dad, I’ve got a burst pipe, can you come over?”, I turned off the main water supply, measured the length of pipe I would have to replace, between fittings, cut and remove the broken section, bought a new length of pipe to replace it, treaded and installed it, complete with a union to enable it to be installed without having to dismantle any more pipe than necessary, then I called him to come over and see what I’d done. Actually, that was the third grunt of approval, the second one was issued on the day I marched down the aisle in Lincoln Center, to receive my law degree from Fordham University Law School. I earned it at night, while working as an officer at Morgan during the day, and running a booming tax practice on the side, and also while having my two daughters born in those years too. I attribute my stamina and determination to get all that done to having watched my father do likewise in his life, with considerably less financial reward and a lot more physicality.
Around the same time construction started in Ridge, Sal took and passed the examination to become a New York City Court Officer, and was appointed shortly after that. Sal was a union man before he got into the courts, having been a delegate in the chauffeur’s union, but not an executive, as best as I can remember. What I remember best from those days is that one night, in 1961, while he was chauffeuring the then Brooklyn Borough President, John Cashmore, he, Cashmore, not Sal, had a heart attack in the back of the limo, and dad tried to save him with artificial resuscitation and a speedy ride to the emergency room. Mr. Cashmore didn’t make it, but Sal got his one inch by one inch picture, inclusive of his chauffeur’s cap, in the local papers, inclusive of a nice story about his efforts to save the Borough President. I guess I digressed.
When Sal got into the court system, two things happened. First, he discovered that although his brother court officers carried pistols, a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver being the weapon of choice in that day, most of them didn’t know how to shoot them. As court officers were classified as peace officers under New York law, and thereby required to carry their weapons at all times, even off the job, this didn’t sit well with Sal, who grew up in a family where hunting and shooting was an integral part of the familial pageantry, which I will return to in a bit. True to form, in 1964, Sal got himself hired, as a side job, to build, with his brothers, what would become known as the West Side Rifle and Pistol Range, in the Flatiron section of Manhattan. It was then a state of the art range, with ventilation, angled steel bullet backdrops, backed by sand, and multiple shooting positions, from which you could send and receive your targets with metal clotheslines. Contemporaneously with this, Sal became elected President of the New York Court Officers Association and instituted firearms training for the members on Saturdays, at the range he built. That enabled me to get in some target practice under his tutelage too. I still have a pair of the yellow ear muffs we wore to suppress the noise of the guns firing, and am still a deadly accurate shot, as was Sal, with a gun.
Sal took and passed the exam to become a Supreme Court Officer, and then became president of that union too. Early on, he became assigned to Judge John Murtagh, who presided over the 1970-1971 trial of what was known as the “Black Panther 21,” and reputed to be a circus in more ways than one. While a court officer, Sal befriended a fellow known as Murray Butchen, who became a sidekick and friend till dad died. Murray was a guy who did side jobs too, only as a TV repairman, not as a carpenter or automotive mechanic. Murray’s not infrequent visits to our house, to repair our black and white Dumont television, got me to thinking I wanted to be an electrical engineer, instead of a heart surgeon, and was a primary reason for my election of the electrical engineering major while at Brooklyn Tech. It wasn’t until I had graduated Tech and started studying the real deal at the then Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, that I discovered that electrical engineers don’t actually get to play with the parts, which back then still included vacuum tubes and transistors, but I guess I’ve digressed enough. Anyway, I never held it against Murray, and he and Sal were the guards outside the courtroom where the Panther trial was being held. Murray had designed what I believe to be the wand you routinely get patted down with at the metal detectors in secure buildings, and he used it to locate an amazing array of handguns, knives, brass knuckles and blackjacks from would be courtroom spectators. Sal was the guy who asked you politely to surrender the contraband, without penalty, and then gave you the look that convinced you discretion was the better part of valor, in case you were too hesitant.
When Sal took the next promotional exam, he became a Court Clerk. This time the Court Clerk’s had a President that Sal liked and never challenged for leadership, Jimmy Conlon, who made him his deputy instead. As Sal moved up the grades in the Court Clerk system, he ultimately came to be assigned to Burton Roberts, who liked and admired him and begged him not to retire. As Sal was retired not even two years when he died, I’m glad he passed up the offer.
Somewhere along the line, Sal was induced to join the Elks, in Lodge No 1 in Manhattan. Being a man’s man, in relatively short order he advanced through the ranks and became the Exalted Ruler, a station in life that got him chided with Jackie Gleason jokes and comparisons, because in physical stature and facial expressions, they bore a similarity.
Now I’ve already mentioned hunting in passing, but that sport, and fishing, were two of Sal’s passions, as they were invariably engaged in with the company of one or more of his brothers, and, while he was still with us, grandpa too. Sal was an excellent shot, and more often than not, got what he was shooting at, but having been a hunter since I was old enough to carry a gun, I know the real reason was the camaraderie that was a large part of the sport.
I have many stories about Sal’s exploits hunting, but will only mention a few here, as they are illustrative of the man. I’ll begin with his exploits in Port Jervis, where my mother’s side of the family had their country homes. My mother’s Uncle Ralph bought a 100 acre spread in the town of Sparrowbush, in the 1930’s, when he was a top rate banjo player for, amongst others, Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor. Uncle Ralph befriended a local legend, by the name of Bob Ianella, whose hunting exploits are the stuff legends are made of and beyond the scope of this piece. One year, while Sal was in Sparrowbush for the deer season, Bob tells him, if you want a nice six point buck I’ll take you to a place where you’ll get him. Sal naturally accepted the offer and about 5:30 the next morning, Bob drops him off at a wooded area next to a reservoir, technically off limits, but that’s where Bob said Sal would score the buck and he went, with Bob’s further admonition to wait until he returned for him, later that day. According to most renditions I recollect him giving, Sal said that at 6:30 am sharp, the promised buck materialized, and he promptly shot him, gutted him and began to await Bob’s return, with a pack of cigarettes, a sandwich and a piece of fruit, alleged to be an apple. Well Bob did return that day, technically, but at 5:30 at night. Now if you are familiar with what it’s like to be cold and hungry and in a place you don’t really know what it is, you have Sal’s mental bearings on that day. But Bob told Sal not to move and that’s what he did until rescued. A lesser man would have run away, but I never knew him to ever do that.
My second hunting story involves a foray I made with dad to Ridge, in a year before I had my hunting license, relegating me to carrying the game bag. We are in heavy brush between Uncle John’s house and Uncle Mondie’s house and I am walking behind dad, carrying the game bag, which was actually a WW II army issue canvas gas mask pouch. Dad has his trusty 16 gauge double barrel shotgun. When he stops to listen for movement, I spot a rabbit looking right at me from deep in the brush. I tell him, “Pop, there’s a rabbit on your left, about 8 feet away.” He’s looking high and low but can’t spot him. The rabbit is frozen still, but eyeing me intently. Now I whisper, “Hand me the gun, I’ll shoot him.” No such luck. Sal may have engaged in some questionable hunting in the company of Bob Ianella, but he is not about to hand over his shotgun to his 10 year old son and dispatch a poor rabbit to perdition, then have him brag about the feat to his mother, no sir. I admit it fried me when he wouldn’t hand the gun over, but as I grew older, if not a bit wiser, I got the picture and admired him all the more for it. Leadership by example is mostly done without much fanfare or accolades, but it is a most impressive teaching tool when finally understood.
My last hunting story is similar. We are in Ridge again, this time pulling up in front of grandpa’s house, where lo and behold, stands a golden ringneck pheasant. As Sal was a Court Officer at the time, he had his .38 on his hip when he traveled. Since the pheasant would be long gone if we tried to open the trunk of the car and retrieve our shotguns, dad decided to take a shot with his service revolver, and true to form, laid over the hood of the car, took aim and hit the bird with his first shot. In my exuberance, I ran to retrieve it, only to watch the sucker take off, wings flapping furiously, one leg hanging down, from where he had been struck.
Me? I drop to the ground to give dad a chance to shoot over my head and finish the job. Sal? He wanted grandchildren and decided we would take after it with our shotguns, and didn’t avail himself of my offer to have him shoot over my head. We never found the bird, but dad never expressed any regret over declining to shoot over my head, at least not to my face. I’m sure I gave him more than a few chances to express regrets about that to his brothers in later years, but that’s for a different story.
What I remember most of Sal’s passion for hunting was his devotion to doing it in the company of his brothers. They hunted together from New York, to New Jersey and up to Maine, and planned their trips all year long, with great anticipation. Many of my favorite photographs of dad involve him in hunting clothes, surrounded by his brothers. He wore a red and black checkered wool shirt that I took possession of when he died, and wore myself, until I wore it out. I still like to wear that style of shirt, as it makes me feel somehow in touch with him, but I digress.
Fishing was another passion. Shortly after taking over the reins of the Court Officers Association, Sal decided what they really needed was an annual fishing trip, where they chartered a boat out of Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, brought a full keg of beer to combat the heat and sun glare off the water, and maybe actually catch some fish. Sal’s brothers, Grandpa B and me get to tag along. I’ve tried to inculcate in my children, sons and daughters alike, a fondness for fishing, out of the good times I shared with Sal and my uncles doing likewise, but fishing out of Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn in recent times just ain’t what they used to be.
The Court Officers annual fishing trip went on for about five years as I recollect, after which Sal had been promoted to Supreme Court Officer, which had a different union, of which he was only vice-president when he started there, and the fishing trip was no more. But the five I did go on were unbelievable. Those old enough to know what a 50 pound burlap potato sack looked like will appreciate that each attendee brought home one filled with roughly 100 pounds of fresh fish each year.
Somehow Sal managed to time the trip to get different runs of fish each succeeding year. One year was a mackerel run, another one was mostly sea bass, another was blowfish, another was whiting and the last one was a porgy run. Try and picture my Mom’s face as we each dragged in 100 pounds of fish from our once a year expedition. Yeah. Priceless.
The Court Officers annual fishing trip wasn’t the only time I got to go fishing with my dad. In the summers at Ridge we would go fishing for fluke and blowfish in rented rowboats with small outboard motors in the Moriches or Port Jefferson. Grandpa B, Uncle Andrew and Uncle John were frequent attendees. Grandpa B had his own motor, so Sal got to divide his time on the water between fishing and fixing the motor, as it perpetually seemed to need repair. In the winter, we would go for cod and pollock, which, if you ever caught any, in the deep water they hang out in, you will know feel like you caught the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. On these trips Sal got to reel in his fish and Grandpa B’s too, as he couldn’t get too exerted because of his heart condition.
In my late teens I took to going fly fishing for trout, usually at a lake near my mother’s brother’s(Uncle Tony) house in Sparrowbush, which I note Sal spent many a weekend helping him build. One weekend, Sal, Tony and I are on the lake in Tony’s rowboat, with me in the front, Tony in the middle and Sal in the back with the motor. I am showing off my fly casting, attempting to get a dry fly launched at a pool near the shore. When I back cast and whip the rod to launch the fly forward, it doesn’t appear, so I give the rod another forward whip and I now hear Sal say, “Wait!” When I look back I see I have hooked him through the left nostril, so well the barb is protruding. We had to get him to the hospital to have it removed. To his credit, dad never gave me grief over that, and he remains to this day the largest creature I ever caught with a rod and reel.
When I started working at Morgan, I learned the sport of choice amongst the WASP crowd there was golf, not hunting or fishing; and, because if you played you got days off, to do just that, at the private country clubs the senior officers belonged to, I took it up, then tried selling it to dad. It was quite an experience. Sal was muscular beyond all description, but lacked the flexibility needed to make a smooth back swing and drive. That caused him to hit many grounders; however, a Sal driven grounder, because of his tremendous upper body strength, could go almost as far as a fully airborne shot that I might hit. I came to refer to them as “worm-burners” because God help any worm near the surface when one of Sal’s grounders came buzzing through. I’m pretty certain it wasn’t his kind of game, but he kept at it, if only to be able to spend some time with me. The things you figure out in retrospect.
Sal’s sense of family cannot be described in a single anecdote, but I’ll start with his devotion to his parents. Long after he was a married man, with a family of his own, Sal’s first order of business was to make sure my grandparents were in need for nothing. This sense of duty extended well beyond building Grandpa B’s house in Ridge, and included: routine repair of all of Grandpa B’s clunker cars, several of which were legendary in their need for major mechanical work, from engine rebuilding to transmission replacement; rehabilitation of a 1939 International Harvester tractor Grandpa B acquired for plowing and cultivating his gentleman’s farm out in Ridge; taking Grandpa B to the hospital every time he thought he was having a heart attack; and, visiting Grandma B at least once a week, usually on Sunday. Dinner with my grandparents and their children was an experience, notable because conversation either pertained to automotive mechanics or some aspect of house building, and Grandpa B and dad almost never agreed about anything. As I had observed dad fix everything and build his own and other homes, I attributed Grandpa B’s carping to his being Sicilian or senile or both. It bothered my mother tremendously, but Sal never complained and was back every week for more abuse. Despite all that, the one time I saw my father cry was when we visited Grandpa B in the hospital, in what would be Grandpa B’s final trip, and in an obvious state of dementia, Grandpa said to Sal, “What did you ever do for me?” I’d have choked him if I wasn’t certain he was delirious, but I digress.
Sal’s devotion to family didn’t begin or end with my grandparents —whomever needed help from him, got it. This included driving out to rescue one or another of my uncles when their cars stalled, often taking with him a warm bottle of milk for my infant cousins who were cold and hungry from the wait. If you had major repairs to do on your house, Sal was there, with tools and talent and ready to work. I remember when his Uncle Andrew decided he needed to put a basement into his house in Ridge, Sal was there. Uncle Andrew had this conveyor belt that he believed would make the excavation a simple task. In a sense it was. Sal was underneath the slab, digging out the mostly sand and rock that lay below, with a hand shovel, and throwing it on to the conveyor belt, which dumped it into a waiting wheelbarrow, which, when filled, I would push to the edge of the property and dump, then return to reload. Uncle Andrew tended to whatever sand fell off the conveyor belt and threw it into the wheelbarrow. That helped a lot.
I also remember a fourth of July weekend in Ridge, when Uncle Mondie decided it was time to build an extension on his house. No sooner had he spoken than Sal and his brothers had shovels in hand and commenced digging the foundation. You could try to keep pace with him but you’d just as soon die of exhaustion, as he had no equal in the stamina department. The foundation was dug in two days, and I mean a sixteen foot by sixteen foot by eight foot in depth one.
Weekends at Sal’s house often saw visitors come in for a cup of coffee with Sal and to get some sage advice on matters ranging from the vagaries of the New York City Retirement System, which he knew front-wards and backwards from having been a union leader for many years; to counseling on school and employment matters, which he gave to my cousin Ronnie and his brothers.
Although I don’t recollect him being a chef to any great extent, he was an excellent baker, noted for his extremely deep dish apple pies and sourdough breads he made from cultures he grew. True to form, he built a pie carrier out of plywood, complete with 2 racks, a door and a handle. I remember in the last year or so before I married and moved out, one of his late night passions, in addition to reading a book, or watching a good John Wayne movie, was to bake a loaf of sourdough bread, and eat it before my mother woke up.
In my soon to be published cookbook, “Second Helpings,” I describe what I call the “Pasta Rules,” as same were promulgated by Grandpa B. While Grandpa B made them up, Sal lived by them, to the extent that I could tell the day of the week by what shape of macaroni we were having and what bean, vegetable or sauce it came with. Sal was a big guy and had an appetite to match. He could down a pound of macaroni, as a first course, have a bowl of salad, then eat a steak, and not break into a sweat. As I reflect on just how much energy he burned up in a day, working at his pace, doing what he did, those food quantities were mere sustenance. I also mention a story about a dining experience we shared. It was in the late 1960’s, possibly the early 1970’s. My father discovered a buffet style, all-you-can-eat Italian bistro, known as Castlenova’s, on the Sunrise Highway, out in Rockville Center, New York. The dinner fare was, in a word, sumptuous, and included trays of pastas of several different shapes, each with distinctive sauces, (tomato, oil and garlic, etc.) a panoply of vegetables cooked aglio e olio, salads, roasts of beef, turkey, lamb and chicken, braised ribs, rice balls, potato croquets, meatballs, sausages and a dessert table that went on forever. The tab for each diner, was a whopping (no pun intended) $4 a head. At the time, Sal weighed in at 250 pounds or thereabouts; Uncle Frank at 215; Uncle John at 230; Uncle Anthony at 210, and Uncles Rich and Will at 195 each and I’m 150, dripping wet. Forget my mom and my aunts, for the lesson here, they are irrelevant. What matters is that we are 14 diners, (my sister was there too) seated at a table assembled to hold us all, and the dinner tab to be picked up at the end was going to be $56, plus tip and drinks. If I remember correctly, the first glass of Chianti was on the house too. Well, the Brothers Bonfiglio (and son) go to work on that buffet, and don’t stop until all are fully satiated, which I tell you true, was more than 2 hours after they started. When the Padrone finally brings over the check, personally, and hands it to my father, he says, earnestly, “Did you enjoy everything?” Sal graciously tells the Padrone everything was excellent, the best he’s tasted outside of his own mother’s kitchen. An overstatement? Perhaps, but meant to make the Padrone feel good about his fare. Then Sal says, “We’ll be back.” At this assertion, the Padrone holds his hand up and says, sincerely, “Signore, I have nothing against you and your family, personally, but I’ve never seen a group of men put away as much food as you guys did tonight. If you have any feeling for me, any at all, you’ll never come back.” And, they never did, as best as I can remember, but I digress.
Given his large frame and ample gut, Sal was the Santa Clause in the red suit for most of my childhood Christmas Eve celebrations, held mostly at my grandparent’s home, and in later years at Aunt Mamie’s or Uncle Frank’s. The performances in the later years were more memorable, because I was older, knew it was him and that the wine he had been taking in, invariably CK Fortissimo, made him, well, jolly.
Kids loved Sal because they could hang off his outstretched arm, one at a time or all at once, and it would never bend. He could also hang them upside down by their heels, or swing them over his head, and they never had to fear being dropped. I know when I gave him two granddaughters he just swelled with pride and just loved them to death. I can still picture both of my girls nestled in their grandpa’s massive arms and chest, secure and without a worry in the world. Then he switched from being Santa Clause to being an elf, making them a play table and chairs in the shape of elephants and hippopotami, which they still have. When my nephew Steven was born, Sal made him a train engine that doubled as a storage bin for his other toys.
I mentioned he was a cigarette smoker, and that he was, from long before the tobacco lawsuits and despite the televised pitches to quit by his hero, John Wayne. He smoked unfiltered Raleighs and Chesterfields, both of which came with coupons on the back of the pack, and a strip of 10 extras if you bought a carton. I remember him collecting them for years, then finally deciding it was time to cash them in. I no longer remember how many thousands he had, but I do remember what he got in return for surrendering them — a little plastic piece of crap that made us both laugh when was saw it. But the picture I carry in my mind’s eye, and heart, will always be of him in a tee shirt, wearing an apron full of nails, cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, driving home a nail with those massive forearms, making it look like he was sticking a hot knife through a stick of butter.
Although he gave me permission to smoke, just before my 18th birthday, I was emulating his habit from when I was about 12, behind his back of course. I remember one exceptional faux pas that got me pinned and nearly killed by him for doing so. I was hired by a neighbor down the block to paint his hallway. I wore an Eisenhower jacket to the job, and while painting, bummed a cigarette from my employer, Mike. To his credit, before handing one over, he asked me if I had permission to smoke, to which I replied, “Of course.” Being a good soul, Mike handed me the pack and said, “Keep it,” in response to which I tucked it into the front pocket of the jacket and forgot about it when I returned home and put it in the closet to switch to baseball clothes. When I get home that night, I know something is amiss, because Sal is standing, no make that towering, at the top of the stairs, with this look on him I’d never seen before, or since. As I’m ascending the stairs he bellows out, “Have you been smoking?” Me, I give out a half hearted,”No.” Now he puts out one of his massive paws, in the palm of which sits the pack that Mike gave me, and he says, “Really, so what are these?” He doesn’t wait for a response, as there would be none acceptable anyway. Instead, he says, “If I ever catch you smoking again, I’m going to crush you,” and with that the pack in his paw is crushed into oblivion. How I didn’t wet myself, I don’t know, but now he says, “Who gave these to you?” My concern now switches from my own safety to that of Mike. As I know he knows where I got them, I fess up and tell him the whole story, including Mike’s inquiry as to whether I had permission and my slight omission of the truth. Next thing I know he’s marching me down to Mike’s house, where I am fearful I’m going to witness a murder. When Mike opens the door, I can see his eyes bugging, as I’m quite sure he believed he was going to catch a beating, if not worse, but when Sal speaks, he says, firmly, but not threateningly, “My son isn’t permitted to smoke, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t give him any cigarettes, ever, again.” Message received. No, I didn’t take the opportunity to quit, but I never stashed a pack where it could be found and developed a new habit of wearing cologne, using mouthwash and taking the occasional Binaca blast. As I survived to the point of permission, I guess it worked. I’m thinking that as dad started around the same age I did, and wasn’t, then, totally sold on smoking having only deleterious effects, the demonstration was put on for my mother’s benefit more than mine, but I’m just guessing.
For all his size and power, I never actually saw him pop somebody with a punch. Just as well, as it would have been a homicide. He also never cursed in my presence, the sole exceptions being once he referred to someone as a scumbag, and another that took place in the parking lot at what used to be Korvettes, which is the closest he came to punching someone out in my presence. I was already married and we were going to pick something up at Korvettes that I can no longer remember what it was. We were in Sal’s VW Bus and were about to pull into a spot when some guy cuts him off and tries to steal it. Dad says, out loud, “That cocksucker, what’s he think he’s doing?” Me? I am in awe that he knows the curse word, then notice the nut in the other car has gotten out and is ready to fight for the spot. Now I’m thinking I’m going to see the old man deck someone for the first time in my life. But as Sal steps out and rights himself, the other guy realizes he’d best get back in his car and leave, and does precisely that. I compliment the old man on his familiarity with such earthy vernacular and he just shoots me a look.
Legend, according to his best friend, Murray, has it that once upon a time, a defendant who had just been uncuffed for a trial appearance, jumped over the defense table and made a rush for the judge, only to be knocked out cold by Sal, with a single blow to the head. I’d have paid big money to see that. So would every one of my uncles.
That mustache he liked wearing made several changes over time. In his service days it was thin and only covered the bottom part of his upper lip. He looked quite dashing in it. As he got older, he kept it thicker, and covering the entirety of his upper lip. Alas, as much of the hair was auburn, it was the first to go gray. Not being of the ilk to buy a commercial hair dye, Sal determines to do his own handiwork, with black shoe polish. I will report that doesn’t really work, and leave it at that. My aunt and uncles in the hereafter snicker at that notion.
There was a stoicism about Sal that was more effective in appearance than in effect. I can still count on the fingers of one hand the number of times we exchanged an “I love you” as father and son, yet I know he loved me, and I him. My best example dates back to my tenure at the House of Morgan. Very early in my tenure there, I found there was a need for an articulate and reasonably humorous emcee for retirement parties and similar company functions. Being me, I quickly offered myself to fill the void, and shortly thereafter found myself to be the official emcee for all company functions. We had an employee, Ann Schmidt, who had worked at Morgan for 50 years and was retiring. Anne’s career was colorful and included a stint as one of the tellers who counted out the ransom money for the Lindbergh kidnaping. If you don’t know what that was go look it up, it was a big deal in its day. Anyway, I was revved up for the task, and quite sure it would go over so well that I’d be plied with liquor for the remainder of the evening after I delivered my speech. So much so, I calculated in my head, exactly where I would have to walk and turn, to get myself onto the New York City Transit System to return myself home after the extravaganza was over. It was a great, but fatally flawed plan, in that it failed to cognize just how well my roast of Anne was received. Not only was I plied with round after round of drinks at the venue I performed at, I was swept into a taxi to continue the revelry, at a different bar, on a different avenue. As fate would have it, my mental calculations of where to turn and where to descend, into the subway system worked perfectly, only putting me on a line to the Bronx, instead of to Brooklyn. As I have never had a problem with sleeping on trains, I awoke, at 4:30 in the morning, at the Woodlawn Station in the Bronx. When I collected my wits, I called my wife and told her not to pay the ransom, as I had escaped. Rather than chide me, she informed me that my father, after a panic phone call from her, at midnight, had advised her that I was no doubt asleep on a train somewhere and he would go and pick me up, which he did. Sure enough, when I emerged from the train station nearest to my house, at nearly 6 am, there was my father waiting for me, in his car, visibly relieved to see me, and mercifully disinclined to ask about the why’s and wherefores of what kept me out so late. If you are a parent, you understand what an act of love that is.
My sister told me once I had an idealized memory of my father and the fact was he often left us alone with mom as kids. The latter assertion is only partially true and the reason the initial assertion is not accepted by me at all. I grew up in an era, and family, where boys routinely worked with fathers such as mine and girls didn’t. Simply put, my sister never got to spend the time with dad that I did, and that makes all the difference. No, I wasn’t on every job, and even abandoned my post as day laborer once I got into my high teens and discovered girls and alcohol. But I was on enough of them to be confident, even at the age of 60, to rip apart my son’s bedroom and turn it into an office, building, in the process, a new set of stairs to the attic, inclusive of cutting my own stringers, treads and risers; and, then remodeling my basement, and laying ceramic tile and doing carpentry and masonry along the way. I didn’t learn these skills by watching the DIY network, but from watching dad do the work and learning to do it myself, albeit never quite as good as he did it. That isn’t idealized in my mind.
One of the kicks I got out of lawyering, particularly after he passed on, was walking into a courtroom or clerk’s office, mentioning my name, and having some judge or clerk ask me, “Are you related to Sal?” When I confessed I was, I invariably heard them say, “He was quite a guy.” And so he was. He died doing what he loved to do best, working. He was building a bathroom in my sister’s house and was found slumped against the wall, too late to be resuscitated.
Many people pursue immortality, even if only though doing something infamous. Sal never sought that kind of immortality, but he got the real deal instead, at least in the way I define it, which is, when people who never met you, but only heard of you, and wished they had, you’ve made it to immortality. I have a new wife and three children, as well as cousins and friends, who never met him but tell me he fits that description. Me? I talk to him almost every day, as I feel his protective hand over me, keeping me on the right path, and doing my best for my family. That’s a lesson I learned from him, without a lecture, just a lifetime of performance. Thanks dad.
To all who follow my blog, Buon Natale, which is Padrone speak for Merry Christmas!