How Pietro Gallucci crossed the ocean and we became Americans
PART ONE: COMING TO WEST VIRGINIA
My Dad, Peter Palmer Gallucci, was one of the smartest people I ever knew…and he only completed fourth grade. The best thing he did, in my eyes, was to immigrate to this country so we could become Americans! He took, as you will see, quite a circuitous route.
Things were tough in the Meggogiorno, the southern part of Italy where my father grew up. There were few jobs and no prospect of any in the future, even for a distinguished veteran of WWI. Farming, the only industry in Aprigliano Grupa, Calabria, my dad’s hometown, offered few work opportunities. The family farm already employed my dad’s older brothers, so he worked from age 10 on local farms needing seasonal help. He learned how to prepare the land for seeding, when and how to plant and then to weed, and the best way to harvest. He loved working the land all his life. Later, growing produce, fruit and flowers became his hobbies instead of his occupation.
In this small village, located in Calabria (toe of the map), families knew and mingled among one another, sharing a strong faith in God (although the Italians were always selective Catholics), and whatever food and hospitality they possessed. Hospitality became one of my dad’s and my mother’s most valued traditions, one that they happily passed on to me, and which I treasure and handed down to my children.
Pietro grew up in a family of nine children, whose mother died when Pietro was nine. He told me how much he loved his stepmother. “She was always so good to me,” he would say, “and treated us as if we were her own.” Unfortunately, she also died before he reached manhood.
He was popular in Aprigliano Grupa because of his wit, his gregariousness, his natural ability to lead, and his ever-twinkling blue eyes. Even before his WWI service, he realized that his beloved land wouldn’t provide what he wanted most: a family and the ability to care for them physically and financially.
He had known Virginia Acciardi from childhood, and frequently visited her home where her widowed mother struggled to take care of son Luigi who was Pietro’s age, and younger daughters Virginia and Marietta. Pietro and Virginia became childhood sweethearts, usually frowned upon in rural Italy of the early 20th century. Nevertheless, as Virginia liked to tell it: “My mother Philipina loved Pietro, and he became like another son to her.” And so the young couple bypassed the formalized custom of an arranged marriage and became formally engaged when Virginia was 16 and Pietro was 19.
Pietro, always a romantic figure because of his colorful storytelling, curiosity and willingness to take chances, joined the Italian Army in 1916 shortly after he became engaged because he believed in the Allied cause. But he also longed to see what lay beyond his area’s mountains.
Deciding he wanted to be more than a foot soldier, he joined the Cavalry and distinguished himself fighting in many of the Baltic countries. He never forgot that experience and loved to tell my brother and me about his adventures. “I visited Albania, Bulgaria, and Greece and there’s where I first heard the name Lydia,” he would say, snapping those blue eyes. Of course, like typical kids, my brother and I never listened for long or in depth. How I wish I had listened better and more.
Returning home in the summer of 1920, with a small Army payout, he immediately married Virginia and started investigating how he could come to the new promised land across the sea. United States Immigration quotas for Italian nationals were very stringent at that time. However, his sister had married a Canadian Italian and wrote she would sponsor Pietro and find him a job in a tailor shop in North Bay, Ontario, where she lived. So, in Autumn of 1920, Peter departed Aprigliano Grupa for the last time, traveling to Naples to embark on a ship headed for Canada. It was bittersweet for my father, for by this time my mother was pregnant with my brother Lou. Always working as partners, my mother and father parted, not knowing when they would see each other again.
The journey was long for Pietro as he shared steerage accommodations with young men from Italy and other central European countries. Finally, after seven days, the ship landed in New Brunswick where my father planned to board a train to take him across Canada to North Bay.
Suddenly, some very important looking men boarded the ship with an amazing offer. They represented a coal mine owner in West Virginia who desperately needed men to work in the mines. Any of the men who agreed to leave the ship and travel to West Virginia would receive an added benefit, besides good pay and a place to live. The coal mine owners would assist them on the road to American citizenship. How the owners managed that feat remains a mystery. Nevertheless, my father who was only 23 years old at the time and couldn’t speak a word of English thought this was an unbelievable opportunity. He signed an official document titled “Intent to Become a United States Citizen,” left the ship, and traveled to West Virginia. As I said before, my father was always willing to take chances, if they looked like they were going to lead to something positive. And that’s how my family became Americans.
PART TWO: COMING TO DES PLAINES
“If you no leave the coal mines, Pietro, I divorce-a you,” my mother claimed!
Although my father, Pietro, knew she would never really do that, it indicated how worried she was, fearing he would die after a mine cave-in. (Hearing this story when we were growing up, my brother and I would laugh knowing it represented Italian drama at its best.) Still, she lived in Italy and he lived across the sea in a place called West Virginia. Finally, at her very insistent urging, he hung up his pick and shovel and traveled to Des Plaines, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, where my mother’s sister and her family lived. Their home was only a few miles away from Benjamin Electric, a factory which employed unskilled laborers. At first, my dad lived in the attic of an old house on Lee Street where he endured a very painful winter. “It was so cold in that unheated attic,” he told me, “that one morning, I woke up to find my hair had frozen.”
At that point, he moved into the home of my aunt and uncle on Washington Street, which was already crowded with four growing children. But he was welcomed and stayed until he had saved enough money to put a meager down payment on the big brick house on Perry Street, which had the allure of income property, with one apartment for my dad, mother and children, and two which he could rent out.
In the meantime, Pietro became a United States citizen and started working in the boiler room at Benjamin Electric. He learned the mechanics of keeping a factory running, along with some electrical and plumbing skills. Exactly how he mastered these skills, I’ll never know; he was also a fine carpenter and painter. I only know that he was a fast learner and brave and curious.
Eventually he sent for my mother and my brother who had turned seven by then. How he managed to do this on his salary befuddles me; and more astonishing are the arrangements he made for my mother’s and brother’s voyage to America in 1927. A courier met my mother and brother Lou in Aprigliano Grupa and accompanied them to Naples, where they boarded a huge ship, occupying first-class accommodations to New York. There another courier met my mother and brother and helped them board the train carrying them to Chicago. More admirable still, Pietro had bought the big red apartment building on Perry Street, where I was born a few years later.
Finally, after a long train ride from New York, Virginia and Luigi disembarked at Union Station, greeted by a waiting crowd of relatives. And here’s some wonderful family lore. My brother had only seen pictures of our dad, but he knew he was a natty dresser who wore spats and a straw bowler. He alighted the train, and fell into the arms of the first man who looked like that, crying “Papa, Papa,’” only to have relatives shout, “No, no, that’s Uncle Rocco, here’s your Papa!”
My brother Lou was then enrolled in St. Mary’s Elementary School, where he had to repeat first grade because he knew no English. He too was a fast learner, who soon caught up with his classmates, and he quickly shed his Italian accent. When he was nine, my mother gave birth to a beautiful baby boy named Freddie. Tragically, he died in early infancy from pneumonia, which was long before the discovery of penicillin. My mother never forgot her “little Freddie,” and I remember going to the nearby cemetery with her several times a year to tend his grave.
Three years later, I arrived when my brother was 12 years old. I was baptized with the beautiful name, Lydia, which my dad had heard so many years before when he was in the army. And so I became the first member of my family to be born in America!
Long-time Great Books participant Lydia Lombardo has taken OLLI courses in literature, writing, and history. She recently took part in OLLI-USF’s blended learning pilot and enjoyed its hybrid content: art appreciation, memoir and poetry. She is a member of the Write Time for Poets SIG.