Fathers and Sons
Pt. 2 'The Rose Gardener'
I can remember when my dad would get angry. It would happen in different ways and for different reasons. If he saw someone being teased or pushed; if anyone poked at his integrity or threatened his family; if you invaded his personal space, or “jumped down his throat,” he could go off, like a volcano.
Not that this happened frequently. “Because, really, to get to that point,” as his childhood fiend Brian Barrett said, “now you’ve turned him on, and for the most part it didn’t go to that next step, because Fred wasn’t going to take any shit, and people knew it.”
But at other times his temper could flare in ways that were less than predictable, and as a kid it could be scary. My dad was an introvert, just like me, and we shared the learning disability that I told you about in Pt. 1. But there was also an underlying anxiety — a nervous tick — which complicated whatever difficulty that developmental challenge may have posed. Looking back on it now, at the age of 39 with a kid of my own, and having examined the events that shaped his childhood, I can see what led to his outbursts, sometimes without warning.
But whenever he did get angry, if I was there to see it, my dad would find me later, after calming down, and he would tell me a story. He would tell me about how terrible he felt, and how Grandpop had come down from heaven to crack him over the head with a cane for losing his cool — Bop! — and just like that, I would feel good and whole again, and we would hug.
Growing up, my father always told me stories about Grandpop; about his kindness and his generosity; how he gardened roses, which was “symbolic” to my dad. Even though we never met, he was like a saint in my life.
Roggiano Gravina — Calabria, Italy, 2019
I park on the outskirts of town. A hilltop village perched above undulating fields that roll for miles before a horizon of distant blue-tinged mountains. Swallows dart through the air. Cheer builds inside as I walk into my family’s ancestral village, and I wonder where he would have lived.
A crumbling building, a weathered sign, a noticeably higher concentration of old to young. Saturday afternoon moving into evening; pensioners gathered in the central square. A group of teens giggle in the shadows of an alleyway. A young immigrant mother in a hijab weaves through the foot traffic which courses through the center of town, where I found a Marilyn Monroe-themed bar, and a remembrance poster plastered outside a church for a woman named Emilia, who died not long before with my last name.
I poke my head inside an artist’s studio. The lights are off and the door ajar, cool air escaping. I see a crude oil painting, some sort of strange religious iconography: Jesus on a skateboard holding a bag of chips.
What would have made my family leave this place?
Originally, Roggiano Gravina was called Vergae, meaning “a fortified village.” Thousands of years ago, Roggianese townsfolk fought alongside the Greek general Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose costly defenses against invading Roman forces eventually led to the coining of the term a “Pyrrhic Victory,” or a victory that inflicts so much damage upon the victor that it is tantamount to defeat.
Like the rest of the Italian south, Roggiano Gravina was ruled by a host of foreign forces. The town’s website states: “the town subject to the domination of the Goths, the Longobards, the Saracens, the Normans, the Angevins, and the Aragonese. It was a fief of Pietro Paolo da Viterbo, Bernardino da Bisignano, Sanseverino, Ametrano, Cavalcanti and Sanseverino Conti della Saponara.”
It’s hard to say what the peasants would have thought about any of this. As one Calabrian ethnohistorian told me, most peasant folktales and proverbs have been acculturated over time. Furthermore, he said, in Calabria as late as 1859 an estimated 98% percent of the peasantry was illiterate.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that southern Italian writers, filmmakers and artists began to look back, imagine and make sense of what had happened.
In Revolt at Aspromonte, published in 1930, the Calabrian author Corrado Alvaro portrayed the feudal social realities that persisted in the wake of Italian unification.
A Calabrian shepherd named Argiro takes his young son down from the mountains where he is struck by village life — “a very strange invention, a protective agreement among people who were afraid” — to plead with their landowning master, who’s cows they tended which fell off a cliff to their death.
“Don’t talk to me about the hardships of your life in the mountains,” Argiro’s master says. “The animals feed themselves and walk on their own feet, don’t they. Shepherds have an easy time of it, I say.”
“Well, what’s done is done. Couldn’t you give me your pigs to look after or your sheep? My luck can’t always be so bad.”
“No more! Get along with you; I don’t want to see you again. I want nothing to do with you from now on.”
“But then I’m done for. You’re ruining me.”
“Very well, I’m ruining you.”
I can't say exactly what caused my family to leave Italy when they did, only that Italian immigration peaked in 1913, pulled by the promise of work elsewhere and pushed by a spike in land prices, an increase in birth rate and the first pangs of global economics, which devalued crop and grain prices.
In 1908, a massive earthquake struck between Sicily and the tip of Calabria. The cities of Reggio Calabria and Messina were destroyed, and an estimated 80,000 lives were lost, with aftershocks rumbling throughout the region for the following year. Perhaps this disaster served as a proximate cause for my family’s departure. Or perhaps it was famine. Who knows?
In 1910, my great grandparents Vincenzo Rotondaro and Maria Francesca Mazzie sailed out of Naples in the steerage section of a steam ship with three out of five of their children: Giuseppe, age 12, Augustino, age 10, and Angelo — my grandfather and namesake — age 4.
Their two daughters, Rosina, 6, and the eldest child, Maria Carmela, nicknamed “Carmelutz,” 14, stayed in Italy with their maternal grandparents as Rosina was considered too frail to make the journey.
Rosina remained in Italy for the next ten years, at one point hiding in a cave when World War broke out in 1917. Later on, at the age of 16, she joined her family in America where she was greeted at Ellis Island by her brothers “Joe” and “August.” The boys asked their little sister what she wanted as a welcome present. As the story goes, Rose asked for a green dress.
In Pittston, the family settled on James Street and stayed there for several years while saving money. Later, they bought a small house on Tedrick Street in a neighborhood filled with Irish and Italian immigrants. The house became the family homestead. Vincenzo worked the railroads; his sons worked the mines. Collectively they built room after room to accommodate the growing family, which ultimately numbered fourteen (with three dying in young adulthood).
For the first six years of his life in America, my grandfather attended grade school, which was an opportunity that almost certainly would not have existed for him in Calabria. In 1917, at the age of 11, he became a breaker boy.
Breaker boys were child laborers who separated rock from coal. The position served as an entryway into the mining profession, and offered children their first exposure to the inhalation of coal dust which would eventually result in Black Lung.
In 1911, the American sociologist and photographer Lewis Hine visited Pittston to take pictures of breaker boys, with famously somber expressions.
Entering the mines when he did, my grandfather witnessed the heyday of the anthracite industry, the Labor Wars, and the best of the immigrant rebellion against Super Capitalist exploitation. He also would have benefited from the formation of social and familial bonds that protected the immigrant mining communities, psychologically as well as emotionally.
My dad once told me: “My father used to get up at, Oh, I forget the hours, 3:30 or 4 o’clock in the morning. He would be out of the house and be heading toward the mines well before five o’clock; and back home again by three or four.”
“He would wash up, of course. He was just like any of them were, covered in coal. After washing up, he’d rest a little bit, and then, very, very often he would get in the car and go up a mile, a mile and a half, up to the next township, and visit his mother and father. And when I was a young boy, I would often go with him. He would do that practically every day, leaving the mines.”
“Content” is the word my father used to describe him.
“He was very content. If he had the option of doing something other than working in the mines, I’m sure he would have taken it. But it wasn’t anything he was ashamed of.”
“From my fathers point of view,” he said, “having a hard life, that was the way you provided well for your family. It wasn’t just a matter of putting food on the table; that was part of it. It was a question of — you could reach, you could aspire.”
In his off time, Grandpop gardened roses.
“He used to love roses,” my father said. “He was a gardener. He would go in the backyard, not that we had much room, but to me it was symbolic. Here was a guy who had the most brutal job imaginable. A job that was as dangerous as virtually any job in America, and he would come home and he would garden roses. He would raise roses. And it was that extra bit of beauty of his life that he needed. He got most of that, of course, from his family. But he also got it just by physically raising something that was beautiful. This was something he enjoyed immensely.”
Grandpop was politically astute. He read the paper every day, front to back. Somewhere along the way he befriended a local politician named Jimmy Musto who championed the cause of mining folk. Back in the 1920s and 30s, Musto served as a right hand man to the dynamic labor leader Rinaldo Cappeleni. Later, as a State Senator, he worked to secure the Black Lung pension fund, which my grandfather lived off of in retirement.
Grandpop would attend political clambakes wearing red, white and blue skimmer hats, where he’d drink beer and discuss the goings on of the Pittston Dems. Grandpop was cool. He liked dogs.
“He was a firm democrat,” my dad said. “He believed that Democrats were for the little people; they were for the working people. Republicans, he thought, they were for the big guys, they were for big business. My father told me on a couple of occasions, ‘I never met a Republican I liked.’”
Neither did he trust the Catholic church. Like many southern Italians, grandpop was deeply anticlerical. Didn’t care much for priests and didn’t give a shit what bishop so-and-so said about this or that. This stemmed from the terrible role that the church played in subjugating peasants back in Italy, my dad often said.
Grandmom was just the opposite — she attended mass daily. After retiring, grandpop would drive her to church every morning and sit in his car while she prayed. “Once a week is enough,” he used to say.
Missy remembered: “He threw a priest out of the house.”
“I was up at Mt. Carmel church,” she said. “Catechism class. Real strict nuns. I went in, and she told me to genuflect. I didn’t know what that meant. And she said, ‘Genuflect!’ And then she hit me! I ran out of the church and I ran home. And my father was there. It was right after he got out of the mines. I was nine or ten. He said, ‘What happened?’”
The priest followed her home.
“He came to the house with the nun,” Aunt Missy said. “My mother was in awe of the priests … My father picked up his cane and said, ‘You get the hell out of my house!’ And he threatened the nun. He threw them both out! My mother was so upset…”
Another trait my father got from grandpop was his habit of grabbing me close in public and shoving wads of cash into my hand.
As a general rule, mothers controlled the family pocket book in NEPA, and this was strictly followed in the Rotondaro household. But Grandpop would hide cash when he could and sneak it to his kids.
“He would do things like that,” Missy said. “The only way he had money was when he went shopping. He would keep the change and store it up. And when I got a little older, I said, ‘Daddy, where are you getting this money?’ And he told me. He said, ‘Now don’t you ever say anything. Don’t tell your mother! Don’t let her know!’”
“And then later on,” she said, “when he got older, your father started giving him money.”
Grandpop met my grandmother, Rose Bianco, at a dance in Pittston in the mid-1930’s. Weekend dances provided an excuse for the local youth to dress up and strike a note, and they jumped at the chance.
A picture from 1925 shows my grandfather with slicked back hair in a sleek looking suit with a starched dress shirt, a bow tie and a handkerchief, and a calm, confident gaze.
A colorized photo of my grandmother shows her wearing a fur shawl with blushing pink cheeks, a popping golden hair bracket, and glimmer in her eye.
It’s said that a local matchmaker named Carmen Donato introduced the two.
Rose was gabby and intelligent, American-born. An excellent, self taught pianist, she could pick up a tune at the drop of a hat. She outlived my grandfather by many years, dying on my sixteenth birthday in 1998. Unlike my grandfather, she graduated high school.
When grandpop asked grandmom to marry him, Philip Bianco, her father, wouldn’t have it. Philip thought the Rotondaros were beneath his family, literally, because they hailed from further south in Italy. Back in Italy, the Biancos came from the outskirts of Naples, 170 miles north of Roggiano Gravina. (Ridiculous, I know.)
The nuptial stalemate dragged on for years, with several heated arguments, before my grandfather showed just how serious he was by showing up at Philip Bianco’s house with a pistol.
The two were wedded on January 13th, 1937 at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church. Philip Bianco refused to attend the ceremony.
Once married, grandmom and grandpop moved in behind the Bianco’s on Defoe Street, where they lived a frugal life. Grandpop had become a certified miner by this point. Dad told me he worked as a blast operator, responsible for setting dynamite. Outside the mines, he was known as a skilled handyman. Anything around the house — electrical, carpentry, plumbing — he could do it, and neighbors frequently called on him for help with home improvements.
Grandmom Rose was a homemaker; sociable, with a knack for communication, and extremely loving toward her children. “But she had a terrible temper,” my Aunt Missy said. “She was the opposite of my father in that respect, I would think.” As my mother once put it, “You wouldn’t want to mess with her.”
Even still, with grandpop, as Aunt Missy said, “you couldn’t say one word against my mother. Ever. He was the most loyal person on earth.”
The two experienced their fair share of tragedy. Their first child, Vincent, died two months after being born. He never left the hospital. “Failure to thrive.”
Shortly after, my father was born. And then, three years later, along came Genie.
“They say he was brilliant,” Aunt Missy told me. “Before he could read, he knew every car. He knew every make and model. He knew all of that...They said he was just really, really intelligent.”
He was also mischievous. One of my father’s cousins, Annie Hrobak, who was Genie’s age, remembered: “Your father was quiet. Genie was the opposite of quiet, believe me. He was a mover and a shaker.”
Annie grew up in the old family homestead on Tederick Street with her divorced mother and her grandparents. She remembers my grandfather’s daily visits.
“Uncle Angelo would come visit everyday with Genie and your dad,” she told me. “And when your grandfather would come, Genie would get me in trouble.”
Back before there were malls or the Internet, traveling salesmen called hucksters would wander around crying out their wares and hauling big sacks of goods, filled with everything under the sun, including toys at Christmas, which my great grandmother bought and hid upstairs in a self-standing closet in her room.
“I would never think of even going in that room,” Annie said, “and then Genie comes and he decides to launch an investigation. It might have been November and we found the toys. Oh my God, they were not too happy.”
My father never told me too much about Genie, other than that he would have been my uncle. They looked a lot alike with their button noses and strong brows.
Brian Barrett remembered the day he died, on September 25th, 1948. “When I heard, I didn’t fully understand,” he said. Brian was only six years old at the time, just like Genie. As he heard it, Genie ran out on Williams Street chasing after an apple.
“He was on his bike,” Annie said. “Either the driver couldn’t see him, or it was a blind spot. But there was an article in the paper. The people were up in arms, because they knew this was a tragedy waiting to happen...They were trying to get a stop sign there or something.”
“Victim of Public Neglect,” read the Sunday Dispatch editorial.
“I remember my mom crying and being hysterical,” Annie said. “I remember my grandmother, who had already lost her grandson. It was a tragedy.”
One day at lunch at a wonderful Italian restaurant in Washington D.C. — A.V. Ristorante, now long gone — I asked my father what had happened. He told me that he had been fighting with Genie about who would get to ride their bike, and that Genie was trying to catch up to him and his friends when the car hit. Stricken, my dad kicked the bike in anger and ran away. His parents found him crying under a tree.
Genie was buried beside his brother in St. John’s Cemetery, and my grandparents fell deep into depression.
“My mother went really out of it for a while,” Missy said. “She would think that she would see him...My father was unable to work. He often said, ‘I couldn’t deal, I couldn’t deal.’ They were devastated.”
Other relatives tell me that my father’s namesake, his father’s youngest brother, Uncle Fred, swooped in to rescue my dad. Uncle Freddy took dad on road trips to Philadelphia where the two would visit family and go to the museums. A strong believer in education, he peaked my father's intellectual curiosity, and pushed him to read. I often wonder how my dad would have ended up without him.
In a relatively short amount of time, grandmom and grandpop pulled themselves out of it. What other choice did they have? A year and a half after Genie passed my Aunt Missy was born, and dad again became a big brother.
Tragedy struck again eleven years later, in 1959.
This was after my father had flunked his way through high school and was preparing to work in one of the area’s many factories — a canning factory, he once told me — before a nun at school went to his parents and said it would be a shame to waste his mind. She kept my dad after school after day, working to break his stutter, and he ended up enrolling at the University of Scranton.
The Knox Mine Disaster occurred halfway through his junior year, on January 22nd. “I can remember that day like it was yesterday,” he told me. “I was taking my midterms.”
The day began like any other, with Grandpop reporting for work at the Knox Coal Company’s River Slope mine in Port Griffith, PA, a short distance outside of Pittston.
As usual the men descended to their various workplaces: most to cut rock in the May Shaft; some to the bottom-most pit, known as Red Ash; others still to the River Slope section to complete a tunnel which would connect two veins of coal which ran underneath the Susquehanna River.
In the days prior, the temperature had risen causing the river to thaw and the tide to rise, sending massive chunks of ice downstream. Around 11:20 A.M. laborers reported hearing creaking and pops coming from the wooden beams that supported the mine roof. A sixty two-year-old Scottish-born foreman named Jack Williams was summoned to examine.
“I no more than put my foot in the place and looked up,” he later said, “than the roof gave way. It sounded like thunder.”
At the time there were little to no regulations barring mining near rivers. Pennsylvania mining laws were notoriously weak, and the Knox company had been operating the River Slope Mine for years, skirting whatever rules did exist and working with members close to the Buffalino crime family to ensure high profits.
An investigation into the disaster later found its “immediate cause in two illegal chambers and three connecting crosscuts dug under the river well past officially designated ‘stop lines,’” according to NEPA labor historian Robert Wolensky, writing in Voices of Knox Mine Disaster. When the Susquehanna broke through, the distance between the mine’s ceiling and the rushing water measured only 19 inches.
Wolensky asked: “Why would company officials and miner’s with years of experience take such risks?”
Greed provided one answer, he explained; weak mining laws another; scarcity another still, given the anthracite industry’s by-then inexorable decline and the shared need to produce between mine workers and owners. But no single factor set the stage for the Knox Disaster so much as the industry’s history of exploitation and the practice of subcontracting, which put company profit above all else.
When word came over the radio, Uncle Freddy ran to find my father. They raced down to the mines.
At the house on Defoe Street, “everybody was screaming,” Aunt Missy recalled. “I was upstairs playing with Roberta. I was nine years old...We came running down the steps and said ‘What happened?!’ They yelled: ‘The mines caved in!’”
By then the rescue efforts were already underway. A whirlpool churned in the river where the mine shaft roof had collapsed, engulfing giant plates of ice and massive flows of water. The whirlpool looked like a black hole, and for me has come to serve as a visual metaphor for the experience of pain itself.
As Wolensky writes: “Work crews toiled around the clock for three days to plug the cavity. They cut and bent the railroad tracks toward the river and used a railroad engine to push about sixty coal hopper cars — fifty-ton behemoths called gondolas — into the void.”
“During the peak of the emergency,” he writes, “an estimated 2.7 million gallons of water per minute streamed underground...In total, 10.37 billion gallons coursed into the River Slope and surrounding mines.”
Few understood the impact of the tragedy at the time, not only for those trapped underground, but for the anthracite industry itself. There would be no stopping the water from spreading from mine to mine. The damage would be final.
Lost inside the River Slope Mine, wading chest deep through darkness and ice water, Grandpop wandered with 25 other men.
Somewhere along the way his group had gotten separated from a band of men whose foreman had a map, which led them to an air shaft. Around 2 p.m., an immigrant Italian named Amadeo Pancotti made a perilous escape using the tips of his fingers to climb up and out of a 50-foot vertical pit. Rope was gathered and the group of six were the first to be rescued.
Down below, Grandpop and the others remained lost. Interviewed by Wolensky, Miner Joe Francik remembered: “Maybe it’s this way or that way, we just couldn’t find it. We just sat down and rested for a while, then you had your own thoughts. You know what them thoughts would be — about the family and what you do to get along, and will they be okay and so forth. And you just thought, that was it —you figured that you’re done.”
The rats were “the only thing that shook me up,” said George “Bucky” Mazur.
“My brother took about three or four sticks of dynamite and caps and the plunger,” he said. “He kept them with him. Then he said, ‘If we can’t get out we’re not gonna be eaten by rats.’ I said, ‘You gonna blow us up?’ He said, ‘If we don’t get out. You don’t wanna get eaten up by rats?’”
“So he was prepared to do that?” Wolensky asked.
“Yes he was,” said Mazur, “yes he was.”
Outside, darkness was beginning to fall.
“Relatives Huddle in Small Shanty to Await News of Their Loved Ones” ran a headline in the Wilkes-Barre Record.
Most remained in the shanty near the River Slope, approximately 400 feet away, crowding in a small room heated by a tiny coal stove and finding seats where they could among the machinery...
Here a woman stood with her young child in her arms and there two or three men, dressed in working clothes, spoke quietly about the disaster. In a corner, seated on a crude wooden bench, a group of women sat silent, some with wet eyes and others staring into space. In this building, the full impact of the tragedy could be felt...
The cry of ‘They’re bringing one out,’ signaled a rush from the building and each rescued miner was surrounded by anxious relatives seeking word about the others.
‘Who is it?’ one woman anxiously queried from the edge of the crowd, pushing her way to the rescued miner. Another grabbed him by the arm and asked if he had seen her husband.
‘I don’t know anything. Let me through,’ the miner replied, the horror of his experience written on his face.
One elderly miner cried like a baby when he was pulled to safety from the air shaft. Most said nothing.
When my father and his family got word that another group had been saved, they rushed to Piston Hospital. “We didn’t know who had been rescued,” he said. “And when we got there, we found him.”
He was still clothed and covered in coal. A nurse had tried to get him to take his shirt off so he could wash him, but he refused out of modesty. “Not till my wife comes,” he said.
“He was one of the last ones they found,” Missy said. “And he told me later, he said, ‘The water was getting higher and higher and we kept going up and up. We thought we were going to drown.’ And he told me — he told me that he was thinking of Genie.”
“‘I kept seeing him...’”
It was the last day my grandfather ever worked in the mines.
In the end, twelve miners died. Their bodies were never recovered. It was a miracle that more didn’t perish considering the scope of the disaster, which marked the end of deep mining in NEPA, as the water spread underground, and as scores of indictments exposed the role that the Knox Mine owners, corrupt labor reps and mafia played in precipitating the tragedy.
As Wolensky writes: “For many people Knox has come to represent the exploitative mining and employment practices of the entire hard coal business…It signifies a feudal economic past, ‘a state called Anthracite,’ where the powerful owners and their agents ruled over the weaker workers and their families in all aspects of life — employment, housing, politics, consumption, and even death.”
Back at home “we stayed up, very, very late,” my dad told me. “I remember we sat around. The family was there obviously. My father wasn’t physically injured despite all that he had been through. We had some drinks and I went to bed, Oh, I remember, somewhere about 2 o’clock, or 3 o’clock in the morning.”
The next day dad went to take his final exam. “It was from a teacher named Frank Brown, who I had had five times. I had gotten four Bs from the guy, never could get an A. I walked in, obviously not giving a damn about how I’d do, and I just aced it.”
“It was wonderful,” he said. “I mean, the brain was flowing so easily.”