If I Invited You to Dinner…
Uncle Johnny (Cambino) carving the Thanksgiving turkey!
While pondering a post on “inviting you to dinner“… nothing jumped out at me… until I came across a package of saved notes and scribbled stories I’d saved… and had almost threw out in cleaning. Even though I had written stories from those papers… I hadn’t found the courage yet to toss! As I sat down to look through the package, once more before trashing, it wasn’t long into my “looking”…. when those notes talked to me and gave me my “inviting you to dinner” story. Things “Do” talk to you… take the time to listen!
The notes and scribbles
My “dinner invitation” is extended to all in our Cambino/DeTulio/Insalaco family… those who have told me their stories… and those scribbled notes of their stories are what I’m sharing with you around my table. They told them to me, now they are dining at my table, to tell them to you!
Dinner is served!
I’d like to first introduce my mother-in-law, Cecelia (Cambino) Insalaco… why is she first to tell her story at the table? Well, all who knew Celia… knows, that if she’s not first to tell her stories, then we’ll hear later how someone took her seat at the table and how she should have been first! That was always her words… especially in a card game!
Celia: “When I was small I remember only having kerosene lamps for light at the farm – there was no electricity there when we were young. Mama often took our clothes to wash at Daddy’s barber shop on Washington Avenue, because there, he had electricity.”
“During the Flood of 1938, my father (Joseph Cambino), closed his barber shop early that day to pick me up at school… I was only ten years old, but I remember him coming to bring me home… it was so rainy and windy. Many of the roads were already flooded, but he found a way to get us home. My father and I were a lot alike… I could always talk to him.”
“I have many memories of listening to the radio with my mother and sisters – we all listened to the 15-minute soap serial “As The World Turns; it was Mama’s favorite show, and later when it came on TV, she continued watching for years.”
“My father had an older car with a rumble seat, where I loved to ride when he took us to Savin Rock. He often took us on Sunday afternoons to get ice cream and Mama would sit in the car listening to the laugh of the “laughing lady” at the Death Valley funhouse. I remember always crying whenever he made me ride the “flying horses” on the carousel. Why I was afraid, I don’t know, but I’d cry whenever they made me climb up on those painted horses that went up and down. I wonder where they all ended up… probably worth a lot of money now.”
“When I first married in 1947, we lived in a cold-water flat on Water St. in New Haven; it was a small apartment. I remember hearing the fish, ice and rag man making their calls as they came around to the apartments. You knew they were coming when you heard their words in various Italian dialects sing out as they walked through the neighborhoods.”
After every holiday meal, Grandma Minnie brought out the “put and take” dice for a family game! I”m sure the dice are still rolling around their table in heaven!
One of the most colorful characters at my table today is Uncle Johnny Cambino… and he’s never without stories!
Johnny: “I remember everything that happened to me when I was young! I was about four or five when I fell into the spring well near our farm. I don’t know what I was trying to get, but I leaned over… and fell in. I was half under the water with just the ‘tips’ of my hands hanging over the edge when Mama found me. How she knew where I was, I’ll never know, except just chalking it up to a mother’s instinct. But suddenly she had missed me around the house and ran all the way down to the spring to see my fingers hanging over the edge. They told me later how she jumped in to rescue me, and then they had to rescue her. After she brought me back to the house, my grandmother held me upside down so all the water I had swallowed, drained out. Mama told me later that she thought about the spring when I was missing because I always went with her to fill the water pails.”
“I always liked water – and I loved to swim at Lake Phipps. I’d often climb a tree near the edge of the bank, probably up about 50-75 feet, and dive right into the water. I wasn’t afraid of anything! One time the limb bounced me too close to the edge and I landed more on the bank than the water.”
“We had a tree at the farm called “The Tarzan Tree”… so named after going to the circus and watching too many Tarzan movies. Frankie and I hung a thick rope on that tree, which was right under the big rocks… we’d swing the rope out, and when it came back, we grabbed it to swing to the next tree… just like we’d seen on TV and at the circus. One day I swung out and the rope broke, and down I went on the rocks. Boy did that hurt! When I went home Mama and my grandmother used one of their home remedies on me – no one ran to the Dr. back then… and they didn’t dare tell my father either. Mama got plenty of eggs, and cracked them to separate the whites… then she took a white bed-sheet, tore it in strips and dipped them in the beaten egg whites. She wrapped the strips all around my wrists, and after drying, they were hard as a rock; an old remedy for a cast. When my father came home, he was told that the cow had kicked me; they never told him what really happened. If he knew I’d fallen from the Tarzan Tree, I would have gotten a beating,.. broken wrists or not… that was just how it was!”
“Another one of the many beatings that came my way, was the time I came home late one Friday night. I had been at Savin Rock watching the midgets race… and they had finished late that night. About midnight, I heard the fire trucks and soon saw billowing smoke and fire rising up, just down the road. I walked down to see what was going on and saw that the Virginia Reel roller coaster was on fire. I knew I wasn’t going home then – I wanted to watch! It was a huge fire, with the fire burning high up into the sky. I got home about two in the morning that night, and when I walked in… the “old man” was waiting for me! I knew I’d get a beating when I got home, but I was used to them, and what a beating I got, but I didn’t care – it was worth watching that fire burn!”
“I pulled a kid once from under the ice at Eddie Voss’s pond. He fell through the ice and I just reached in and grabbed him. If I hadn’t caught hold of him the first time, I would never have found him; I don’t remember how I even happened to be there that day.”
“My brother, Frank, and I always arm wrestled everyone in the neighborhood; no one ever beat us… my arms were big… everyone told me I had ‘Popeye’ arms! If you look at the old pictures of me in the race cars you can see how big they actually were. It was a lot of hard work pulling on those steering wheels.”
“Frankie and I had two pet black crows on the farm. We took them out of a nest when they were young and raised them. When they were older they lived outside, and I’d open the pantry window and yell ‘caw, caw’ – and those two birds came flying right inside. I fed them raw chopped meat – they could eat a pound of meat in no time… gobbling it right up! My bird’s name was ‘Nigal’ (Nick)… I don’t remember what Frank’s was called. One day his didn’t come home, then later mine disappeared… maybe they went off to start their own family.”
“Daddy had many chickens on the farm. The old man had to cut their beaks straight across, making them flat, because they pecked the eggs with their pointed beaks and was breaking them – he solved that. The ‘old man’ was tough! My father knew everything about farming.”
“I stopped at Flo’s Pet Shop in Milford one day and saw a spider monkey, and I thought he was the cutest thing I’d ever seen… I bought him for ‘fifty dollars.’ In the early 50’s that was a lot of money! I named him Squeaks and kept him in the garage where my racing car was kept. I had a kerosene stove in the garage that I burned in the winter to keep him warm; I spent a lot of money on heat for him. Sometimes I’d find Squeaks in the morning shivering with blue lips if the stove went out at night, so Jennie Downs made him a little coat to wear; we even took him to the race track a couple of times. As he got older, he developed rheumatism in one of his legs and would drag it along when he walked. A few years later the neighbor’s dog, a German shepherd, grabbed and killed him. I don’t remember how long I had him, but it was quite a while.”
Aunt Catherine (Cambino-Donahue) is next at the table, and while she’s never been flamboyant like her siblings… being often the quieter one… she did tell me stories.
Catherine: “I’ll never forget when my sister, Nancy, was almost run over by Ralph Camputaro’s ice trunk. Nancy had gone to the back of the truck to get ice chips while he delivered inside. Our driveway was on a hill, and as she stood behind the truck it began rolling. In looking out the window, I saw the truck rolling backward with Nancy holding onto the back bumper… and I started yelling that the truck was rolling over Nancy. Ralph ran out and caught the truck just in time, but that didn’t save me from getting a beating from my father when he heard… he said I should have been watching her.”
“I was just seventeen when I went to work at Winchester after graduation, but I soon walked out after they went on strike during the war; later I went to work at the Armstrong Rubber Company. One day there were a few men washing windows outside our building, and one of the women I worked with told them that I wanted my windows washed at home, but it wasn’t true. Later, one of the men called me, and after a few calls, he asked me for a date – his name was Jim Donahue. Jimmy had recently moved to Hamden from Maine and was staying with his brother when he had gotten a job as a window washer at Armstrong.”
“Two years later Jimmy and I married and moved into a trailer on Beach St; we had bought it for 800 hundred dollars on sale… paying way more than it was worth. We lived across from the beach in the only trailer park there and many are still there today… even though they had then said we all had to sell and leave. We sold our trailer about 4 years later for 200 hundred dollars… the couch I left was worth more than the money we sold the trailer for. While living there, we had no toilet in the trailer and had to use the bathroom across the street at the beach. Jimmy later built me an outside type shower, and eventually brought running water inside the trailer.”
“One summer, while living in the trailer park, a woman lived next door to us who was called the “elephant woman.” She was part of the freak show at Savin Rock and had skin that looked like elephant skin. I always thought it was fake because her hands looked so nice and when I mentioned that once, she said, “oh I just peel that skin off!”
I’m sure Aunt Mary (DeTulio-Pompone) is sitting next to Catherine and most likely there is a plate of creme puffs on the table… a signature dish of Aunt Mary’s.
Mary: “My sister’s, JoJo and Lucy, often ‘borrowed’ my clothes – and usually without my knowledge! I had a red dress that Lucy loved to wear – and being a little ‘larger’ than I was – it always came back split under the arms. I was so mad – and one day I just ripped it up so she couldn’t wear it anymore; I had a lot of nice clothes. Every year I bought myself a new coat… one outfit I really loved was my yellow plaid suit and Panama hat; they were in style at the time. When I was old enough to work, I spent most of my money on clothes. I loved clothes… and often shopped at the nice stores downtown in New Haven for most of them.” (Maybe Aunt Mary wore her Panama hat to dinner)
“When we were young, my brother’s and sister’s often had singing contests on Saturday night at our house. I loved to sing and often sang at many events. As a young girl, I was an excellent swimmer too… my brother, Mikie, and I would swim at the reservoir all the time. I was never afraid to swim anywhere when I was young.”
“I worked at Brewster’s in New Haven – a shirt factory on Franklin Street. I’d get up at three in the morning to get there for my five o’clock shift, and during the war, I worked at an airplane factory… working inside a caged area giving out parts to the employees.”
The last of the Cambino brothers, Frankie, was also another great storyteller. Just recently we came across a video my son made several years ago and were treated to hearing jokes and the song he loved to sing… Smoke, Smoke, Smoke that Cigarette!
Frankie: “I built several things from Popular Mechanic magazines when I was young. Once I even made a deep-sea diving helmet… it was a helmet attached to a hot water bottle which held the air, with a snorkel mask worn under the helmet. My brother, Johnny, and I went out in the rowboat to test it. Johnny put on the helmet and tied heavy chains around his body to weigh himself down… I had a pump in the boat that I pumped up and down really fast to supply him with air. Johnny went down about 20 feet… stayed a while, and suddenly came shooting up fast because he’d run out of air. I later went out with a friend to try it again, and he also tied the heavy chains around himself. They weighed him down so much that he almost drowned trying to get back to the surface. Another project was a robot ashtray that stood about three feet high and had two light bulbs for eyes; you put your cigarette out in his hand, and its eyes lit up. I also built a wooden donkey that held a pack of cigarettes – when you lifted the tail, a cigarette came out the back end. If only we had pictures!”
“I was at Voss’s pond one cold winter afternoon when one of the boys fell through the ice… I quickly reached down with my hand… he grabbed on and I pulled him up. I should have gotten a medal for that, but no one ever said anything.” (When Frankie told us this, we laughed as he and Johnny both had the same “remembrance”… so who really was the hero… or did they both save someone different?)
“My father was a barber in the Army… maybe even trained there, as when he came out of service, he was already a barber; it wasn’t long afterward when he opened a barbershop. He always wanted me to become a barber, but after discovering that I’d have to go to Hartford every day to school, I told him “no way.” After he closed his barber shop on Washington Avenue, I wanted the barber pole he had on the front of the store, but somebody stole it before I went there.”
“We all gambled in the family, but not my father. One day I asked him why he didn’t gamble and he said, “there was a statue on the green in the town I lived in, in Italy. The statue of the man wore just a barrel and there was a sign that read “Look at me now – I always won!” He told me and Johnny that… was why he never gambled!”
“I remember going to Bridgeport once with Georgie Greco to a gambling game. We went to this place with a heavy door… he knocked on the door – a little window opened on the door, and Georgie gave a code that allowed us to enter. You could throw the bones (dice) there and gamble with cards, but while sitting at a table, the cops came. They had a battering ram that busted through that large heavy door we had just entered through. Before they got inside, the dice was flushed down the toilet and gambling items were hid above the drop ceiling; they told everyone to say that we were playing pinochle. After the cops swarmed in they called us in the office one by one. I told them I was just playing a game of pinochle with friends. They made me empty my pockets – I had eighty dollars on me… they took all my money. Later they called the paddy wagon and hauled us all in. The bail bondsmen came the next morning and as he was paying our bail, he said to us on the side – “big game on tonight!”
“After I got home the next morning, the old man asked why I didn’t come home last night… and I just told him I had been out with the guys. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t a young boy anymore, he would have beat me if he’d known. I remember one beating he gave me with a doubled-up wire coat hanger… I scrambled up a tree to get away from him.”
“I wish I had pictures of all the things I’ve built through my life like you (Jeanne)… you take pictures of everything. I also built a beauty of a speedboat once – and almost died in it while out near the breakers. There was a young boy with me and it took all my might to get us back in… as the boat bounced against the waves while taking on water. I really thought I was going to die that day.”
“When I went into the Army I put down construction as what I wanted. Eventually, they sent me to school and I was given a diploma from the Army Engineer Core. Before I shipped out, we waited in boot camp daily to hear our names called. Every day they called names and shipped out guys. There was a war going on when I went in, but before I went to Korea, the war ended. Going to the front lines with a gun in my hand was not where I had really wanted to be. I remember walking down to the airport on base to watch the older bubble-top helicopters take off and land – and I so wanted to be able to fly one of them. Finally, my name was called and I left for Korea.”
“I soon became the assistant company carpenter while in Korea… even building a water tower there. After the company carpenter left, I became the head carpenter. I built the platoon leader a set of chairs with bent wood – they were beautiful! A commander came by one day and when he saw them he asked me to build him a set. I had a jacket full of medals by the time I left for home. I was a perfect marksman; I had always wanted to be a sniper while in the Army.” (I never saw any of Frankie’s medals… so wish I had asked him more about them)
One of my favorite storytellers who always had my ear was my father-in-law Steve Insalaco. I spent many hours listening to him tell me his stories… of his childhood, school, and serving in the Army Air-Core. I never tired of listening… often wishing I could have had those conversations with my own father.
Steve: “When I was about eight years old, and in the 3rd grade, I began working for the local family-owned Bogen’s Grocery Store – and I continued to work there until I was around seventeen. The store was very convenient to our house… located just next door. I stocked shelves and delivered groceries to many families in the area, making deliveries by foot or bicycle… later I used my car for deliveries. Most families tipped me five to fifteen cents for the delivery of their groceries. I often made about thirty cents a day and around $3.00 dollars a week in tips.”
“I rode my bicycle up Rt. 34 to Armor Meats (now Deerfield Meats) to pick up meat orders for the grocery store. At that time, Rt. 34 was only a one-sided road; both lanes were on one side, not separated like today. There were trolley tracks on the other side, which ran from Derby to New Haven. About 1940, they removed the tracks and built two lanes… now Rt. 34 has two lanes on each side.”
“I never graduated from high school because I was offered a full-time job around 1937 at the Sanford & Shelton Tack Co. on Canal St. – they made nails. Full-time jobs were hard to come by, and if you were lucky enough to find one, no matter what type of job it was, it usually meant quitting school to take it.”
“My family lived in several apartments throughout Shelton before buying their first house at 107 Kneen St. in 1942. While living there, my father was laid off from Bloomenthol’s. He began raising chickens and growing vegetables to sell as a source of income to feed the family. My mother, Giacinta, went to work to help supplement the family income. She found work at a shirt factory in Derby, where she ironed and packaged shirts… walking three miles back and forth to work every day.”
“I enlisted in the Army-Air Force on July 21, 1942, in Hartford, CT., and left on August 21, 1942, for boot camp at Fort Meyers, Tampa, Florida. The one thing I never forgot was my TI (Training Instructor) at boot camp and how he resembled the actor, Lee Marvin. When I first saw Lee Marvin on stage after I came home, I thought that he must have been my TI from boot camp… in remembering his voice and mannerisms; they were the same as the TI.” (Lee Marvin did not serve in the Army Air-Corp – he served in the Marines.)
I’m sure there are many other family members gathered around this table listening to their stories and telling more… what conversations we are missing out on! And whoever knew these characters… you know they’re still fussing and fighting over stories… as to who “really” said what!
I hope you have enjoyed my “invitation to dinner”… and because of it… they have now been able to tell you “their” stories… told to me, many years ago.
Like to read more Family Stories, click over HERE.
© 2020, copyright Jeanne Bryan Insalaco; all rights reserved