Pioneering Immigrants

By Ron Ciancutti

Carmine leaned on the railing as the cold, black waters of New York Harbor swirled around the boat.  The Great Lady on Ellis Island stood with her torch blazing and welcoming words at her feet (that he could not read), and the first thing he noticed was she was smaller than he thought, smaller than the pictures he had seen and simply not “such a big thing.” “Really something, eh, Carmine?” the guy next to him said.  Not wanting to look any different than anyone else, he nodded and smiled, “Yeah, really something.”

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He filed off the boat, went through his physical, and was handed a stack of papers he stuffed into the one bag he had carried from Italy. As he took his first steps on American soil, he was overwhelmed by the busyness of this strange new land—sounds and smells he had never detected before, along with a general hum of activity he could barely tolerate. How he wanted to get back on the boat and return to Mother Italy, where the citrus groves graced the air from the mountains only to be met by the pungent smell of fresh fish on ice in the market for someone’s lunch or dinner; he would always miss home. Somehow, above the din, he noted a familiar Italian dialect and looked about the crowd for that welcome sound. He’d been told to meet a family friend upon arrival through a letter exchange months before. Would the friend remember that today was the day? Was this him? Did his whole existence really hang by such a thread? It did, and luckily enough there was Alberto, much grayer and clearly heavier than Carmine remembered. They embraced and Carmine felt a rush of relief for the first time since climbing on that boat, hoping against hope he would be well received in the new land and not set adrift to find his way alone like in so many stories his predecessors had told.

“Ah, Carmine,” Alberto said, “tonight you stay with my wife and me, and I take you to the carpenter tomorrow to see if he has work for you.” Carmine nodded gratefully. It was clearly a time to do what his father said: “Listen more than talk. That’s how you learn.”

Alberto’s wife had prepared a bountiful meal, and her coffee was just like the rich blend he enjoyed at home. There was talk about the possibilities of other jobs down on the dock, but Alberto warned that those were for the “Day-Goers.” These were the men selected to work “day by day.” Eventually, they would come to be called “Da-Gos,” and that term became synonymous with Italians, as so many of the workers were indeed from the Mother Land.

A Promising Future
The following morning, Alberto introduced Carmine to Pasquale, and a look was exchanged that gave Carmine great assurance. This Pasquale was a good man. He said, “Carmine, you come on the job this week and make yourself useful, then I see what I do with you.” Alberto smiled, a wage was discussed, and before long he was smiling even more. Nodding, he turned to Carmine and said, “Follow Pasquale, he’ll get you started, and I’ll pick you up here at 6:00 tonight.” Carmine pumped Pasquale’s hand and lined right up.

He immediately got busy. The crew was adding a room to a small factory, and Carmine immediately saw the job was in great disarray. He found loose nails, tools, and other items strewn about the floor. He decided to sweep the whole floor so the job took on a more complete look, not so sloppy. He resurrected old buckets and filed similar items accordingly. Then he stood in the middle of the room and waited for anyone on a ladder to call to him so they didn’t have to fetch their own tools and slow the job down. Fairly soon, the carpenters were calling him by name. “Carmine, bring me that level, please.” “Carmine, where are those long nails? I need a dozen.”  Carmine ran from station to station, and progress on the job was noticeably increasing.

Around noon, Pasquale walked over and saw the improvement, noting the only difference was Carmine. After six months, Carmine was brought into the office where Pasquale handed him a new pair of overalls and a tool box filled with shiny tools. “Carmine, today you will be known as a carpenter, no longer an apprentice. Your wage has doubled, and you will have your own crew. We are very proud of you.” Carmine could barely fight back the tears, and in his broken English he uttered, “Pasian, I thank you and I keepa maka you proud.”  Pasquale put an arm around him and beamed, “I know you will.”

Fit For A Family
The years passed and Carmine went on to become a master carpenter. He chose an Italian wife, had four children with her, and then much later settled into their home that Carmine had built himself in the hours after working every day. He included a sunken room that sat 20 people at a long sectional table that he had built as well. As more family arrived in the states, they came to know Sunday dinner was always at Carmine’s, and his children grew up rich in the traditions of the old country with family all around. How much family business would be settled and worked out at that table. Carmine’s children learned:

  • Allowing problems to settle an extra day sometimes makes them lighter and easier to handle.
  • Things said in haste or anger may need to be forgiven; consider an apology.
  • People may not see things your way. That doesn’t make them wrong, just different.
  • People may not have your skills; everyone is doing the best they can.
  • Patience should be in all things; react slowly, consider carefully, blame with reservation.
  • You and you alone are responsible for the amount of excitement or reaction you create.

Most Americans come from immigrant parents or grandparents, and we have benefited from the life experiences they endured while trying to make life better for those who came behind them. The immigrants had no choice so they prevailed, stubbornly refusing to accept failure. In May 2018, our family lost one of the stalwart elders of the clan. He succumbed to a body that just decided to quit after almost 90 useful years. With him went the last of many great stories and traditions of the past. For those of us who are the children and grandchildren of those icons, it is sad to recall how we respected and honored them as we know such absolute “worship” will never be duplicated by our own offspring. There was a heroic glow about those family “pioneers” and the awe-inspiring battles they fought to clear the path for future generations. How much we owe to their spirit and courage is the stuff dreams are made of. Thank God.

Ron Ciancutti has worked in the parks and recreation industry since he was 16 years old, covering everything from maintenance, operations, engineering, surveying, park management, design, planning, recreation, and finance. He holds a B.S. in Business from Bowling Green State University and an M.B.A. from Baldwin Wallace University. He has held his current position as Director of Procurement since 1990. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at ron@northstarpubs.com.