Today is the 100th anniversary of my father’s birth.
What you see above is the earliest picture we have of him. It is 1933, and he is 19 years old and at a CCC camp in Northern Idaho –a place where they sent young, city men whose families were destitute and who, in the Great Depression, had no hope of finding jobs. They built the infrastructure still in use in the United States National Parks. No earlier picture of Sam exists because his parents could not afford to have their children photographed.
Sam was born Salvatore Francesco Puglisi in the coalfields of Western Pennsylvania. His father—Andrea—was a miner. His mother Concetta Bruno bore six children, kept a cow and chickens, raised vegetables, and was required to keep house for five other Italian-speaking coal miners in exchange for the privilege of living with her husband and children in mine-owned housing.
Sam’s earliest memory was of the influenza epidemic of 1917-18. He recalled standing in the doorway of his mother and father’s bedroom, while a cart went up and down the town’s only street, carrying away the bodies of the fallen. Sam watched his mother, lying on the old iron bedstead, nursing two children whose mothers had died. Her own youngest lay between her knees and tears streamed down her cheeks.
When he was six or seven, he hid in that bedroom with his mother and his siblings, while his father sat guard outside the door with his hunting rifle and a shotgun across his lap. Outside the window, on the hills, the Ku Klux Klan were burning crosses, threatening the immigrants, the Catholics who worked in the mine, and their families.
At some point, perhaps at his father’s immigration, the spelling of our family name was changed to Puglise. When Sam went to school, his teachers decided that Salvatore Francesco was not a nice American name and changed it to Samuel Frank. He lived with that name for the rest of his life.
When he was nine, his beloved father died. Coal miners don’t live long. The mining company put Concetta and her six children, ranging in age from 2 to 14, and her meager belongings on a wagon and drove them to the edge of the “town,” which was in the middle of a woods. They left her there.
Concetta moved the family to Paterson, New Jersey, where there was a group of people from her village on the outskirts of Siracusa in Sicily. Sam’s oldest brother Paul, aged 14, went to work in the silk mills and took over support of the family. Sam never went back to school.
After his stint in the CCC camp, Sam returned to Paterson and met the love of his life—Annamaria Pisacane. They both looked like movie stars. Here they are on their wedding day:
When World War II broke out, they had two children, but Sam volunteered. Many first generation Italian-Americans felt they had to prove that, though the Fascist government of Italy was the enemy, Italian immigrants were loyal to the USA. He joined the Marines and fought in many of the most brutal battles of the Pacific—Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Saipan. His brother Paul, who had supported the family and been an Olympic wrestler was too old for combat, but he joined the CBs (Construction Battalions) and went to the Pacific to build airstrips on islands once the Japanese had been ousted. When Sam found out that Paul was on Saipan, he charmed his battalion commander into getting him onto a transport plane so he could go from Okinawa to Saipan for a visit with his brother. That is SUCH a Sicilian thing to do!
After V-J Day, Sam’s unit was assigned to go to Tsingtao, China were the Americans accepted the Japanese surrender. There were 70,000 Japanese soldiers in China. Repatriating them was a slow process. Sam found himself walking guard duty at a prison camp. There were not enough Marines to do the job. The Chinese were, rightly many would say, in the mood to slit the throats of the beastly soldiers who had tortured and murdered their relatives. To keep the Japanese safe, the Americans rearmed the Japanese officers, and Sam wound up walking the perimeter barbed wire with armed Japanese. “Imagine that, Sweetie,” he said to me. “Two weeks before we were trying to kill one another. Now, we were working together as armed guards.”
After Sam came home, despite working two jobs to support his family, he used the GI Bill to get a high school equivalency diploma and even managed two years of college. Through his life he never stopped studying and learning.
He was very proud to work on parts for the Space Shuttle.
His favorite pastime was trout fishing.
And he liked dancing.
And in his later years, to play golf.
He loved his family. And everyone loved him. And I mean everyone. And everyone, including his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, called him Sam.
He said he only regretted one thing—smoking cigarettes. He died of complications of emphysema at the age of 94.
He still looked like a movie star.