Originally published in the June 21, 2015 Charleston Gazette-Mail
By Douglas Imbrogno
Who was your father? Maybe your dad is still alive. So, it’s a present-tense question for you. But my dad died at age 79 a decade ago, on a frigid January day at an assisted-living home in Cincinnati.
Dads are complicated figures for some of us. Or maybe most of us. I’ve been wrestling with my dad, figuratively, most of my life.
A couple of friends have described their dads as “rageaholics.” I wouldn’t go so far as to stick my dad with that label, for he had a soft heart, although he did routinely rage around the house, which could obscure that fact.
But I have already written that story and how this spindly young boy was affected by his regular house-rattling battles with my mother and — once the late ’60s and ’70s hit town — with my older brother and sisters. (You can read that rather raw piece, “Happy Again,” at former Gazette writer Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher’s online magazine, Longridge Review.)
My dad was doubtless deeply affected himself by house-rattling battles of his immigrant Italian upbringing. But on this Father’s Day, I am more interested in other facets of the man, including the ones his six kids loved and appreciate to this day.
Each child in a multi-child family grows up with a different experience of their father. All I have is a bunch of fragments to work with, partly drawn from a scrapbook of key papers from his life. I also asked for a little help from my five brothers and sisters.
Maybe the pieces will yield a partial mosaic of one father as not just a sometimes imposing, sometimes scary, sometimes lovable dad.
But as a person and a man.
My father was born Sept. 21, 1925, in a stone house on a steep hillside in the commune of San Pietro in Guarano, in the southern Italian province of Cozenza in Calabria, Italy. He was christened Duilio Faust Imbrogno. Two things would happen to that name over the course of his life.
The first name first. Duilio derives from ancient Rome. A third century B.C. Roman Empire admiral and politician named Gaius Duilius was so esteemed that when in Rome he was accorded the honor of being accompanied by a torch bearer and flute player when he went out at night.
No less than four Italian battleships have been christened Duilio, including the World War I battleship Caio Duilio named after that Roman admiral, up to the Italian destroyer Caio Duilio, commissioned in 2009.
I had to smile when my Web research turned up these facts, given the many household battles I saw growing up.
In fact, we believe my father was not named after any of these battleships, but perhaps after the S.S. Duilio, the first Italian super ocean liner, which made its maiden voyage Oct. 29, 1923, from Naples to New York.
This makes sense, as Naples is about four hours northeast of the hillside where my Dad was born. The name of Italy’s greatest ocean-going vessel of the time — its Queen Mary, you might say — must have made its way into the Calabrian heartland and made itself known to my grandparents, Eugenio and Caterina Imbrogno. Or maybe they just liked the sound of the Italian boy’s name.
My older brother, David, and I visited that hillside some years ago, standing amid its licorice-scented wild fennel, sweet-smelling pink roses and olive tree groves. It is still dotted with three old stone family houses, at the top, middle and bottom of the hill. Caterina Napoli lived in the uppermost house; Eugenio Imbrogno’s family moved into the house at bottom.
My future grandparents must have met in the middle. We’re not entirely certain in which house their black-haired, dark-eyed third son was born (we think the lower one). But when they cast about for a name, they, in effect, looked out at sea.
And like the ship that bore his name, young Duilio would soon float off across the Atlantic from the port of Naples too.
Eugenio, like many Italian men of his day, first went alone to America, in 1922 at the age of 24, to find a foothold for his family in the New Country. Grandpa Gene, as his grandchildren would come to call him, found that foothold on the shores of Lake Erie in Lorain, Ohio, first working in the steel mills, then starting the Imbrogno Service Station, to which he devoted his hard-working life. The gas station would be the engine that powered the family’s growth.
First, he summoned his family from the Old Country. I have a copy of my dad’s certificate of citizenship. It says he was made a citizen of the United States of America on Sept. 9, 1929.
That means that my Grandma Catherine, at the tender age of 30, gathered up the couple’s three boys, Luigi, 7, Edoardo, 6, and Duilio, 3, and headed for Naples. That was the point of departure for so many southern Italian families seeking new lives, in passenger ships that routinely packed thousands of people on board.
So, across the choppy Atlantic, the four of them sailed that September, in a passage that took their ship about nine days.
The family was poor. The trip was likely not much fun, the nights no doubt endured below deck in cramped steerage, pots and pans for bathroom facilities, while wealthier passengers traveled on the upper decks. I recall what another son of Italy once said of the breed’s toughness: “Italians are made of nails.”
Through Ellis Island computer records, I found a record of the boat my grandfather came over on — the Giuseppe Verdi. The passenger ship was later sold to Japanese owners, renamed the Yamato Maru and was torpedoed and sunk by a U.S. submarine in the Philippines in 1943, according to ItalianGeneology.com.
My dad came over on a liner called the S.S. Conte Grande, capable of carrying nearly 7,800 passengers. He, his brothers and my Grandma Catherine arrived in New York Sept. 9, 1929. All I can do is conjure an image of a 3-year-old Italian hillbilly child, peering through a railing, staring in absolute wonder at the Statue of Liberty as America hove into view.
Many years later, when they were offering immigrant memorials for sale — names inscribed on a Wall of Honor — to help raise cash to refurbish Ellis Island, we bought one in my dad’s name, as did a cousin in honor of my dad’s older brother, Ed.
I’ve yet to see the two “Imbrogno” names on the memorial wall in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, but it’s on our family’s bucket list. I have to wonder if the names are inscribed anywhere near where my father took his first hesitant steps forward into this strange place called America.
My father grew up in the New Country under Old Country discipline. He never talked much about it, but the stern, disciplinarian hand of his own father did not sound like much fun either.
The earliest way out of the house was through the Merchant Marine, and at age 17 my dad was gone. He dropped out of Lorain High School in 11th grade and never finished there. My father again took to the Atlantic, out of Sheepshead Bay in New York, as a seaman in the U.S. Maritime Service from 1943 to 1945.
Little did he realize there was a torpedo awaiting him and his shipmates in the middle Atlantic. It was World War II and German submarine “wolf packs” prowled the ocean, intent on disrupting Allied convoy supply lines between America and Europe.
My dad’s wartime experiences, like many men of his “Greatest Generation,” had to be coaxed out of him or are revealed only by the papers he kept.
For instance, he kept an official 1943 certificate that shows a drawing of men rowing in a heaving sea. The document declared my father was proficient in launching lifeboats and the use of oars and was “hereby rated an efficient Lifeboat Man.”
A notation in his papers indicates that with the Merchant Marine he traveled to Brazil, Panama, the Dutch West Indies and Puerto Rico, where he once mentioned he’d hitchhiked across the island, part of the way in a donkey cart.
It was easy enough to have him tell these easier stories. There was the night they were traveling in a dark convoy of ships, lights out, to hide from Hitler’s prowling subs.
“The moon was in the sky up to the right,” he once told me. “Then the moon suddenly moved to the other side of the sky.”
Crewmen raced to the wheelhouse. The drunk pilot of the boat had wheeled the ship crazily. My dad was made quartermaster, a noncommissioned officer, given the job of piloting the ship and keeping the moon in its proper place in the sky.
It was only late in his life he told the story of the torpedo. A May 1945 War Shipping Administration paper he kept barely tells the tale:
“Dear Sir: The bearer of this letter, Duilio Imbrogno, whose seaman’s certificates were lost when his ship went down, is a bona fide seaman and a survivor of a marine disaster who was recently repatriated.”
That document doesn’t tell the story of the torpedo blasting into my father’s boat. A man came running up on deck, his body on fire. My dad said he grabbed a blanket, tackled the man, put out the flames.
But he saw the man’s burnt face and body up close and personal. I don’t know whether he survived or if my dad knew.
“You never forget something like that,” he said, clamming up and going no further.
The rest of his wartime service is fragmentary. He earned an orange Atlantic War Zone Bar. He left the Merchant Marine in 1945. (His papers pointedly include a 1992 article about the United States’ belated efforts to recognize the civilian mariners — 6,700 were killed in action in World War II — who weren’t granted veteran’s status until 1988.)
My dad went back home to work at the family gas station until 1949, when he was drafted into the Army. They needed personnel in Occupied Japan. He served for six months as a surgical technician with the 7th Medical Battalion in Hokkaido, earning an Army of Occupation Medal.
By then, he had a girlfriend back home in Lorain, a slim, dark-haired, Scottish-German beauty named Joanne Thesing. They made a handsome couple, my father looking like a shorter-haired version of Cat Stevens or a young Bruce Springsteen straight out of Jersey. He mailed her a bolt of beautiful blue Japanese silk. Decades later, one of my sisters had pieces of it turned into ties and gave them to us three boys as Christmas presents.
My dad and mom married on Jan. 27, 1951, and their marriage certificate still listed his name as Duilio Faust Imbrogno. In the years to come, he would drop the first “i” in his name. Maybe he was tired of people trying to puzzle out its pronunciation (it’s doo-ILL-ee-oh, for the record). Faust would become Foster.
My mother just called him “Du,” like “dew.”
His unusual names have been passed forward and I hope they continue to be. My son Lucas’ middle name is Dulio. One of my older brother’s grandsons is named Foster.
I never knew my father tried his hand at poetry until I asked my older brother to send some photos of him — he sent along two poems as well. (Poetry? My father?) Here are the closing lines from a poem he titled “Life”:
Thy pity, I wish not from thee,
For thou cannot be trusted,
No patience but anxiety,
Hast thou ever had with me.
I stroll alone to find the path
That leads to a Prosper Road,
It may take many bitter years,
But onward I shall bear my bitter load.
Until one day I’ll reach that goal,
And settle down to rest,
In peace to me unknown before,
In the love and beauty I adore.
Like many a man in the postwar generation, my dad set out to improve his lot. He and my mother opened the Airport Restaurant in Ashland, Ohio, in 1951, but it quickly failed. Determined to finish high school, he earned a diploma in 1954 from Elyria High School. He headed to Columbus to study the burgeoning field of electronics technology. In 1956, he joined the Dale Carnegie Institute Speakers Club.
I have trouble seeing him standing and speaking before a group, which is maybe why he joined — to learn that skill or face that fear.
He finally found his niche as a draftsman with General Electric in the mid-’60s in Cincinnati, listing “golf, bowling,” as his hobbies on his pre-employment questionnaire. His drawings and designs contributed to the refinement and repair of aircraft engines that went into the Boeing 767 and Airbus A310. He did 28 drawings for the F101 engine, which powered the Rockwell B-1 Lancer strategic bomber fleet of the U.S. Air Force.
But at home, my dad rarely talked about his work (or the security clearance he needed to work on some of these engines).
If I set aside the yelling that could fill the house as loudly as one of those jet engines it sometimes seemed, I and my siblings have a host of quieter memories.
And that yelling? My older brother put it in perspective in a gorgeous photo essay, “The Key to My Grandfather’s House,” inspired by our trip to my father’s homeplace:
A storm looms in the hills.
I have never been afraid of storms.
Many who grow up in Italian families are not.
They realize that behind the noise and thunder of storms,
natural and of the family type,
is the stuff of life, rain
and sometimes, tears.
Yes, too much rain
So you learn to
let the rain roll off,
bend with the wind,
and wait for the storm to pass.
The kitchen is the locus of any family with Italian blood. Dad, who did a lot of the household cooking, took days to simmer and cook up his famous meatballs and spaghetti sauce (a pound of neck bones was the key). I recall him always enveloped in a cloud of steam, as he drained the boiling water from fresh-cooked pasta.
One sister recalls how he’d take a whole bag of grapefruit, painstakingly peel and seed them and put them in a bowl with sugar as a family treat. “It was better than any dessert,” she said.
Then, there was me fleeing the house when he cooked in bubbling oil the stinky smelts he so loved.
His return from the grocery store was always a reason to rush to the kitchen to see what he’d bought. He knew I liked the cereal Quisp. My younger brother preferred Quake. It was the exact same cereal, but differently shaped and with different cartoon characters. But he faithfully got us each our own favored box every time.
Then, there was the time I shrewdly decided to nail my younger brother. I took a teabag fresh from a teacup and started chasing him, swinging the teabag round and round to get him wet. Then stopped. In utter dismay, I looked up at the living room ceiling, now peppered with brown spots as if it had the measles.
For two hours, I quivered, awaiting Dad’s return home and his righteous Mediterranean wrath. Doomed.
He came in. I told him what I’d done. He looked up. Pursed his lips, then said: “Well, we needed to paint that ceiling anyway.”
It was as if the Angel Gabriel, not my father, was standing there.
My father’s moods could be graphed on weekends according to the fortunes of the Cincinnati Reds and Bengals. So, how sweet it was, sports-wise, the time he coached the Twins, the baseball team my younger brother and I played on together as youngsters.
I imagine him now, beaming in the dugout, as brother Rick at shortstop pitched a ball to me at second base, and we turned a game-winning double play. Attaboy!
Rick also recalls the rare opportunity he got to pitch a game. And, by God, won. On the way home in the car, Dad turned to him and said: “You know? You’re a junkball pitcher!”
He meant it as a compliment, as in “But you get the job done, son.” He proceeded to explain how Rick’s wild assortment of pitches had confused the batters. This inspired a song my brother wrote, with the immortal lines: “You’re a junkball pitcher! You got no break, no heat, no curve, you’re a junkball pitcher!”
Then there was the time I came home for a visit from my first newspaper job in Huntington. An Indian friend had turned me from my carnivore ways. I proudly announced to my parents: “I’m a vegetarian!”
My mother went sort of ballistic. She said how much a bother I’d be to cook for to everyone who would ever cook for me for the rest of my days. My dad said nothing.
When I returned for another visit a few months later, he handed me a sheet of paper. He’d been experimenting. “What’s this?” I said. “Just look,” he said. I saw the title of what was a recipe: “Dulio Imbrogno’s Vegetarian Spaghetti Sauce.”
There is no sheet of paper in my life I treasure more.
My dad lived his life to support his family. It’s what he did. He never did get to speak to groups or read out his young man’s poetry. That all went by the wayside. His life’s work was us.
My younger sister recalls how excited he was when the first grocery warehouse opened in Cincinnati where he could buy everything in bulk. This meant you could always be assured of being sent home after a visit with a trunkful of toilet paper, boxes of trash bags, frozen spaghetti sauce and whatever else he could get you to take.
And in those pre-GPS days, you’d dearly want the elaborate hand-drawn maps my dad would spend a half-hour crafting to get you somewhere you had no idea know to get to. He was a living Google Maps app.
I think when all of us grew up and moved out, some of the mission of his life was expended. Then, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. As anyone whose family has been affected knows, it’s a terribly difficult passage.
He had another mission, hard as it was since she was the North Star of his life, for all they fought and bickered. He’d feed her, hold her hand. Then she too was gone.
My father didn’t last much longer. His dying day approached less than three years after my mother passed on.
His hospice nurses thought my dad so sweet they wanted to help with his passing at the assisted-living home where he spent his final days.
From our trip to the Italian hillside where he’d been born, my brother David had brought back pieces of roof tiles from the house where we believe Duilio Faust Imbrogno entered this world.
And so he departed it on Jan. 8, 2005, a piece of the house where he was born tucked into his hand by my brother, another piece of tile on a shelf above his head. So, he died as he was born — under the same roof.
Who was your father? My father was a Lifeboat Man.
He was a hero.
He could be very loud.
He was a lifelong provider.
He was a good man.
See my brother David’s photo essay, “The Key to My Grandfather’s House,” about the hill where the family hails from and the immigrant experience at cowgarage.com/the-key.