“Your Poppa is just the sweetest man in the world.”
That’s the universal sentiment amongst every friend who’s ever met Pat D’Ambrosio.
My Nana and Poppa have lived in the same house in Bridgeport, CT — thirty minutes from where I grew up — my entire life, and my mother’s entire life, too. You enter through the backdoor — always — directly into the kitchen. If they know you’re coming, then food is almost ready. If you’ve somehow insisted beforehand you won’t need a meal, then the tea water is hot, and there’s some sort of cookie on a plate. I remember as a very young child getting dropped off there when I had a flu and my parents had to schlepp their remaining three children to some family gathering. It was bliss, with two pampering grandparents and full reign over their VHS Disney collection. Nana was vigilant with Vitamin C every hour on the hour — Poppa was vigilant with chilled orange slices and ice cream.
It’s only fitting that today, his ninetieth birthday, is Veterans Day.
My family has a long history of service. It’s a point honor to my grandparents. It holds significance. They worry about the state of our military today because of it. They talk of a “different time” when they speak of their experiences in World War II, and how their families were still reeling from the losses so immediately felt before from World War I and the Great Depression.
A few months ago, I sat down with them in their kitchen to record their story for a project I’m building. Since today is such a special day for my Poppa, and as he’s spending it with my mother tending my Nana in the hospital — she felt and broke something, but is okay — I wanted to share some of that story. Because my grandparents are such special, tender people. And my Poppa is the sweetest. And turning ninety with such care and grace and class and humor is so rare.
So here are his words, just trimmed up a little. About his service. And about food. Because… well… of course.
My Poppa Turns Ninety Today
Friday, November 11th, 2016
Words from Pasquale D’Ambrosio, as told to his granddaughter Jacqueline Raposo
When I first joined an outfit, I was with the 282nd Infantry Division on Mindoro Island.
I went in late, in 1945, because I was only fifteen years old when the war started, so by the time I got in the war was almost over. I wanted to enlist, but my folks wouldn’t let me go. So when I signed up for the draft board I said, “Take me as soon as you can.”
We had a lot of C-rations, and a lot of K-rations. K-rations were in a something that looked like a Cracker Jack box. That was the beginning of instant coffee back then: Maxwell House. No matter how you mixed it, it never tasted right. Never tasted right! And hard biscuits. They had no taste, but they were edible. No dried up jerky meat, just some vegetables. And then we used to have the C-ration cans, which looked like bigger tuna fish cans of hash hash hash! That’s all we had. We got so tired of hash. It was a mixture of meat and peas and potatoes and stuff like that. Corned beef hash. Cold hash in the cans. So much hash.
While I was with the headquarters company on Mindoro, somebody went out and shot a caribou. It was this guy’s prize; he was raising it, and somebody shot it! All I know is some GI shot it, and we were eating caribou meat, and it was good! But the owner found out somehow, and the company had to pay the guy.
When I was over there, I dreamed about my mother’s ravioli. She used to make a ravioli four inches big. They were big! The most I could eat were four. Then we’d have polenta on the board. My mother had a mixing board that was four foot square. She used to roll her dough out on it. When it was polenta night, she’d make a big pot of polenta and she’d spread the polenta all over the board. Instead of plates, she’d put the board on the table and we’d scrape it from the board. And then, we’d have my father’s homemade wine when we came home. And that was good.
In fact, one time, when I was on Mindoro, I got a package. I opened up the package, and she had sent a roll of salami, and it had gone mildewed. I didn’t know what to do with it, but I was working communications – that was my job overseas, I had to lay out the telephone wires between companies, and run the switchboard – and so the guy who was teaching me was an Italian from Milford, New Hampshire. And I went to see him, and he said, “Don’t throw that out!” We went into the kitchen, he got some vinegar, and he washed all of the mold off the salami. She had sent four sticks of salami, and she’d dug out a loaf of Italian bread and stuffed a bottle of homemade wine in there! And it never broke! It never broke. So it was good. It was good.
This is what I craved.
And then they dropped the bomb.
We had a company meeting, and the Captain come in. And he said, “You can thank your gods that the war ended.” By this time, it was September, October, something like that. This battalion that I was with, they were the first spearheading battalion on Luzon, to liberate Manila. And they were the very first battalion on Okinawa. And they were slated to be the very first battalion in Kyushu, in the first invasion of Japan.
And when the engineers went in, they found underground tanks full of oil and gas with pipelines out in the harbor. And when the crafts were going to go in they would have released this gas and oil to the top, and they would have set it on fire on the water about a mile out. And I always had the feeling if the war hadn’t ended, I would have been a casualty. I would have been a casualty. If they hadn’t dropped that bomb.
I got transferred to Mindanao to the 331st Field Artillery. So I became a field artillery man on the 105s. And then I was up on the pole splicing in some wire and the guy says,
“Hey, D’Ambrosio, you’re going home!”
“Say that again!”
“You’re going home!”
I came down that pole so God-danged fast. And then they shipped me home. They shipped me home.
I got a job running the movies coming home, so I didn’t have no hard duty, no kitchen work. We hit San Francisco Sunday morning. They were saying mass as we were going underneath the Bay Bridge.
I was only in two years. One year overseas. I went the early part of July and I come home the end of July or August the following year.
I was just one of the lucky ones.
Note: Poppa lost a brother in WWII and Nana a cousin, amongst countless other relatives and friends. But, yes. We were lucky ones.
Thank you to those who have served, from the bottom of my heart.
If curious about how I’m researching food and service, email firstname.lastname@example.org