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The Tobias Come to America

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Sicilian Proverbs

1913 - 1921

In 1913, Giuseppe and Antonietta Tobia, our grandparents, along with their first born son, Antonino ("Uncle Tony") arrived in America. The city they traveled to after arriving in New York City was Michigan City, Indiana. By this time, grandma's brother Antonino ("Tony") Quartuccio and his wife Ursola and all their children were living there. Tony and Ursola ran a dry goods store. Also, Uncles Joe and Jack Quartuccio were living there in the same neighborhood. Uncle Joe, who was the first to arrice in America, got a job with Pullman Cars as a carpenter. Mr. Tibedeau, the foreman, had two daughters, Lisa and Laura. Uncle Joe met, dated, and then married Aunt Lisa. Uncle Jack ("zio Gioacchino") would visit his brother, and met the younger sister, Laura. They married, and the men worked together for Pullman Cars.

The succession of arrivals was as follows (these are all Quartuccios): Uncle Joe came first, then Uncle Jack ("zio Gioacchino"), then Uncle Tony ("zio Nino"), and also Uncle Salvatore ("zio Turiddu") -- but he only stayed a little while and went back to Sicily. The story goes that uncle Salvatore liked to play music and sing. One day he was outside his brother's store singing for joy, but a policeman came by and told him he couldn't sing on the street. So the uncle figured, "screw this" and went back home to Sancipirello.

Grandpa Tobia had a job waiting for him when he arrived in Michigan City. He was a master carpenter in Sicily, where he could fashion anything from a chair to a wardrobe, including carving the trim by hand. A story is told of a man asking him how long it took him to make a chair. Grandpa replied, "About 3 weeks." The man answered, "Well here it only takes a few hours." -- to which Grandpa replied, "We start with a tree."

Grandma, being very good at business, began renting rooms, and they did rather well until the First World War. My dad, Uncle Tony, who had been called "ruina" (ruination) in the old country, held true to his nick-name in America, where one day when he was around two he entered the room of one of the boarders and threw all the man's belongings out the window. His mom was fit to be tied. She was fit and he was tied ... :)

While in Michigan City, Uncle Joe Tobia was born, and he was an infant when they returned to Sicily. This is a very romantic story ... not amorous romance, but the familial sort. Giuseppe's father, Antonino, who was left in Sicily with his wife, missed his son and his son's family and so trumped up a reason for them to return to the old country.

A letter arrived in Michigan City one day, which in effect said, "My dear son, your mother is very ill and wants to see you." Without a second thought it was agreed they should all go back. Now there were 4 going back: Grandpa, Grandma, my dad (Uncle Tony), and Uncle Joe. One must keep in mind that World War I had begun and Giuseppe was still an Italian citizen. Consequently, he was called to active service and fought on the Austrian front. While there, he was caught in live fire and shot with shrapnel which opened up his abdomen. He crawled quite a distance with one hand holding in his viscera. Miraculously, he healed with no ill effects. After that time he was stationed in Palermo and put in charge of the magazine, where fuel, along with other stores, was kept and distributed. He was so conscientious that his captain commended him. The reason for the commendation was that our grandfather always had fuel left over and the captain couldn't understand why all the guys before him were always short of fuel. Grandpa explained that whenever someone came for fuel, he'd "short-change" then just a bit to make sure he'd never run out.

During this stay in Sicily the family lived in Monreale, a lovely and very ancient town which was conquered by the Normans in the 10th Century. Several of our cousins still live in this tourist town. (I have addresses and phone numbers.)

Also during this time, Uncle Jim was born. He was a thin man all his life, and as an infant looked like he was at death's door. His mom capitalized on this in order to get Grandpa a furlough. She'd wrap his head in a white cloth, carry him to the army command post, and beg the commander to let her husband out because their little son was dying. This seems to have worked every time, more fool the commander.

In the year 1921, things were set for them all to return to the USA. Our great-grandmothers were still alive. Grandma Giovanna Quartuccio, our maternal great-grandmother, wouldn't leave Sicily until her youngest daugther, Paolina, was married. But when Paolina married, she did come and stayed with her sons in Michigan City where she is buried.

Our paternal grandparents did not come over because of a reason that was not made known until the great-grandfather passed away.

In any event, they left Palermo on a Postal Boat and landed in Naples, where they stayed with grandpa's cousin Antonio? Tobia. They must have lost track of this branch of the family, because I never heard a word about them exept for this short visit. I did attend high school with a Peter Tobia, whose family originally came from Naples, but at the time I didn't follow it up. In a few weeks they boarded the Regina d'Italia and steamed out of Naples harbor. By now my dad was old enough to understand certain things, and as they passed the Rock of Gibraltar, grandpa said to him, "Nene' ... tale'! ... la gibilterra!" which means, "Tony ... look! ... Gibraltar!" Nene' is a diminutive of Antonino...I don't know the etymology htough.

The passage was not a good one for many. The seas were high and the ship was tossed around, as large as she was. Grandma wrapped herself in a blanket and stayed on a deck chair, moaning by day. She hardly ate for the 14 days. On the other hand, my dad, Uncle Tony, ate his share, and his mother's, and anyone else's food that he could get his little hands on. By the way, the reason for such a long passage is that when they arrived in New York Harbor, they were quaranteened for a week because some inspector misinterpreted symptoms. But while in the harbor, they managed to see Uncle Jim and Aunt Ursola Salamone, grandpa's sister and husband. They would row out in a rowboat to the ship, and by means of ropes and baskets send food and other goodies to the new arrivals. This is where my dad got introduced to that great all American food, Hot Dogs ... and still loves them to this day.

Family Photograph 1939


This is a photo of a very happy group enjoying a day in "Rapitalla'", circa 1938. My mother, Madeline, is there, and so are Aunt Kate Pedula (Uncle Joe Tobia's wife) and her 3 sisters, Mary, Rose, and Frances. Also, there is grandma's close friends, Concettina Castagna, her husband, Antonino; and Mrs. Barbera and her daughter Josie. My dad, Tony, is there too and so is the very jolly Mr. Napoli and his daughter. The name "Rapitalla" came from a place in Sicily that got muddy when it rained, and for some reason they put that nickname on to this wonderful 1/4 acre of land that our grandparents owned in North Beach, New York. It is on a natural rise of land which overlooks La Guardia Airport, by Flushing Bay, New York.

A Story

Germany had constructed a huge 12-engine flying boat called the Do-X (named after Claude Dornier, who designed several planes for the Luftwaffe). Evidently this plane was in the size class of Howard Hughes' later, unsuccessful, Spruce Goose. The Do-X had made trans-Atlantic crossings, including a flight to South America in 1931. So on one extraordinary day, it was sitting in North Beach at the same time that these Italian aviators, led by De Pinedo, arrived from Spain on a non-stop trans-atlantic flight. And a song was written by Italian-Americans, and it was called "La Vola di DePinedo." Uncle Tony went out in a rowboat and floated under one of the wings of the DOX ... which was carrying six huge engines. The only thing Uncle Tony would say while under that wing was, "Minnchia!"

Non ce rosa senza spina. There is no rose without thorns.