Thursday, August 7, 2008

In California When the Figs Are Ripe

While growing up in the small town of Niagara Falls, NY, famous for its water falls, power plants and the deadly toxic waste dumps at Love Canal, my father's father, Theodore Ferraro, used to always say, "I'll be in California when the figs are ripe." We just used to listen to Grandpa Teddy say this, not knowing what it meant, so it just became an echo of words that I remembered from time to time.

In 1961, my mom and dad traveled to California for a month long vacation, leaving my sister and I under the care of my mom's mom, Lillian. They traveled with an eye to relocating our family to California, willing to leave all our friends and family, familiar folkways, community, landscapes, not-so-wonderful climate, and Grandpa's trucking business.

My grandfather, Ted, had built up a small but successful trucking business in Niagara Falls, despite the dire economic conditions during the Great Depression, and did even better once the war began and local industries based along the Niagara River began to grow with the war effort. My dad served in the army until the war ended, and foregoing his GI Bill education incentives, then went into partnership with his father in the trucking business.

For the next 15 years, we somehow managed to survive post-war recessions and nasty weather, both snow-bound winters and hot and humid summers, by running our small mom & pop trucking business out of our house and grandpa's truck barns, built behind his house. But my dad was less and less happy about our economic well being and our health. Sinus infections, allergies, and chronic ailments plagued us all during these years. My dad decided we needed to leave and my mom readily agreed.

I early 1963, my dad set off for California in a new used Oldsmobile he bought with profit he made from selling the land he had bought to build a new warehouse. He arrived in Southern California and bunked with the son of his dad's next door neighbor, Bill Porreca, for a couple of weeks. Bill's connections quickly landed him a job with a Mayflower Moving Company franchise which was opening a new office near Thousand Oaks. 50 miles north of Los Angeles in Ventura County along Hwy 101. By the end of my school year in June, we said our goodbyes in Niagara Falls and flew to Los Angeles to begin our lives in California. My grandfather loaded our truck, crying most of the time, and the truck was driven by a fellow trucker my dad flew east to drive back with our furniture.

We soon bought our first home in Thousand Oaks through a nice woman realtor named Edith Seid. My dad and I both worked for the Mayflower agent for the next few years, until I got my first engineering job at Caltrans and, soon after, he started his own moving company, Ferraro Van Line. He ran this business from 1965 to 1991, when he sold the business and moved to Las Vegas.

My mom passed back into the earth in 1973, weakened by a long battle with cancer and finally suffering a deadly stroke. After losing my mom after 27 years of having a good loving mate, my dad at first faltered, mistakenly marrying a stressed-out psychiatrist, who was the inverse of Tony Soprano's shrink, Dr. Melby. When their relationship soured, she was the paranoid delusional, fearing my dad was really in the mob and would hurt her. Luckily, my dad reconnected with that nice realtor he had bought a house from back in 1963, Edith Seid. Edith's has just lost her husband to a mid-life craziness crisis and a younger woman, and was left raising four teenagers on her own.

Edith and my dad were soon married and she agreed to jump in and help him run the family trucking business, as my mom had done before she died. Suddenly I had four step-siblings, and a family life that was way more complex than ever when I had with only my sister to relate to. I was living in San Jose by this time, newly elected to the Water District Board and busy writing environmental impact reports for projects in the area.

In 1977, about the time the water district was having their signing ceremony with feds to build the San Felipe Water Project, I called my dad and asked him to send me a truck so I could expand the family trucking business to San Jose. This surprised my dad, since he always wanted to be sure that I wasn't stuck in a manual labor job because I did not have a college degree, as he had foregone to go into the family business and start his family. But I did get my degree, including a Master of Science degree in Environmental Engineering and was already an elected official in San Jose.

From my perspective, I was getting writers block after drafting enough engineering and environmental reports to fill three filing cabinets. Most of my water district projects, like water recycling, were taking decades to implement. I desperately needed something that could give me some short-term satisfaction. I also felt I needed to connect to my dad in a stronger way, less he get farther and farther away dealing with his new family members and local business management.

As it turned out, the moving business was a great balance in my life to offset some of the mega-engineering projects that I was trying to develop in the arena of water politics. Loading someones personal belongings into and out of a bobtail truck became my physical mantra, that gave me exercise, a sense of immediate accomplishment, a paycheck, and an on-the-job training worth more than any MBA.

Also in 1977, my Grandfather, Teddy Ferraro, put himself on a plane and flew to San Jose from Buffalo to teach me "everything I needed to know to run a moving company." Grandpa moved in with my then wife, Lexa, and I and my "training" began. Grandpa taught me about the value of the"sit down" soon after he arrived. San Jose was lucky enough to have two Pat Ferraro's, one an older businessman who used to run a hat shop in downtown, and who recently had opened a mini-storage business. While I was running for the Water Board in 1972, my opponent, Vic Corsiglia, Sr. had accused him of running against him, a fellow member of the Elks lodge. He said "It's not me!" but Vic continued to doubt him until they checked the registrar's office and learned that I was 24 years old, so it couldn't be Pat-the-Hat.

In 1977, when I started the trucking company, I sent out postcards to the other movers, asking them to refer small or overflow jobs to us as we build our own clientele. One of the movers who had been referring storage customers to the other Pat Ferraro, called him and angrily read him off for now going into competition with them. He again said "It's not me!" This time he called me and said I was stealing his good name for my benefit, and he was not happy about it. I related all this to my grandfather soon after he arrived. He told me to call the other Pat Ferraro and set up a meeting at his office. We arrived with some fresh fruit and a compulsory bottle of wine and just sat and got to know each other, like we should have done many years before. Soon, Pat and I were referring customers to each others businesses, and remained friends throughout his life. Not something I could say about owner of the local garbage company, Mr. Corsiglia, who went to his grave angry with me for pushing him off the Water Board after his years of politicking that lead to his appointment in 1968.

Grandpa, was above all, a natural born and self-taught engineer. In Niagara Falls, he had designed and built many machines for moving large, heavy items into and onto upper stories of buildings, like three-ton air conditioning units or for walkin coolers and refrigerated cases for grocery stores. The man knew how to use the wheel, block and tackles and inclined planes. The Egyptians had nothing on him. He also designed and built electric lawn mowers for everyone in his family, using scavenged motors from things like old washing machines. For this design, he even applied for a patent, but someone had already received one, so no big fortune coming from electric lawn mowers.

He noticed that the truck my dad had sent me did not have a external tool box for holding things like road flares, tow chains, or spare oil and filters, lug wrenches, jacks, etc. My grandfather had built most of his moving vans in Niagara Falls. One year he first built the truck barn, equipped with a wood-burning stove, and then spent the winter building the box on a cab & chassis, which he rolled out in the spring, with the pride of a ship builder.

He said he would design and build and attach the tool box, but warned me that he was in charge of this project, and I should just watch and learn. All went as planned until we were hanging the box, and the hanging cleats he designed and had machined needed to be readjusted while we were physically attaching the tool box to the chassis. As we lay on our backs under the truck, we were soon yelling at each other about whose truck it was and who would be liable for the mess when the box fell off the truck. My secretary came outside, wondering what had happened to cause such a load, angry exchange between me and my dear grand dad.

Grandpa Teddy was also a master gardener, who always kept a large vegetable garden in the front of the lot where his truck barns were built. One day he noticed a sickly fig tree trying to grow between two fifty foot eucalyptus trees along my driveway. He placed a large cobble stone in the branch of the fig tree and put a hose at the base of the tree and watered it deeply for three days. Two weeks later, the tree sent up a shoot from the base of the tree. He then cut off this shoot, walked across the driveway and stuck the shoot directly into the ground and watered it until it sprouted leaves and grew roots. Thirty years later, that fig tree dominates my own vegetable garden with its 25 ft. height and girth during the summer, and grandpa is truly in California when the figs are ripe.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for connecting me to family memories, I cried. Funny I don't remember grampa ever being gone from the area. I'd like to think my love of gardening comes from him. I can still see him in shorts, suspenders and those bowed legs in the garden at my grandparents house. Peace, Lisa

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Humaun Kabir said...

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