Recollections of my father – by Robert A. Vella
To us, his children, Frank Vincent Vella was known simply as “Quaz” – an affectionate nickname derived from a 1965 television episode of McHale’s Navy titled All Ahead, Empty. The inspirational character was Ensign Eugene J. Kwazniak (actor Marvin Kaplan) – an enigmatic bespectacled MIT electronics wizard who felt lonely, unappreciated, and yet defiantly proud. “Kwaz,” as he was called by the recusant crew of the PT-73, also couldn’t handle his liquor very well. Our association of this fictional character with our father turned out to be quite fitting in retrospect. The real Quaz was emotionally insecure, his considerable talents were not properly appreciated, and he was an intensely proud individual. He also had a terrible problem with alcohol. Furthermore, Quaz’s life remains somewhat of a mystery – at least to his offspring – because our family did a poor job of passing along its history to later generations. It is this last point which I, his eldest son, wishes to remediate.
Quaz was born on January 29, 1925 to a Sicilian family in San Mateo, California. His parents were Anthony “Tony” (1877-1941) and Antonitte “Antonina” (1884-1956) who bore 9 children named Joseph (eldest), Libby (eldest daughter), Mamie, Francis, Lena, Angela, Anita, Jenny (youngest daughter, 1917-2011), and Frank (youngest). Tony, a gardener and gambler who couldn’t drive an automobile, immigrated to the U.S. in 1911 followed a year later by his wife and children. They settled in Maine, but moved to California in October 1917 because of the bitterly cold winters. My uncle Joe built and repaired road medians, and the family made wine during prohibition. Apparently, the Mafia had some influence over their lives. A story was told that a group called the “Purple Gang” wanted Uncle Joe to kill someone, but Tony did it himself to spare his son the indignity. A fine anecdotal account of the family during the 1920s is Genevieve Altieri’s non-fiction novel The House on Grant Street (Altsen Publication, 1978).
Apparently, Quaz was a naughty child who liked to kick his sisters in the shin with heavy boots. His mother was very protective of him. Tony died in 1941 from cancer when Frank was 16 years old. Quaz told me on a few occasions that he quit school and found manual labor jobs to help support his mother near the end of the Great Depression; although, his 3rd wife Sandy informed me that he actually graduated from high school and even attended 2 years of college (but doesn’t know the name of the school).
Quaz entered the U.S. Army (his online grave record incorrectly shows him in the Marine Corps) sometime after his 18th birthday in 1943. He was nicknamed “Shorty.” I’m still trying to get a copy of his service record, but he was probably first trained as an infantryman and assigned to the Normandy Campaign in France after the initial D-Day landings. He told me once he was wounded in the wrist and spent the rest of the war in England. Sandy said he did not receive a Purple Heart medal, but severely injured his spine in a vehicular accident in which he was working as a jeep driver for an Army Air Corps Colonel. Sandy also told me Quaz’s best friend was mortally wounded beside him, and that he tried to stop the bleeding with a mud pack. She said this was a traumatic experience which affected him for the rest of his life. Another story Quaz told me was how he and some other mischievous M4 Sherman tank drivers deliberately tore up the streets of Sacramento during a post-war victory celebration. Quaz said the city’s mayor banned future military parades in response. This is the extent of my knowledge of his military service. Quaz never discussed it voluntarily, and the questions I did ask were answered only by evasive and light-hearted recollections.
If little is known about his war years, even less is known about Quaz’s postwar activities up until 1954 when he was in his twenties. Only scant rumors exist about a relationship with a woman and a possible marriage that failed. There may be a few relatives still alive that could shed some light on this period. I’ll have to do some legwork to find out.
Quaz took an oceangoing cruise (possibly aboard the liners RMS Queen Mary and/or SS United States) to his ancestral homeland in 1954 and married a 19 year-old first cousin, Nina Iacono, in Montallegro, Sicily (Province of Agrigento). It probably was not an arranged marriage, but rather strongly encouraged by her parents. He returned to San Mateo alone, and his young wife arrived later by taking an eventful Trans World Airlines flight aboard a Lockheed Constellation. The marriage was doomed from the start, in my opinion, mostly because of their incompatible personalities. Quaz was passionate, engaging, and mercurial. My mother was the polar opposite. Five children were born: Robert (“Toad,” 1955), Terilyn (“Torto,” 1956), Joyce (“Mud,” 1957), Frank Jr. (“Nute” as in newt, 1959), and Mary (stillborn in 1961).
At that time, immigrants felt compelled to fully assimilate into American culture. For that reason, Quaz was more concerned about teaching my mother English than he was about teaching his children Italian. This still bothers me today. I have many uncomfortable memories of my cousins casually speaking in Italian while I patiently stood by in awkward silence.
Up until 1964 when my parents divorced, Quaz tried his hand at several occupations which all seemed to end unsuccessfully. As a result, we moved a lot from town to town along the San Francisco Peninsula. I fondly recall living in a brand new house in Santa Clara county around 1960 where an expansive apricot orchard was my joyful playground. Quaz was probably working as an insurance inspector who rode the highways ensuring commercial truck drivers were in regulatory compliance. I don’t believe he enjoyed this type of work. Then, he and my mother ran a busy coffee shop on B Street in downtown San Mateo. It was an old two-story building next to the railroad tracks with an established clientele of policemen and local business people. Upstairs was a dusty, cobweb-infested loft where we children stayed until closing time. This restaurant operation was a potential moneymaker, but growing marital tensions undermined the level of commitment necessary for it to flourish. In 1962-63, Quaz and his sister Francis formed the Star Charter Line – a bus company that primarily served the new College of San Mateo campus up in the coastal hills. Each day after school, I would help clean the interiors of the eight (or so) buses in the fleet. If Quaz ever had a promising career opportunity, this was it. Unfortunately, rival bus businesses (who may have had underworld connections) were determined to seize the lucrative El Camino Real-CSM route for themselves. The pressure mounted until Francis decided to sell. And that, as they say, was the end of Star Charter Line.
Those early days of my family were pretty ordinary, I suppose, except for the constant instability related to Quaz’s employment status. Christmas was a time of year when domestic turmoil became more evident. It wasn’t that we never had an enjoyable holiday season, but more often than not there were problems. Achievements never seemed to match expectations, and those expectations were probably unrealistic to begin with. It all came to a head in 1964 when my mother was notified by a Star Charter Line bus driver that Quaz was having an affair with the man’s wife. To say that “the shit hit the fan” would be an understatement. Mother kicked Quaz out of the house and filed for divorce. Quaz’s side of the family severely chastised her for “trying to break up the family” (a no-no in ethnic Italian culture), but she refused to acquiesce. One day he came to the house and began beating her after she refused to reconsider the divorce. I jumped on his back and held him hard by the neck with my forearm. After tossing me aside, he left the scene rather abruptly. The divorce proceeded to its completion.
We lived with my mother for the next two years. Quaz picked up odd jobs where he could. He worked as a plumber for a while, and I assisted him on a few jobs including one where we replaced all the old galvanized hot water pipes in Aunt Libby’s Burlingame home with welded copper (lots of spiders under her house!). The woman Quaz had an affair with (Sally) also got divorced, and the two of them married shortly thereafter (custody of Sally’s children was given to her ex-husband). Quaz’s life was calm for a while (we had some nice visits at their apartment in Redwood City), but there were troubling storm clouds on the horizon.
In 1966, my mother asked Quaz to take custody of us children. She packed our bags and told us to wait on the front lawn until he picked us up. The house we moved to in San Carlos was a kid’s dream! The backyard had plum, prune, pear, fig, and apricot trees. We had chickens, ducks (“Da” and “Duke”), and an anti-social black rabbit named “Thumper” (he’d thump the ground loudly if we got too close to him!). There was a vegetable garden and a tool shack where we could climb high into the trees. I returned to public school (after attending St. Matthews Catholic school), got a paper-route, and Quaz bought a bicycle shop where I also worked part-time. This new family arrangement could have worked, and it should have worked. But, the inevitable complications proved insurmountable.
Both Quaz and Sally had accumulated too much personal baggage. He struggled with his rambunctious and overly jealous nature. There were also financial difficulties arising from the profitability of his bike shop, alimony payments, and the costs associated with raising four children. She undoubtedly resented not having custody of her own children, and clearly wasn’t able to cope with her own psychological demons. Quaz and Sally were equally insecure emotionally. Each felt lingering guilt over their previous marital failings. And both of them began to destructively abuse alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drugs. Through it all, though, we managed to stay together. The bike shop failed, and we moved repeatedly to different residences mostly in San Mateo. Money was tight, and I occasionally had to do my school homework by candlelight.
Quaz had a lot of hobbies and interests. He was an amateur photographer who would setup dark rooms wherever he could to develop and print his work. That intrigued me, so he and I would spend hours together discussing and working on the various aspects of this art. Since Quaz primarily used black & white film, he especially liked the application of color filters to creatively add tonal effects to the pictures. He gave me my first snapshot and movie cameras which I still have to this day (the 8mm movie camera is a wind-up type!). I learned a lot from him, and our experiences triggered my own exploration of photography in the years to come.
Clamming was another enjoyable activity Quaz shared with his children. We’d go to the Coyote Point harbor and hunt for horse clams (i.e. pacific and/or fat gaper clams) and littlenecks in the mud flats at low tide. The former would give their positions away by squirting jets of water several feet into the air when we’d stomp our feet or drop big rocks on the ground. Whereas picks and shovels were the preferred tools for digging up clams in San Francisco Bay, rakes were better at harvesting colorful varieties of cockles in the Pacific ocean. Quaz would drive us across the peninsula to Pillar Point north of Half Moon Bay where we would spend most of the day clamming. Sometimes we would pry highly-prized abalone from rocks at very low tide. My mom cooked these best by preparing them like wiener schnitzel. It was great fun. Kids never get tired of playing on the beach. We built cozy fires – and in addition to the great seafood – ate fresh crusty bread, superb cheeses, and mouth-watering Sicilian dried sausages from a local landmark delicatessen named Cunha’s. Afterwards, we’d steam buckets of clams in butter and garlic and have an unbelievable fest! Good times don’t get much better.
Quaz also liked to go fishing, although it’s difficult to imagine anyone who was less skilled than he. One time, he was reeling in his line on the Russian River and accidentally hooked a pretty nice fish through the tail fin. The unfortunate creature was dragged onto the beach tail first. Us kids laughingly urged him to let it go because his “catch” didn’t really count. I think he begrudgingly agreed. Nevertheless, fishing with Quaz was always fun and usually quite eventful.
Another subject area Quaz was greatly interested in, which he also imparted to me, was history and politics. I have several of his favorite books, including: Garibaldi and the Making of Italy by George Macaulay Trevelyan, The Gathering Storm by Winston Churchill, and Memoirs – Montgomery of Alamein by Bernard Law Montgomery. He was well-versed in these topics, and relished any opportunity to discuss them. Politically, Quaz was a self-described socialist and a staunch FDR Democrat. In our numerous debates, he often told me: “The only system that works for all people is socialism.” Although I modestly disagreed with him at the time, I now know that his assertion was (and is) fundamentally correct.
One of the most humorous incidents occurred when Aunt Lena came to our house to conduct a séance. Her audience was understandably skeptical, although we played along out of respect (in Italian culture, respect is very important). I don’t remember which spirit she was trying to contact, but when she called out the name,
my sister Teri’s Sally’s little pug “Button” uttered an exquisitely timed and silence-shattering “ruh, ruh, ruh!” We all broke out in laughter. For days afterwards, the joke around the house was: “The spirits are about to speak!”
Quaz was a really good story-teller. He’d gather up us kids and recount fictional tales or make ones up spontaneously. We were enthralled. I didn’t realize it until recently, but this may have helped spur me to start writing science fiction in high school. Teri, in particular, loved hearing Quaz’s stories. She told me he would wait for her to come home after a date and share them. They’d stay up late eating broiled beef marrow bones (hey, don’t knock it… they’re delicious!) or making homemade sausage.
At age 13, I became embroiled in the counterculture movement of the late 1960’s. This created a growing rift between Quaz and I that never fully healed. Curiously, our conflict was more about style than it was about substance. We Baby Boomers rejected the societal trappings of Quaz’s Greatest Generation. We grew our hair long and free, theirs was short and constrained. We smoked marijuana and indulged in psychedelics, their recreational mood enhancers came from glass and plastic pill bottles. We retreated from America’s establishment institutions, they were immersed in them. Ironically though, Quaz and I had very few arguments over the hot issues of the day. On the Vietnam War, he never rebutted my opposition to it. On civil rights and women’s rights, he never chastised me for advocating them (although he did occasionally use bigoted and misogynistic language which was more indicative of his generation rather than him personally). On my strong environmental concerns, he never reacted negatively towards them. Furthermore, we were in agreement on a whole host of other contemporary issues. We both supported collective bargaining and worker’s rights. We both opposed excessive corporate power, conservatism, Republicans, and of course Richard Nixon. Even on religion there was no real ground between us. We were both technically Catholics, but neither of us had any particular interest in practicing it.
In 1972, the underlying problems of Quaz’s marriage to Sally came to a head. That summer, they decided to drive across the U.S. for a family vacation. My instincts told me it was a very bad idea, so I managed to use my summer job at a ceramic parts factory as an excuse for not going. Quaz, Sally, my sisters, and brother, took off to see America. Their postcards started to arrive shortly thereafter. Reading them was like watching some tragic Shakespearian play from afar. Day after day, the correspondences became increasingly negative and marked by turbulent events. Near the end, I wondered if any of them would return home alive. I also had mixed feelings. Part of me was grief stricken, especially for my siblings, and part of me was enormously relieved that I didn’t have to endure it.
The aftermath was anticlimactic, but no less tumultuous. Alcohol and drug-induced arguments were a daily occurrence, and there were countless incidents of verbal and physical abuse. Sally retreated into the illusory sanctity of her bedroom so completely, that we kids would not see her for days on end. Unfortunately, I made the situation even worse one day when an ill-conceived 4th of July prank accidentally set Sally’s bedroom on fire which ruined her heirloom storage chest. Before I graduated from high school, some of us kids temporarily moved back in with my mother and a long, drawn-out separation between Quaz and Sally slowly unfolded.
When the marriage to Sally was finally over, Quaz’s insecurities intensified. He didn’t know what to do with himself. Living alone made him very uneasy. I offered to let him move in with me (I had graduated high school by this time), but that seemed to make him feel worse. Fortunately, two changes happened in his life at this most opportune time: 1) he got a secure job in the San Mateo County Department of Education’s audio-visual department that he greatly liked, and 2) he met his soon-to-be third wife Sandy.
Life with Sandy, although by no means perfect, was light-years ahead of his previous two in terms of compatibility and stability. The marriages to my mom and Sally were exceedingly violent and destructive. To see Quaz in such a better emotional state was heartening and a big relief to his family.
Just before enlisting in the army, I drove across the U.S. by myself. Quaz met me in New Orleans on the return trip. We sampled the cuisine in the French Quarter, toured the Alamo, made a highly questionable foray into Juarez at a very seedy nightclub (sorry, no more details), and visited Disneyland. Quaz and I also took a few weekend trips to the casinos in Lake Tahoe and Reno. He liked playing black jack and keno. He always played the same 8-spot keno ticket that he picked using the numbers of his children’s birthdates. One time, as we were leaving Harrah’s Hotel & Casino in Tahoe on a Sunday afternoon, the keno board above the exit door showed all of his numbers which would have paid $25,000 in winnings. Sadly, it was the very next game after he had stopped playing. That bit of misfortune made our four-hour drive home a very long one indeed.
The late 1970’s was the happiest period for Quaz and the family. All the kids were out of the house by then. My sisters got married and started having children. Teri’s wedding was huge event that brought our entire (and large) extended family together for the last time. Quaz was in his element as father of the bride. The pictures I have of that happy day are priceless. During these years, we even reunited Quaz and Nina for a couple of Christmas holidays. Before then, such a confluence would have been impossible. Though they didn’t speak much to each other, neither did they act with hostility. Peace is a wonderful thing.
The harmony between Quaz and myself finally began to fray when I moved back from Reno with my fiancé (also named Sandy) in 1982. We needed temporary residence, so we asked Quaz and his wife Sandy if we could stay with them for a while until we got settled in. It was a mistake. I had trouble finding work, and our presence there became too much of an imposition. It was, however, not my desire to relocate. I was content in Nevada. Sandy, who never became my wife, was not. Eleven years later, I moved back to Reno. My home is now in Washington state.
The incident should have been smoothed over eventually, but another bone of contention rose up between us. By the mid 1980’s, I had embarked on what turned out to be a rather prolonged and successful career in computer programming. I had put myself through college, wore a suit and tie, and worked in San Francisco’s financial district. I don’t really know how Quaz felt about it because he never told me. I did get the impression that it bothered him in some way. To a blue-collar joe like Quaz, who had grown up in the Great Depression, perhaps the image of a white-collar son had struck a touchy nerve.
In any case, the last time I saw him was 1986. We bumped into each other at a supermarket. I was excited to see him. Quaz was in a hurry to leave. He died in his sleep on the evening of April 5, 1988. I believe it was my sister Joyce who called to inform me in the middle of the night. I cried uncontrollably for nearly half an hour. Quaz was just 63 years old. Seldom is it known when the last time one will see their father or mother. For me, the last time I saw Quaz is still painful to remember.
His funeral ceremony was short and to-the-point. There wasn’t a lot of time for reflection or commiseration. A lot of people were there, many of which I didn’t seem to know. My brother Frank was a little shook-up. He wanted to go fishing afterwards to honor Quaz. He and I drove to San Pablo Reservoir. We got skunked… no fish… no bites. It was an appropriate and reassuring tribute.
Sandy was greatly skeptical about the medical treatment Quaz had received prior to his death. After a hospital stay for a slipped disc, he was given a Demerol (pethidine) prescription (100 mg/every 3 hours) for severe pain. Ten days later he died. Although his sons and daughters were unanimous in not wanting to pursue a malpractice lawsuit (we felt Quaz was finally at peace), Sandy’s skepticism may have been justified. Demerol was widely used at the time. It isn’t now. The advantages it was once believed to have over morphine proved false. This opioid, by the way, was developed in 1939 Nazi Germany by Otto Schaumann for the infamous chemical manufacturing conglomerate IG Farben. How ironic it would be if Quaz’s death had indeed resulted – indirectly – from the very fascist regime he had fought against in WWII.
My sisters tell the most vivid stories about Quaz for they were much closer to him than I. They always went to him for advice because they knew he truly cared for them. Even his sometimes questionable idiosyncrasies evoked found memories… his hiding liquor bottles all over the house and in the engine compartment of his car… the polished stainless steel .32 revolver he kept stashed in all-too-easily found places. Quaz was definitely a character alright, but he was a loved one.
My brother too was very close to Quaz. Their personalities were very much alike, and the whole family saw Frank as the spitting-image of his father. That he has been estranged from the rest of us for many years now is completely understandable.
The father we affectionately called Quaz was an adventurous, intelligent, thoughtful, and caring man. He spoke several languages at least to some degree including Italian, Sicilian (dialect), French, Spanish, and German. He was an avid reader, and had a wide variety of interests. He served his country honorably in the world’s worst military conflict. He was a fascinating and prodigious story teller. He was thoroughly entertaining to be around, and was the life of any party. Yes, he could be a real shit-disturber and his emotions often got the better of him. What he wanted most in life – a stable family and a home of his own – was never fully achieved; but, he loved and was loved with great passion. If that isn’t success, then I don’t know what is. We all miss the Quaz… dearly.
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To my family and friends of Frank Vincent Vella: These recollections of my father were written to the best of my memory and research. They were intended to portray him as honestly and objectively as possible. Personal anecdotes were included to provide emphasis and subjective feeling. If you would like to contribute additional perspectives, corrections, or critiques to this biographical short story, please submit them in writing. If you are unable to get in touch with me personally, you can contact me at: https://thesecularjurist.wordpress.com/
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Notes and references:
Frank V. (Vincent) Vella – born 1/29/25 – died 4/5/88 – at Golden Gate National Cemetery (Station ID = 2E, Site = 4563) along with daughter Mary – born 9/16/61 – died 9/16/61 (Site = 4562).
Possible 1940 census residence data: 120 S. Fremont St., San Mateo, California (built in 1912) – father Anthony “Tony” (born 1877 in Italy) and mother Antonitte “Antonina” (born 1884 in Italy); 118 S. Grant St., San Mateo, California – brother Joseph (born 1903 in Italy) and his wife Mary (born 1909 in New York) had 3 daughters Antonitte (born 1928), Anna (born 1929), Mary (born 1930).
Genevieve Yolanda Altieri (middle name from obituary, 1940 census shows middle initial “B.”) was born in Portland, Maine on 9/21/1917, and died on 2/8/2011 (age 93). In October 1917, the family moved to California because of the cold winters in the Northeast. She was the 9th of 12 children. Her husband’s name was Joseph. They had two children (Gloria J. Senteney was 1 year old in 1940, and her daughter Sandy was 14 years old in the summer of 1978). Genevieve’s father immigrated to the U.S. in 1911 (died of cancer in January 1941 at age 64), and her mother in 1912 (died in June 1956 at age 72).
The House on Grant Street by Genevieve Altieri: http://www.amazon.com/house-Grant-Street-Genevieve-Altieri/dp/B0006X8242
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Remembering the Quaz. Copyright © 2014 by Robert A. Vella. All rights reserved.
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 In the ABOUT THE AUTHOR section of Aunt Jenny’s book, it says she was the 9th of 12 children born to this family. In the Chapter I subsection titled BITTERSWEET, she described the diphtheria-caused death of her 13 month-old younger brother (p. 21).