There are a number of reasons that I am inclined to reflect on my past at this point in my life. The year is 2003 and at age 62 I find myself at a juncture that is well past the half way point of life expectancy. Although I can’t know for sure what the future holds, looking back now should offer a good perspective on a significant part of my life. At this point I would like to sort out in my own mind the significant circumstances and individuals that influenced my journey thus far. Since my journey is not yet over I hope to glean some insight from this exercise that will help to guide my way in the future. I hope that looking critically at my past will help me to fully appreciate the people and circumstances that have made my life better than it would have been without them, and to recognize what areas were less than they could have been. I would like to become more aware of my own potential to be a positive force in the lives that touch mine as others have so often helped me. I want to examine my own motives at significant junctures to learn more about what makes me tick. Finally I want to leave a record of my thoughts and reflections for anyone who may be interested. I know how often I have wondered about what motivated and influenced my ancestors and how much I would appreciate a glimpse into their past.
There are other writings and records that have accumulated with time that are examples of or express particular experiences better than my recreation of them from memory. Some of these are included here in the appendix. Others are located in a separate file and are marked in the way they are referenced here. One example is the history of the church in Clinton that I collaborated with two other friends to write. This became a vehicle for me to express my appreciation for a number of people within the context of our church community. In the process I was able to express my affection for them in a way that would have been difficult and awkward in any other circumstances. I hope to repeat that process here in writing about many others to whom I owe a great debt. Perhaps this will become a vehicle for me to express my love and affection for the members of my family in words that for some reason would be awkward to express face to face. I know that I would deeply regret leaving this world without fully expressing my love for them.
Not having any control over the beginning of my life, I can only be grateful to God and my parents for the circumstances at my birth. I was born in good health to parents that loved and nurtured me. Although I think this is the norm and not remarkable, I know of many who for one reason or another can not make that statement about the beginning of their life. Furthermore I believe that the depth and quality of the love, care, and commitment I received as a matter of course fosters my confidence and well being every day of my life. My grandparents were all emigrants from the area around Naples Italy and I was further blessed with an extended family with rich Catholic traditions and strong family values. Together with my parents they provided an environment where I could grow healthy in body mind and spirit. All of my extended family prospered in the “land of opportunity” and this too fostered my own growth and welfare in the early part of my life.
I spent my first twenty years living with my family in Brooklyn New York. These were formative years and there is a significant section that describes what it was like growing up in Brooklyn during the 1950’s. When I look back on those years I hope to identify the experiences that were significant and long lasting. I would like to distinguish those that were accepted and reinforced because they were aligned with my natural tendencies from those that were taken on because of the values that were imposed on me by my environment for better or worse.
I refer to the next phase of my life as “The Navy Years”. After living under the wing of my family for twenty years, I was beginning to make decisions on my own. The decision to enlist in the US Navy for four years of active duty was made with a great deal of forethought and was very much my own decision. When I look back on those years I see that my forethought was well founded but what happened was not at all what I had anticipated and planned for. The death of my father a week after I enlisted took me completely by surprise. I met and married my wife Alice although marriage was specifically eliminated from my plans for this period. A couple of expressions come to mine as appropriate to my careful plans. “If you want to make God laugh, plan your life” and 'Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans' - J. Lennon. I learned an important lesson during this period that I am not always quick enough to capitalize on. Unplanned circumstances often have unique opportunities embedded in them. There are a number of notable examples that I will talk about later.
Upon discharge from the Navy, I had a wife and two children. It was important to find a job and a suitable place to raise a family. The circumstances that lead us to settle in Clinton New Jersey are another example of changing carefully made plans to seize an opportunity found in an unlikely afterthought. The story of how we came to live in Clinton will be told in time but “The Clinton Years” hold a far greater significance than the unlikely circumstances that lead us there. They were a time when we came of age as a family and as individuals.
I discovered a treasure in Clinton that is second in significance only to my family. In order to gain this treasure I had to give up or at least temper the fierce independence that I thought to be my most important asset. The treasure is realized through sharing life’s journey in a community of friends who’s primary values are similar to our own. My frugal beginnings lead me to believe that nothing should be given without a guarantee of at least equal return. It took time and gentle persuasion by people who offered excellent examples to teach me to risk giving to others needs without expecting a return. That the return is most often greater than what is given is the miracle of living in community.
It is in the nature of such a community to elevate the values of all by celebrating the best experiences of its individual members. This process reinforces the triumph of each individual while offering an invitation for others to grow. Once again it was the depth and quality of our relationships in the community that made this part of our life exceptional.
It was in this community that I learned that by imitating unconditional love and acceptance, a community can engender the spirit of God in a way that is tangible. This gave credence to my otherwise uncertain belief in God, and changed my outlook on life. I saw how the spirit of God becomes a tangible force in a healthy community that is focused on the religious traditions that have been with us through many generations.
In 1997 a number coincidental circumstances jelled into an opportunity for a major change in our lifestyle. I was 55 years old and had been at my job with the same company for 30 years. My age and years of service on the job made it possible for me to retire with a full pension and other financial benefits. We had just paid off the mortgage on our home in Clinton and owned it free and clear. The last of our four children had just graduated from college and had moved out of the house to further reduce our financial burdens. I judged that if I retired, our nest egg could sustain Alice and I with little or no other income. The next 3 years were an opportunity to try out retirement and to consider the many options that this new lifestyle made possible. In 2000 we marked the beginning of the new millennium by selling our house in Clinton and moving to a home on Schroon Lake in northern New York. Leaving Clinton where Alice and I had spent most of our lives raising a family and building friendships was truly a momentous decision. We came to this decision for a number of reasons that can only be explained in the full context of our lives which will unfold later.
The early years of the new millennium find us in circumstances too new to be judged in context. I am currently inclined to maximize the freedom of retirement by not taking on any work commitments. I have made several volunteer commitments and these are very satisfying. It has not taken long to become involved in a new community of friends and our family gathers often here to rest and enjoy each others company. We will probably stay here as long as our health allows but we remain open to new adventures and the will of God. It is an incredible luxury to have the freedom that we enjoy right now. I am grateful to God for the good life I have enjoyed. I hope that writing my story will lead me to a deeper understanding of how I came to this point and how best to fit into Gods plan for the future. My experience thus far leads me to believe that his plans for me are far better than my own.
Before I was born, events took place in the lives of my ancestors that were destined to have an impact on my life. Two young families without knowledge of each other emigrated from the suburbs of Naples Italy to New York City in the early 1900’s. Their circumstances as well as their place of origin were similar. They came from similar cultural and religious backgrounds. Both families settled in Brooklyn and eventually acquired property that became their family domicile. In both cases this could not have been done without significant contributions from the working children of the family. Since all of their income went to support the family, they had little when they married and it was not uncommon for young couples to live in their families house for several years. My father’s brother Joe lived with his wife’s family and had 2 children before they finally were able to move out on their own. When my father married the sister of Joe’s wife, they lived in the home of my father’s family. For a number of reasons this arrangement became preeminent. My brother and I were born and lived in the house on Coney Island Avenue until we were adults. My grandfather and my maiden aunt Liz lived with us and I always took their presence as part of our family for granted.
My father’s family acquired 2 other properties in the Adirondack mountains of northern New York. These lakefront lots on Schroon Lake were part of a business venture but eventually became a vacation home for our extended family. It has remained as a treasured jewel in the family for 5 generations and will probably remain so long after I am gone. Schroon Lake has had a significant impact on my life through the years and there will be much more to say about it later.
Looking back on experiences that occurred more than forty years ago reveals some that have had a long lasting impact on my life. Although all experience is formative to some extent, I will concentrate on those that were significant and especially on those that continue to affect us to this day.
The house I grew up in was located at 1094 Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn New York. At the time of my birth it was owned by my grandfather but maintained largely by my father. My aunt Liz held a steady job and contributed some money in the form of rent.
The structure included 2 main floors, an attic with three additional bed rooms, and a full basement. There was a separate two car garage and a small front and back yard. The space was not divided into individual apartments. Instead it was shared by rules that were established by practical considerations and traditions that were defined before I was born. The ground floor consisted of a living room, dining room, kitchen and a walk in storage area off the kitchen called the pantry. The kitchen and dining room were shared by all while the living room was the domain of my grandfather and aunt. The second story was occupied exclusively by my family except that it contained the only bathroom which of course was shared by all. There were also 2 bed rooms and a living room on this floor. One bed room was my parents bed room and the other was where I slept. My brother, grandfather, and aunt slept in the three attic bed rooms. This arrangement was the status quo for the 20 years that I lived there.
These living conditions though less than ideal by today’s standards were not unusual in that era. My memories do not include wanting for anything important. My parents loved and nurtured me and I had adequate space and freedom to develop my own identity. There was always plenty of good food and high quality meals were always a priority. The environment though not rich in a material way was rich in healthy traditions and enthusiasm for life.
My spiritual beliefs were acquired at an early age and have continued to develop and mature through the years. I have always found a believable meaning and purpose to life in the Christian faith story. The moral traditions and definitions of right and wrong have always been reinforced and affirmed by my experiences and my conscience has always aligned easily if not completely with the dogma of the catholic church. I believe that religious teachings in general give form to that part of the human archetype that is otherwise undefined. The degree to which these teachings resonate in the conscience of an individual will determine the depth of their faith in a given religion.
I attended the religious education program at St Rose of Lima parish but none of it is memorable other than the fear of being whacked with a wooden paddle if I misbehaved. The program did prepare me to receive the sacraments of Holy Communion and Penance and these were the beginning of a deeper spiritual awareness. At this point I was 7 years old and also had learned to pray the rosary and the stations of the cross. Both of these ritual prayers helped to instill a spiritual image and sense of reverence for Jesus and the Virgin Mary in my young mind. I was drawn to the rosary by seeing my mother pray daily. She never forced it on me but I saw how much it meant to her and I wanted to share the peace that it brought to her. The stations of the cross were reinforced by a small prayer book that I received when I made my first Communion. When I went through the stations that depict the suffering and death of Jesus I identified with the story and felt compassion for Jesus.
My relationship with the stations of the cross yielded an unexpected and unsought result. The stations would conjure an image in my imagination of the intense physical suffering of Jesus. In trying to imagine the pain of having nails driven through my hands and feet, I thought of the pain I suffered when I accidentally hurt myself and compared it in my mind to what Jesus must have endured. Its not surprising that I began to think about this whenever I twisted my finger or scraped a knee. I would say to myself “This is nothing compared to what Jesus suffered”. To my amazement this thought caused the pain to be greatly reduced. I began to use this trick every time I hurt myself and it became like a conditioned response to pain. Eventually the phrase that went through my mind was contracted to “What did Jesus suffer” and it worked like magic especially for intense pain that happened suddenly. To this day, if I hit my finger with a hammer or burn myself, those words go through my mind and the effect is immediate.
There were many other experiences that seemed like small miracles to my young mind and they helped to anneal my faith. There is a host of memories associated with my mothers gift for finding lost items by praying to St Anthony. This in fact is a legend in several generations of our family.
My faith in God has dwindled and surged over the years but it has never gone away. In fact I would say it has grown and matured with time. As an example I would offer my childish view of Christmas which included Santa coming in his sleigh to deliver presents. The matured version acknowledges the peace and good will that prevails in the world at that time of year as a gift from a loving God and another not so small miracle. Many other notions of faith have stood up to that kind of maturing process and I have managed to keep a satisfactory balance between my increasing knowledge of the world and an abiding faith in God.
PS 217 was the public K – 8 school that I attended and it was within walking distance of our home. The Catholic school attached to the church we went to was also within walking distance and I went there too but only for religious education. I was at best an average student and was not gifted in any particular subjects. I trundled through the system without enthusiasm and managed to learn the basics. My brother Joe on the other hand showed exceptional talent in mathematics and graduated with the schools math award. He took a difficult and very competitive entrance exam for a prestigious technical high school in Brooklyn and was easily accepted. It was a big let down when I took the same test 4 years later and was not accepted. Instead I went off to the regional high school for 4 more years of poor to average performance as a less than enthusiastic student.
Fortunately for me, a small ember began to glow inside me during these years of burnout in the traditional school system. I think it began when I was 10 years old. I had a flash light that stopped working so I took it apart. I was delighted to find out that I could make the light work by connecting the batteries to the bulb with some wire. This intriguing discovery quickly blossomed into a cardboard box with lights, switches and a buzzer cobbled into it. I imagined it to be the cockpit of a plane, the dashboard of a racing car and the controls for a rocket ship and a submarine. Since there was no support for the subject of electricity in the school system I began to read and study on my own to answer the many questions I had.
The following year I took a step that was the beginning of a bold new adventure for me. I had heard about an instrument called an oscilloscope that could trace the flow of electricity in a circuit by deflecting an electron beam over a phosphor coated screen. The concept was easy enough for me to understand and when I discovered that I could get one in kit form, I saved the enormous sum of $75 and bought the kit. Fortunately the step by step instructions were simple enough for an 11 year old to follow. Beyond the assembly instructions, the kit showed me how components were assembled into functional circuits, and how the circuits were used as building blocks to form a complex system. I remember plugging it in when it was finished and wondering if my $75 would go up in smoke. When the panel lit up and the bright green trace formed on the screen, I lit up inside too. My confidence soared and I began to take apart radios and TVs just to probe the circuits with this amazing instrument. In the process I learned to spot a burned out tube or a scorched resistor and more often than not could make a faulty appliance work again.
I quickly discovered a whole catalog of electronic devices in kit form and I was hooked on them. I built a portable radio and got my parents to invest in a Hi Fi system which I constructed from a kit. I was able to support this expensive new hobby by working at the corner drug store after school. The owner of the drug store was interested in amateur radio and he encouraged me to get involved too. It was a natural progression from what I was doing and I began to study for the license exam which was a challenging test of radio and electronic theory. By the time I was 15 I was a licensed amateur radio operator with a powerful radio station that I had constructed largely from kits.
When I graduated from high school I had to make a decision about college. My parents encouraged me to go continue my education in every way that they could. They would pay my way even though it would mean financial hardship for them. They wisely predicted that my earning power would be hampered if I did not get a college degree. I heard and understood this but could not ignore certain facts. I was not a good student and anticipated certain failure. By now I was certain that I wanted a career in electronics but an engineering degree was daunting because of my weakness in mathematics. I sought some professional guidance and they agreed with me in this assessment. They suggested I seek a two year degree in electronics technology at a local community college.
I did surprisingly well in the two year curriculum. For the first time I was enthusiastic about what was being taught. It filled in the blank areas that were left from my self teaching effort and extended my understanding of the fundamentals of electronics. The reduced math requirement was manageable and I even grew to like trigonometry when I saw how powerful it was in solving electronic problems. I graduated on the deans list and began to think about what would happen next.
It is said that my grandparents bought property on Schroon lake because the setting in the Adirondack mountains reminded them of Italy. Later generations would have other reasons to be drawn to this beautiful area of northern New York and the time I spent there has left indelible marks in my memory.
The property on the lake like the house in Brooklyn was the result of the combined family income. As a result its use as a summer vacation destination was shared by most of my extended family. At the same time it was a motel business that was operated by my grandfather. It consisted of 4 cabins that were rented and a fifth office building. When someone in the family planned to come for vacation, my grandfather would simply reserve it for their use. This arrangement resulted in shared vacations with our extended family and bonding with many relatives that would not have otherwise occurred. The place was named Luisanda in honor of my grandparents Louise and Andrew.
As a child growing up in Brooklyn, going to Schroon Lake was like going to another planet. There were trees and mountains and cold clear streams all over the landscape. The air was so clear that you could see for 20 or 30 miles and a deep breath was refreshing and invigorating. The lake was ever present and brimming with new adventures. Swimming and boating were a constant activity. Our appetites soared and we slept like logs. When it was time to go home we cried and began immediately to look forward to the next trip. My brother and I looked for any excuse to return to Schroon Lake and as we got older the opportunities increased. Joe was the first to spend a good part of the summer at Luisanda helping Grandpa run the motel business. I followed shortly after and our activities grew to include water skiing, stock car races, square dancing and dating. By the time I was 16 my grandfather was too old to run the motel business but I managed to stay for the summer by acquiring a full time job and my own car.
Although I engineered, financed, and executed the logistics that made it possible for me to spend several summers at Schroon Lake, I could not have done it without the cooperation and good faith of my parents. I bought my first car with my own money but at age 16 I could not acquire the required insurance without an adults signature. Although my father refused to include me on his insurance policy, he reluctantly signed the contract with the broker that I hired to buy a policy in my name. He did this in order to honor a consistent policy of allowing his children to do whatever they were willing to take full responsibility for. I fully understood and appreciated the terms of this unwritten agreement and this was not the only time I stretched it to its limits. Living rent free at the cabins was not a problem but allowing me to live there alone with my own car required a leap in faith by my parents which they were reluctant to make. In the end they gave their permission. I did not violate their trust and will always be grateful for the experiences of the next 4 summers which were the highlight of my adolescent years.
My job at Lakeview Equipment Co. was a key component of my campaign to spend summers at Schroon Lake. Lakeview was located next door to Luiusanda. It was a fast growing business that included boat, tractor, and chain saw sales and service. The location on the lake soon gave birth to a marina and boat rental business. I began to hang around the dock admiring the new boats. The proprietor knew I liked boats and he occasionally let me give the new boats a test run to see if they were ok to rent. I began to make myself useful around the dock and as business increased I was hired to pump gas and clean the boats. I took on more and more of the rental responsibilities and within the first season I was managing the business on my own. I enjoyed the job so much that I would have paid to do it. Instead it paid for all of my expenses including my car.
I had one day off in the middle of the week. On that day I was allowed to take any boat that was not rented for my own use. By now I was a well known figure on the lake with my deep tan, captains hat, and sunglasses. When I pulled up anywhere with a new boat ready to water ski, I was like a magnet especially to the younger crowd. Dates were easy to get and I played it for all it was worth having both the fancy boats and my own car at my disposal. I remember noting the sharp contrast between Johnny the boat boy at Schroon Lake and the nerdy ham radio kid who never went to a high school dance in Brooklyn. I seemed to be happy in both modes but my experience at Schroon Lake provided badly needed balance and self-confidence to my social life.
These years also brought significant changes to Luisanda. When my grandfather passed away, there was no one in the family who wanted to take over the motel business. The four surviving Vollaro children were heirs to the estate and they sold the property to my boss who wanted it to expand the Lakeview business. they used the proceeds from the sale to rebuild Luisanda on the remaining lot on the opposite side of the lake.
The new Luisanda had many advantages that enhanced its use as a vacation home for multiple families. There were four separate living spaces, each having its own kitchen and bathroom. They all had hot running water, (there was none at the old Luisanda). Each owner had exclusive use of one of the spaces.
Mom & Dad’s influence
The red box
The radio station
New construction began summer ’59, completed summer ‘60
The navy decision
Strong family values and priorities
Recognition of the gift
How I acquired my first car
Learning to drive the gas truck
The Dear John letter