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Giovanni Valente and his son Nicholas in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, about 1965

Giovanni Valente and his son Nicholas, circa 1965, 30 KB

Above: Giovanni Valente (1887-1969) and the oldest of his eleven children Nicholas (Nicola Natale) (1916-2000) in Erlton, Cherry Hill, New Jersey. About 1965.

When Nicholas was a boy he used to go to the Italian-bread bakery where his father was working to get the bread for the family (6 or 7 loaves). He would break off the end of a loaf and eat it while walking down the street. "I felt like Benjamin Franklin," he said.

Giovanni Valente was an Italian-bread baker for over fifty years in Camden, New Jersey. In the early years he worked twelve hours a day, six days a week, for twelve to fourteen dollars a week, but his family never went without food. He apprenticed Nicholas to the Camden tailor Nicola Mancini (who was Giovanni's brother Donato's brother-in-law) who taught Nicholas the business, and after graduating Camden High School Nicholas worked as a fitter for Mr. Mancini, earning more money than his father but working just as long hours. Serving in the Coast Guard during the Second World War came as a strange liberation for Nicholas: "I had never had so much free time before," he said. And after the war he wasn't willing to return to working such long hours for Mr. Mancini.

Notes of Conversations

Preface: The following are the unedited notes I made after conversations I had with my uncle. The first set are from an afternoon in maybe 1995 or a little earlier.

When Uncle Nick began his apprenticeship with Mr. Mancini, he was about 13 years old. He left school at 3:15 and began work at 3:30 and stayed there until 7 PM. He received 25¢ a week -- except once he broke a display box window he was cleaning and didn't get paid for 2 months, to teach him to be careful with things. An apprenticeship to be a tailor was supposed to last 7 years they said; but Uncle Nick got moved toward the business side of things; he was a fitter. Up to WW2 Uncle Nick made $18-20 a week; grandpop was making maybe $15-18. Uncle Nick worked 6 days a week and a half-day on Sundays, beginning at 7 AM and sometimes he was there until 10 PM because customers couldn't leave work for day-time fittings; Uncle Nick called it a 70 hour week. Uncle Nick did not go back to work for Mr. Mancini after WW2 because Mr. Mancini was still doing business this way. A suit used to cost $65, a jacket $12, an overcoat $14. A jacket took a tailor 40 hours to make. Many tailors did not let their sons become tailors because the work was so tedious and so poorly paid.

After working for Mr. Mancini, Uncle Nick found Coast Guard hours easy -- he had never had so much free time before. When he was stationed in Massachusetts, he had evenings and weekends off for the first time.

During the war Uncle Nick was assigned to "sub watching" in Ketchikan, Alaska, on Middleton Island. As far as I know no German submarines were ever actually spotted off the Atlantic coast of American, and Uncle Nick did not see any submarines off the Pacific coast either.

With the United States heading toward war, Uncle Nick did not want to go into the army, but the navy would not take him because he wore eyeglasses. But when the United States declared war, Uncle Nick was finally accepted into the Coast Guard (1942).

The following notes are from April 1999:

The Germans had landed spies along the East Coast of the United States. (But they were all caught [of course].) So the Coast Guard rushed to bring many men into service. But then there were no more spies found and the Coast Guard was left with all these men that it had nothing for them to do; there were no boats for them.

Massachusetts: 1 month of boot camp, 1 week to shoot a gun, 1 week to learn to parade march. His Lt. told him: stay here, I'll look after you. But Uncle Nick wanted to get a "rating" (official military skill) so that if they were shipped out, he would not have the lowest jobs to do (which is what the men without ratings did). He wanted to go to radio school.

So they sent him to Atlantic City for 6 months of radio school. It took 5 months to master Morse Code: to pass the course you had to be able to handle 20 words per minute. (Uncle Nick had to serve on Shore Patrol 3 times, which he hated since the men got drunk.) He also had to patrol the Boardwalk: women used to call out -- "You draft dodgers, why aren't you fighting in Europe like my son!" Uncle Nick said: well, did your son enlist? Woman: no. Uncle Nick: well then.

Then they sent him to Philadelphia. But he didn't like that because he had to live at home, and that meant that he was no longer free on evenings and weekends (as he had gotten used to being in military service).

At Alaska, they started out with Springfield rifles (WW1 one shot, pull the bolt), then they got 38s, then 45s, finally a small machine gun with an open frame shoulder brace. But Uncle Nick never fired any of them. "They gave me a gun but they did not teach me how to shoot it." (They did not teach him how to swim either.)

Nicholas Valente, Coast Guard Portrait, 20 KB Nicholas Valente at Middleton Island, Alaska, 20 KB

After the War ended and he was discharged, Uncle Nick did not consider going to college because he was already 29 years old (and he would have been 33 when he finished college). He did not want to go back to the tailoring life, but he did not have an idea for something else: he felt he was already too old to change careers.

In Alaska they had a long stretch of beach they used to patrol in rotation, watching for submarines, day after day, night after night. It was a long walk, and no one ever saw anything. They used to carry their rifles with them. One day there was a party, maybe a birthday, and the men drank too much. So Uncle Nick, who was a bit older than the others, unloaded the rifles and the men patrolled without bullets. Uncle Nick thought they would be safer that way.

The following note is from November 2000:

Uncle Nick used to deliver packages across the Benjamin Franklin bridge (from Camden to Philadelphia) when he was 12 years old. He used to ride a bicycle to school, and after school he went to work.

Note from 21 May 1997:

Uncle Nick did not remember his father with hair. He thinks that his father lost his hair at age 35, the same age at which Uncle Nick lost his hair. (Giovanni Valente had red hair.)

Undated Note:

When grandpop first came to America he worked for the railroad. The men went out at night to use fire to melt the ice that jammed the railroad switches; he hated this work. But Uncle Nick could remember lying in bed late at night in winter on Berkley Street when he was a boy, listening to the train whistles in the distance.

Notes from 28 September 2012:

His sister Vittoria said that Uncle Nick never forgave grandpop for sending him to be an apprentice. He was eight years old, according to Vittoria's memory. He used to walk over the (Benjamin Franklin) bridge (which opened in 1926 when Nicholas was ten years old) to Philadelphia when he had deliveries to make. The tailor shop was on Mickle Street in Camden. The lawyers used to come in to have custom-made suits; Vittoria thinks that was why Uncle Nick had wanted to become a lawyer (In any case, he had wanted to go to college, to become a professional man rather than a tradesman). Uncle Lou was apprenticed to a shoemaker, who was also a sculptor: the shoemaker was a very cultured man who knew all about art and things like this.

Part of the reason grandpop put his sons in apprenticeships was because he did not want them to get mixed up in gangs (There were of course gangsters in Camden; everyone knew who they were). But that was only part of it, because it was very important to the Italian immigrants that their sons learn trades ("someone with art in his hands" is what grandmom called anyone who had learned a trade). Their grandmother Maria Vittoria wanted her son Antonio to become a barber (as he did) because if you knew a trade you were somebody (When grandpop learned to make bread, he became "somebody", no longer just a laborer). Of course the oldest son had to be somebody important. "You remember when my mother and Aunt Rose used to sit and talk," Vittoria said. I remember: "My Louie", "My Nickie".

The URL of this Web page: https://www.roangelo.net/valente/grpnchls.html
Last revised: 3 October 2012 : 2012-10-03 by Robert [Wesley] Angelo.

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