Today is the Fourth of July and it is my father’s birthday
…A commentary by Peter Perry

It’s the Fourth of July and while most everyone is celebrating America’s birthday and looking forward to the afternoon barbeque, I am thinking about my father Joe Perry. It’s the Fourth of July and back yards across the nation are readying the barbecue grills for the hot dogs and hamburgers. The moms are in the kitchen boiling the potatoes and eggs for the potato salads and the beer and sodas are already chilling in the fridge. But for me it’s Joe Perri (y)’s birthday. He was born on this day in 1907. My mom never forgot a birthday. And she would always remember the birthday of those who had passed on. If she were alive today I could just hear her say, “Daddy would have been 111 today.”

Today is the Fourth of July and it is my father’s birthday…
My dad in many ways possessed many of the same virtues and the cultural values that we celebrate on this day. He was bold yet kind. He was strong yet gentle. He was not educated, but wise. There was a deep-down goodness in him that guided him throughout life’s journey enabling him to fulfill a worthy purpose. Although he may not have thought about it consciously, he knew where he was going. Although he had no formal or conscious plan, he recognized that he needed to make sacrifices today for the benefit of tomorrow. For him it was simple, get up each day and go to work to earn a living. Although he did not have a formal financial or retirement plan he knew he had to earn enough money to support his family and set some monies aside for the future. Deep within him there was a clear purpose that charted his course in life. He did what was necessary through necessity since he was the father and he would need to endure and be responsible. For the Italian immigrant family, it was obvious, provide an opportunity for their children…an opportunity to a future life for their children that would be better than one he had. We were Italian Americans and for their children and their children’s children, and their future generations, they would eliminate the hyphen and become full blooded Americans. Although we would never forget our Italian heritage and culture, it was critically important that we were to fully assimilate into the American way of life. It was not complicated for my dad. If you were an American living in America then you should speak English. You did not need to learn or speak Italian. You went to school in order to get an education so that you would work with your brain and not your back. But for my dad, for him, he went to work every day. That was his purpose. Earn and save. For him there would be times when he did not have a job and he would need to find ways and create a job to earn a living. Today we might call it entrepreneurial, back then it was improvising. Whether it was using the old GMC truck to gather scraps of metal along the countryside from farmers to sell to the junk yards or renting a floor sanding machine to bring old wooden floors back to life. It may have been back breaking work but for my dad, it was a way to earn a living for his family. He worked long and hard, every day. At the end of the week my mom and dad would tally up the results of his labor. He brought home what he had earned that week to my mother to count. Mom was the family’s financial manager. His toil provided the means to buy food to nourish the family. Money to buy food and pay the bills and still have a few dollars left to deposit in the bank. My dad would earn and my mom would save, that’s how it worked. He was the minister of industry but in the home, mom was the minister justice and the minister of finance.

Today is the Fourth of July and it is my father’s birthday…
In those early days my parents did not write checks, most everything was done with cash. I still remember when my mom would insist that my dad drive her into the city to the electric company so that she could pay the electric bill in person. It was Niagara Mohawk on State Street hill back then and they had long granite counters with half glass walls sitting on top. There were little window openings every few feet in which you would walk up to the clerk and slide your payment under the glass. No computers back then, just a little old lady with silver rimmed glasses on the other side greeting you personally by name with a smiling face and a warm thank-you. We also made the stop at the bank in person. No internet and no electronic deposits or transfers. Back then everything was done face-to-face. The weekly deposit of cash into the savings account usually consisted of twenty, thirty or in good times fifty dollars. She would count out the deposit in small bills, usually fives and tens and sometimes in ones. There were long high counters and glass partitions at the bank similar to the counters at the electric company, and mom would slide the cash along with the small black bank book across the counter to the teller. The bank teller would take the payment and open the book to last page of entries. From the book she would then key in the account number, the old balance, the interest rate, and the deposit amount and then slide it down the printer’s slot on the side of the bank’s accounting machine. After recounting the bills and entering the deposit amount, this mysterious machine would then come to life with a clattering of the printer and the book would be updated as it slid down past the printer head. I could still hear the sound of the machine…”Clickity click…clack” My mom would take the book, look down and open it to the latest entries, verify that the new amounts had been posted and verify the totals in her head and smile. She would check that the interest was correctly calculated and shown in red down the interest column. The interest amount was added to the old balance and the new balance was printed in bold black letters in the adjoining column to the right. My mom did not read well and was not very good at math but put a dollar sign in front of the numbers and few that could match her genius. She would then turn to me and offer a wise comment…something like, “Peter, your father works very hard for this money and remember, this money is for the family, so don’t you ever forget it. Nobody will ever give you anything. Something for nothing is worth nothing.” And with a little bit of unschooled English…”You gotta always put some money aside for the future. You gotta save for a rainy day.”

I now know that for her, it was moments like this that gave her a full appreciation of what it meant to live in America and become an American citizen. She came over from Sicily when she was only three and had been schooled only to the fifth grade. Because she had not yet mastered the English language, she was held back a year earlier. However nothing could stop my mom’s forcefulness and determination, and so, little Carmella Scuderi decided that she deserved to be in the fifth grade…and would not be left behind…and so passed herself into the fifth grade.

Today is the Fourth of July and it is my father’s birthday…
My father Joe was a family man and he did what he did because he was responsible to his family. He endured the hardships of the early 20th century and in spite of his lack of formal education, accomplished much. His accomplishments may not seem so great by today’s generation, but for me, they were amazing. Son of Italian immigrants born in a small Pennsylvania coal mining town, his pre-ordained destiny was not to be formally educated and not to be apprenticed in a trade. His only opportunity was the black coal that lay beneath the ground.
His destiny was the same destiny of his father’s…the coal mine. His father came to this country in 1897, penniless. These immigrants did not read or write and could not speak our native language. They were poor and their only purpose was survival. Their goal was to provide …food, clothing and shelter, nothing more. No skills other than a will to survive and a strong back. Joe’s father Anthony Perri was among some four and a half million Italian immigrants that came to our shores from the period 1880 to 1924 to bear the burden of labor to build our country.
Sent by the agents from Sicily and southern Italy to the northeastern cities and towns to live in the ghettos and labor in the factories, mills and mines. For Anthony, it was the coal mines of Carbondale Pennsylvania. And for Joe (Giuseppe) a coal miner’s son, he would live a similar fate.

Today is the Fourth of July and it is my father’s birthday…
At the young age of five, my dad’s family was fractured and forced to separate when his father lost an arm in the mines under Carbondale. It was only a few short and agonizing days later when he died from the infections that ravaged through his body. His mother did not have enough means to keep the family together and through necessity sent little Joe and his brother Anthony to the county orphanage. It was there that the brothers would spend the next three years of their early formative years. It was there that Joe would receive the only formal schooling he would ever be exposed too. The education was little more than exposure to the English language and a few maps to learn about geography. It was only then that Joe realized that there was a big world outside the Carbondale mines and he would someday venture out and discover them for himself. He decided that he would not be a victim to the dark world beneath the earth which in later years would take the life of his brother Anthony. We did not know why or how, but those difficult years and struggles which he endured were sufficient to lay the necessary foundation that allowed him to shape a virtuous character built around a few simple words…”Work hard and be Responsible.” At eight years of age, his mom remarried and the brothers were once again reunited with his mom and three sisters. At eight years of age, he would now have the strength to contribute to the family’s income. He now would begin the long arduous journey of work and responsibility. The family was still very poor and at eight years of age, Joe was charged to the work of a water boy in the mines. Joe loved his new father who he called Papa Luigi and finally was now a responsible member of the family. For the next several years Joe labored in the mines and rail yards and finally at age 14, Joe repaired an old bicycle that he had found in the nearby dump. He saved pennies and nickels and patched up the punctured inner tubes and tires with tape and glue. Joe had learned that he had an aunt living in Jersey City and it would certainly be a good place to start his new life. Having finally gathering the courage to mount the bicycle and peddle eastward towards Jersey City. Back then it was 150 miles of treacherous roads, some of which were only paved with stone. With only a few dollars he had saved, no address, no map and no idea as to how or when he would get there he once again endured. Somehow, only with a young boys courage and a determination that he would never suffer the fate of his father he set forth on his journey. Peddling day and night non-stop he and the old bike somehow arrived outside his aunt’s brown stone. It had to be only through divine intervention that guided him to this new beginning. My father worked hard his entire life only to retire at the age of 83. He had endured many hardships yet achieved so much.

Today is the Fourth of July and it is my father’s birthday…
I remember when we were growing up in the fifties in that little house on Wellington Avenue. It was an old house and in constant need of attention. I can vividly recall when there was a problem as a result of a broken window, leaky faucet or to silence a squeaky door. Regardless of the type of repair required, you did not call a plumber or an electrician. If the roof leaked, you did not call a roofer. It was my dad, the handyman. The master of everything who was a little bit of a journeyman in each of the trades. He learned how to repair and fix many things only through necessity. I remember the small tool room in the basement where my dad kept all his tools. He had a pad-lock on the tool room door and valued those tools since they were the tools that sustained the family’s wellbeing . He had just about every kind of hand tool to address just about any type of repair. I can still see the shelf where he stored neat rows of little glass canning jars filled with all sorts of screws, nails and various little bits of oddly shaped metal parts of various shapes and sizes, all organized by type and size. There was no Home Depot to call upon and no money for the specialist. And certainly no need to shop for the missing part, because my dad would cut, file and shape from small bits of wood or metal to recreate the damaged or missing part needed.

Today is the Fourth of July and it is my father’s birthday…
Today is the Fourth of July and I think back to the days when the family was together when we celebrated my father’s birthday. We would picnic with the entire family and often many of our cousins or neighbors in the Helderberg Mountains. We would always send an advanced scout to reconnoiter Thatcher Park in order to locate and position where we would set up our picnic. We wanted a setting with both sun and shade and of course an open area for horse shoes and bocce ball. Of course it was necessary to pull together two or three picnic tables for the family gathering. We were probably the only family picnicking in the park on the fourth that brought a big pot of meatballs and sauce. My dad would be in charge of the timing of the meal. He decided what and when we would eat. He never ate chicken and loved spaghetti and meatballs. We did not know what pasta was but we sure knew what macaroni was.
He was the master choreographer for the meal and I still recall the moment just about an hour before meal time when he would shout the get ready-to-eat command, “Put the water on.”
I also fondly remember when we would drive up to the mountains to the park along New Scotland Avenue. My dad would be in the front with my mom riding shotgun. My sister and my three brothers and I would be in the back of the GMC and my dad would always beep the truck’s horn when we drove under the railroad bridge as we approached the toll Gate restaurant. HONK…HONK …honk honk…as it resonated from the roof of the underpass.
Today is the Fourth of July and it is my father’s birthday…
Today we celebrate America and its accomplishments. America the great…has actually accomplished nothing by itself. It is the people who have brought this country to its present greatness. People just like my dad, who started with nothing other than a determination to work hard, and be responsible to family, God and of course to country. As I look back and celebrate this Fourth of July, I think of my father and recognize the goodness in him and the cherished values that he has given me.

As I begin to get older as my vision begins to cloud, I look back and can clearly see the true purpose of the lessons my father has gifted me. Be responsible and be purposeful and you will attain success. It is not what a person has achieved which expresses the worth of an individual. It says little of a person’s character. What is more significant…is what a person is or has become. My dad was a father, and an inspiration to all his children and all their children. Happy birthday Dad, thank you for your many sacrifices but especially for all that you have taught us, today is the Fourth of July and we are celebrating your birthday.

Happy Birthday Pop…your son Peter