San Diego Stories by Salvatore Filippone

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May 02, 2004

Four-finger Frank

The fire museum downtown was having some sort of event outside, because they had all of the old engines were parked out in the street. It’s a rare occasion, to see all these beautiful antique machines that often remain stored away in silence. The red of the old era trucks is slightly different, perhaps from aging. I wouldn’t know the real difference anyway, being colorblind. The scene reminded me of being a kid, of wanting to be a fireman when I grew up.

I’m a web designer/everything nowadays, a far cry from rushing into burning buildings and extinguishing blazes. When I was a kid, being a fireman was one of the greatest things to be, besides an astronaut. But, the sky was not the limit for me, the ground was, and I had an uncle who was a fire captain, so I had made my decision at the ripe old age of six. My uncle Frankie was actually an older second cousin of mine, but since my father’s only brother had died back in 1956, Frankie kind of filled that void. I knew that he was a fireman, which didn’t have much effect on me until one particular afternoon.

After school was out, I’d usually go home and play outside until dinnertime or until the sun went down. This one afternoon, I was sitting out on the front porch with my dad, when I heard a low rumble come from up Juniper Street. The red fire truck rolled down the hill slowly, coming to a stop in front of our house. Two blasts of that really loud fire horn sounded. I sat there, a bit dumbstruck, probably wondering what a fire truck was doing in front of our porch, until one of the doors opened and a fireman stepped out. It was uncle Frankie!

I ran out to meet him as fast as I could and gave him a big old hug. I was happy enough just to see him, but when I heard him say, “Wanna go for a ride?”, I almost blew a gasket. Boy, a ride in a real fire truck!

Climbing in was impossible. Uncle Frankie gave me boost. The guys put me right up front, next to the steering wheel, and slapped those big ole fireman headphones on my small head. We began our trip around the block, and then I started busting their chops about sounding the horn. They relented, and I went for it. I laid into it, as hard as I could. The neighbors were coming out of their houses! I let go, scared, and the firemen laughed. Uncle Frankie egged me on, “Honk the horn! Honk the horn!” I hit it again. Another burst of laughter came form the firemen. I was giggling like crazy. Being a fireman was fun…

Years passed, but my interest in being a fireman metamorphosed into being a baseball player, once I started playing little league. The ride always stayed with me though. I really loved my Uncle. He was the hub of the family, even though I, or we (the whole Filippone clan) didn’t realize it.

Every time there was a family gathering, Frank was the organizer, or the headquarters for the party. New Years, Easter, 4th of July, Super Bowl, Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthday parties -- all were at Uncle Frank’s house. Anywhere from 25 to 40 relatives were all gathered to celebrate, catch up, and have a good time. For six more years, the gatherings went on, until Frank got sick with cancer.

I was thirteen years old -- old enough to know that cancer was bad. How bad? It was 1985, and both my grandfather and dearest uncle were deteriorating in front of me. I would see my grandfather go from near 200 lbs. to 85lbs. in a few months. I had seen Uncle Frankie for the last time in the winter of that year. He still looked good, except that he was tired and worn out. I went with my dad, who was doing a bad job of hiding his hurt. We went upstairs to the living room, where he lay on the sofa. He was in pajamas. He struggled a bit to lay up and turned around to sit.

“No, cugino, please lay down.”, said my father, in Sicilian. They always spoke in dialect.

“It’s okay, Vince, it’s okay…”, he replied.

Then they made small talk, which was unusual. Even though death was never mentioned, it was exactly what they were talking about. I could feel the heaviness in the conversation, and it made me awful sad, but I didn’t know exactly why. I got a chance to talk to him briefly, and I remember he managed to crack a smile when I told him about school and other stuff. He got tired all of a sudden, and then we left. It was the last time I saw him.

A couple of months later, while visiting my grandpa, the phone rang. I picked it up.

“Who is this?”, a voice asked me in Sicilian dialect. It was female.

“It’s Sal. Who’s this?”, I asked back, irritated. Porticellese have a bad habit of asking you first, even though they’re the ones calling.

“It’s you parrina(godmother). Hey, did-a you know thatchoo Uncle Frankie, he’s-a dead?”

And that was how I found out. This rude, shrill voice delivered the message to my ear, reverberating as I gave the phone to my mother and walked into the bedroom. I sat on the bed, still trying to process the phone call, and wept for my dead uncle. My grief slowly turned into anger. It was the cancer that killed him, but I was pissed at my godmother, as if she were the one responsible. The way she told me was so matter-of-fact, as if the weather had changed or something.

I was an altar boy at the time, and I served for his Mass. I took extra care to make sure everything was in order up on the altar, so that Father Marconi would say a great Mass. I was so preoccupied with all the stuff to do, that my grief took a back seat. The church was packed. It seemed like all of San Diego came. It was the first time I understood exactly what kind of impact this man made. I couldn’t believe how many people knew him. Above the weeping, a colleague of his delivered the eulogy, remembering the practical joker named Frank. I remember that the guy put on a pair of Groucho glasses, the ones with the fake nose and moustache, at the end of it. The church erupted into laughter briefly, and then the grieving resumed.

At the end of the Mass, I changed out of my smock, and went to join my family. I was allowed to go up to the coffin briefly and say my goodbyes. As soon as I got within a few steps, I let loose. It felt good to let it all go.

The pallbearers removed the coffin and brought it outside. Nearly one hundred firemen were lined up outside, seemingly all the way down State Street. They were in full dress uniform, in a line behind a big engine, saluting. The white gloves, the hats, the shiny buttons and shoes along with the blue uniforms were amazing to see. I recognized a few of them from family barbecues. They escorted the coffin away to the cremation. And that was it.

The family kind of drifted apart afterwards. We had parties, reunions and barbecues, but the difference was obvious. I could sense it in the faces of my relatives, especially in that of my Aunt JoAnn, his wife. The family makes the effort, but not as before. In recent years, it’s been like old times. I guess we’re all getting old. When we are together, we occasionally talk about him.

I stopped to talk with an old friend Gilbert a while ago, in front of Caffe Italia. He was seated outside with his colleagues, having coffee. He’s a fireman today, over at the Little Italy Fire Station, my uncle’s old station. When he told me that, I mentioned that I had an uncle who used to be a captain.

His boss interrupted us, and asked me, “What was your uncle’s name?”

“Frank Filippone”, I replied.

“Frank Filippone…I was a probie under Frank.”

He told me about how his early days as a firefighter and having worked together with my uncle until he got sick. He told me that they had a nickname for him – Four-fingered Frank. I forgot that my uncle had lost one of his fingers.

Posted by sfilippone at May 2, 2004 09:54 PM