Last week I posted about my Petrini great grandparents, Italian immigrants to northeastern Pennsylvania who died in the flu epidemic of 1918. Today, for Veterans Day, I want to introduce you to their son, my grandfather Bart Petrini, Sr., who was a World War II veteran.
He was 11 years old when both of his parents died on October 9, 1918. He was a smart boy who must have been an excellent student, but he had to drop out of elementary school to work for the coal mines, in order to support his little sisters. That is what the coal mining companies called life insurance, and it was the only kind of insurance a family like his had: if a miner died, the company would guarantee a job for a son of his who was at an appropriate age.
At 11, Bart was eligible to work as a breaker boy. Well, technically he wasn’t. The law said coal companies couldn’t hire breaker boys younger than 14. But they accepted a boy’s word for whatever age he claimed to be, even if he looked much younger. Pennsylvania had no birth certificates at the time, so nobody could prove that he wasn’t 14. In fact, boys as young as 8 or 9 years old worked in the breaker, a huge structure where boys sorted the coal and rock coming out of the mine. The air was filled with coal dust, there was little natural light, the work was dangerous, and the noise of the machinery was deafening. Six days a week, children like my grandfather left home before dawn and trudged back after dark.
He worked hard, and was moved into the mines as a teenager, where a group of Polish miners sort of adopted him and taught him the job. They also taught him Polish. He had learned English in school, and Italian from his parents, who spoke little English. So he grew up to be fluent in three languages.
Another lesson he learned was how poorly the miners were treated, how dangerous the work was, and how little money they made. To help them, he got involved in union politics, rising to leadership positions in the local miners’ union.
Along the way, he married my grandmother and fathered my father and uncle. He was in his late 30s, with a wife and two sons, when he was drafted into the Army to fight in World War II. He fought in several major battles, including the Battle of the Bulge, and was in the second wave of soldiers on the beach at Normandy. After the war, he ran for mayor of Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, and held the job for many years, until he ran for Burgess and then Mayor and was re-elected repeatedly, having a long career in politics.
There is so much more I could say about my grandfather. He died when I was 8, but I remember his gentleness, his intelligence, his intolerance for meanness, and the way he loved his prunes for breakfast. Despite his fifth-grade education, he was a brilliant man, well-read, creative, and fearless. I remember that he accepted after retirement a position as superintendent of a state-owned facility for indigent elderly people. It was supposed to be a cushy figurehead position, but he instituted reforms designed to give the residents a feeling of control over their own lives. As a child, I spent a lot of time at “the hospital” as thought of it: standing on stools in the kitchens, baking pies with the kitchen staff and some of the women who lived there; helping my grandmother plant pansies outside; and getting to know the residents.
He came down with acute leukemia in his 60s and passed away a few months later. But this man who never finished elementary school has sons and grandchildren with advanced degrees. I was too young to ask him about his experiences in the war, though I’d like to hear if he ever spoke much with my father about that period. I know he nearly was kept here in the U.S., rather than sent overseas. He was still in training when because of his language skills, he was pulled in as a translator for interrogating prisoners. The officers of the camp started the paperwork to have him reassigned to remain there, translating, but his unit got orders and shipped out before the new assignment came through.