Return to the Sea, Anthony Erbetta, 1913-2000

Anthony "Tony" Erbetta went home late last year.

Not, this time, to Boca Raton, Florida, where he had happily retired with his wife of 59 years, Louise. Not to Woburn or Lexington, where he had raised Bob, Ron, and Gail. Not even to Marblehead, where the family lives starting in the early 1950s.

He went home to Italy, to the coastal town of Gaeta, near Naples, where he was born in 1913. Home to the Gulf of Gaeta, where he and his father had fished together in the early years of the 20th century. To a town not radically changed in the last half-century, despite the occasional cyber café and boom box. Snuggled up to the coast on the front seam of the Italian boot, the town swells in summer as Italy takes its vacation, and quiets down again in the winter.

By Christmas, few of the restaurants are still open, but the town piazza teems year-round at dusk. Traditionally black-clad old people stroll peacefully arm in arm amid young people in baggy pants, chunky shoes, and short leather skirts. The piazza feels like a neighborhood gathering in which a visiting stranger stands out like a beacon. Before the U.S. Navy established a base there and before the beach clubs and information kiosks sprang up, it was a small Mediterranean fishing village.

On Two Oceans

Tony Erbetta died March 5, 2000, at 86. He had told his family that he wanted his ashes scattered over two different oceans, near the places he loved best in the world: Marblehead Harbor and the Gulf of Gaeta. When his three children honored his wish in November of 2001, it rained on both occasions, a circumstance he wouldn't have minded. Weather didn't bother the son of a fisherman.

In Gaeta, in the late fall, the weather is most likely to be chilly and blustery, as it was in late 2001 when, with an assist from the U.S. Naval Support Activity Office in Naples, a small service vessel conveyed Tony's sons Bob and Ron Erbetta, and daughter Gail Doyle, out into the gray, choppy Mediterranean. After a brief, solemn ceremony, they cast Tony's ashes to the wind and the sea he had loved as a child.

It was something of a contrast to the other memorials for "AE," as his family called him (to distinguish him from his grandson, Anthony C. Erbetta, or "ACE"). Ceremonies in Boca Raton and Marblehead had been packed with business associates, friends, and family members. People knew him and loved him, and they came to celebrate him.

Not the Same Old Story

You may think this is just another kind remembrance of a poor kid who came to American from far away, worked hard, made good, and then went home to his Maker. Aren't there a thousand guys like Tony Erbetta: immigrants who landed in New England, added something to its character, and left behind fair accomplishment?

Yes and no.

Yes, because remembering Tony is about remembering how the America of 1920 became the America of 2000. Gritty guys like Tony's father arrived by the boatload in the early decades of the century from southern Europe, most too poor to be able to pick and choose among the professions, all of them eager to take whatever work there was. Erasmo Erbetta had first laid eyes on America from the deck of an Italian navy supply ship that had sailed into Norfolk VA to pick up a load of coal. He was entranced, and by 1917 he had sailed to America to make his fortune - a young man in his 20s, robust and filled with passion and ambition. He took a job as a butcher, even though he'd been a fisherman back home in Gaeta, and even though he had his quartermaster's papers from the Italian navy. By 1919, he had earned enough money to send for Tony and his mother.

And no, because remembering Tony means remembering an especially determined kid who shined shoes at the Somerville railway station, made slush cones at the beach, and worked in the butcher shop to help his family stay afloat during the Depression. He grew up, graduated with the Somerville High School class of 1932, went to MIT, and then got down to the business of becoming a success in America. After working in a distillery, he developed an interest in chemistry and took a shine to the new refrigeration business. During World War II, he outfitted newly built U.S. Navy ships with refrigeration systems at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, establishing on his own time a class to train Navy men in how to operate the systems.

In 1946, Tony, with now-broadened experience in refrigeration, founded a contracting company called Boston Air Conditioning in Somerville with one employee (himself). The company grew up under his leadership to become BALCO, one of New England's top heating, ventilation, and air conditioning companies. Tony warmed up or cooled down a great many of Boston's biggest business centers, from banks to hospitals to church buildings (excerpt from Return to the Sea, Anthony Erbetta, 1913-2000, January 2001)




Portrait of a Navy Wife: Carol Cornett

Like an eagle caged I pine
On this dull, unchanging shore.
Oh, give me the flashing brine,
The spray and the tempest's roar.

So read the centerfold, quoting Epes Sargent, of a pamphlet welcoming newly assigned crew members to the guided missile frigate USS Stephen W. Groves. It's a rhyme dear to a sailor's heart, and perhaps somewhere hidden in the verse is the silhouette of a loved one who's made a farewell on that "dull, unchanging shore." Someone for whom long waits are a fact of life.

And so it was for Carol Cornett - except for the part about the "dull, unchanging shore." As the wife of former navy Commander Billy Cornett, II, who served as captain of the Groves, she spent much of her married life saying farewells to her husband. The goodbyes didn't get any easier with time, since Commander Cornett was not usually out to sea just for a breezy couple of weeks at a time. It was more like six months, sometimes in a world hotspot that didn't offer a nearby phone (there were no computers, no Internet, and no cell phones in those days). But for Carol, how one spent the wait was the key to coping with it, starting with an outlook that saw the landside world as anything but dull and unchanging.

For a half-year at a stretch, Carol became chief cook and bottle washer, chauffer, handyman, supervisor, decision maker, correspondent, and single parent - really, not unlike most of today's working moms. But add that load to the 15 different house moves in 20 years, the need to settle quickly and smoothly on short notice into new neighborhoods and new schools, and the necessary absence of dad during crucial times, and you could have a life with serious complications.

A life with some "hard moments," Carol said quietly one day, recalling that her husband had already shipped out to Vietnam and could not be reached when she got the news of her first pregnancy, his absence from high school graduations, and the countless missed birthdays. In the explanations to the kids, there could never be anything more complicated or dramatic that the fact that dad was just out doing his job.

There was neither a Pollyana-glad-girl nor a yeah-it's-pretty-tough from this lady with the soft trace of Texas in her voice. She was proud of her husband, of the U.S. Navy, of being part of American military life. And talking with her, you saw and heard a woman of enormous energy and vitality who thought that focusing on other people, perfecting the art of listening, working at a satisfying job (she was a freelance interior decorator), and being a mom to two daughters were the ways to cope with the long goodbyes. Even when pressed to talk about what it really felt like to be a one-parent family for half the year, and a two-parent family for the other half, she preferred instead to talk about the importance of the telephone.

It became clear - though she only circled without touching down on the topic - that it was the commander's wife herself who often provided an emotional home port for many of the ship's wives, especially those younger and newer to the navy, whose husbands sailed out with the Stephen W. Groves. Nobody assigned her to this job, but like the best of back-fence neighbors, she was frequently the compassionate voice at the other end of the line... (excerpt from Portrait of a Navy Wife: Carol Cornett, April 1988)




Gene and Jazz

Gene Arnould tells a story about being a teenager in a Scarboro, Illinois, Methodist youth group meeting one day, listening as the young minister, the group's leader, talked about being a jazz fan. One young sophisticate murmured approval and then asked, "Do you collect Brubeck?" Gene, whose main experience with music had been the church choir and the Top 40, quietly wondered what a "brubeck" was...

The rest, according to the old chestnut, is history.

Gene attended college in Illinois and then made his way east where he attended divinity school at Harvard, became a minister, and served for a time at Old North church in Marblehead. He left the ministry and opened the Arnould Gallery & Framery on Washington Street in 1978. The by-now extensive record and CD collections went too (and that trajectory is loaded with Arnould anecdotes; he's among the best story tellers you'll ever meet).

Anybody who knows Gene Arnould - and we mean in Marblehead and far across the globe - knows that he not only discovered what a Brubeck was and became a jazz junkie, but eventually helped establish a summer jazz series that in 2010 celebrates its 26th season. It's safe to say (by unscientific accounts) that it is the longest running, all-volunteer, continuously operating jazz festival in the nation, attracting some of the jazz world's most internationally acclaimed and beloved players, many of whom started out in New England .... (from Marblehead Summer Jazz Celebrates, 2009 and 2010)




Ellen Becker-Gray: From Marblehead to the Movies

You saw her in "30 Rock," "Pink Panther 2," "Gone, Baby, Gone," "Evening," "The Women," "21," "The Great Debaters," and more than 35 other films, television shows, and commercials.

She's played a beautician, a flirt, a legislator, a drunk, a Celtics fan, a wedding guest, and a hundred other characters, and has appeared in films with Meg Ryan, Glenn Close, Annette Benning, Kevin Spacey, Mel Gibson, and a rainbow of other high-visibility stars. Shortly, you'll see her with Richard Gere, Joan Allen, and Jason Alexander in "Hachiko: A Dog's Story." The list keeps growing.

But wait: she was your child's real-life kindergarten teacher in Marblehead not so long ago.

Sound like a movie plot? It's not. Ellen Becker-Gray is anything but fiction and acting is no fantasy life for her. Today this feisty Marblehead native is a hard-working actor based in Rhode Island who, after an established career in elementary education -- as kindergarten teacher Ellen Becker-Gray in Marblehead's Eveleth School -- decided to follow a lifelong passion and make a career out of acting.

Her progression from one career to another, and her success in her new life, might be called meteoric. In fact, in the space of a few short years, Becker-Gray's filmography looks like cells rapidly dividing: her list of appearances covers two single-space typed pages, topped most recently by a principal role in "Tricks of a Woman," now on its way to the Cannes Film Festival; she plays the hairdresser of Dessi, played by Elika Portnoy, the film's lead female. (The film just won a Best Picture Award at the Monaco International Film Festival.) .... (from Ellen Becker Gray: From Marblehead to the Movies, Marblehead Reporter, March 2009)