FIREFIGHTER, INSTRUCTOR, CITY COUNCILMAN
WRITTEN BY MIKE VENTIMIGLIA
I was born at Dormody Hospital in Monterey, CA, on September 18, 1944, the son of Michael and Florence (Iannotta) Ventimiglia. I was given the name Horace--the Americanized version of Orazio--after my paternal grandfather, who came to America from Isola delle Femmine, Sicily, but go by Mike. My father fished for his brother-in-law Mariano Torrente, and my mother was a stay-at-home housewife. Our family consisted of my sisters Mary Grace and Barbara Ann, me, and my younger brother, Joseph, who died in a golfing/drowning accident at the Naval Postgraduate School Monterey Pines Golf Club at the age of 52 on November 29, 2005.
My childhood was a little different than that of most kids, because my parents did not drive or have a car; we either walked or took the bus. The reason was that when my father was 26 years old, he fell off the back of a moving flatbed truck at Jacks Ballpark while laying out fishing nets for inspection and repair. He was run over by the rear dual wheels, but he escaped injury because he tightened his muscles and prevented any serious harm from being done. He had a fear of vehicles after that and never drove. Dad was a skiff man on the Vagabond purse seiner. His job was to bring the net back to the boat after the sardines were encircled in the net.
Crew of the Vagabond, L-R first row: Peter Rocha, John Grammatico, Mike Ventimiglia, Frank “Ike” Ventimiglia, Mario San Paolo; second row: Joe Cardinale, Sal Rombie, Captain Mariano Torrente, unidentified individual.
OUR HOME AND NANA’S HOME
We lived in the Del Monte Grove area of Monterey. Most of my father’s family lived in the downtown area of Monterey, so I never really got to know my relatives. A couple of times a year we would take the train to Oakland to visit my maternal grandmother and my mother’s sisters who lived there. Those times bring back pleasant memories as Nana lived in a big two-story house with living quarters upstairs and a large basement downstairs equipped with a kitchen, bathroom, sofa, chairs, and television. The family would congregate around a large rectangular table, where we ate all our meals. We would occupy the downstairs all day. We dared not utilize the upstairs of the house; it was strictly for sleeping and was kept pristine. The basement area also had an old wine cellar where at one time wine vats were stored for homemade grappa. The backyard was large enough for fruit trees, chickens, and a garden for fava beans and other vegetables. My memories of time spent there are still vivid.
Del Monte Grove, Monterey, was home to numerous children and provided a perfect playground for us all. There were several empty lots where we could play baseball, and the streets were unpaved, which was perfect for street football. When the sardine fishing came to a halt in the early 1950s, my father was no longer able to fish; he then dealt cards at the Assembly Cigar Store and other card rooms located on lower Alvarado Street. Mom took in laundry and ironing to help make ends meet. The Assembly Cigar Store run by Pops Bruno was my favorite place to go. Pops would give me an orange crush soda and sit me in the back room to watch my dad deal cards, while I played with the empty cigar boxes stored alongside the big wooden benches. When Dad was done dealing cards, we would venture off to see what was happening on both the Fisherman’s Wharf and the commercial pier, Wharf II. I was about eight years old on the wharf with my dad when I heard him speaking a language that I did not understand.
My education was in public schools. While I was attending the old Del Monte Elementary School, it had to be closed due to earthquake damage in the mid-1950s. While repairs were being made, we were sent to La Mesa School for half-day sessions. I remember receiving a dose of polio vaccine in school; we stood in line and were given a sugar cube with a drop of vaccine and told to eat it. I went on to attend Walter Colton Junior High and Monterey High School. Later in life I attended Monterey Peninsula College night school and received my Associate Science Degree in Fire Science.
CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF FORESTRY
When I graduated from high school, it was time to go to work. My uncle, who was a foreman in the California Department of Forestry, signed me up to work in Hollister, CA, as a seasonal firefighter.
I worked out of Hollister for four seasons as a firefighter. I did not know at the time this position would launch my lifelong career, 54 years, in the fire service. I worked 220 hours a week, no time off. At the end of my tour of duty, I would get two days off and return to work. I spent four years in the forestry unit until I was drafted into the Army. At boot camp at Fort Ord, CA, I turned down Officer Candidate School, because I did not want to extend my two-year commitment with another year of service. The Lord was watching out for me because the Army changed my occupation training from mechanics school to firefighter. The on-the-job training I received added to my previous experience. The Army assigned me to Colorado Springs, CO, where I spent six months before I was sent to Vietnam.
In 1966 I was 22 years old when I embarked on my tour to Vietnam, where I spent one year exactly to the day serving my country. Needless to say, my mind was filled with fear of the unknown. I was a kid who never traveled further from home than Oakland, CA, and I did not realize at the time how this would influence my thinking in the years to come. I was in an engineer detachment, consisting of about 12 firefighters assigned to protect the airstrip, fuel dock, fuel tank farm and tent city and to train 20 local Vietnamese to fight fires. I gained a vast amount of knowledge from my comrades in Vietnam. Most of all, I learned there is nothing that cannot be done if you put your mind to it and seek counsel from others. I was assigned to the 530th Engineer Detachment located at the Army airstrip at Cam Ranh Bay, a deep-water seaport. Our detachment was apart from the main group that was located at tent city. Our highest-ranking member was a corporal who was on his second tour of duty at Cam Ranh Bay; we had no officers with us. The corporal was inspirational and taught us how to use heavy equipment and spearheaded our projects. Building a fire station and working on other projects made the tour of duty go fast.
530-B fire crash engine Bunk with mosquito netting
We built a drive-through fire station, using salvaged material from the base dump. The metal was from bomb racks, and the wood was dunnage from cargo ship containers. We created our own septic tank system for showers and flushing toilets. When we entertained company officers at our fire station, they marveled at our ingenuity.
FIRE DEPARTMENT EMPLOYMENT
When I came home from Vietnam, I applied for a position with the Pacific Grove Fire Department and was fortunate to be hired. I was excited! This opportunity came at the right time because I did not want to go back into forestry. I was back home on the peninsula, and it felt good helping people and saving their homes and belongings from fire. I started night school at Monterey Peninsula College for my Fire Science Degree. It would take me about four years of night school to achieve my Associate Science Degree. I worked at Pacific Grove Fire Department for two years, but there seemed to be no advancement on the horizon because all the officers were young. I made the decision to apply to the City of Monterey for both the police and fire departments and was fortunate that the fire department was hiring first. Having good mentors along the way allowed me to rise through the ranks quickly. Reaching the rank of Division Chief in 1976, I held that position for 28 years before retiring. I returned as a part-time Fire Inspector for an additional 12 years, completing my fire service time with a total of 54 years of service.