My parents, Joseph G. and Frances M. Crivello, were born in 1907 and 1912, respectively, in Pittsburg,California. Their parents immigrated around the turn of the century from small fishing villages in Sicily to join the growing Italian fishing community in Monterey. When I think about the Monterey world in which they each grew up, I picture dirt roads and empty lots. My mother remembered that the first electric light in her home was a single bulb that hung down on a wire. Wharf #1 had not yet been built and Spaghetti Hill had hardly a home on it. Cannery Row, was a run down, industrial area of battered, canneries, old buildings and very, very stinky!
My mother was the first of two girls and the fourth child of eight of Caterina and Anthony Russo. Her sister Jenny was the youngest and a dear and lifelong paisana. Her brothers Biff, Lee, Shedo, Alley, Mickey and Flash were fun-loving and made the home lively. She started school speaking no English, but quickly learned. She liked school and was proud to have made it to her freshman year in high school before she had to leave to help her mother at home. And no wonder! Her mother had her hands full mending nets for her husband while also washing and ironing and cooking three meals a day for a family of ten, as well as any and all guests. My grandmother’s table was always full. She could make five loaves of bread with just one egg or soup for all with just a single bone. As youngsters, my cousins Betty Lucido and Frances Russo loved to come to lunch because they never knew who might sit around the table for pasta or soup!
My father’s upbringing was dramatically different. He grew up with his father and younger brother Paul. While his father fished, my father was left to his own defenses. He loved playing baseball or kick-the-can in the street with the neighborhood kids Sterling Bruno, Sal Davigo and Joe Ferrante, who became his lifelong pals. Baseball became his lifelong obsession! Although he was a good student, my father left school in the eighth grade to go to work fishing. My mother often wondered aloud how his upbringing could have possibly prepared him to become such a family man. I believe I know. Numerous times while growing up, at a wedding or funeral, my father would take me by the hand and introduce me to a very old woman I didn’t know. Then he would say, “Do you know how many times I had dinner at her house?” A tear would almost begin to form in his eyes. I’ve always thought that when his friends were called to dinner from playing kick-the-can in the street, their mothers invited my dad in too. I believe that is where he saw what family life looked like.
The history of immigration in America in the early 1900’s is fraught with just such tales of hardship. The Italian immigrants who came to Monterey, however, had a unique
My parents were married in 1932. Shortly thereafter they purchased their first boat, the Sea Lion with my father’s dear Uncle Marco Lucido. Dad and Uncle Marco skippered this boat with his nephews as crew until it was confiscated by the Navy to patrol the California Coast around WWII. My father and Marco handed over the Sea Lion, as other boat owners did as well, with dismay but determined to do the right thing. It was returned in March, 1945, extremely beaten up and unseaworthy.
In 1937, now with one child, Marie, and Catherine on the way, my dad commissioned a brand new purse seiner, 75’ long, named the New Crivello. It was the thrill of his young career and a huge but grounded leap toward his future on the sea. However, life has a funny way of twisting one’s well-laid and hopeful plans. Two weeks after receiving the new flagship, the New Crivello, hit the rocks off Pacific Grove. The brand-new purse seiner might have been saved if the towboat skipper had raised the boat onto floats before dragging it to dry dock. This something the towboat skipper learned from watching the New Crivello break apart against the crashing surf.
Certainly, a shock and a heartbreak for my dad, the loss of the New Crivello did not deter him. He was young and hopeful and the fish were still biting! He paid off every penny of his debt. He then coordinated with partners and a Tacoma, Washington, boat builder to build three sister ships: the Endeavor, the Sea Boy and the C. R. Martinolich.
My father loved fishing, and he was enterprising. He couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
My mother, a wonderful storyteller, described the exhilaration of the height of the sardine industry with relish. “It was fun,” she would explain though my father worked tirelessly, and she worked hard while now raising four children and a stint in the canneries. As She described...“
When the men were home, they were pulling in fish as fast as they could unload them. When the men went up or down the coast of California to fish, the women pulled together chattering over back fences and on telephones. One husband might call his wife, but all of us would spread the news of the phone call and the day’s big catch. When the men returned home, all the families headed to the beach for parties of pasta boiling over open fires and sea urchins pulled right off of the rocks. The Depression didn’t hurt us much because pasta was cheap and fish was plentiful.”
Fishing was equally thrilling for my siblings. They were very proud of my dad and awed by the big boats he commanded. John, the third in line, was five when my father owned a share of the Sea Boy. At every opportunity, he walked down to the wharf by himself, jumped onto a skiff and rowed himself onto the Sea Boy anchored in the bay. He tells the story of how he was running from the bow to the stern one day, when all of a sudden he found himself in my father’s arms! Apparently, my father was below deck and knew the hatch was open. Hearing my brother’s running steps, he quickly prepared to catch the youngster as he fell through the hatch. John remembers his amazement at how my dad maneuvered the large power skiffs to set the nets which surrounded the sardines and scooped them up. A huge boom lowered tons of fish into the hold. No wonder then, today John is an engineer!
The fourth in line, Anthony, while a student at San Jose State, went salmon fishing with my dad one summer in Alaska. In addition to fishing the coast of California, my dad spent 25 summers fishing in Alaska. When Anthony, just happened to hit one of those rare boon seasons in Alaska! When Anthony, who later became a CPA, suffered from horrid seasickness, my dad advised him to handle it by counting the dollars he was hauling in with every fish!
Late in the forties or early fifties things changed. The fish seemed to be disappearing. I asked my mom if the bay had been overfished. She responded, “It couldn’t be. It had to be something else because it happened so fast. One day they were here, and the next day they were gone.” She believed it was not only the loss of fish which hampered the industry, but the effects of World War II. The boats that remained continued to fish the bay and still do today. My father didn’t stop fishing until he was too old to go out into the cold.
A richer childhood couldn’t have been had. Though his own house had been relatively quiet, my dad welcomed children, grandchildren, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles and lifelong friends. Every Sunday morning without fail, I was awakened by the smell of onions simmering on the stove as my parents together prepared spaghetti sauce and chicken or roast beef for our big family dinner after church. We had holiday gatherings of 20 or more. The feast included homemade ravioli, prime rib and cannoli. My mother made Christmas cookies at the level of an art form—chocolate balls, biscotti, sesame, butterhorns and snowballs. If someone they knew was serving in the military or away at college, that person received a shoebox full of Mom’s cookies and Dad’s home-cured salmon. She brought soup to the sick and hosted many a lonely neighbor. My parents volunteered at church, and Dad knocked on doors for the local politician running for office. He often spoke for those who didn’t speak English needing a banker, doctor or lawyer. Best of all, they were a team. They loved each other and each one of us.
My fishing family, like the others, were hard working, honorable people whose priorities were well intact: Faith, family, friends and neighbors, hard work, good food, a good home and time to relish in the joy of life. My father, especially, was so very fortunate to have spent his working life in Monterey doing the thing he loved most at the very time that the industry was flourishing. My parents were able to share these times with an entire community of friends and family. Theirs was a special moment in history--the glory days, Monterey’s golden epoch. Monterey gave them the most beautiful and bountiful place these lovely people might call home. They, in turn, enriched Monterey with generations of good, hard-working families. The fishing families developed the wharf into a lively tourist attraction of restaurants and shops. They helped to turn Cannery Row from a stinky sardine enterprise into a literary and historical landmark and home to our wonderful Monterey Aquarium. They built homes and helped Monterey prosper into the dynamic city that it is today. Fishing families contributed uniquely to Monterey’s history and made it come alive more colorfully than the shimmering sardines themselves.