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Bittersweet at Best -Thomas Calabrese

By   /  May 25, 2024  /  6 Comments


A Lot More to be Grateful For

Thomas Calabrese – Santino Costello was only twelve years-old when he emigrated from Italy to America after World War II. He was orphaned when his family was killed on May 16, 1944 during the Battle of Monte Cassino. Santino barely spoke any English when he was processed through Ellis Island and what few words he did know, he learned from American soldiers fighting in Italy. Santino was assigned to an overcrowded Catholic orphanage in New Jersey and after two months in the facility, Santino became restless ran away. He hopped a freight train that was headed west and after switching trains several times, he ended up in Los Angeles.

The war was over and Hollywood was kicking into high gear when it came time to making movies. Because of his unique Mediterranean looks, Santino was able to get parts in movies as an extra. On the movie Thunderbolt,  a 1947 film directed by William Wyler and John Sturges which documented the American aerial operations of Operation Strangle in World War II, when flyers of the Twelfth Air Force based on Corsica successfully impeded Axis supply lines to the Gustav Line and Anzio beachhead. Santino had a small part as an Italian teenager and while on set, Santino met Martin Garchon, a set designer. The young boy and the seasoned Hollywood veteran became friends and Santino showed great artistic ability in building movie sets.

Martin Garchon was duly impressed, “I like your work. You’ve got real potential.”

            “Thank you, sir,” Santino said.

As time progressed, Santino began doing portrait and scenery painting as a hobby. When Martin Garchon saw the work, he realized that the young Italian boy had great potential. He showed two paintings to a local art dealer who was so impressed that he set up a show to highlight Santino’s work.  With his keen eye for detail, light and color, Santino became a cameraman and his mentor was master cinematographer James Wong Howe, whose career stretched from silent pictures through the mid-’70.

While working on the movie, From Here to Eternity on the island of Oahu, Santino met    Frank Sinatra, who nicknamed him ‘Sonny’ because of his youth. Columbia Pictures commissioned Santino to do portraits of the major stars in the movie that included, Burt Lancaster. Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra, and Deborah Kerr. He also did a dozen paintings of picturesque Hawaii locations.

While working on the movie, Viva Las Vegas in the summer of 1963 with Elvis Presley and Ann Margaret. Santino fell in love with Ann Margaret’s cousin, Julie, who was hired as her stand-in. Santino and Julie got married in a small chapel in Las Vegas and Elvis Presley and Ann Margaret were the best man and maid of honor.

The couple celebrated their honeymoon in Italy while Santino worked on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly a 1966 Italian epic spaghetti Western film directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood as “the Good”, Lee Van Cleef as “the Bad”, and Eli Wallach as “the Ugly”.

Santino and Julie waited three years before deciding to have a family. By this time Santino was a successful artist and a sought after cinematographer. The couple moved to spacious home in Rancho Santa Fe. Santino added a building at the edge of the property with a panoramic view of the valley for his art studio. Julie accepted acting jobs that didn’t keep her away from her home for extended periods of time. Her first priority was her family.

She raised three good hearted and honorable children, two boys and a girl. While none were lucky enough to inherit the artistic ability of their father, they all had an intense strong work ethic and became very successful in their chosen fields. Their oldest son, Robert became an entertainment lawyer and worked with many of the major studios, their second oldest, Vincent chose medicine and went to medical school to become an orthopedic surgeon while committing to joining the Navy after graduation. Their daughter, Gina interests led her into the field of computer cybersecurity.

Santino’s first grandson was born on May 26th, 2002 and was named after him. Santino decided to relinquish the nickname that Frank Sinatra had given him. The young boy had more in common with his grandfather than his own father. It seemed that creative gene skipped a generation and was bestowed in great abundance on the young boy.

Sonny showed a natural aptitude for painting and by the time he was six years-old, he was already creating his own works of arts.  He was also blessed with a superior intellect and a natural curiosity.

Santino was amazed at how quickly his grandson was growing up so he decided to give him some advice, “Common sense and knowledge is a volatile combination…if you are lucky, you are born with the first one and if you are willing to work hard, you can attain the second. Does that make sense?”   

Sonny smiled and spoke like a person that was much more mature than his years, “Yes sir, I completely understand. If I have any common sense, it is because I inherited it from you and my parents.”

Santino added, “You can’t always achieve a perfect result, but you can always strive to give a perfect effort. I’ve made many mistakes and had my share of failures and heartaches and I’d like to think that maybe I’ve learned something from each of them and that made me a better person. You never want to look back and say, if only I tried harder, things might have turned out differently.”

It soon became obvious that organized education was not for Sonny Costello. It was too slow and boring for the young boy with the inquisitive nature. The other issue was that Sonny was much more advanced than children of his age. During a discussion with school counselor, Joan Barlow said, “Your son needs to be challenged so whoever you hire as his tutor has to be at the top of their game. He is a very unique young boy and the normal rules of standardized teaching don’t apply to him. Education is how we acquire knowledge, Santino craves knowledge and information so he doesn’t need a standard educational program.”

It took a while, but after a dozen interviews with perspective tutors, the Costello family decided on Connie Chen, a professor from Grand Canyon University with two P.H.D’s, one in economics and the other in philosophy. Connie had taken an indefinite leave of absence from GSU to care for her daughter who was badly injured in a car accident and help out with her two grandchildren. She agreed to tutor Sonny three hours a day five days a week.

Professor Chen saw the potential in the young boy and thoroughly enjoyed discussing dozens of issues with him. She was immensely impressed that Sonny had the mental discipline to put his personal biases aside and make his assessments based on facts and hard evidence. One of her favorite sayings was, “Almost every catastrophe that has befallen mankind can traced back to someone in a position of power. Look it up for yourself.”

Sonny researched major events in history and found that Professor Chen’s statement it to be true. While expanding his intellectual capabilities, Sonny did not neglect his physical development, He followed a strict diet and focused his attentions on tennis and martial arts and became proficient in both of them.

Professor Chen’s daughter eventually recovered from her injuries after two years of intensive rehabilitation so she decided to return to teaching at Grand Canyon University She told Sonny, “It has been my pleasure working with you, but it is time for me to move on. You are the best student I’ve ever had. I expect great things from you. ”

            “Thanks for everything you’ve done for me. I am deeply grateful,” Sonny said.

Several years passed and Sonny’s Uncle Vincent retired from the Navy after 34 years of honorable service to go into private practice with an Air Force surgeon. The two veterans were taking over a well-established orthopedic surgical center in San Clemente.

It was Memorial Day weekend 2024 and the entire Costello family were having a join retirement party and holiday barbecue at the Rancho Santa Fe property. There was large buffet of food on a table and Santino Sr. was in charge of the grill. Steaks, chicken, fish were in abundance and the mood was festive and lighthearted.

As the family sat in the backyard, Santino stood up to propose a toast, “To my son, Vincent, thank you for your service. I would like to offer a toast to all the veterans who made the ultimate service. Without you, we would not have a country.” Everyone raised their glass and Santino said, “God bless you,” then took a sheet off a portrait of Vincent Costello dressed in his surgical scrubs.

Vincent was overcome with emotion when he saw his image on canvas, “Thanks dad.”

            “Sonny drew it,” Santino looked around for his grandson, “Where is Sonny?”

Robert, Sonny’s father called out, “I haven’t seen him a while.”

Sonny was surprising overwhelmed by the situation so he went into the art studio to be by himself, being a student of history, he knew the great significance of Memorial Day. Sonny grew up with a sense of gratitude, taking nothing for granted and deeply appreciative for the opportunities he had been given. If it had not been for the valiant men of the ‘Greatest Generation’ fighting against tyranny and evil in World War II, his grandfather would not have been given the opportunity and privilege of coming to America. Millions of men and women have served in the military throughout history to defend America and hundreds of thousands have made the ultimate sacrifice in that noble quest.

Sonny picked up a faded photograph in a frame that was setting on a table that showed his grandfather as a young boy standing in front of the Monte Cassino monastery with his family. There were 55,000 casualties in the Battle for Rome and not one of those soldiers knew the name of the young Italian boy, but their sacrifice made his grandfather and his life possible. That was a debt that could never be repaid and should never be forgotten.

When Santino went looking for his grandson, he found him asleep in a chair with the photograph resting on his chest. The memories of his childhood came rushing back to him especially the one of the kindhearted soldiers from 36th Texas U.S. Infantry Division who gave him food and water after his family was killed.

Sonny opened his eyes to see his grandfather wiping a tear away and asked, “You alright?”

            “Some old memories, that’s all,” Santino shrugged.

Sonny said, “Some good ones, I hope.”

            “Bittersweet at best…let’s go honor the day. We have a lot more to be grateful for than we have to be sorry for.”

            “Happy Memorial Day, Grandfather,” Sonny said.

The End


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  1. Tony says:

    An emotional and appropriate story written by Mr. Thomas Calabrese in the Vista Press this Sunday. There are probably countless stories that are similar to this from all the people that were caught up in a war from many countries and later able to migrate to America because of the efforts of the American Military. People from all over Europe and Asia that found their way to America and applied themselves, etched out a living and their children afforded the opportunity an education they may not have ever received in there country of birth.
    Many of these children and their parents never forgot their hardships or those that fought for their freedom, but most of all those that gave their all for their today. God Bless these Brave Military people that fought so gallantly for our freedom.
    Have a “Peaceful Memorial Day” and remember those they made it possible.

  2. John Michels says:

    Wish I could have read your story this week but my computer is down hopefully I’ll be able to read next week I’m sure this week’s was great

  3. Tom says:

    Buon Giorno, Tom!
    Memorial Day Sunday greetings! A delightful and poignant story of the great contributions that Italians have brought to the US over the years…both artistic and culinary! I can see Mario Puzo’s influence here with Santino! When I lived in Naples I would often pass Monte Cassino when driving the Autostrada A1 north to Rome or Florence. Quite an imposing structure and impossible to view without thinking of the hardships our soldiers endured in capturing it from the Axis powers.

  4. Robert says:

    You nailed it with this one. Thanks

  5. bob wolf says:

    fitting story for Memorial Day

  6. marty says:

    Great story Tom. I always wanted to be a movie director.
    The dried fruit information was very informative. Fresh fruit works for me.

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