Uncle Vince was no Walt Disney, but I thank him for giving me my first job

My Uncle Vincent has been dead and gone for almost 42 years now. The last time I saw him was in the fall of 1977 when my father drove him to the hospital for a final time in my father’s red VW bus. He’d been dying of cancer and suffering for months. He was looking out the car window at me, but he wasn’t seeing me — even after I waved goodbye.

Uncle Vince had that 1,000-yard stare of someone who had lost all hope and happiness. He was not a big man, but he was a hard man. He spent the bulk of his life as a sailor who had enlisted into the U.S. Navy during World War II as a seaman and retired 25+ years later as a Lieutenant. He died within a week or two, if I remember correctly, at the age of 54. He’s buried in a cemetery in San Diego.

Vincent Medugno 1923–1977

I don’t have his birth certificate to confirm this but I remember my father or one of his siblings telling me my Uncle Vincent was named Vincenzo, after his mother (my nonna) Vicenza nee Morganti (Born August 11, 1899 — Died in 1951 of breast cancer). She immigrated from Messina, Sicily in the early 1920s. His father (my nonno) was Enrico “Harry” Medugno (Born April 4, 1892 — Died in 1963 of a heart attack). He also immigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s, only he came from an area east of Naples called Montefredane, Avellino, Italy.

Both my Italian grandparents were processed through Ellis Island. They apparently did not meet until they were in America. Both had family members already established in the Boston area. Nonno was a carpenter by trade and one of his first jobs in America was at the Chickering Piano Factory. Nonna was a seamstress and a home-maker.

The last photo of my father’s whole family together in the late 1940s.

After marrying, they settled in Malden, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, where they had 7 children (5 boys and 2 girls). Vincent Richard was their first child, born on September 5, 1923. In the next 12 years, he was followed by two sisters and then four brothers. (The third son named Joseph died as an infant in 1932.) My father was born in 1934.

The Medugno family resided in a single-family home on Boylston Street in Malden. Vincent attended the local schools. After graduating from Malden High School, he enlisted in the Navy and left to fight in WWII.

My memories and knowledge of Uncle Vince are limited until the late 1960s when my family moved to San Diego North County, where my uncle and his wife Dottie had a home. He spent the last 10+ years of his life there. He built several houses himself in the growing town of Escondido.

The Escondido Years
Because our Italians grandparents were deceased, and our Irish grandparents lived in Boston, Uncle Vincent and Auntie Dottie were like grandparents to my siblings and me. Since my father lived in San Diego and we lived with our mother in Escondido, only a few miles from my uncle and aunt, it was natural for us to visit them often, usually every other weekend after spending it with my Dad at his apartment in Ocean Beach and later his house in Loma Portal.

Uncle Vince in his Escondido home with Prince in the early 1970s

We liked visiting Uncle Vince and Auntie Dottie because they had a pool and always fed us well. They had a couple of white poodles. One was named Prince. I can’t remember what the other was called.

Uncle Vince wasn’t a warm person, unlike my father and the rest of his siblings. Auntie Dottie was more approachable but was also more mercurial. She could be very passive-aggressive and even downright mean, at times. I made a big effort to stay on her good side, even visiting her frequently years after my uncle had died.

In stature, Vincent and Dorothy were both “small” people, though you wouldn’t want to cross either one of them because there would be hell to pay. According to my mom, they had the classic “lost weekends” and she recalls a story about the garbage man commenting on the number of liquor bottles he picked up from house saying, “You people have a lot of parties.” They didn’t have a lot of parties. They just did a lot of drinking.

I respected my uncle for his service in the Navy, his work ethic, and his continuing education commitment. I remember him taking classes as an older student at the Palomar Community College (where I would attend for a couple of years before transferring to UC Irvine). I never really felt close to Uncle Vince, save a time or two when I was an adult.

I always saw Uncle Vince as a tortured soul. I know he kept hard liquor in his house, but I never saw him drink it, and I don’t think he ever did. He did pour a shot for my father, when we visited. I think I understood from early on that he didn’t drink because of a bad history with booze, and later, I would hear the “stories.”

He had lost part (a lot) of his ring finger due to accidentally slamming a car door on it during a drunken (rage) episode. I think my father can confirm this: this incident was the final straw after a series of alcohol-fueled episodes that led to him being drummed out of the Navy. I think this incident led to his self-imposed sobriety. As far as I know, he did it cold turkey without participating in any self-help groups like A.A. It was sheer will power, I think.

This memory is not a chronological order and perhaps it was during a bad drinking time, but my Aunt Jeanette (wife of my father’s and Vince’s brother Tom) told me that Uncle Vince was a “beast.” She cited the time Uncle Vince severely beat the family dog after it bit my cousin Ricky (he is just three weeks older than me), when he was a toddler and stuck his face near the dog while it was eating. Aunt Jeanette said “the poor dog” was just protecting his food.

Uncle Vince was always kind of ornery, but over the course of 10 years, I only saw him lose his temper a couple of times and that was generally while he was working.

A family tradition
There was a family tradition of my older male cousins coming from New England for the summer to work for my uncle as he built houses and did general contracting jobs.

When I was 13, it was my turn. I would work full days as my Uncle Vince’s gofer. It was hard work and I learned to swing a hammer and drive a nail in straight with just a couple of whacks. I also learned how to use a power saw and an electric drill.

I was paid $1 an hour and survived 40-hour work weeks in the hot Southern California sun. It was hardcore manual labor. After my first week of working with my uncle, my Dad asked me how it was going. I said, “Well, he’s no Walt Disney.” (This is before we all knew that Walt Disney was no Walt Disney.) My dad laughed.

I don’t have a lot of memories, but there were a few that I still chuckle about. There was the time we were on a roof and my uncle hit his thumb while pounding a shingle down. He yelled, swore, and then threw the hammer over the backyard, soaring into the canyon beyond. I just looked at him. After a moment, he looked at me and calmly said, “Go get that.” And I did. I climbed down the ladder and went into the canyon and retrieved the hammer for him. That was my job.

Uncle Vince had a small, dark purple truck (Datsun, if I remember correctly). When it soon proved to be too small for all his tools and the material he needed to carry to job sites, he upgraded to a mustard-colored Chevy truck that whenever he climbed in and out of made you think it was way too big for him…like a kindergartener in the cab of a firetruck.

Uncle Vince had an old wooden toolbox that I would load in and out of the back of the truck when we were at the job site — usually someone’s house. I think I remember him telling me that it was Nonno’s toolbox.

After working with him for a couple of summers, and on Saturdays during the school year, and during school vacations, I quit because I wanted a “real job.” I told Uncle Vincent I wanted to work at McDonald’s or a store. (I liked the idea of working in A/C and with co-workers who were my age.) He was fine with that. (Though, I never did get a job at a fast food restaurant.)

Looking back, I’m proud of how hard I worked with Uncle Vince and how much I learned from that time with him. He was an impressive individual if you consider all the work he got done in his retirement from the Navy and before he passed away.

It was that summer that I begged off and my cousin Ricky (the one who was bitten by Uncle Vince’s dog in San Diego 15 years before) flew out to work with Uncle Vince, like I had the two summers before and his brothers before me. Well, that didn’t go well.

After a couple of weeks of working with Uncle Vince and living with him and Auntie Dottie, Ricky flew the coop. He snuck out of the house in Escondido and took a late night bus to San Diego and ended up at my father’s house. Uncle Vince was pissed.

I happened to be staying with my father that weekend and Uncle Vince started accusing me of encouraging Rick to quit and come down. I know this because I could hear my uncle yelling through the phone, in the age before we all had speakerphones. My dad defended me with his brother because it was untrue. So Rick spent the rest of that summer in San Diego not working and going to the beach and hanging out with my brother Joe, who lived with my father by this time.

The mellowing of the man
A few years later when I was a senior in high school and my uncle’s new helper (a classmate of mine who eventually became a carpenter) wasn’t available, Uncle Vince asked me to help him one Saturday. I was happy to go out with him on a job for old time’s sake. Plus, he was already dealing with the cancer that would eventually take his life and I noticed he had lost some of the energy and fire that had made him such a hard-driving person. He had mellowed some what. I noticed the subtle changes in him with whatever small job we were doing that day.

The job site was on the coast — in Carlsbad or Encinitas. It was only a morning job, and when we were done, he took me to lunch. He never said much and during this meal, he was unusually quiet. After eating, he looked out of coffee shop window that had a view of the Pacific Ocean in the distance, and said wistfully, “I wish I was still out there.”

I asked, “What do you mean?”

He didn’t answer, so I followed with, “Do wish you were still in the Navy?”

He said, “Yes.” Then he sighed and said, “C’mon, let’s go.”

It was rare to see him this kind of sentimental emotion from him.

Another memory I have of him was maybe a few years before when he and Auntie Dottie were on a “break.” I don’t know where she was living, but she wasn’t keeping house and it was just him and his two white poodles. I had dropped by to pick up my paycheck or something and need to go to the bathroom. As I made my way to “the head,” he said, “Be sure to piss in the bowl, I have to clean it now.” I was kind of offended. I was not and am still not a careless pisser. I laugh when I think of this episode now.

Not many friends
I don’t think he had many hobbies or friends. He and Auntie Dottie did like to bowl. I think they were in a league at Palomar Lanes in Escondido, but I don’t think I ever saw them actually bowl.

I thought he might be friends with a Mexican-American guy who worked at the lumberyard/hardware store where Uncle Vince got his supplies. I would often go into the store with my uncle while he interacted with the employees. This one guy seemed to get a kick out of Uncle Vince and his “intensity.” And they would banter about things, but if ordering and picking up would take too long or my uncle didn’t like the knotty 2x4s he got from a previous trip to this place, Uncle Vince would be very short and angry with the employee.

I remember after a couple of testy exchanges and my uncle storming out of the store, the man would shake his head and roll his eyes. No, they weren’t friends. And I was embarrassed by uncle’s roughness, but I learned that people will try to give you lousy products and crappy service if you let them walk all over you.

DNA test leads to new cousins
Until recently, we didn’t know that Uncle Vincent had any biological children. Auntie Dottie had two daughters from a previous marriage, but they were older than us and we didn’t see much when we were growing up in Escondido. Then a gentleman reached out to me via email to ask about Uncle Vincent, thinking he might be his father’s biological father. The query was provoked by a DNA test that confirmed family rumors that he had Italian ancestry and his father was the result of a wartime tryst between his grandmother and my uncle, when he was stationed in Philadelphia circa 1944.

This blog is an attempt to fill in some of the blanks of Uncle Vince’s life for his biological son and grandson.

If you have memories of my Uncle Vince you want to share, please write a response below (click on the dialogue icon). Also, I can and will update this blog if you have corrections you want to provide to me.

Years ago, I wrote a one-act play titled “Old Pain.” The main character was inspired by my Uncle Vince. You can read it here.

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Richard Medugno

Richard is an author and scriptwriter. His latest book is Deaf Politician — The Gary Malkowski Story. His latest script is The Mulligan Marriage.