============================================================================================Mickey Zangari: Classic American story
I think he still misses the old neighborhood, although he hasn't lived there for almost 75 years. The neighborhood isn't really even there anymore.
Dominic "Mickey" Zangari was born in 1926 in a house on Charles Street, right in the heart of Puddle Dock, near where the Dunaway Restaurant is now. Some of the houses and businesses that made up his boyhood world still stand, but have become part of Strawbery Banke, and the landscape has changed drastically with the times.
His parents, Marianna and Dominic Sr., came here from Calabria, Italy, separately. They met here in Portsmouth by way of formal introduction. They had three children while living on the Puddle Dock, then when they could afford to, moved the family to Bridge Street when Mickey was about 9 years old. That house is also gone now, in its place is a parking lot.
His parents both labored long hard days for local cleaners. His mom in the Liberty Bridge Laundry, which was located near the Liberty pole in what is now Prescott Park. She fed clothes through a mangle all week for the flat rate of $9.99, not a penny more. By the time he was 6 years old, Mickey was working, too. He stood in front of the old post office on Pleasant Street daily and peddled the Portsmouth Herald for two cents each, which earned him a 100 percent profit.
Although children worked through the Depression, they found time to play too, and there were always lots of other children around to play with. Favorite pastimes included fishing off the wharf, swimming in the dirty river (right off the edge of Puddle Dock where sewerage was dumped in), sledding down Gardner Street or Liberty Hill, and going downtown to see a movie when they could scrape up a dime. "We were poorer than church mice," Mickey says with a smile.
Wanting nothing more than to earn a decent living, he quit school and took an apprenticeship in sheet metal at the shipyard when he was 16, while his brother Nick joined the army. As soon as he could get his parents to sign the papers, he volunteered for the Navy, and at 17 became a Seabee with the 35th Battalion.
One of his favorite stories to tell about the war is the time in 1944 while he was in the Philippines, he unexpectedly crossed paths with his brother whom he hadn't seen in more than two years.
Both boys made it home to Portsmouth, and eventually Mickey went back to work at the shipyard, where he'd stay for 34 years. In 1956, he made a telephone call that would change his life, because he married the operator on the line, a local girl, Maxine LeVassseur.
After starting their married life in Admiralty Village, they sold their double house for $9,000 (a whopping profit) and built the house in Kittery, Maine, they still share, most recently with an adorable rescue puppy. They raised two daughters, and have five grandchildren, but the Zangari name, which was once well known in Portsmouth, may not be carried on.
Mickey feels thankful for his life, especially for the shipyard, which he says allowed him and many other locals to lift themselves out of poverty, for it isn't the hardships of the old neighborhoods that people miss, it's the camaraderie.
Tammi Truax is a freelance writer, community activist and single mom who can be reached atT4tu@comcast.net.
Looking back at lessons learned
As next month marks the beginning of my seventh year writing this column I decided to spend some time reflecting on what I have learned from those 84 columns, and on how I can improve the column in the future. And of course I have been thinking a lot about the people I have profiled, and on how they have touched my life, and maybe in turn, yours.
This may have all been triggered by the death a couple of weeks ago of my dear friend Hugh Harter, whom I wrote about more than anyone else. The only other person whom I have profiled more than once was another old local I was quite fond of, Harrison "Workie" Workman. Funny how the old Memorial Bridge always makes me think of both of those guys. Hugh Harter, on his Bow Street deck in the twilight of his years and the day, sipping a martini and watching the boats come and go, and Workie as a wild young man flying his biplane underneath it to show off for his future bride, Sweetness. Most of the subjects of my column have passed on, which makes looking back a little sad.
Of course, I'm not surprised by this. My intention was to gather oral histories and preserve and share stories that might otherwise be lost forever in a way that honors those who tell them. Sometimes I have succeeded with that. Sometimes people become shy about telling their tales. The column did lead to a radio program with a similar objective, which I now co-produce with Terry Farish. It's called "Seacoast Journal" and can be heard on WSCA Portsmouth Community Radio 106.1 FM. When planning Tea for Two I especially wanted to talk to people about how their lives have played out here so that newcomers or young people might gain a better appreciation for what was here before them. I am not at all sure if I have succeeded at that. I hope so.
It isn't easy to tell what effect the column has had on people. Most of my readers remain silent, though I do get a fair amount of recognition and positive feedback when I am out and about. Just a few people write and those notes are usually quite touching. The only time that I know of where my column was the most "hit on" (I've never otherwise received that title!) article of the day was the one titled Oldest Surviving Puddle Docker. Millie Pecunies scratched out a living that could only be described as happy hardship, sometimes unable to pay the $5 per month rent for her Liberty Street apartment. She, like Mickey Zangari, who grew up on Charles Street, talked of still missing the old neighborhood decades after they had moved. Dancing on Jefferson Street, sledding on Gardner, baked beans on Saturday night, happy memories of an old way of life. Other activities I often heard about were ice skating at Gunnison's, USO dances and going to hear big bands, and going to the movies in the several theaters that were downtown, to name a few.
Another of the most popular columns was the one profiling yet another Puddle Docker, Clarence Cunningham, who had to fight for the right to enter local barber shops. Of him I wrote, "Over the course of his 96 years Clarence has been witness to an evolution of equality in America that few of us can understand. From being rocked by his grandmother Priscilla, a former slave, to the swearing in of the first black president, it was the long hard years of quiet contribution to our society by Clarence, and countless others, that led us from the former to the latter."
There were many others who left a legacy from the hard work that they did while they were here. I often think of Don Ricklefs whose fine carpentry can be found all over town, but is always seen in the Freedom Shield on the liberty pole in Prescott Park. I think of Louise McGee every time I am on Ceres Street and am so grateful that she fought to save it. I think of Mickey Hussey every time I go to the library and see the local veterans' memorial there. I wonder how the class of 1940 gets along without her. So many others who made quiet contributions to this community like Fran and Harold Lampert who gave most of their life's savings to the local temple for improvements and Gene Morrill who served on New Castle committees for more than 60 years but in the end hardly knew anyone in his town. Sometimes the legacy rippled out far beyond our borders as with Dave Kiley Jr., Portsmouth's "only and original river pirate."
I have written about more artists and musicians than I realized I would, and I hope their legacies will remain with us always. One of them, Tom Hall, The Shantyman* got me more blog hits via Facebook than any other column. Another, my youngest interviewee ever, about Jeanne Givens and her Vaughan Mall tribute to the Memorial Bridge, seems more pertinent than ever now, and the heritage keeping work of Richard Haynes will be important forever.
Not surprisingly I have written about many veterans, each though with their own unique story. Workie Workman, the first Portsmouth man drafted into World War II, and Ann Ford Peaslee, who worked aboard the largest hospital ship the world had ever known. The astonishing story of the Gardner family of Northwest Street, who sent more sons into World War II than Hollywood's Mrs. Ryan, and all six of them came home alive though only my subject, Herb, with a Bronze Star from President Truman, and the Lawrence family when both Frank Jr. and Sr. enlisted and both came home to run a filling station on Vaughan Street. I still wince when I recall hearing of the physical anguish endured by Tony Vaccaro, a Flying Tiger who weighed 130 pounds when he enlisted and lost 40, and smile at the story of Bob Nilson, who was recruited to contribute his personal expertise about Chinese junks during the Korean conflict.
There have been too many connections to the shipyard to count. It was amazing to hear from Leon Valley of Rye, who had been the primary builder for the USS Thresher. Some shipyard connections went back generations, most notably, my first subject ever, William Brooke Jr., a third-generation shipyard retiree whose grandfather had been the yard's oxen team driver. Speaking of large animals, one of the oddest stories I ever wrote about was the time elephants stopped by to wet their long whistles at the Newington home of Dorothy Watson as a traveling circus passed by.
It has been interesting to hear from readers months, even years, after the fact as they find the article online. It is fascinating to hear from people far away. My favorite after-story though was the time my column on Norman Phillips came out and he was aboard the QE2 and read it to everyone at his dining table.
I have frequently reported on a permanent loss of a way of life that I feel is important for us to reflect on. Some of those losses are simple ones; swimming in the coves, kid caught flounder for supper, playing in the streets, the Coleman clam basket, Audubon walks in Frank Jones' parks, and wild blueberry fields. But overriding all is not so much the loss of open land (did you know we once had a pet cemetery and a race track?) but of people's homes. I have heard so many tales of the loss of cherished homes by eminent domain all over town. Sometimes urgently to build war housing, air bases and bridges. Sometimes less so to build museums, parks, and hotels. Unfortunately I am hearing the same generation lament far too often about the new loss of old homes that their working children can't afford to take on after them because of the tax burden. This is especially sad in cases when the home has been in the family for three or more generations like the Martine Cottage on Little Harbor or the Coleman Farm in Newington.
Perhaps most sad of all is when we lose the family forever as Ray Harris explained in my December 2005 column, "This is my wife's city. She was born and raised here. We raised our children here, but my children won't be able to raise their kids here. They are being forced to move to towns in the north that are more affordable." I hope to keep bringing you stories from our elders, but hope I don't have to report on that last one anymore. Time will tell. Do respond to a column if you are so moved, and continue sending me suggestions of people to talk to. I'll be listening.
Tammi Truax is a freelance writer, graduate student, and community activist. She can be reached atT4tu@comcast.net.