If we adopt Spanish custom you would address me as Luigi Daniele Chirillo de la Primavera, or some such variation, in order to convey that my father is Daniel Chirillo and my mother’s family name is Primavera. My naval heritage, as is my brother’s, is the product of the confluence of two histories.
Before World War I it was not unusual to spend a holiday at a pier that extended from a streetcar terminus. At about 100-feet out such piers were widened and roofed in order to provide pavilions for the picnics and dances that were usually organized by immigrant mutual-aid groups. Unmarried couples and families arriving in open-sided trolley cars had only to walk short distances. One such pier jutted into Brooklyn’s Jamaica Bay. A boatyard was located alongside.
One day motorman John Primavera, my mother’s brother, in his brass-buttoned dark blue serge uniform and fully in command from the prow of his streetcar (no windshields then), while gliding to a gradual stop noticed unusual activity. The yard workers were trying to free a fifty-foot-long fishing boat that was jammed on the launching ramp. When he returned from another circuit of his route the men were exhausted and had made no headway.
“Look,” said Uncle John, exhibiting boatyard know-how, “attach a pulley out there on the pier. Run a long rope through it with one end secured to the boat and place the other end here by the tracks. When I return after my next trip I’ll give it a pull with my streetcar.”
His suggestion was enthusiastically accepted. Since the boatyard people could not find any suitable place on board to tie the rope they rigged a huge noose around the base of the entire deckhouse. When the expected solution to their problem returned they made short work of attaching the other end to the trolley. No one had ever told Uncle John or the yard boss that electric streetcars were propelled by direct-current series-wound motors. They have maximum pulling power at the instant of start-up.
Uncle John, with confidence, operated the control handle. Quick as a wink, the motors sensed the unusual load and jerked the car forward. The noose severed the deckhouse from the hull, the hull seams sprung open, and, if one overlooks such details, the boat was successfully launched. But launching hurrahs were instantly converted into appeals to God for help. The boat was sinking. Uncle John had accomplished what still seems to be impossible. He sank a boat with a trolley car!
Desperate to retrieve something, the hapless shipyard owner unsuccessfully sued the streetcar company. But the company successfully fired Uncle John just in time for him to exchange his motorman’s blue uniform for a doughboy’s olive drab.
Who knows? During World War I, had he not been with the U.S. Army in France, Uncle John might have found a way to sink Germany’s U-boat flotillas with Brooklyn’s huge trolley fleet. The Primavera name would have been included in any listing of great naval heroes.
Even though he was in the Army, not the Navy, Uncle John started the naval tradition that attracted two of the next generation de la Primavera.
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo