Italo Balbo in 1933, an 83 year old family story.

Builders,

When my father was 7 and 1/2 years old he was at the 1933 world’s fair in Chicago, and witnessed something he clearly remembers,  Balbo’s fleet of 24 flying boats, which had just flown 6,000 miles from Italy.

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One of the greatest planes of the inter-war years was the Italian S-55.  It started flying in 1924, and it’s looks and performance was something out of science fiction. The plane has a 75 foot wingspan, an 18,000 pound gross, and it had an astounding top speed of 170 mph. Small groups of them flew the south Atlantic before Lindbergh. The 1933 flight of 24 aircraft was a logistical triumph for Italian engineering and airmanship that no other country could match.

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The flight was lead by Italy’s dynamic Air Marshal Italo Balbo.  Although he was a fascist, and one of the people that made Mussolini’s rise to power possible, he was different on two points: he was outspoken against Italy’s alliance with Germany (He thought they should be with Britain)  and he was against Italy passing racist laws against Jews. He was killed in a friendly fire shoot down in Libya at the start of WWII. It is worth noting that he only started flying in 1927, when he led the flight to Chicago he had just 6 years experience. When he died he was just 44 years old.

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My young father and his 34 year old mother traveled from Passaic NJ, across a country that was barely stirring from the depths of depression, to the worlds fair. One afternoon when they were there, my grandmother took her son to meet an older  man in a modest Chicago hotel. They were there for only a few minutes, and my father had never seen the man before, nor would he ever see him again.  He was my fathers grandfather, The father of the 34 year old woman in front of him. He had walked out on his own family 30 years earlier. My Grandmother was not there to forgive him. She was there to show him the family he would never know.

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My grandmother, the only grandparent I ever had, was kind and thoughtful, but internally as tough as they come. When her father left, the family was destitute.  The children led by their mother, a seamstress, worked back from nothing.  After 17 years of relentless toil, my great grandmother decided to take her 40th birthday off (1920), and spend the day by herself in New York.  To celebrate, she brought one dollar bill in her pocket. She was hit by a drunk driver, and put in a coma. My grandmother spent the meager family savings caring for her for six weeks before she died.  Creditors took nearly everything, they slept on the store tables. Starting from nothing again, my Grandmother went on to build and run the largest children’s clothing store in the state.  In 1933, she took the trip to Chicago to look into the face of the man who had abandoned her and her mother.  Although my grandmother built a life long reputation as the personification of kindness to both family and stranger, and quietly and without recognition gave with great generosity to the countless needy children of her city, I don’t think she ever found it in her heart to forgive her father.

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For all the adversity of my grandmother’s life, she also knew great joys. In 1915 she was just 16 and met a Policeman who was walking a beat in her neighborhood; after he returned from WWI, they were married. Families objected because she was Jewish and he was Irish Catholic, but the rejection just bonded them together tighter. In 1923 They built a house at 118 Albion street. My father was born in 1925, his sister in 1929. My grandfather, who is the center of this story: A clarification and a century old story., lived until 1960. My grandmother lived in the same house until she passed in 1986.

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The life of Rita B. Wynne is central to understanding all of the living members of our family.  Both the joys and hardships of her life became how we understood persistence, tolerance, and thankfulness. Thirty years after her passing, my parents home in NJ has many physical remembrances of her life, mostly photos. However, when I think about how my life has been made directly possible by the human will of my grandmother and great grandmother refusing to surrender to despair, I don’t look at the photos. Every few years I look in my fathers desk. One of the drawers has a very old dollar bill, I have held it in my hands a number of times. It is the same one my great grandmother had in her pocket on a spring day in 1920. I can not find the words to express the humility I feel when I hold that piece of paper in my hand, for there is nothing I will do in my life that would register in comparison to what these two women did for their family.

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-ww.

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