Return to the Sea, Anthony Erbetta, 1913-2000

Anthony “Tony” Erbetta went home late last year.

Not, this time, to Boca Raton, Florida, where he had happily retired with his wife of 59 years, Louise. Not to Woburn or Lexington, where he had raised Bob, Ron, and Gail. Not even to Marblehead, where the family lives starting in the early 1950s.

He went home to Italy, to the coastal town of Gaeta, near Naples, where he was born in 1913. Home to the Gulf of Gaeta, where he and his father had fished together in the early years of the 20th century. To a town not radically changed in the last half-century, despite the occasional cyber café and boom box. Snuggled up to the coast on the front seam of the Italian boot, the town swells in summer as Italy takes its vacation, and quiets down again in the winter.

By Christmas, few of the restaurants are still open, but the town piazza teems year-round at dusk. Traditionally black-clad old people stroll peacefully arm in arm amid young people in baggy pants, chunky shoes, and short leather skirts. The piazza feels like a neighborhood gathering in which a visiting stranger stands out like a beacon. Before the U.S. Navy established a base there and before the beach clubs and information kiosks sprang up, it was a small Mediterranean fishing village.

On Two Oceans

Tony Erbetta died March 5, 2000, at 86. He had told his family that he wanted his ashes scattered over two different oceans, near the places he loved best in the world: Marblehead Harbor and the Gulf of Gaeta. When his three children honored his wish in November of 2001, it rained on both occasions, a circumstance he wouldn’t have minded. Weather didn’t bother the son of a fisherman.

In Gaeta, in the late fall, the weather is most likely to be chilly and blustery, as it was in late 2001 when, with an assist from the U.S. Naval Support Activity Office in Naples, a small service vessel conveyed Tony’s sons Bob and Ron Erbetta, and daughter Gail Doyle, out into the gray, choppy Mediterranean. After a brief, solemn ceremony, they cast Tony’s ashes to the wind and the sea he had loved as a child.

It was something of a contrast to the other memorials for “AE,” as his family called him (to distinguish him from his grandson, Anthony C. Erbetta, or “ACE”). Ceremonies in Boca Raton and Marblehead had been packed with business associates, friends, and family members. People knew him and loved him, and they came to celebrate him.

Not the Same Old Story

You may think this is just another kind remembrance of a poor kid who came to American from far away, worked hard, made good, and then went home to his Maker. Aren’t there a thousand guys like Tony Erbetta: immigrants who landed in New England, added something to its character, and left behind fair accomplishment?

Yes and no.

Yes, because remembering Tony is about remembering how the America of 1920 became the America of 2000. Gritty guys like Tony’s father arrived by the boatload in the early decades of the century from southern Europe, most too poor to be able to pick and choose among the professions, all of them eager to take whatever work there was. Erasmo Erbetta had first laid eyes on America from the deck of an Italian navy supply ship that had sailed into Norfolk VA to pick up a load of coal. He was entranced, and by 1917 he had sailed to America to make his fortune – a young man in his 20s, robust and filled with passion and ambition. He took a job as a butcher, even though he’d been a fisherman back home in Gaeta, and even though he had his quartermaster’s papers from the Italian navy. By 1919, he had earned enough money to send for Tony and his mother.

And no, because remembering Tony means remembering an especially determined kid who shined shoes at the Somerville railway station, made slush cones at the beach, and worked in the butcher shop to help his family stay afloat during the Depression. He grew up, graduated with the Somerville High School class of 1932, went to MIT, and then got down to the business of becoming a success in America. After working in a distillery, he developed an interest in chemistry and took a shine to the new refrigeration business. During World War II, he outfitted newly built U.S. Navy ships with refrigeration systems at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, establishing on his own time a class to train Navy men in how to operate the systems.

In 1946, Tony, with now-broadened experience in refrigeration, founded a contracting company called Boston Air Conditioning in Somerville with one employee (himself). The company grew up under his leadership to become BALCO, one of New England’s top heating, ventilation, and air conditioning companies. Tony warmed up or cooled down a great many of Boston’s biggest business centers, from banks to hospitals to church buildings (excerpt from Return to the Sea, Anthony Erbetta, 1913-2000, January 2001)