Valentino LoBianco, My Uncle , the Sicilian Cowboy
Valentino LoBianco, My Uncle, the Sicilian Cowboy
Uncle Val, Valentino, and Papa were some of his names over the years; years of life and service he shared with us, giving, earning, learning, caring, working, playing and celebrating! Oh, could he celebrate. He cut a figure larger than life, much like my Sicilian father and also like him, was in the rag industry. He seemed the last of those men who seemed to be titans. On his horse he reminded me of Garibaldi without the beard.
Few people knew my Sicilian Uncle from Brooklyn, New York, who moved to Jamaica, West Indies in the late 1960’s was a Cowboy too? Not the fictional type, who just buys a pair of jeans, boots and hat to look the part, but a Real cowpoke who spent years in Texas on ranches where he rode horses and ran cattle! He left his large extended family in Brooklyn to move out west and joined the cow hands on Texas ranches to learn these skills. He returned a true cow hand and horseman who loved the life and owned horses while he lived on Staten Island. Although he worked in New York City in manufacturing, he spent his weekends bailing hay and riding his Phillies. Before I was born, while Daddy was fighting in Europe, my Mother Rose often visited to help out my father’s sister, Christina with her three children. Mom is in the photo riding beside Val on one of his stallions like a real horsewoman. She confessed to me, however, this photo was taken the day she tried to keep up with Val and rode for three hours, her first time on a horse mind you, and came down with a fever from muscle fatigue.
He had a way of making us all stretch beyond our limits. When I was a child, we city folk from Brooklyn would venture to our country cousins in the “panhandle” of Staten Island, at least once a month in the days before the Verrazano Bridge. We braved ridiculous ferry lines, sometimes 2 to 3 hours long, to get to see our country kin, Cousins: Tony, Frankie and Kathy. They were already authentic rough riders as children who did stunts in Rodeo Shows on Staten Island, which was still farm land then. They could tie a calf or two, sometimes three, ride the ponies in parades, and win prizes in between school and homework. They too cleaned the barn, baled the hay and cared for the saddles and horses. One day they convinced me to ride King, the tall black stallion Papa owned, promising they were in control and nearby. When I mounted the huge horse, cousin Frank hit the horse’s backside and off we rode while I screamed in utter terror.
“Just pull the reins,” Frankie said, hooting and laughing as I shook and shouted, but the tighter I pulled the more the horse stood up on his back legs. I was sure I would be thrown to the ground never to recover. I survived the ride, but never forgave my cousins and avoided horse riding after that. Ginger, their rather ferocious boxer, seemed to bark and snap at me most of the time. It was at their home that I first learned to ride a two-wheeler bicycle. Balancing a two at seven wasn’t easy. Each time I tried I fell into a poison ivy patch. Fortunately, Aunt Christina took out the calamine and knew how to keep me calm, especially after she cooked those Italian vittles.
I must confess, my cowboy Uncle filled our lives with humor, fun and adventure. The tragic loss of his son, Frank, from a car accident, propelled him to move with Christina to another island, Jamaica, in the Caribbean to begin again. He immediately fell in love with the landscape which so reminded him of Sicily, that he bought a women’s clothing business, Ruth Claridge, which had developed hand painted textiles on wooden blocks, and catered to local and cruise line fashions at a time when that was very lucrative. He expanded the business on the island to include making hotel uniforms and beautiful ceramics. The old world flavor of Jamaica made him feel most at home. He moved next door to a well known and respected Italian, Pino Maffessanti, a builder and designer of homes and villas who lives in Great River to this day. The rhythms of the tropics would make Val call Jamaica home for the rest of his life and his wife’s and finally mine.
On many occasions our family flew to Montego Bay to visit their home in Great River. He took us to climb waterfalls and discover the beauty of the land and its people. He became a dual citizen. Eventually Jamaica would become a part of my life too. Valentino was called Papa by the Jamaican people. Husband/father/grandfather, businessman, Kiwanian, Mason, community leader, a friend in service to the Jamaican people who grew to love him almost as much as we did, died there at age 93 and has left me and Jamaicans with a host of fond memories.
Louise Calio is an internationally published, award winning author and photo artist. She won: 1st Prize for “Bhari” fr.City of Messina, Sicily (2013),1st Prize for “Signifyin Woman” Il Parnasso” Canicatti, Sicily (2017). Finalist for Poet Laureate, Nassau County, honored at Columbia Barnard as a Feminist Who Changed America( 19763-75), Director Poet’s Piazza at Hofstra University for 12 years, she was a founding member and first Executive Director of City Spirit Artists, Inc. New Haven, Ct. Her latest book, Journey to the Heart Waters was published by Legas Press ( 2014).