ROOM AT THE TABLE: When Christmas rolls around, I’m reminded of a generous man named Pete. He raised a family on the modest income of a house painter, but always had an open heart and wallet, and a full dinner plate for the down-and-out.
Pete was likely to show up with a guy he’d run into, someone down on his luck and hungry. One day Pete’s wife, Vivian, came home to find a stranger at the table. “Who’s that?” she asked. Replied Pete, “He just came to the door and said he was hungry.”
Pete would scout around to find a guy a job, or hand him the money he wanted to take a bus so he could try his luck back home. Pete was a tough little first-generation Italian. If, lo and behold, he spotted the same guy on the street the day after he’d slipped him the bucks to get home, he’d never get another handout.
With Pete in the kitchen, dinner was a Sunday feast. “It was like Thanksgiving every day,” one of the kids said. The table would hold a steaming platter of spaghetti or manicotti, salad, bread, and more. Or a full turkey dinner.
Pete De Lapa was my father-in-law, an honest man, a one-eyed golfer, and very much a character. People liked him. His best friend was Vernon Cheadle, who just happened to be chancellor at UCSB.
Pete grew up in the gritty, gangster-run town of Springfield, Massachusetts, the son of parents from Sicily and Calabria. Sicily is known for the Mafia, and Calabria, on the tip of Italy’s boot kicking at Sicily, has long had the reputation of producing hard-headed, stubborn people.
Glass eye, bad leg, and all, Pete went to West Point during World War II, not as an officer but as a physical training instructor to put the brass-to-be through their paces.
Pete had a powerful, gorgeous operatic voice but, as a young man, was too poor to pay for the singing lessons that might have put him in New York’s Met or Milan’s La Scala. So he became a night club singer and comedian. Living in a heavily Italian town, he knew all the Mafia bosses.
And he realized that if he stayed he might have been drawn into their rackets. You know how it goes: They do your family a favor, you owe them one. And so on. These were people you read about in books like The Last Mafioso. I met one when he visited Santa Barbara. I was having a beef with a con man, a fake contractor. “Can you give the guy a knee job?” I asked, jokingly, of course.
“Well,” he replied, “now that you’ve mentioned it in front of all these people in the living room, no, I can’t.” I think he’d spent a little time behind bars — also known in Springfield as “college” — and didn’t want to go back. He had moved to Las Vegas, and, as far as I know, is still there, bartending, keeping out of trouble, and not buried somewhere in the desert.
Anyway, back in the 1960s, Pete decided to leave the dubious influences of Springfield. He took Vivian and their four young children, Peter, Paul, David, and Sue, whom I eventually married, and moved to Santa Barbara. But he kept in touch with the family and friends back home, and, back when the Mob was running Vegas, Pete and Vivian were comped when they visited Sin City.
Pete loved to play at the Municipal Golf Course. He’d come back home shaking his head at the antics of his pals. “They throw their clubs, they swear like sailors, and they cheat.” My son Barclay and I used to flail away on the course, slicing and hooking, so one day we went out with Pete for a lesson. Whack! His drives flew high and straight down the fairway with what seemed like little effort. His putts dropped as though the cup was a magnet. Pete used to tell a golfer joke that went like this: A foursome of men was gathered at a tee when a funeral cortege passed slowly on the nearby road. One of them stood reverently with his hand on his heart. Surprised, one of his pals asked, “What’s going on?” The golfer replied solemnly, “She was a good woman. We’d been married 40 years.”
Pete was famous for his many holes-in-one. Back in Springfield, he won a lifetime supply of Absorbine Jr. There’s still at least one bottle at the family home on the Mesa. One day back in Springfield, he was desperate to play, but it was pouring down rain. He played 18 holes anyway, came back to the clubhouse, and went out to play another 18 holes, happy as can be.
Pete’s humor dominated any room he walked into. When he and Vivian went out to one of their favorite night spots, like the Plow & Angel, everyone in the place waited for him to get up and sing Puccini.
I can hear him now.
Merry Christmas, Pete.