East Haven’s Rudolph “Rudy” Tamburrino is a natural storyteller who serves as neighborhood grandpa.
(Photo courtesy of Rudy Tamburrino)
Rudolph Tamburrino: The Neighborhood Grandpa
BY JASON J. MARCHI / ZIP06.COM • 12/22/2021 08:30 A.M. EST
EAST HAVEN —
What’s more wonderful than a person who has lived for over nine decades and has endless stories to tell? Someone who shares those stories readily, of course. Rudolph “Rudy” Tamburrino, who will turn 93 next April, has so many wondrous life experiences to share his memories could fill a book.
In sharing those stories, Rudy exudes happiness like the sun breaking through rain clouds, and in turn, appreciates seeing happiness in others.
It all started when Rudy was born in Bridgeport in 1929, the same year the stock market crashed on Wall Street, which heralded the beginning of the Great Depression and caused economic suffering that lasted until the late 1930s, shortly before the United States entered World War II.
As a young boy growing up during the Depression, Rudy lived that suffering firsthand.
“My family moved to a farm in Shelton when I was 8 because it was too expensive to live in the city anymore,” Rudy recalls.
Once on the farm, Rudy says everyone in his family—himself, mom, dad, one brother, and four sisters—worked the land and the animals to survive.
“It was tough work,” Rudy explains. “Everyone had to do his share to find work that brought in some money.”
Money was so scarce, in fact, Rudy’s schooling was cut short because he needed to work to help the family.
“On the farm, I learned to milk cows, slaughter pigs to make our own bacon and sausage, clean chicken coops, candle eggs [to make sure there were no embryos inside], grow vegetables, pick blueberries the size of your thumb with my mother, and wash our clothes by hand.”
He also learned how to grow one-pound tomatoes by picking off all the flowers to force just one tomato to grow on a single plant, and how to pick wild mushrooms after a rain (with the three family canines in tow) and determine which varieties were safe to eat.
One of Rudy’s first jobs as a kid was emptying the drain pan from under the kitchen icebox. Electric refrigerators existed at the time, but Rudy’s family couldn’t afford such a modern luxury. Rudy equally recalls cutting cordwood for cooking and heating, and his mother making blood pudding from the bloodletting of slaughtered animals on the farm.
“Nothing went to waste,” he notes.
While Rudy says the farm life was difficult, his stories reveal a fun side to growing up.
“We would listen to The Lone Ranger and The Shadow on the radio,” Rudy recalls. “And I learned to crank-start and drive my father’s Model-T Ford when I was 12 or 13, went to the movies for 25 cents, and enjoyed days at Seaside Park in Bridgeport,” watching the flight activities at nearby Bridgeport Municipal Airport (known today as Sikorsky Memorial Airport).
A popular way for many young men age 18 and over to escape the Depression was to join a branch of the U.S. military. Rudy was too young to serve in World War II, but when he was still age 17 in early 1947, he joined the U.S. Army (after fibbing that he was really 18), leaving his sweetheart, Wilma, at home.
He and Wilma eloped while he was in active service, and soon Wilma was with child. After just a year, the Army honorably discharged Rudy and told him to go home to care for his pregnant wife.
“I had a new baby coming, so they left me go,” Rudy recalls. “They told me to go back to my family.”
As Rudy began building his new life with Wilma and the first child—and a second not long after—jobs were still few and far between for many people during the late 1940s, Rudy remembers, and he took whatever work he could find to provide for his family and help keep the farm going.
“We had a [mountain] laurel business that made grave blankets and wreaths,” Rudy says. “It brought all the family together working, singing, and roasting chestnuts to keep warm.”
Wreath-making (and the chestnut roasting) is a tradition that Rudy has passed on to his eldest grandson Daniel, who works alongside him to this day.
One of Rudy’s jobs as a young father was working the night shift in an A&P store.
“At break time, the manager taught me how to putt [by] hitting small potatoes down the aisle,” Rudy recalls of his rough introduction to golf.
When the day came that Rudy got out to the links of a real golf course, his passion for playing was cemented, and he played until advanced aging hindered that joy.
“I can’t play any longer,” Rudy laments, but his memories of the love of playing are firm in his mind, and 50 or 60 awards and trophies he won still decorate his East Haven home.
Eventually, Rudy found steady employment at AVCO Lycoming in Stratford, were he excelled, continued his education and training and became a quality inspector.
“I inspected defects in aeronautical structures doing non-destructive testing,” Rudy says.
This led to Rudy inspecting Explorer 1, the first satellite launched by the United States in February of 1958—“I made sure the welds weren’t cracked.”
And he also met the man who developed ultrasound, which Rudy says was first used on engines to check for cracks in gears.
After 20 years at AVCO Lycoming, Rudy again found himself without work following a corporate restructuring and downsizing.
“I took a little time off to enjoy and develop my passion for golf,” he says, “until I met up with a friend who had been part of the layoff. My friend talked me into going to work for Sears in sales.”
Doubtful of such a prospected at first, he interviewed anyway and as hired immediately.
“Little did I know I would spend the next 20 years as one of their top salesmen,” Rudy says.
And Sears had another surprise in store for him.
“This where I met Darlene,” the woman with whom Rudy fell in love after losing his first, Wilma, to cancer.
Rudy and Darlene worked side by side and had their ups and downs. The sales department at Sears, Rudy recalls, was commission-based “and it could sometimes be an eye-for-eye atmosphere.” As their personal relationship strengthened, Rudy and Darlene agreed to set their work differences aside and commit to each other as a couple. Marriage soon followed, and Rudy gained three more children as well as three grandchildren, expanding his family.
After 30 years together, Rudy now has eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
For years, Rudy has been called “Grandpa” by all the neighborhood kids. They gather on the back deck to listen to his stories, never really knowing if they are true or made up.
The most striking of those stories revolve around the time Rudy says he was abducted by aliens. He will regale the story about how the aliens beamed him into outer space, interviewed him, sent him back, and told him they would return to check on him in the year of his 92nd birthday. When Rudy turned 92, it was in the midst of the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020, so the aliens limited their exposure by social distancing.
The pandemic did not keep family and friends from throwing an alien-theme birthday splash, however, with some perhaps even believing the tale as true because of the recent headline news about the U.S. government admitting that UFOs are real.
Although golfing is no longer a passion Rudy can pursue, he remains vibrant in mind and spirit, and he is currently a faithful communicant of Our Lady of Pompeii and serves as an usher every week.
Of a long life filled with wondrous memories of growing up during the Great Depression, the heartbreak of losing his first wife and a son to cancer, and most of all an abundance of love from family, friends, and neighbors through all of it, Rudy says, “I’ve enjoyed my life, and I’d do it all over again.”
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