In 2015, Ray Vaudo was looking forward to his upcoming trip to Italy.
He planned to visit his family in Gaeta, and as he envisioned his vacation, his thoughts drifted to the memory of his late father. As he reminisced, he suddenly remembered the old box full of tapes in the attic. Was it still there?
More importantly, were the tapes damaged?
Ray rushed upstairs to grab them, relieved when he discovered they still worked. They weren’t just any tapes — they held his father Paolo’s life story, which Paolo had narrated between 1995 and 1997 before his passing. Ray vowed to turn the recordings that had been gathering dust in the attic for decades into a book after returning from Italy. Now, he can proudly say that he has accomplished his mission — his book A Gaetano in America: My Unexpected Journey from Gaeta, Italy to the United States was published in August 2023.
“It occurred to me that I was the only one who could put the story together,” says Ray, reflecting on what inspired him to write the book. “I realized that if I didn’t do it, my dad’s story would be lost.”
Though Ray wasn’t a writer by trade, he did speak the same regional Italian dialect that his father did, and he knew he’d be the only person with the will and knowledge to piece the story together. Armed with the tapes, a computer, and a van, he got to work.
“I’d hang out at Pelican Cove with my little laptop because there [are] no distractions. I’d do an hour or two at a time,” he says. Gradually, he chronicled his dad’s life. Born Pietro “Paolo” Vaudo in Gaeta in 1915, from early on, Paolo had envisioned himself living beyond the borders of his hometown.
After serving in the Italian Navy during World War II, he moved to Massachusetts, working in shipyards and sausage factories. After a few years, he met his wife Josephine in Massachusetts, and they eventually settled in San Pedro to raise their family.
“San Pedro was like a giant Gaeta to my dad,” says Ray. “Fishing on one side, the beach on the other, and the cliffs all around. To him, it was like home.”
As Ray wrote, however, it became clear that his dad’s story was far more complicated than he’d realized. Paolo had spent time as a POW during World War II — which wasn’t news to Ray — but he’d never known the details of his experience.
After the German army captured Paolo’s ship off the coast of Yugoslavia, he was marched across Eastern Europe for two years, from 1943 to 1945, across the rubble of a razed continent. Amazed, Ray decided to painstakingly piece together the exact route his father took.
“It took me a long time because it didn’t make any sense to me,” he reflects. “It’s not like he said, ‘This happened in 1944.’ I’m going, ‘Well, wait a second. He’s here. He can’t be there a few days later.’” Thanks to Ray’s efforts, Paolo was posthumously awarded the Medaglia d’Onore by the Italian government in recognition of his exceptional military service.
With that piece of the story straight, it became clear that Ray had an even bigger problem on his hands — his dad’s tapes abruptly stopped in 1952 when Paolo was picked up by immigration officials in San Pedro for overstaying his visa.
“I’m going, ‘There [are] no more tapes!’ So I’m thinking my dad got deported,” he says. “And on one of my trips to Gaeta five or six years ago, my uncle told me he never came back there. He never got deported at all.”
After some digging, he also discovered that the U.S. government had kept tabs on Paolo in the form of an Alien File, or A-File, which was used to keep track of non-U.S. citizens who were living in the states and had run-ins with the law. Paolo’s file contained over 308 photos and dozens of records kept on him after his arrest, which Ray used to fill in the blanks.
“It was like I found a treasure, like I hit a pot of gold,” he says. Ray deduced that Paolo had pushed back his deportation trial until he could marry Josephine and become a U.S. citizen. “I’d found the end of my story,” says Ray.
A month after finishing his book, Ray finally has time to reflect on his efforts — and he’s beginning to see the impact of his work. Though he’d known that his neighbor also had roots in Gaeta, he was surprised when he asked for 12 copies of the book.
“He said that his family came from Gaeta, but there was nobody left in his family to tell their history,” explains Ray. “I learned that people shouldn’t miss the opportunity to ask questions and learn about their family history, even if you can look it up online,” he says.
“I hope this book is a wake-up call to capture and preserve your family’s history. Do not assume that someone else will.” spt
Ray Vaudo’s A Gaetano in America is available in paperback and eBook formats on Amazon.com.