Immigrant Stories: Getting through life with fighting and music
Immigrant Stories by Walter Gallacher appears on the fourth Tuesday of the month. Gallacher is a photojournalist and an independent radio producer. Anyone with an immigrant story to tell about themselves or relatives is invited to email email@example.com. To read past Immigrant Stories, go to http://www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.”
Intro: Frank Breslin has lived in New Castle for the last 40 years and served as a volunteer fireman and an EMT. He has also spent 28 years on Town Council, 14 as mayor. He told his immigrant story to Walter Gallacher.
Breslin: My mom’s family came from Termini Imerese, Sicily, in 1911 and settled in the Chicago area, where my grandfather started a produce delivery business with a horse and cart. He eventually opened a grocery store.
My dad’s family came from Scotland via Ireland in 1914, where my granddad was a machinist in the Glasgow shipyards. Some 40 years later my mom and dad met at a St. Patrick’s Day dance in 1950 in South Side Chicago. They were married a year later.
Gallacher: Was the Sicilian and Scotch-Irish a good blend?
Breslin: It was hell for my dad during the holidays because my mom had five brothers who were just back from the war and they were a natural comedy club. They teased one another constantly. So when my dad, this young Irish kid, joined the family they started in on him and didn’t let up.
It was kind of fun for me to watch at holidays. Dad was kind of rough and gruff with us kids but when he got around my uncles they just chewed him up.
Gallacher: What was it like for you growing up in Chicago?
Breslin: I lived in a neighborhood that was all white and mostly city workers — police, firemen and tradesmen. These were tough guys, and their kids were tough. There were a lot of mean kids who liked to bully smaller kids. So I got picked on a lot.
Walking home was a challenge. My school was a mile away so we walked home with friends, security in numbers. I looked like I was underpowered because I had contracted polio when I was 3, and that left me weak, and so I was a natural target for bullies.
It wasn’t until years later that I got sick of being shoved around and I knocked a guy down. That felt so good I never turned back. I realized then that it hurts a lot less to get punched in the face than it does to be humiliated every day. I never looked back.
I made friends by telling jokes and singing and playing the ukulele. My dad taught me how to play when I was 10, and that became one of the great joys in my life, singing and playing music.
Gallacher: Was there music in your house?
Breslin: Yeah, my mom played the piano, and my dad always listened to Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. He refused to listen to any popular music. But anytime we were riding in the car with mom, she would tune the radio to WLS, and we would listen to pop music. That’s where I heard “Somewhere Beyond the Sea” by Bobby Darin. That song really knocked me out, I loved it. As a kid I dreamed about singing it in front of a full orchestra.
And my dream finally came true last Valentine’s Day. I had been working with the Symphony in the Valley for about a year so I got to sing “Somewhere Beyond the Sea” at their Symphony of Swing Concert.
Gallacher: So it sounds like you discovered music early and used it to define yourself.
Breslin: Well, music gave me a lot of joy and enriched my life as a kid, but in my teenage years it was a way to make friends and meet girls. I learned that girls like guitar players.
I had a garage band in eighth grade and later played mandolin in a trio that played around Chicago. When I moved to Colorado in 1975, I hooked up with two others guys and we started the group “Small Change.”
Gallacher: What drew you to Colorado?
Breslin: After high school, I was working as a diesel mechanic for Allis Chalmers, and my buddy Paul’s cousin came to visit, and she raved about Colorado. So when we got our vacation we decided to ride our motorcycles out and visit her.
Riding through the mountains of Colorado was like in the movie “Wizard of Oz” when Dorothy enters Oz and everything is suddenly in color. I just thought, “Man, what have I been missing?”
I loved the outdoors and sports and women, and all that was here. Back in Chicago, my dad used to take me hunting and fishing, and it always took at least two hours to get somewhere. Skiing took three.
I went back home, quit my job and built a mobile home out of an old bread truck, loaded my motorcycle and my tools and headed back to Glenwood Springs.
Gallacher: But you’ve made your home in New Castle. How did that happen?
Breslin: Well, in 1976 I rode west on my motorcycle and stopped in New Castle at “Tony’s Cue Club,” a 3.2 beer joint and one of the only businesses in the town at that time.
New Castle was quiet and kind of run down, but I liked it. There were all kinds of outdoor activities everywhere you looked.
Gallacher: Tell me what it was like when you first moved there.
Breslin: Well, a lot of people were suspicious of young people who weren’t from there. I think they thought I was a hippy.
One day, shortly after I moved there, I was walking my dog down main street when I heard someone behind me holler, “Hey you!” Well in my Chicago neighborhood when someone hollers, “Hey you,” you never turn around, you keep walking.
So the next thing I hear is, “If you don’t stop now, I am going to arrest you for resisting arrest.” I turned around and here is the town marshal driving on the wrong side of the street. So I stop and he throws me up against the car for walking my dog without a leash. He puts me in handcuffs and takes me to jail and leaves my dog on the street.
Gallacher: That incident would have changed most people’s minds about staying.
Breslin: Oh no, like I told you, when I learned to fight I decided I would never let anyone push me around. I’ve fought for myself ever since then.
I learned from other folks in town that the marshal was taking licensed dogs out of people’s yards, killing them and dumping them down an old mine pit across the river.
One of the people who witnessed this was an 11-year-old boy who was doing a ride-along. The marshal had the boy hold the dog by the leash while he shot it.
When I heard that, I got my friends the Steimel brothers and 100 foot of rope and we climbed down into the pit and brought the dog up. We wrapped it in a blanket and took it to the Town Council meeting.
When the issue of the marshal came up on the Town Council’s agenda we opened the back door and brought the dog in as proof. The place went nuts, but the council agreed to look into the marshal’s past. They soon discovered he had no law enforcement experience except for the two weeks he spent as a dispatcher before he was fired.
A few weeks later, the Steimel brothers and I bought a six-pack of beer and toasted the marshal as he drove out of town. That was my introduction to New Castle politics.
Gallacher: So what happened after that?
Breslin: Well, I got involved in volunteering. A group of us helped bring the “Pick and Fiddle” contest to the Burning Mountain Festival. I met the love of my life, Kim, and we had our daughter, Sarah, and our son, Tom.
Having kids motivated me to work on the town’s parks. So I got together with a group of parents, and we planned and built three parks and sidewalks so kids could access the new school.
Gallacher: How did you get involved with the volunteer fire department?
Breslin: I watched a historic building burn down in 1977 because the volunteers couldn’t get the water pump to work. I decided then that I wanted to help.
They had a 1941 pumper truck, old buildings and untrained people. We were also being called out to car wrecks on I-70 and pulling horribly injured people out of cars.
Finally in 1984, we were able to get training, and 10 of us got certified as EMTs. I served until 1996 when I lost most of the strength in my left arm because of the polio I’d had as a kid.
I learned that the nerve routes I had developed to recover from polio as a kid were much smaller than the originals. It was like trying to run a welder on a doorbell wire. So they burned out. I miss the good things that we were able to do, but I’m glad I don’t have to deal with the trauma anymore.
Gallacher: How did having to deal with polio in your life shape you?
Breslin: I had to put in extra effort just to be proficient at anything. Becoming a musician was a huge challenge. Some people look to achievement as the ultimate measure.
To me it’s the day-to-day effort that you put in that really defines you. I was able to recover from polio, get strong and become a decent musician because I applied myself and gave it everything I had.
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