This is the fourth entry in a series of letters between me and my father, also named Tom Rastrelli, who has stage IV cancer of an unknown origin.
I have to tell my thoughts and recollections about my big brother Bob. He was 17 years older than me, so I really didn’t know him very well. I was told many times, “Don’t be like Bob!” so he must have been a handful for Mom and Dad. He was the first child and looking back and hearing the stories about him, I think he was ADHD as he seemed to not appreciate a classroom environment. In those days, back in the 40s, kids were never tested but were labeled as noncompliant and unruly. My first recollection of him was when he must have been on leave or gotten out of the Navy, and he taught me a valuable life lesson.
Bob smoked, and since my mom wouldn’t let my dad smoke in the house, it was a new phenomenon to me. He would blow rings in the air and I was mesmerized. I must have asked him if I could do it, so he told me to take a big draw, so I did. I’m not sure what color my face turned, but I made a run for the bathroom and heaved my guts out in the toilet. And to this day, I’ve never smoked a cigarette again. It’s one of those smells that almost makes me sick to my stomach. So thanks Bob, and I’m sure you enjoyed the show!
One story about him and I’m not sure this was the one that got him kicked out of St. Mary’s High School is when he and John Sullivan let a squirrel loose in the auditorium. It scared all the girls and nuns to death. Bob was your typical hellraiser. In his late teen years, he and “Sully” posed as federal agents wearing trench coats and felt fedora hats and walked into a tavern on the outskirts of town, where they knew they were pouring booze bought in Illinois. Urban legend has it the bartenders, not wanting to be caught, poured hundreds of dollars of bootlegged alcohol down the drain that night.
And then there was the time he and his buddies put cherry bombs and M-80 firecrackers in mailboxes out in the county and blew them to smithereens. That’s a federal offense, so he was lucky not to be caught. But deep down, I believe Bob was extremely smart and creative. In all his jobs with Job Corps, U.S. Bowling Association and Escort, he had an ability to write training manuals, service concepts and company regulations to a high degree.
He had a troubled, turbulent marriage but all his eight children loved him, and I’m sure he loved them, too, in his own way. Bob mellowed as he got “longer in the tooth.” I remember the day that he finally looked at me as an equal. I was in my early 40s and since Mom was getting older, I was appointed as her executor. Bob was always getting money from Mom, and I became this stop sign. One summer day, he drove a U-Haul filled with all his printing business equipment and a plan to live with Mom and open a T-shirt/hat printing business in Clinton. I looked him right in the eye and told him to get back in his car and drive back to Texas to be with his family. I’m sure my knees were shaking, as he was always so volatile, but he stepped back and said, “OK.” I was shocked but relieved. We were equals at that point.
We became good friends after that episode. In November 1998, I asked my three brothers if any of them wanted to travel to Italy with me to check out this guy, Gabe, that my daughter Maria had met while studying in Florence, Italy, that term. Mike couldn’t go, but Jim and Bob agreed. We had a memorable time bonding together, which I had never experienced with him.
And Bob left us a tremendous legacy in two ways. During the 70s, he worked part time as a food vendor at the Texas Rangers ballpark in Arlington. He and a few friends thought it would be a good idea if they made a container full of corn tortilla chips and included a cup of creamy jalapeno spiced cheese sauce and see if they would sell. Well, they did, and hence, the first original Ballpark Cheese Nachos were conceived. I don’t think they made any money on its creation, but it’s a true story that we love and laugh about today.
As I had mentioned earlier, Bob was good at developing manuals and what he created in the later years of his life still stands today as a special memento of his talents. He compiled on his Radio Shack Tandy computer all the family recipes from his wife Marcia’s Polish side and all the Italian recipes from the Rastrelli clan. It is truly a labor of love. He gave one to all of his kids, and I was fortunate to get a copy too. It sits proudly in a red leather book above my refrigerator. Thanks, Bob!
The Rastrelli family shortly after the opening of The Avanti in Clinton, Iowa. From left: Mike, Bob, Carol, Tom, Ida, Jim. Circa 1976 or 1977.