Doing the best with what they got
The story of Grove City’s Carmella and Leo Feld shows that not getting your own way can be the best thing that ever happens to you – and to those around you.
Leo was born in 1920 in Ambridge, PA, and grew up in the Allentown section of Pittsburgh. His father died when he was a junior at St. George High School, so he sought a deferment from military service because he was the sole support of his mother. It wasn’t granted. He was drafted into the Navy on May 15, 1943.
A lesser soul might have resented it, but Leo set out to make the best of it.
“They asked me what I wanted to do,” Leo said. “I was gung ho, so I said PT Boat. They asked me my second choice. I said PT Boat. How about my third choice? PT Boat.”
Patrol Torpedo Boats were heavily-armed wooden combat vessels about 80 feet long. Service on a PT boat would have put Leo in the heat of battle, probably in the South Pacific.
Leo thought he was getting his wish when he was assigned to Corpus Christi, Texas.
“I heard that was a PT Boat place,” he said, “but they sent me to parachute riggers’ school. Then I was assigned to the parachute loft at the Pensacola Naval Air Station.”
So instead of fighting in the South Pacific, Leo found himself packing parachutes for the crews of naval aircraft in Pensacola. He requested sea duty three times, but his requests were never granted.
Although service in Pensacola was a lot less adventurous, it was nevertheless important.
“There were reports that pilots would have to bail out at sea, but their life rafts wouldn’t inflate. A Lt. Richardson and I were given the job of starting a new outfit to make sure all the life rafts were available and operative. They also assigned a squadron to us for air-sea rescue. So if a cadet went down, we had to go out and find him.”
Had Leo gotten his wishes – for a deferment, an assignment on a PT boat, or sea duty – he would not have been in Pensacola to provide such valuable service. And he would not have joined the choir at Our Lady of Loretto Chapel, where he met a girl from back home named Carmella Nola.
Carmella was born and raised in Midland, PA, in 1921, not very far from Pittsburgh. She went through nurse’s training at St. Francis Hospital School of Nursing in Pittsburgh, just a few miles from Leo’s home.
She graduated before she was 21, so she worked at St. Francis until she could take the state board exams. The staff of the hospital was depleted because many medical personnel were sent overseas. As young as she was, she was made outpatient supervisor.
When she turned 21, she passed her state nursing exams. That made her eligible to volunteer for military service.
“The nuns told us it was our patriotic duty. I was commissioned as an ensign in the Navy on November 2, 1943.”
For about a year she served as a nurse at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. Then she was reassigned to the naval hospital in Pensacola, Florida. There, as fate would have it, she joined the choir at Our Lady of Loretto Chapel.
“We practiced practically every Thursday,” Carmella said. “At first there were quite a few nurses going, and we went as a group, as we did for many things. After a while, with people being sent to other bases, I was the only one left. The buses stopped running at 6 p.m., and choir practice was at 8. It was several miles from the chapel to the Naval Air Station, and you didn’t walk it alone. So I said I’m going to have to stop coming. The director said someone will have to walk you back home.”
Guess who volunteered?
“So that’s how we got started,” Leo said.
There were obstacles to getting to know each other better. Carmella was a commissioned officer, while Leo was an NCO, and officers are not supposed to date enlisted men. And nurses weren’t supposed to date at all.
“I felt terrible,” Carmella said. “I hated sneaking around because I wasn’t the type. But my roommate said, ‘Are you going to let the Navy run your life?’ So I did go out with him.”
“I would borrow Lt. Richardson’s car,” Leo said. “I would drive by the hospital nurses’ entrance and go around the corner. By the time I got there, she would be waiting for me. She’d hop in the car and away we’d go.”
After dating a while, they decided to get married – not in Florida, but back home in Pittsburgh. Again the military proved to be a problem. Leo got out of the Navy on December 15, 1945, and came back to Pittsburgh, but Carmella still had time left to serve. She took leave to come home for the wedding. She had to fly from Miami to Cleveland, take a train to Beaver, then a bus to Midland – all the while lugging a large box that contained her wedding dress.
They got married the day after Christmas. A few days later Carmella had to go back to Florida.
“We had to get on the streetcar in downtown Pittsburgh, “ Leo said, “and ride to the old Pennsylvania Railway Station. All these women were kissing their husbands goodbye because they were going off to finish their tours. I kissed Carmella goodbye and she got on the train. I’ve always said I was a war bride.”
Leo went back to work at Railway Express, where he had worked before going into the Navy.
They expected that Carmella would be out of the service quickly, since nurses had to resign when they got married.
“But can you imagine this?” Carmella said. “No one knew how to discharge a nurse. I waited from the end of December until March. A friend suggested I should get my husband to write to the chief nurse in Washington, DC. He did. It only took a couple of days after that.”
They moved into a little Cape Cod out in Penn Township, and Carmella talked Leo into going to college.
“So we both went to the University of Pittsburgh on the GI Bill,” Carmella said.
But she soon had three kids – Philip, born in December 1946, and twins Stephen and Charles, born in February 1949. She decided she wanted to stay home with her children rather than continue pursuing her degree.
After Leo got his degree in pharmacy, he worked with the Ayerst Company in Pittsburgh for about three years. Then he and a partner bought The Hyde Drug Store in the Mahoningtown section of New Castle.
“We really liked most of the people there,” he said. “They would do anything for you. But there were some kids who caused a lot of trouble. The last winter I owned the store, the front window was smashed eight times. I knew who was doing it, but we couldn’t prove it. They’d do it during the night, and the next morning they would be in there, saying ‘Hi, Mr. Feld, how are you doing?’ I sold the store in the late 1970s, and took a beating on it just to get out of there.”
The Felds moved to Grove City, where he worked at the Jack Hamilton store. When new owners bought it, they kept him on staff. He worked there on a limited schedule until about five years ago.
“In the meantime, I picked up a hobby – stained glass,” Leo said. “For a while we went to craft and hobby shows to sell what I made. I became known as the kaleidoscope man.”
Carmella and Leo were active in the Beloved Disciple Church for many years. Leo was a Lector and a third and fourth degree member of the Knights of Columbus. For several years he was co-chairman of fundraising for St. Anthony School Programs in Oakmont, an organization that helps both Catholic and non-Catholic students with development disabilities. Carmella was head of the Knights of Columbus Women’s Auxiliary in New Castle for several years.
For 12 years, Leo was on the Executive Board of the Pennsylvania Pharmaceutical Society. He attended meetings in Harrisburg every other month.
After the birth of their twins, Leo and Carmella had four more children: James (1950), Francis Xavier (1954), Mary Beth (1957), and Anthony (1958). They have ten grandchildren.
It’s a large, loving family that might never have been. So if things don’t go your way, don’t get upset. Do the best with what is given to you, because fate may have a better plan.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 1, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2007