A Remarkable Man: Al Consigli

by Carol Masiello

When I pulled into Al Consigli’s driveway on Route 140 in Upton, the first thing I noticed was the sign “U.F.O. Spacecraft Prohibited Landing on this Site.” I walked down the path amid iron railings, overgrown gardens and the remains of what looked like a crashed rocket ship from a “B” 1950’s movie set, sitting in the poison ivy. I thought to myself, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore” (or Upton to be exact). My mind was going wild with images of the individual I was about to meet. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, appeared a charming man with blue eyes and a self-effacing manner (and a great smile to boot). Toto and I had just met the Wizard of Oz. (cue the munchkins)

The Wizard was Alfred Consigli, an 80-year-old man who would take me on a ride through the adventure that was his life. He conducted this tour dressed in the clothes of his trade: a paint stained cap on his head and old worn clothes, rife with holes. He owns a welding/sandblasting business here in Upton, but that is not the reason for my visit. I am here to find out if he is really the colorful character I have been told about. So, with a shrug of his shoulders and a come hither wave, we embarked on our journey. We had to walk past the old tour bus sitting among the weeds, past the wrought iron art creations he has made over the years, tip toe around the duct tape littering the walk way and past his latest object d’art. He had re-welded the frame of an old car and was waiting for its owner to come and admire his work (and hopefully pay him the price he was going to ask). He led me to his old truck and there he proceeded to hitch himself up in the back and tell me his story.

I learned that Al was one of nine sons born into an Italian family in Milford and like all boys of his era, he lived each day to its fullest. His favorite pastime was target shooting down at the pond with his friend Eddie Wilson. They would buy bullets for the exorbitant price of 20 cents a box and go out to the pond and target shoot. Their targets were pennies on the wall but this became too easy and Al advanced to using matches as targets; he could hit the match and spark a flame. His life at this time consisted of family, friends and enjoyment. This bucolic life would change during World War 2 with the draft notice that ordered the 17 year old to report to Boston for his physical. The terrified teen struck off for the big city, he had never traveled beyond the limits of his hometown and the fear of having to travel all alone and undress in front of strangers was too much for a shy kid from the sticks. His blood pressure was sky high and he failed the physical. A few weeks later they re-examined him, he passed and he was in the army at 18. There were no big farewell parties, he just shipped out to Ft. Knox, Kentucky for basic tank training. This is where shooting the 20-cent rounds with Eddie paid off. Al earned the rank of sharp shooter and became a tank gunner. His shooting accuracy attracted the attention of a captain who hand picked him for his crew. Before he shipped out for Europe, his mother told him not to smoke, not to drink and not to swear. But she never told him not to go near women!

 

He then told me the story of what happened to the young boy from Milford who missed his mother desperately and wished every day to be home with his family. Instead of using words to convey the fear and loneliness, he used visual aides. Al chronicled his time in Europe with a camera; with pictures, he was able to show me in black and white the courage and endurance of his fellow comrades. He was able to capture the nobility of the human spirit and also the horrors of war. After his company had been in action a while in Germany, he came across a home and in it were several cameras and canisters of film. He gave all the cameras away to his buddies and kept a 120 camera for himself and lots of film. None of the soldiers he knew were taking pictures of the war; they just wanted to go home. Al believed he would never get home, he felt that “everything was over so he might as well take pictures”. He took pictures of everything he saw and experienced. A window into what life was really like in Europe during the war can be seen in these photos, you can almost feel the fear and hear the gunfire.

 

Al’s company landed in France immediately after the Normandy invasion and this is where he saw his first action. He can recite from memory the words he heard giving him the exact location of the machine gun nest and the orders “fire when ready”. His battalion, the “Black Cat Tank Battalion”, (774th tank battalion), would earn distinction during their service to their country. (Al wasn’t the only Consigli to be drafted. His mother would see seven of her nine sons serve in the war: Mario, George, John, Joseph, Richard, Louis and Alfred) His company would earn more combat stars (five) than any other tank battalion in the war. The Black Cat Battalion was given the name “Black Cat” because they traveled at night. When I asked how this was possible, (there were no infrared or night vision goggles back then), he smiled and said, “It wasn’t easy”. His tank was named “Blood N Guts” and it was a Sherman Medium Tank. In one and half years, he and his tank traveled all over Europe doing the advance work for the infantry. And it was from this tank Al took his photos. Pictures of soldier’s posing in front of Hitler’s hideout; pictures in front of Hitler’s architect’s house, and in the Rhineland, he took a photo of German POW’s marching in columns with American GI’s guarding them. A particularly poignant picture was of a Red Cross soldier holding a German child while he directed traffic. Al has so many photos, both of dramatic events and of ordinary life that you begin to feel like you were there. He took pictures of the GI’s shaving, cutting their hair and enjoying a rare break in the action. But the ghoulish specters in almost every photo were the stacked rounds of ammunition next to the tank. That showed the reality of war. During his telling of his story, he sat in the back of his old truck and pulled out the photos one by one, his hat cocked back at the same jaunty angle it was in many of the old photos. Looking at him there as he talked about his life, I could see the young man in the photos, like a ghost speaking to me from the past. The most emotional photo was of smoke coming out of a German tank. Looking at this one photo, he becomes visibly disturbed. He says he can still smell the stench of burning flesh. As I looked at the picture I could smell it too.

Some of his pictures show the German children waving to the American GI’s as they passed by. The American’s were good to the people; they tried to reassure the German civilians they were not there as conquerors. The soldiers were kind and helped the villagers, sharing their food and resources and the civilians appreciated the generosity. He remembers one Christmas when the tanks were stuck in the mud and they were waiting for the bulldozers to pull them out, one of the village women came out and gave them warm soup. He took to heart the words of a commanding officer, “The world’s eyes are upon you. You are an American soldier and you should act like one.” He and his buddies never hurt or frightened anyone; they respected the people and the POW’s. He beams with pleasure when he tells of how proud he was of the tank patch on his uniform. He would keep the uniform neat and wear it proudly, displaying the patch. The cloth for his uniform came from one of the Uxbridge mills, giving him a connection to home. He sheepishly confides that he never turned in his uniform when he came home; the uniform and the tank patch meant so much to him. My favorite story was how he and a buddy “commandeered” a red plywood convertible hidden in a tobacco barn and went out looking for girls. The infantry caught up with them and he was court marshaled for “fraternizing with the German Enemy”. His penalty was a rather mild one because they needed him back in action. He lost his pay for six months and had to dig trenches for latrines, but the truth was he did not want to go back to the action.

Tank soldiers never left their tanks; they slept in them, ate in them and were never further than an arm’s length away from them. His company was on the move from the instant they landed in France, they never sat still and this is when he felt the fear. In the beginning all you felt was the longing for home, but later on you felt “the fear”. His company was attached to the 83rd and 78th infantry divisions, and at one point they fought with Patton’s army. They were so busy they never had time to let what they were doing sink in, but the fear was there. The constant moving from one division to another, targeting one village and going on to the next right away, was when he knew the real press of the war was on. He began to feel like his luck would run out because things were going too fast. You could feel the urgency all around you.

When his tour of duty was over he returned home to his family. But all was not happy; his mother was very ill and died at 43. Al believes that the strain of having seven sons serve in the war was too much for his mother. Adjusting to life at home was difficult; he was not ready for the slow pace. For two years in Europe he never had a quiet moment, he was always on the move. He felt jumpy, like he should be doing something, be in action somewhere. It seemed like life here stood still. He worked in Draper’s for a while after getting back home, then he started his welding and sandblasting business on Fruit Street in Milford, later moving to Route 140 in Upton. He built the first building for his business all by himself, taking ten years. The slate on the roof comes from a Boston train station and the front was built in a European style. He was impressed with the architecture he saw in Europe so he decided to have a little piece of Europe here in Upton. He sold the building in 1970, took the money and went to England and bought himself a Rolls Royce. This car sits in his garage located on “Rolls Royce Circle”, all covered up waiting for the day when he can take a pretty lady driving. With a smile like his I am sure it won’t be hard to find someone to take him up on the offer. Al brings his collection of photos with him when he goes to air shows, he enjoys the people milling around him looking at that chapter of his life. Back at home Al has turned his love for the absurd and exotic into artwork and ambiance with his welding skills. No project is too hard the challenge is the thrill. Like the Wizard of OZ, Al is a showman from the old days, who delights in people’s reactions to his creations.

When it was time for me to leave, Al took me to see the last attraction in the amusement park that is his life. Standing at the end of the driveway was a tall, iron structure that I mistook at first for a water tower. Upon closer observation I saw that it was an enormous two-story weather vane. The lower story had a steam engine from a Pennsylvania coalmine. The second story of the iron contraption had the weather vane arrow attached to an antique Triumph Mayflower. The car sits on a rotating base that allows it to move with the wind. When I asked what possessed him to turn an old car into weather vane, he smiled that smile and said, “ I was always a fan of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, so, believe it or not!”