[FWDLK] A Nice Story, What with Tulsa Coming Up...
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[FWDLK] A Nice Story, What with Tulsa Coming Up...

The long road home

By Angela Carella
Assistant City Editor

May 31, 2007

STAMFORD - This is the story of a car that never went far, except for a 20-year trip home.

It was a 1940 Chevrolet Special Deluxe, brown like a man's suit, beautifully curved and accented with shining stainless steel.

Serafino Stoni bought it new at a Stamford dealership. It was hard-won. Stoni was an Italian immigrant toughened by the Great Depression, who earned his money as a mason.

To help feed his family, he kept pigs, rabbits and a garden on land he owned on Catoona Lane on Stamford's West Side.

His grandson, Tony Femia, was born about 30 years after Stoni bought the Chevy, but even then Stoni kept it garaged, drove it only in nice weather, let no one else behind the wheel, and polished it religiously.

In the nearly four decades he owned the car, Stoni drove it only 39,000 miles.

For Femia, the car was a kind of sanctuary.

In the 1970s, when Femia was a boy, his parents split up. His mother worked long hours and his father was not around.

His grandfather was his rock.

Femia, who lived with his mother and grandparents, saw that other family members were intimidated by Stoni - he was gruff, no-nonsense, strong-minded.

"For him, it was all about survival. There was no time to screw around," Femia said. "I remember he sent his sons, my uncles, to this barn after it burned down to get the nails so they could hammer them straight and use them again."

His grandfather taught him to work hard.

"He would give me $1 to water the trees in the yard," Femia said. "I was a skinny little kid, and I would put the 5-gallon bucket in the bathtub to fill it. I could hardly lift it."

But Stoni must have understood that Femia longed for a father. Femia remembers a crooked smile and twinkling eye reserved for him.

"Other people in the family wouldn't approach him, but I had this little plastic doctor's kit, and when he was sleeping, I would lift up his shirt and check his chest with the stethoscope, and pretend to give him a shot with the needle," Femia said.

He saw how his grandfather cherished the Chevy, so he did, too.

"I helped him wax it. He picked me up from school in it. We went on errands," he said. "It was old then, but we were stylin' when we went for a ride."

The Chevy had an old-fashioned radio made with vacuum tubes. His grandfather didn't allow him to play in the car, but Femia couldn't resist, especially since Stoni left the key in it.

"I would sneak in the garage and turn on the ignition so I could put on the radio," Femia said. "I would wait for the tubes to warm up and turn orange. Then I would lay on the floor of the car and look up at the tubes and listen to the radio."

A few times he forgot to turn off the ignition and ran down the car battery.

"My grandfather would swear at himself, thinking he had left it on," Femia said.

One night when he was about 10, Femia was awakened in his bed. An ambulance was at the house. His grandfather had died of a heart attack in his sleep.

"A lot changed after that," Femia said. "I used to go into the garage and hang out in the car."

It sat there for a year or so. "Then my grandmother had to sell it to help make ends meet," he said.

They learned of a barber in Stamford who was interested in the car.

"He came to the house to buy it. I begged him not to take it," Femia said. "I was crying. I started kicking him."

But the barber drove the car away.

Times got tougher. Femia remembers being given cards to get free lunches in school, but he was too embarrassed to use them. His grandmother died when he was 17, his mother a year later. He had to borrow money to bury her.

Femia did what he was taught - he worked. He borrowed more money and bought some trucks and started a business. Today Femia Landscaping Inc. has 14 trucks and 25 employees, headquartered on Catoona Lane in buildings constructed by Femia's grandfather using the nails salvaged from the burned barn.

Femia and his wife, Kim, have three children. They moved 12 years ago to a large home in South Salem, N.Y.

Throughout that time, Femia wondered what happened to the Chevy.

Then one day about 10 years ago, he got a call from a relative who said he was having his hair cut at a barber shop on High Ridge Road when he saw a photo of a 1940 Chevy Special Deluxe on the wall. The relative questioned the barber, who said he bought the car from Serafino Stoni.

Femia couldn't believe it. He contacted the barber and asked to see the car. When he got there, he ran his hand under the rear right fender to feel for a crease that would be there from a repair.

"It was like a birthmark identifying the car," Kim Femia said.

"Do you remember a little kid crying and kicking you when you bought this?" Tony Femia asked the barber.

He did.

"That was me," Femia said.

Though the barber broke Femia's heart by buying the car years ago, he turned out to be a good steward.

He kept the Chevy garaged and drove it only to shows, in parades and for Sunday spins. In the 20 years he owned it, the barber put only 7,000 miles on it.

He told Femia he would sell it to him for $6,000.

"What are the odds, after all this time, that I would find my grandfather's car, it would be in good shape, and the guy would want to sell it to me?" Femia asked.

"It was fate," his wife said.

Femia carefully stripped the Chevy, hand-sanding it, repairing rusted metal and replacing rotted parts.

He attended to each detail as he reconstructed it, specially ordering a new hi-low horn and rubber mounting brackets from California, combining two paint colors to create a custom walnut brown, and polishing all the stainless steel trim.

He finished it earlier this month and promptly entered it in the Model Ts to Mustangs Antique and Classic Car Show at the Stamford Museum & Nature Center, where he won Best in Class for American cars built from 1939 to 1949.

For Femia, the car is still a sanctuary.

On the dashboard he placed a photograph of his grandfather standing with his arm on the hood of the Chevy. Behind the newly re-upholstered rear seat he placed a fedora that looks like one his grandfather wore. You can see the hat through the rear windshield. The license plate is POPS 40.

"Grandpa rides with me," Femia said. "I talk to him when we're driving."

He takes "short trips, and not many," and always parks the Chevy in the garage, "just like my grandfather," Femia said.

"My husband sits a lot taller in that seat," Kim Femia said.

His boyhood was a struggle because his father was absent, and his time with his grandfather was short, which makes him "try harder" with his children, Femia said.

He hopes his children will understand the meaning of jaunts in the 1940 Chevy.

"I take them for rides, but they don't realize we are making memories. I didn't get it, either, until my grandfather was gone," he said. "It's very precious, the little bit of time we have."

Copyright (c) 2007, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.


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