Dominick Critelli was born before the invention of the parking meter, masking tape, bubblegum, and chocolate chip cookies.
On his date of birth, April 8, 1921, Warren G. Harding was the newly inaugurated president. Since then, Critelli has seen 18 commanders-in-chief occupy the White House. Critelli is old. And he’s seen it all.
Beginnings in ItalyCritelli was the first child born to a carpenter and a stay-at-home mom—although no one called them that back then—in Tiriolo, a small town in Calabria, Italy. After his first sister was born, his father, who served in the Italian Army during World War I, was able to move the whole family to the United States, when Critelli was 8. Just as in the movies, the family arrived by ship and slept on the deck. They settled in the Richmond Hill section of Queens, New York City, where they rented a house. Critelli was placed into P.S. (Public School) 99, not knowing English.
The Old DaysCritelli’s arrival in America in 1929 coincided with the start of the Great Depression, as well as Prohibition. During that period, four more siblings were born, bringing the grand total of children to six. “It was tough for him,” Critelli told American Essence, referring to his father. “It was tough.”
In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Work Progress Administration, which employed Critelli’s father every other week. The family received canned goods from the Catholic church in the neighborhood, although at the time, a lot of families didn’t want to accept charity. “But we did,” said Critelli.
According to film historians, the Silent Era came to an end with 1927’s “The Jazz Singer,” which was the first movie to have synchronized sound. However, the transition didn’t happen overnight and Critelli caught the waning days of silent movies. “Charlie Chaplin. I remember him. He was magnificent,” he said. The Great Depression also kicked off the Golden Age of Hollywood. Movie palaces dotted the streets of New York City and Critelli would see two feature films, plus a short comedy, all for the admission price of 10 cents. (You read that correctly!) Serials were popular at the time, where Our Hero would find himself in a predicament, such as hanging off a cliff, and the movie would abruptly end, forcing viewers to return next week to see what happens—hence the term, “cliff hanger.” “He’d survive somehow, and then get into another situation,” said Critelli.
In Critelli’s second or third-grade class was a boy named Jack Cohen. “I wasn’t crazy about the guy,” said Critelli of Cohen. “He was a pain in the neck.” He recalled Cohen chasing a girl and pulling her pigtails and playing tricks on her. Critelli didn’t want to be seen with him by his other friends. Jack Cohen grew up to be standup comedian Rodney Dangerfield.
During Critelli’s childhood, the refrigerator wasn’t invented yet. Kitchens had an “icebox,” which was exactly what it sounds like—a box with a block of ice. The ice would generate cold to keep food from spoiling, and as it melted, a pan underneath would catch the water. The water needed to be dumped and the ice replaced a few times per week. Even though this was New York City and not some rural area, Critelli remembers the “iceman” delivering blocks of ice from a horse-drawn cart. “My mother couldn’t afford ice,” said Critelli. So he and a pal would go to the Borden Dairy Company a few blocks away where the milkmen would load up their horse-drawn carriages, swipe some of the ice that fell to the floor, and bring it home to his mother in their carts.
Eventually, Critelli’s father was able to buy the house they rented for the purchase price of $3,000. Houses in the area are currently on the market for over $600,000.
During high school, Critelli took up the saxophone and clarinet and by 18 was playing with a five-piece band that had a weekly gig at a restaurant. His compensation was $3 and a chicken dinner.
World War IIOn December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and thrust the United States into World War II. The following day, Critelli heard President Roosevelt’s famous “Day of Infamy” speech on the radio. Critelli was 20 years old and of draftable age. He was inducted into the army on October 28, 1942, and was trained as an airplane and engine mechanic. He also sewed parachutes. After some time spent in England, Critelli arrived in France eight days after the D-Day invasion, on the same beach, where he saw the aftermath of the battle.
By December 1944, Critelli was in Germany. The Battle of the Bulge was the last major German offensive campaign on the Western Front during the war. It was carried out from December 16, 1944 to January 1945, during a brutal winter. “The guys were surrounded and they weren’t going to survive,” said Critelli. “They already knew they weren’t going to get out.” An order came from above that Critelli and his unit were to airdrop supplies to the surrounded Allied soldiers, flying from a makeshift airstrip they had established nearby. They loaded up C-rations, K-rations (both food), and ammunition into the planes, to be tossed out of the windows. Sometimes Critelli would include a carton of cigarettes. “Our planes could fly low,” said Critelli, making them less likely to be shot down.
They made over 100 drops, 14 of which included Critelli in the back seat. For this he received an Air Medal, which is awarded for single acts of heroism or meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight.
While in Germany, Critelli actually befriended a German family. He met a girl and could speak enough German to talk to her. She had a sister and they invited him over to their house. He made a couple of trips there over a few weeks, often bringing jars of orange marmalade he acquired from the supply sergeant. Their father (or possibly uncle, his memory is a bit fuzzy) gifted a Garmisch pipe to Critelli. “They treated me terrific,” he said, but swears there was no romance.
Critelli was in Germany on V-E Day, when the Nazis surrendered. That was May 8, 1945. But there was still the matter of the Japanese. “We were ready to go to Japan. We were all assembled,” said Critelli. “All of a sudden it comes over the radio that they bombed [Japan],” effectively ending the war. “Everybody started jumping up and down,” he said.
Post-War AmericaThe two decades following World War II brought many changes to life in America. Refrigerators were one. No longer did Critelli—or anyone else—need to fetch ice for the icebox.
The 1950s brought with it the mass-marketing of television sets, which in turn created the Golden Age of Television. Critelli bought his first TV shortly after the war. He watched all the great comics of the era: Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, and Jackie Gleason, with the entire extended family gathered around a 10-inch screen.
The decade also brought us the birth of Rock and Roll, only some of which Critelli liked. Elvis Presley left him unimpressed. “I didn’t care for him. I didn’t think he was that good.”
Critelli watched The Beatles’s American debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in February 1964, and was left as unimpressed with them as he was with Elvis. But in 1964, Critelli was able to get in on the Golden Age of the American Automobile, with the purchase of a brand-new Cadillac convertible for $5,200. (The 2022 equivalent sells for upwards of $80,000.) “Like everything else it got old and I had to sell it for $500.”
For Critelli, of all the advances made in the 20th century, it’s the moon landing on July 20, 1969, that was the most spectacular. “That was something that I never thought would happen,” he said. “I didn’t think it was real until a couple of days later.”
The Computer AgeMany people of the World War II generation, as well as the Baby Boomers who followed them, do not embrace modern technology. Critelli does. He has a computer and a cell phone and he currently plays sax with his own jazz band and they’ve recorded a CD. “The internet was unbelievable,” he said. “That’s some progress.”
Modern TimesThree years ago, Critelli had a fall and broke his right femur, which was followed by a massive infection of his knee. He has a plate and a rod in his leg above his knee and credits antibiotics—which barely existed for the first half of his life—for saving his leg. While he sometimes walks with a cane, he can still make it up and down a flight of stairs pretty quickly. Clearly, Critelli is a survivor. Not only did he survive the Great Depression and World War II, but he’s also survived 14 recessions and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Believe it or not, Critelli didn’t embrace reaching the milestone of 100 years old. “I’ll tell ya, I didn’t feel good telling anybody I was 100,” he said. Even when he was 90 he’d tell people he was 75 or 80. “You’re 100 years old and you’re thinking of what you had and what you can’t get anymore,” he said.
At 102, Critelli is the picture of health. He doesn’t look a day over 93. Some people say that “age is just a number.” His is 102.