PITTSBURGH (July 13, 2001)—Pete Calabro is celebrating his 60 th year in business. Not bad for a guy who was dead 57 years ago—at least that's what Uncle Sam said.
Obviously, Mr. Calabro, now 78 and the mostly retired founder of Calabro Tire and Auto Service, southeast of Pittsburgh, is not dead. Nor was he, quite remarkably, in 1944 when the War Department sent a telegram to his family saying so.
He was a crewman on a B-17 Flying Fortress that left an Air Force base in Foji, Italy, in the latter stages of World War II. The plane was flying over Budapest, Hungary, when it took a direct hit—apparently from German anti-aircraft fire—and began plummeting like a tech stock.
“The only thing that saved us is that we were hit so hard that we went into a dive and that kicked the flames out,” Mr. Calabro recalled. “We dropped three or four thousand feet, then leveled off.”
The plane, though stabilized, could not be salvaged. With mountains between it and a safe return to base, it would not be able to climb high enough to get home. The crew stripped it down, throwing out all things ballast, and flew as far as they could.
But at just a few thousand feet off the ground, the plane made an easy target for the German gunners firing at it.
“The pilot said, 'You stay back there as a lookout,'” Mr. Calabro remembered. “All I heard was, 'Jump, bail out, get out of here.' I was standing where the ball turret used to be. I jumped out and landed right in the middle of German lines.”
Neither Mr. Calabro nor anyone else on the plane knew it when they jumped, but they were flying right over a battle between the Germans and Marshall Tito's communist Yugoslavian forces. As he floated earthward, suspended by parachute strings, bullets whizzed all around him.
“I saw three or four chutes beyond the field,” he said. “I was the first one out. I never did know what happened until I got back in (a POW) camp. The Germans were shooting with small arms at us. They were hitting the small oxygen bottles in the front of the plane and (the oxygen bottles) were exploding. Some of the guys—a captain and a pilot and co-pilot—flew it as far as they could before eventually bailing out.”
Since he was the first out of the plane—and perhaps since another crewman was indeed shot on the way down—nobody knew of Mr. Calabro's whereabouts and assumed him dead. He spent five weeks in transit before winding up at a prison camp.
In the meantime a telegram was issued informing his family he was missing in action. A later memo said he was dead. Finally, an accurate communiquÃ&Copy; said he was a prisoner of war.
“Mother had passed away,” Mr. Calabro said. “My dad was in complete shock. When the news came (that he was actually alive), he celebrated.”
Mr. Calabro wound up at a POW camp in Northern Poland, which he described as falling somewhere in between Hogan's Heroes and The Deerhunter.
“It really wasn't that bad,” he said. “You stayed away from the SS troopers. You didn't mess with them. But the regular army, they treated us like we never expected, but like we figured we would have treated them. There were no beatings, nothing like that.
“We joked back and forth. They didn't have the food and couldn't give it to us. We got our so-called Red Cross parcels, which had Spam, candy bars and cigarettes, which you could trade for things. If you didn't smoke you were a millionaire.”
Mr. Calabro spent nine months as a POW before being liberated by General George Patton's troops. He then headed for Paris, boarded a boat and went home to his 4-year-old business, which his father had maintained during the war.
Ironically, it was his business that would have kept him out of the war—but he wanted a piece of the action. Granted a deferment because he was a tire retreader, whose skills were in short supply, he was to have reported to Shreveport, La., where retreading was needed for the war effort and was a valuable service because a freeze had been placed on new rubber.
“…(I)t was a supply-and-demand situation. One of the reasons they put me in deferment status is there was a shortage of recapping plants. I had brand new Lodi equipment. I was doing very well in the recapping end of it.”
Still, fueled—and fooled—by the romantic notion of fighting for his country, he enlisted.
“Like a dummy,” said Mr. Calabro, who qualified for the Air Force. “I wanted to see some action. Everybody wanted to go. All my friends and school people wanted to go. I saw some action, all right.”
He returned home to find his business still intact, but soon realized it would need to change. Where passenger tire retreading was once big business—with tires wearing out in 15,000 miles or less—the advent of radial tires nearly crushed his livelihood.
“I would say the toughest times were when the recapping end was on its way downhill. Some of us dealers got together and bought a big abandoned warehouse and pooled our equity together and tried to form a recapping group,” Mr. Calabro said, recalling a last-gasp effort to save that end of his business.
But the lack of retreading business, along with the sudden downturn in tire sales caused by an overall higher quality of product, led Mr. Calabro down a road many dealers have since followed.
“You almost had to go into the auto service business,” he said. “That's been our salvation, really.”
With the assistance of longtime collaborators John Martorana and Jim Wagner, both of whom worked with Mr. Calabro for nearly half a century, the business was moved from Bridgeville, Pa., to Upper St. Clair, Pa., in 1967. It was then that auto service was added.
Now, 34 years later, Calabro Tire is a thriving, seven-bay, one-store operation thanks to auto service. The dealership has three full-time mechanics, three tire changers, one service writer, two office workers and four sales/customer service people among its 13 employees.
The store, which Mr. Calabro said grosses about $1.5 million annually, no longer does any retreading. It sells primarily Michelin, Uniroyal and BFGoodrich products, custom wheels and specialty tires, and dabbles a bit in wholesaling—it's about 2 percent of the business.
As was the case when he left for World War II, he has left things in the capable hands of his family. Daughter Janine and sons Jack and Perry now run the show for the most part, and he's glad to let them do it.
“The best times are now,” he said. “I have my family here now. The two boys worked in there since they were kids. They hung around and they liked it. They grew up in it.
“I'm happy with the way things worked out. It's been a profitable business. We've had no basic problems. Of course, you knock on wood. I'm happy with it. We're still hanging in there with our volume.”
And you can't do that without the customers who, Janine Calabro said, provide the feedback and “always feel like part of the family. That's what's come from my dad and hopefully us, too. My dad is one of those people that everybody likes. He's always been the kind of person that can develop a rapport with every customer that comes into the door. It's because of him that we've had a generational business. He's lived here all his life and he knows everyone.
“What we've all gained from him is a real sense of how to treat people and how to respond to people's needs. You treat them as people and don't look at them as numbers and dollar signs. Everyone is unique and you should treat them that way.”
These days Mr. Calabro is taking it easy. He winters in Florida but always keeps in touch with the home folk. When he's in the area, not a day goes by that he doesn't stop in at the store to see what's going on.
“I have a place to hang my hat,” he said. “I'd go crazy if I didn't.”