A hard-knock life

Tony Nicosia’s gripping autobiography is a survivor’s self-portrait

VINTAGE<br>Vietnam War vet Tony Nicosia drives around town—often to some volunteer effort—in his recognizable 1963 Ford Fairlane.

Vietnam War vet Tony Nicosia drives around town—often to some volunteer effort—in his recognizable 1963 Ford Fairlane.

Photo by Robert Speer

Book shopping:
Copies of Dreaming of Wolves ($15) can be purchased at Lyon Books and the Chico Peace and Justice Center (where $3 goes to the center). Tony Nicosia says he’s working on a new book based on his hundreds of photographs of Bidwell Park. Its title will be Bidwell Park: A Tarnished Jewel.

As Tony Nicosia would be the first to tell you, he has a lot of friends. Tony would tell you a lot of things, if given the opportunity. He likes to talk, and he has a hard life’s worth of stories to tell, stories that often lead his friends to say, “You ought to write a book about that, Tony.”

Well, now he has. It’s a self-published autobiography called Dreaming of Wolves, and though it will win no awards for literary style, having been authored in a way that sounds much like Tony Nicosia at full blast, you can’t stop reading it. Because what it tells you is that Nicosia—this shambling, rambling man who drives an instantly recognizable 1963 Ford Fairlane around Chico—has an amazing, if often painful, story to tell. There’s a lot more to Tony Nicosia than even his many friends know.

Reading his book is like witnessing a train wreck: hard to watch but impossible to turn away from. By the end, though, the reader is gladdened and inspired that someone subjected to such searing experiences during his 58 years on the planet still has a warm heart. As his many friends will tell you, gruff, tough Tony Nicosia is a big softie, which is part of the reason why he’s such a reliable volunteer, community activist and all-around good guy.

Stephen Tchudi works part-time as the newsletter editor at the Chico Peace and Justice Center. That’s where he first met Tony Nicosia, who volunteers there. Last summer, for example, Nicosia participated in the center’s anti-war, pro-earth march as a giant puppet, “The Not-So-Bad Wolf,” in keeping with a lifelong love of wolves that has manifested most recently in the title of his book.

Nicosia gets VA and SSI disability pensions, so he doesn’t have to work. He lives alone in a westside Chico apartment and satisfies his garrulous nature by getting out and about as often as possible. The peace center offices on Broadway are one of Nicosia’s daily stops as he makes his rounds visiting friends and acquaintances downtown. When he mentioned to Tchudi that folks had told him he ought to write a book, Tchudi offered to help.

The project took about eight months, with Nicosia telling his stories into a recorder and Tchudi editing them into a narrative. At one point, Nicosia said, he got laryngitis and had to write his tales in longhand, which Tchudi then edited.

“I tried to keep Tony’s voice as much as possible,” Tchudi said. “He just tells the stories in his blunt way and then will say something like, ‘That really made me mad.’ ”

Life has often been unkind to Tony Nicosia. His parents divorced when he was 5 years old, and his mother, saying she was unable to care for him and his 3-year-old sister, Linda, placed them in a Catholic orphanage in Pennsylvania. Tony soon came down with rheumatic fever and spent four years in the Allentown Hospital, where he almost died. His father came from California to visit him more often than did his mother, who lived only six blocks away, he writes.

At 14, he escaped from the orphanage and hopped trains to California to live with his father in Santa Barbara—“the best years of my life,” he now says. Two years later, his father died, supposedly from food poisoning, but Nicosia writes and says he is convinced his stepmother poisoned him. She got all his father’s money and property, in any event, and Tony went back to Allentown to live with his mother.

His Uncle Angelo had taught him boxing, and he needed the skills in Allentown. He was a strong young man and unafraid to fight. When three high-school dropouts raped his sister, he went to their houses and beat them up—one, he writes in the book, so badly that the guy spent six months in the hospital.

After high school, Nicosia joined the Air Force. He eventually ended up in Vietnam, doing supply work while under attack by the Viet Cong and, later, search and rescue for downed flyers—harrowing duty, as he writes in the book: “Once I was bringing back a soldier and one of the [North] Vietnamese shot directly behind my shoulder and blew the soldier’s head off, spattering me with blood and brains. Many times I brought soldiers—countless soldiers—to safety, and I feel good about that.”

That horrific incident wasn’t the worst thing to happen to Tony Nicosia. The worst thing occurred a few years later, after he’d returned to Pennsylvania, gotten a good job with Bethlehem Steel, settled down with a young woman named Cathy, and had two children, Tony and Maria. “We had a beautiful life and I was happy,” he writes. That bliss lasted three years, until May of 1972, when someone called him at work to tell him Cathy and the kids had all died in a fiery car crash.

“I never recovered from that,” he says today, his voice wistful, his eyes watering up. “Every time I see families with children, it just breaks my heart.”

Once again he drove cross-country, returning to California, where he held an assortment of jobs while attending college and working the Alaskan salmon season during summers. He transferred to Chico State in 1975 and, building on his love of nature, graduated in ’77 with a BA degree in park and natural resources and a BS degree in wildlife biology.

But he couldn’t get a job. There was a big affirmative-action push at the time to hire women to work in the parks, and he also ran into prejudice against Vietnam veterans, he says. He did short-term work for various natural-resources agencies, but he couldn’t find permanent work locally.

Then his health started to fail, the result of exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Doctors discovered colon cancer and removed a large section of his lower intestine. He later spent years fighting the Veterans Administration to get a decent disability pension.

He wandered, driving the Fairlane to Alaska in summers, around the West the rest of the year. He started taking photographs, mostly nature and landscape shots. He participated in Redwood Summer in 1990. But he always returned to Chico, which he thought of as home.

Many of the people he loved died. His sister was stabbed to death in Allentown, her body thrown off a bridge onto an expressway. A dear friend, Vicki Shelton, died in a car accident. A former lover died of cancer. And four close relatives have died since he started writing his book, Nicosia says, including his beloved Aunt Tita, his godmother “who was closer to me than my own mother.” She died just a month ago. “I’m still not over it,” he said.

These days, Nicosia is a regular at Chico Sports Club, where he likes to do water walking for exercise and has many friends. He got in car accidents in 1998 and 2001 that left him with a bad back and a brain injury that causes memory loss, but he’s doing his best to stay healthy.

Writing the book “was good,” he said. “It forced me to recall things.”

In addition to volunteering at the peace center (“I help out there, send letters out and so forth”), he’s active in the Sierra Club and the Butte Environmental Council, especially for Bidwell Park cleanups and the Endangered Species Faire. Just about any worthwhile event downtown that needs volunteers, he’s there.

He still spends a lot of time outdoors. He has good friends in Susanville and likes to camp at Eagle Lake. He’s been to Bodie, the ghost town on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, to take pictures.

And he’s still driving the same ’63 Fairlane he bought in 1974 for $200. He even remembers the date he made the purchase—“April 15th, tax day.” He’s driven it all over the country and to Mexico and Canada. These days it’s as banged up as he is, but like him it still gets around. “It’s a good little car.”