Articles of war

John Savarino

Photo by Larry Dalton

On the bustling corner where the Highway 50 exit meets Stockton Boulevard, John Savarino has combined his two passions under the roof of one establishment—a building he has owned for over 50 years. Most people come to this place, called John’s Automotive, to bring their European cars in for repair. But a handful come by to check out a separate room attached to the garage, the room of Savarino’s “hobby.” This air-conditioned room contains prints and models of airplanes from World War II. Whether they come in to purchase rare, World War II signature paintings or just to reminisce (most visitors are war veterans), customers are treated to 76-year-old Savarino’s love and passion for aviation.

How long have you been interested in aviation?

Always. Even as a kid I was interested in aviation. I built lots of model airplanes when I was young and I still do, even now.

What about aviation interests you?

The thrill of flying is incredible. Beautiful. I never did fly. I’d gone up in planes but never was a pilot, but I’m fascinated by it.

Can you explain the artwork here?

It’s all World War II fighter planes and bombers. Pictures of World War II planes by famous artists, prints of famous paintings. Of course, I was in the War so I relate to them. I was stationed in Europe all throughout the War campaign, so I relate to these planes. I fell in love with them, I guess. Then my hobby outgrew my home, so I brought them all here!

What is the price range for the prints?

Anywhere from $300 to $700. Some are quite rare. The pilots have signed every one of them. The World War II pilots are now in their late 70s and are disappearing pretty fast. A few more years and there won’t be any more signatures on them.

Do you get much business?

We get a lot of people in here, and I don’t advertise. I don’t have time. My main concern is the auto shop. But I get a lot of action in here, even though I don’t advertise. I should, I guess, if I really wanted to sell them. But actually, the prices are really reasonable. As the prices go up, there are less sales. People don’t have the money to spend that much for a print. But every day, we get a handful of people coming in here. With the economy turning sour, less people are buying. It doesn’t affect me since I don’t rent this place, I own it. All I have to pay for is a little electricity—it’s all I need here.

What type of people come into your store?

Mostly war veterans. Or kids—the baby boomers buy them for their dads who were in the service.

What’s your favorite part of this job?

I love mechanical work, and that’s why I opened the shop. We work mostly on European cars. But I don’t think there’s a make we haven’t worked on. I love the old cars. Old Chevrolets, old Cadillacs … I guess I was brought up with those kinds of cars, so I enjoy working on them.

Sorry for such a general question, but what was the War like?

The world, at that time, the whole world was involved with war. You didn’t know of a family anywhere that wasn’t involved with the War or who didn’t have anyone in the service. It was an all-out effort. Everyone pulled together. It was such a big operation, it was mind-boggling. It caused a lot of casualties and a lot of hardship, but we survived.

What did you do in the War?

I was a mechanic. I was too young to fly. I loaded the planes up, put bombs in ’em, greased them up, gassed them up. We lost so many planes. We watched them take off in the morning and see just a handful come back at night. All shot up, wounded or dead inside the plane. It was really hard to see.

What do you think of the war movies that are popular now, such as Saving Private Ryan?

I can’t see them all. I see part of it and I shut it off. It just brings back too many memories too quick. That movie, Saving Private Ryan, is just right on the mark. It was as accurate as you can get. When you’re in the War, and you see all this, you’re always moving on from all the devastation that’s around you. You take it for granted. You’re so engrossed into it, with the training you had prior to the War, it’s like you were born into it. The thought part is when you come back. You’re lost. There’s no activity around you. All your friends and buddies are gone. The civilization population—they don’t relate to it, because they weren’t in it. It’s really a tough process.

And what about modern-day Nazis?

They’re all over the place, but they can’t get a foothold. People won’t let ’em. The memory of WWII is still there, television and movies bring it into your mind; it isn’t something you ever forget. But a lot of young people have a hard time believing it, they’ve seen it too often. If I wasn’t there and saw a lot of it, I would have a hard time believing it all.

How have times changed?

Opportunity. In my time, if you had a little drive and incentive, you could build up a business in no time. Very inexpensive. Today it’s almost impossible. All the laws that they have, I could never have a shop like this if I tried to start it today.