“What am I going to do with a freaking island?” is a question that Joe Massaro, a sheet metal and construction industry entrepreneur asked himself moments after buying Petra Island, a 10.5-acre island in the middle of Lake Mahopac in Putnam County, virtually on a whim in the spring of 1994.
Massaro has now related the story of the island’s purchase, along with an account of his successful career in the sheet metal business, in a 348-page, self-published memoir, “The Impossible Road.” With a large amount of detail on the sheet metal and HVAC industries along the way, the book is best enjoyed as a motivational “local boy done good” story, which for readers in our region has the advantage of unfolding in an agreeably familiar setting,
Growing up in Elmsford, Massaro claims he knew by first grade that he “was not made for school.” “What’s wrong with you?” was the question he was most commonly asked, both at school and at home, as the nuns at his Roman Catholic school and his loving but despairing mother attempted to understand his complete lack of academic application.
The book is subtitled, “From the First Seat in the Dumb Row to My Own Private Island,” and is centered in large part on the author’s relatively humble background and inherent entrepreneurial skills. As the subtitle suggests, it is more a “can-do” chronicle than a traditional, rags-to-riches tale.
The turning point came in 11th grade, when the teenage Massaro discovered he was good at building. After a stint at his father’s gas station, a much-loved uncle, Vincent Gervasi, gave him a job in his company, Elmsford Sheet Metal, where Massaro flourished, eventually becoming the owner of the business and learning the art of the deal in the process.
On the way, we readers meet such colorful characters as Ronald Morrison, Massaro’s Army National Guard buddy from Yonkers, his cousin Joe Bo (with whom he made a well-documented killing at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics) and Lidia Wusatowska, the Polish aeronautical engineer.
There is sentiment, too, like when he lands a $23 million job at IBM in Fishkill and Massaro tells his mother, “Hey, mom, look what your dumb kid did now.”
Returning to the “freaking island,” on which, pertinently, a Frank Lloyd Wright cottage stood at the time of his purchase, Massaro devotes more than 50 pages to his determination to build an “authentic,” full-sized Frank Lloyd Wright on Petra, according to original plans that the architect had drawn up but that had never been executed. Massaro’s confrontation with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, along with further resistance from the town planners and local residents has been well-documented elsewhere, including in WAG, https://www.wagmag.com/wright-and-not-so-wright/ so the book serves, too, as a platform for Massaro to tell his side of the story.
Looking back, Massaro says, it is clear that he had been struggling throughout his early years with what today would be rightly recognized as a learning disability, although there is no sense of bitterness or regret that his problems were not diagnosed. After all, the book is dedicated to his father and mother.
Despite some shortcomings – annoying typesetting, sloppy editing, clichés and wearing puns — or perhaps because of them, there’s a freshness in Massaro’s narrative, and his short, concise sentences and self-deprecating remarks make for an easy and satisfying read.
A bluff, cheery guy on the surface, Massaro is his own best publicist. With a glint in his eye, he tells his story with wit and humor and is not averse to the odd corny aside, though you suspect that still waters, like those surrounding Petra Island, may run deep.
As for Petra island – for which Massaro paid $700,000 27 years ago, it is understood to be on the market at an asking price of around $10 million.
Joe Massaro’s “The Impossible Road – From the First Seat in the Dumb Row to My Own Private Island” (348 Pages) is available through Barnes & Noble and at amazon.com.