By Gary Moore, CalVet
REDDING – Nic Casella got help when he needed it most. He will repay the favor today.
Soon after the 97-year-old Navy veteran returned from Chico to his home in Paradise on November 8, 2018, he saw an ominous cloud. Rain was not in the forecast.
“I went to the sliding glass door and saw a huge orange-and-red ball coming at me,” Casella said. He stuffed what he could into his Subaru and fled back to Chico in what he described as an apocalyptic scene. “There were cars in ditches, fire trucks everywhere, and people abandoning their cars and running from the flames. It was complete pandemonium.”
Within hours, the Camp fire burned his house to the ground. Just like that, Casella was homeless. A member of the Paradise Elks Lodge, he drove to the Elks Lodge in Chico, which had opened its doors to shelter fire victims. There, he met a local high school principal who volunteered by handing out food to these sudden refugees. “I joked, ‘Do you have anything better than a sandwich?’” Casella said. The principal returned the banter, but he did have an offer that was no joke. The principal soon invited Casella to live with him, his family and the family pooch, until he could find a permanent home. Casella’s nephew contacted the Veterans Home of California-Redding. Because he was a homeless veteran, Casella qualified for priority placement. He moved in January 16, homeless no more.
Casella will do his own good turn today, August 9. He’ll donate his car – the same Subaru in which he left the fire last November – to his friends at the Paradise Elks Lodge, which the Camp fire also destroyed. He’s no longer able to drive, so he will turn over the keys to Jim Saxon, the Lodge’s Exalted Ruler, in a ceremony at the Veterans Home at 1 p.m. The Subaru will go to a family that lost its car during the same fire. Casella lost his Elks’ 30-year membership coin in the fire. Saxon will present him with a 35-year membership coin to replace it.
Casella is no stranger to kindness, on the giving or receiving ends. Like every other veteran living at the home, Casella can tell a story of his life before, during and after his service to the country. He was raised by his grandmother in San Jose. When he was seven years old, he began working at the family market as a stock boy. He earned pocket change by picking up peanut shells at a local ballpark. Later, he became a batboy for the San Francisco Seals, where he handed bats to future stars including the DiMaggio brothers – Joe, Dom, and Vince.
Casella joined the Navy at age 19 in 1939, and served aboard the heavy cruiser USS Minneapolis before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He served aboard the carrier USS Hornet during World War II, maintaining the Chrysler engines used in various types of military equipment. On orders of President Truman, he searched for the dog tags of soldiers killed in action on Iwo Jima. In 1946, he joined the reserves as an Aircraft Machinist 1st Class, installing wings on the B-24 bomber known as “the Liberator.”
Casella returned to school, graduated from San Jose State University, and then went to work in the motion picture industry. He became a specialist in Technicolor, applying his talents to “The Ten Commandments” starring Charlton Heston, and also became friends with actor Tony Curtis.
He co-owned a steakhouse before moving to Paradise, where he worked as the art director for Ad Art Inc. for 37 years, until he was laid off at age 71. Paradise remained his home until that fateful day of November 8, 2018. He’d just returned from Chico, where he’d booked a flight to Costa Rica with plans to invest in some property in the Central American nation. Instead, his home burned, and he found himself reliant on the kindness of others.
Today, he’ll return the kindness by helping his Elks brethren help a family in need.