Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Honoring the fighters, the fallen, and the really, really old

Last week, we celebrated two very special events in Allerona. April 25 was Italian Liberation Day, and April 27 was Nonno Gino’s birthday. The former is a national holiday, and the latter, well, it should be a national holiday.

April 25 is recognized as the day the partigiani (partisans), or the Italian Resistance succeeded, with Allied help, in driving the last of the Nazis from Italy. It’s also a day to remember Italy’s war dead from both world wars and to pay respect to living war veterans, though those are a rarer and rarer breed anymore.

Allerona's monument to the caduti
In Allerona, April 25 is marked with a small, sweet ceremony in the town’s piazza, or main square. In a garden adjacent to the piazza, there is a monument inscribed with Allerona’s caduti, its fallen soldiers from both wars. The surnames of the dead are the same surnames as those still living in Allerona and in many cases, it appears that whole families of brothers died fighting.
The living combatenti  (fighters) and non-combat veterans like Gino are honored at a lunch in town, which always takes place on April 25 at the same restaurant.

Although I can imagine that it mattered a lot 50, or even 20 years ago, these days, no one worries or talks too much about whom at the lunch was a partrigiani or who was a fascist. I’m pretty sure both are present at the lunch, but as a friend used to say, “Everyone in France was a member of the resistance. Go ahead, ask any of them.” Italy is not so different. Surely not everyone jumped from the fascist ship and switched allegiances. And more than one million people still visit Mussolini’s grave each year, and someone leaves flowers, though you’d be hard pressed to find anyone admitting to it.
But back to the lunch. Paolo and I arranged to take Gino to lunch, along with our friend Susanna. (She is 30 years Gino’s younger, but suffice to say, one is never too old to have a little crush on a younger woman.) Gino was up bright and early and walked, supported by two canes but with a skip in his step, up to the church for 11 a.m. mass. He then walked in the procession, complete with our community band, down Via Centrale, for the wreath laying and brief ceremony at the memorial. 
Gino with some young fella

According to Susanna, when the ceremony was over at noon, Gino immediately started asking, °dove Paolo?” (“Where’s Paolo?”) It didn’t matter that we’d arranged to meet him at home at 12:30; he was ready to be driven to lunch… now. So instead of waiting for us, he caught a ride down to the restaurant and we found him there, already sitting with a group of his friends, all octogenarians 10-15 years his junior.

The lunch proceeded in a usual way, with a hearty antipasto, two pasta courses, platters of meat and vegetables passed, and carafes of the house wine drained and refilled. But the lunch seemed more low-key than in recent years, and even Gino seemed a little bored. Maybe because there were fewer celebrants, as is the case every year, or maybe because no one wanted to sing.

Gino greets Mario
Just as things were winding down and dessert was being served, a surprise guest appeared. Gino’s “little” brother, Mario, 96, was escorted in by his on-in-law. Mario is mostly bedbound these days and a little out of it, so to see him arrive at the lunch, handsomely dressed in a jacket, scarf and fedora, really was unexpected. He walked in to a hail of cheers and applause, and his face lit up.

Gino’s face, too, lit up when he saw his brother. He quickly (well, quickly for a nearly 99-year-old) got up from his chair and shuffled over to Mario. The brothers exchanged kisses on each cheek, and then posed for photos.

Gino, 99, with little brother Mario, 96
Mario was the real guest of honor at the event, as he is the last remaining combatenti in Allerona. An infantryman in the Italian army, he was captured by the British at the second Battle of El Alemain in 1942, a decisive victory for Allied forces. He recalls being marched for day and night through the desert, when at night the surviving prisoners would take jackets and boots off dead soldiers they passed, to stave off the cold and during day, they sweltered in deadly hot temperatures.

Mario spent four years as a POW at a British prison camp in Libya. That at 96, he seems so much less vital than Gino is no doubt testament to his time as a prisoner of war. Watching him eat dessert (a rare occasion that he can eat even semi-solid food), his daughter wiping his chin, it’s hard to imagine Mario the warrior, Mario the scared prisoner of war, or even Mario the young man.
A guy can dream, no?

Gino was once a young man himself. And we saw glimmers of that Friday night, when we celebrated his 99th birthday. If he knew we were planning a big surprise dinner for him, he had the good grace to act surprised when he walked in and everyone shouted “Auguri!” Susanna made sure to sit across from him, since she is one of his favorite people. She kept his wine glass filled too, I’m sure.
Among the gifts presented to Gino (and really, what do you get for a 99-year-old?) was a gag gift, a poster-size calendar of topless young women. That the calendar was from 2009 seemed to make little difference to Gino, who couldn’t contain his laughter as he posed for photo after photo with a different girl of the month, with Mario by his side.

At the lunch for the combatenti, I watched as these men greeted each other warmly and slowly, taking each other’s hands and speaking quietly to one another, in no rush to break the embrace. Their eyes misted over as they greeted one another or joined in song.

And as Gino and his little brother Mario sat at Gino’s birthday party and conversed in an unintelligible, mumbled dialect known only to them, I started to see them as they see, or at least remember, themselves. Perhaps Mario still remembers the hell of a desert battlefield. And Gino still remembers himself as the man who split logs with a single strike of the axe, and who never wasted a single shot when he hunted.
These old men, whom we all admire and adore with the same charmed pity that we might a baby or a new puppy, still know each other as the men they once were: fighters, lovers, hunters, drinkers. And they know they are a dying breed, and we know it too. How many more lunches for the combatenti will we have? Who will sing the songs - or know the words - after they're gone? How soon before no one is left who remembers the boys whose names are inscribed on our war memorial?

Perhaps, in a way I’m only just beginning to understand in my middle age, when we, along with them, get all misty- eyed at these gatherings, it's because we're all afraid of forgetting the past, of losing our history, and of disappearing, a little piece at a time.
Paolo at the lunch for the combatenti

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