Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Unknown Soldier

The Unknown Soldier
(Published by Fra Noi, Chicago IL, May 2007)

Pasquale was a giant of a man. At six feet tall, I’m a bit of a giant myself in Italy, especially for a woman. Pasquale normally stood a good four inches taller than me, but as I was kneeled on the ground looking up at him, this 78 year old man seemed enormous. The silence between us was tangible as we both looked pensively at my discovery. It was time for the grape harvest, and while working amongst the vines, I had seen something buried in the dirt. My curiosity got the best of me, and I started to dig with my hands. I thought it might be a piece of pottery or some strange farm utensil, as are so often found in the soil in this area. I thought maybe it was some silly little thing that I could add to my collection. But this time, I was mistaken.

Cos’hai lì?” he asked, almost laughing, in that paternal way that always made me feel comfortable in his presence. He too thought it was just another bowl or spoon from some kitchen past. As he drew near though, he faltered in his step and the laughter left his voice, his smile faded. As I pulled the metal dome from the earth, the thrill of discovery inside me turned to a strange feeling of cold hesitation.

It was a helmet. Time had turned it black rust in color and texture, but it was still intact, apart from a hole in the front left side. I brushed the dirt from the inside, turning it over in my hands. I held it up to Pasquale, but he just looked at it, passively refusing to touch it. “E’ tedesco,” he said quietly, seriously. I’d never seen him solemn before and it made me feel chilled in the early autumn sun. As I turned it over again, and he saw the hole in the front, I noticed him flinch, almost imperceptibly. In a tone of voice that I can only describe as grey, he said slightly above a whisper, “Poverino, l’ha preso in testa.” It seems the previous owner of this German helmet had been shot in the head, the evidence of which was now in my hands.

Since coming to Italy, I’ve loved collecting the various bits and pieces I find in the dirt; pottery shards, buttons, cutlery. By holding, touching my little archaeological finds, I feel somehow more connected to Italy itself, to its past. But this part of its past was beyond my full comprehension. I had heard the stories from the older people in the town, and I always found such a direct connection to World War II somewhat unnerving. The emptiness in their eyes when they talked of when the Nazi forces took over the village in 1943, sweeps me into an area of emotion that I’m not sure how to explain. World War II was something that, of course, I knew had happened, but growing up in America, the only connection I really had to it was through films, and therefore the reality of the thing itself was abstractly distant. But here, in these hills, in the valley, in the woods above, the distance is as far as the front door.

What I know of the horrors of that time, I know from reading. However, when talking to the “vecchietti” of the town, that were in their twenties during the war, the subject of violence is almost always avoided. With a smile and a great rolling of the eyes, I’ve been told about how noisy the tanks were when they passed through the town. I’ve heard the lighthearted tale of how the air raid alarm was sounded so often that the people eventually didn’t even pay any attention to it any more. But the most common memory is that of the German soldiers exercising in their underwear in the snow. Of all the things the Germans did during their two year occupation of the area, this is the story I’ve heard the most. One woman told me that the Nazis weren’t as terrifying as they were merely strange. Her memory of the German soldiers is of handsome young men that drank wine in continuation, ran around in their underwear and sang a lot. One afternoon we were discussing local legends, when I asked her if what I had heard about the holes in the walls of a courtyard in the center of town was true. I had heard that they were bullet holes, resultant of the alleged executions that took place there. She looked out the window with a shrug, saying only that she had heard that some things had happened, but that she never saw anything personally. I was then quickly offered coffee, and she was off to the kitchen before I could answer, to fetch cookies and chocolate. Sweets perhaps to counter the bitterness of the conversation.

That day in the dirt, holding that helmet in my hands, I wondered about the young man that had worn it. Did he run around in his underwear too? Did he get drunk on pirated wine and sing Bavarian folk songs with his companions? How old was he? What was his name? I looked out over the blue-grey distant hills and along the curving parallel lines of the vineyard, that in the late morning sun were ablaze in copper and gold at that time of year, and the sense of peace this vision gave me felt odd, juxtaposed against the thoughts that this relic brought to my mind.

Behind me, I heard Pasquale returning. I looked over my shoulder and saw him taking his large strides back up the hill, carrying a shovel. Without a word, he began to dig where I had unearthed the helmet. After the hole was about three feet deep, he signaled me with a nod, and I placed the helmet back in the ground. He stared for a moment, and then with a sigh, refilled the hole. He picked up a flat, slate-colored stone, placed it over the freshly turned soil, and with his foot, pushed it in, level with the ground.

With that, he waved his arm in the direction of the other harvesters that were slowly working their way further along the vines, away from us, and said, “Andiamo.” We started walking back to the group, quiet in our thoughts. Before reaching our friends, Pasquale stopped and put his giant hand on my shoulder. I turned and saw deep strength and sadness in his chestnut eyes. He had been a teenager in the early 1940’s, he grew up here, perhaps even too quickly. It struck me in that moment that I hadn’t even thought about what he might have witnessed on these very hills, in his backyard. He gently stroked my hair, as if I was a child, and asked me to promise him that I would never forget what we did this afternoon. It was a promise that I made without hesitation.

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