always find the money to have a war," my dad told me, the ever-present
Camel regular dangling from his lips, eyes squinting through the
haze at the television. "Italy was poor. During the Depression,
it was very poor. But Mussolini still managed to invade Albania,
then invade Ethiopia a few years later." Maybe the Gulf of
Tonkin incident precipitated this commentary. The conversation took
place long ago and I can't be sure. I just remember the talking
head's furrowed brow conveying the desperation of the situation.
So where'd the old man get off feigning such world-weary insight?
He could barely speak English. He saw plots in high places. Worst,
he was subjecting his kid to secondhand smoke, the monster.
Lucky for him,
those were unenlightened times, long before the U.S. Treasury and
Justice Departments calved Child Protection Units. He'd never get
away with poisoning a youngster's mind and lungs like that today,
not with the Waco Killers in service and protection mode. Never
mind that my mind and lungs seem to have fared quite well. Never
mind, for that matter, that his could have fared worse: he's still
kicking at 80.
My mom and
dad are southern Belgian (Wallonia)
and northern Italian (Lombardy
Giulia). Their fathers fled hard economic times in Italy to
work in the coal mines of Belgium in the 1920s and 1930s, only to
be sent back with the onset of hostilities in World War Two, their
guest worker visas expired. The families moved back to Belgium after
the war, where Mom and Dad met and married. They emigrated to Canada
in 1955, then to the United States several years later.
Our neck of
Toronto teemed with Italian immigrants, a number of them relatives
and paisani. Some of my earliest memories are of Sunday afternoon
dinner parties at my aunt and uncle's cramped row house, feasting
on pasta, minestrone, vitello, pollo, polenta, risotto and
insalata. Food holds an exalted place in Northern Italian culture,
no less than it does for our southern cousins. Far from mere sustenance,
it facilitates and cements family and social ties. People would
laugh, swap barbs, erupt in folk songs, argue politics and wax nostalgic
for the Old Country at these peasant extravaganzas. Amidst the conviviality,
though, there was an undercurrent of pessimism. From time to time,
somebody would stop to marvel at the cornucopia of gustatory delights
assaulting his senses, pause and shake his head with dark foreboding:
"Tutta questa bonta di Dio! Non e' possibile. Deve venir'
una guerra." ("All of this goodness from God! It's
not possible. We're due for a war.")
It seemed to
be a recurring theme. For a mostly fun-loving and spirited people,
the tribe harbored deep-seated fears of impending calamity. They
knew a simple directive from a high-level politico somewhere could
unleash the dogs of war, turn their lives upside down and relieve
them of the modest material comforts they'd worked so hard to secure.
Greatness crowd can blithely talk of "interests" and "international
responsibilities" and bombing campaigns to export democracy
to the unwashed masses. My parents, alleged beneficiaries of one
such campaign, the Greatest Generation's no less, had no use for
its mythology. While Northern Italy didn't experience the kind of
devastation visited upon Germany, Russia or Japan, my mom did dodge
Italian insurgents and German occupational forces – and the occasional
American bomb to liberate her from those same Italian insurgents
and German occupational forces. When it came to war, both she and
my dad had had a taste of the home field disadvantage.
years in Canada, my parents moved to Michigan. In the heartland
of the One Indispensable Nation, the home field disadvantage threatened
to transmogrify into Road Team Burden. I turned 18 years of age.
The law required I register for the draft.
I was sitting
in the kitchen discussing the matter with my parents. My mom found
the prospect disconcerting. Who could blame her? She hadn't raised
her son to feed the maw of the war machine. Happily, though, the
Empire had begun to show symptoms of the dread (and dreadfully short-lived,
as it turned out) Vietnam Syndrome. My mom was hopeful: "I
think Americans have soured on war. Look at what happened in Vietnam.
You don't think there will be any more Vietnams anytime soon, do
No, I didn't
think there'd be any more Vietnams anytime soon. (How naïve
I could be when I was 18!) And yet, if the call went out, how did
she think I should answer? How about my dad? Might he not disown
a draft-dodging son? He had a sense of honor; some wars, surely,
are defensive. So I posed the hypothetical: "Well, I sure hope
there isn't another Vietnam. But citizenship has its obligations.
This country has given me a good life. If there is another war,
don't you think I should fight for my country?" I was only
half-baiting the guy. I wanted to what he thought.
I know. This I never saw coming:
Fight for your country! Are you crazy?! Where is this country of
yours? You know what they called me when I lived in Belgium? Sale
de macaroni ["Dirty Macaroni," TP]! I went
to Canada, they called me a wop! Then I came to America and I was
a dago! Your country?! No! You have no country! You know
where my country is? Right here! Between my legs! That's my country!
That's all I live for! That's all I'll fight for! That's all I'll
die for!" The rant came rapid-fire in his impeccable Venetian
dialect, his blue eyes glinting with indignation, a thick tobacco-stained
index finger gesturing vigorously at his nether regions: "Sa-tu
dove se trova la mia patria? Qua! In mezzo le mie gambe! La' e'
la mia patria! E sol per quel che vive! E sol' per quel che combattero'!
E sol per quel che moriro'!" It was too rich.
Like most dads,
mine has never been one for touchy-feely declarations of love. But
his fiery oration let me know he cared. Indeed, it imparted a lesson
echoed in the estimable Butler Shaffer's prescription
for peace: "All that is required to end the wholesale butchery
that most of us are eager to celebrate with the waving of flags
is for each of us to put the faces of our children and grandchildren
alongside the image of the state and ask ourselves: which am I prepared
to sacrifice for the sake of the other?" (My dad would just
have the children and grandchildren themselves put a different part
of their anatomy alongside the image of the state and ask them which
they are prepared to sacrifice for the other.)
C. McAuliffe famously issued a one-word response to a German surrender
ultimatum at the Battle of the Bulge. Anyone interested in dissuading
a young man from participation in the butchery of war might do well
to expropriate the General's dismissive interjection and tie it
to my dad's vision for an enlightened and self-interested patriotism.
Surrender to that bloodthirsty band of knaves and nincompoops intent
on ruling the world from the banks of the Potomac? "Nuts!"
Pivetta [send him mail] lives
in Royal Oak, Michigan, where he pines for a bygone era in which
baseball actively strove to maintain its continuity with its past.
He draws dark parallels between the rise of publicly financed stadiums
and the demise of both the Grand Old Game and the cause of American