Dr. Linda Best Professor Emerita, writing/literature at Kean University, NJ, has written and published in many genres, from academic to fiction. She remains active in the field as an author, a writing coach, an editor, and an instructor of writing memoirs.
Read an exceptional excerpt from Antonio’s Story, Coming of Age on the Battlefields of WW II. For the purpose of this publication the excerpt was modified by its author.
The Tides of Change
Antonio’s greatest attribute was hidden, and it frightened him. He possessed a prescient sense of future images and scenes. From as early as he could remember, he foresaw events before they occurred with detail and clarity that disturbed him even as they served to protect him. As he braced for the next photograph, showing his grit, a thought flashed through his mind. At that moment he knew, with absolute certainty, he would never serve in Italian Forces to aid the raging tide in Europe.
And in the fullness of time, those visions and scenes came to be realized.
The chapel bells tolled in the small mountain town, causing Antonio to stir. His brain foggy after a night of revelry, he was not ready for the painful glare of a new sunrise. But his eyes opened the moment his torpor collided with a jarring reality—the day he and his family had discussed for months had come. Within twenty-four hours, he would be on his way to the Bay of Naples to board a ship to America.
An array of issues clouded his mind and wrestled with one another. Warm thoughts of his beloved Italy; his joy in working its fertile fields; the cypress trees in the distance, signposts to guide travelers on the unmarked local roads. His family—Mama, Papa, his brothers Salvatore and Mario, and his sister Francesca—the sources of light and kindheartedness in his life. But there was the country’s political environment, the factor that steeled his will. Its power thrust wholesome thoughts aside, replacing them with the darkness and anxiety spurred by the toxic Youth Group.
There is no going back, he thought. His eighteenth birthday looming before him, Antonio needed to carry out the plan devised to guard his future. Pondering those thoughts, he found peace in the sounds and scents surrounding him. They soothed his fears as though affirming the decision. The fragrant atmosphere then blanketed him, protecting him for what lay ahead. He would remember that feeling on another day in a different place.
On his final day in the country, Antonio planned to slip out of his family’s house in the quiet before dawn for a farewell walk through Settefrati, the medieval village where he lived, along the path he had strolled for close to eighteen years. He would weave through the hills to immerse himself in his surroundings and create memories for the months and years ahead. To outsiders, the sights along his path could appear ordinary, but to him they were the heart and soul of his identity. Antonio rose from his bed and was on his way within a half hour.
He exited his family’s village house, strolled through the piazza, and headed to the medieval tower and fortifications that date to 991 A.D. The alley alongside the tower was one of Antonio’s favorite spots for its historic value and view of the three-tiered landscaping surrounding and defining the village—Val di Camino, the deep valley that rolls down to Rome in the direction of the village; the village itself; and the soaring Apennines above it, where Monte La Meta, the highest point in the region reigns. After savoring that rapturous view, Antonio moved on.
An ornate structure, he thought, as he approached the small village chapel. Entering, Antonio admired the art and stained-glass windows as he walked into a pew, knelt, and placed his head in his hands, experiencing both peace and emptiness. Minutes passed before he rose and withdrew from the side door to enter the courtyard and cemetery. The scents of the lush flowers adorning the churchyard were heady, intoxicating. He ambled along, examining each of the headstones inscribed with his family name, Buzzeo [pronounced BooTSAYoh], and the photos affixed to them, every grave expected but for the one where his sister Maria lay. Born two years after him, she succumbed to an infection at the age of two. He stood back scanning the faces in the photographs. Peering into them, he connected with the souls of his forebears, experiencing an infusion of strength.
After visiting the cemetery, Antonio continued along the one road in his village. It turned upward sharply just beyond the chapel and then curved right. Positioned at that pass, Antonio began his ascent to the mountains. He reached midpoint and enjoyed the varied topography of the Abruzzi Mountains, where rolling hills lead to high peaks that in turn descend toward the Adriatic. That juncture offers magical views of the valley below the village and hints at what exists above.
Antonio paused for a break where he usually did, sat on one of the rocks, emptied his mind, and breathed the fresh air. In time, a wistful thought about Mama touched his heart. Her telling behavior belied the strength she hoped to demonstrate to help the family prepare for his departure. Her inner turmoil was transparent—the excessive cooking and cleaning, the massive pasta production earlier in the week when she called for his assistance, her ways for finding time for the two of them. He was only too happy to indulge her—and himself. Antonio was as anxious as she and could not bear the thought of days, thousands of days perhaps, without Mama. But when they worked together, knowingly or unknowingly, she bolstered Antonio with decades of warmth to sustain him while demonstrating how important and soothing routines can be.
Together, Mama and Antonio rolled and cut the pasta that afternoon. They worked with a soothing rhythm that re-created the feeling of being rocked like a baby, and Antonio would draw from those moments often in the years ahead. Antonio admired the generations-old rolling pin Mama used, asking about its stories, and she repeated many of the age-old tales about the hands that had held the hefty tool. Antonio delighted in hearing stories about the pin’s origins. He visualized his grandfather carving the extra-large dowel from a sturdy Italian maple tree and his grandmother using the tool to roll dough for pastas and breads or stir large vats of food.
Mama’s favorite story centered on her tiny mother, who used the huge pin to blend the heavy polenta meal that she smothered with sauce and meats before serving. There were, of course, many embroidered tales about the pin. It sometimes served as a multi-purpose household tool for loosening an item stored above or for chasing an interloper. From time to time, the dowel warned an unruly young one, and more than once an unmanageable child pulled the dowel out of the pantry with the goal of wreaking havoc. Antonio registered Mama’s sense of pride and humor as she recounted those family stories and made a place for herself in them.
They continued their work, Mama lovingly preparing the pasta for Antonio’s farewell dinner. Comfort and purpose flowed from their movements, and Antonio had to admit he had not felt so peaceful in days. They were ready to separate the strands of fettuccini pasta and place them on the drying racks when Papa arrived. He had to control his reaction when noticing the vast quantity of macaroni Mama and Antonio had produced. In his heart, he knew Mama’s preoccupation was harmless since the beautiful strands would keep for a long time as would the peaceful feelings that emanated from both Mama and her son. That afternoon was been momentous for young Antonio. The beautiful scene of Mama and him was now etched in his mind as a lifelong memory.
Antonio rose from his resting place, sighing with serenity. Slowly, he scanned the countryside, drilling down on details and framing what he saw. Below, beyond, and above lay the fertile land of Italy that sustained the local people. He heard the cows, their bells ringing, as they positioned themselves to meet the rising sun. The orchards, olive groves, and wild horses dotted the scene. Antonio reached out and picked his favorite fruit, a luscious ripe peach. Silence surrounded him as he continued his ascent to the highest accessible point.
At the peak, Antonio found himself surrounded by jagged rocks that rose above him. One might expect the area to be stark and empty, but that was not the case. There were remarkable signs of life at the summit. The soaring Monte La Meta dominates the scene and draws attention for its natural formations. Standing at the apex, Antonio stopped to admire the peak and ponder its life span while also taking in the appealing features at eye level—the entrance to a national park, the large Catholic Church and Shrine, and a cozy café consisting of a coffee bar and a dining area. The atmosphere was aromatic, filled with the scent of pine.
Then Antonio set his eyes on the vastness below. He stood and turned slowly, taking in the sweeping 360o panorama of the Abruzzo region. He rotated slowly, whispering the name of every one of the twenty-four towns perched within and above the valley. Breathtaking, he thought. He turned to another site with sentimental value, the National Park of Abruzzo, the oldest park in the country and the greenest region in Europe at the time.
Antonio’s earliest memory of the park was still vivid. He recalled sitting by Lake Ladito and also swimming in it, the water cool and refreshing. He was young, his eyes wide open as he noticed wildlife larger than he was. Those were peaceful days touched by the warmth of family. Over time he discovered and observed all the wildlife native to the area, from the brown bear, golden eagle, Apennine wolf, deer, otters, and chamois, and knew he would never forget any of them. Now years older, Antonio was more fond of the park than ever and stood ready at its entrance for a memorable good-bye stroll.
Although Antonio smiled and was warmed by his memories of the park, his good cheer was short lived. Dark clouds invaded his enjoyment, transporting him to the past. He was eight years old and in his first year of the Mussolini Youth Group, already learning to use weapons. It was understood that all boys from eight through eighteen would become active members of the Group. Now in his late teens looking back at those years, Antonio realized how disturbing the organization’s philosophy was.
The Youth Group’s regimentation of young boys and mission imperative to annihilate the enemy during maneuvers affected nearly every boy Antonio knew. The ten-year-long service robbed children not only of their childhoods but time with their families, the ability to concentrate on their studies, and the opportunity to envision a future other than the military. Over time, Antonio’s family became concerned about the prescribed direction for his life, and well before he was of age, they began serious conversations about altering his future. For his brothers, who were quite a bit younger than he, there was no threat or issue yet. But for Antonio, each year brought him closer to mandatory service in the Italian Army and the transition from theoretical training to the implementation of Mussolini’s plans. On his eighteenth birthday, Antonio would reach the point of no return for his future if he were not sailing to America.
Antonio was deep in thought about his past and his future as he walked. He recollected a conversation with his brother Salvatore that enabled Antonio to feel comfortable about leaving. He could never deny loving Italy and the village’s way of life, but something within told Antonio he could achieve more in a place where opportunities other than farming existed. One day he explained his view to his Salvatore by pointing out a small bush that grew along the countryside.
“My brother, here in Italy, I feel like one of those low-lying bushes in the fields that grows out rather than up. They do not respond to the sun, they bear nothing, and they don’t change much. What is their purpose? And I ask myself, what is my purpose? Some trees grow tall. Think of the beautiful fig trees in our orchards. They soar up and out, seeking the sun and soaking up its energy. The trees thrive in every way. They produce beautiful foliage, their deep emerald leaves broad and bright. They produce the succulent figs that fill our tables and provide our community with delicious cookies and biscuits, pastes and jellies, bruschetta, and fig bread. I want to be tall and productive as a fig tree is, taller and brighter than any tree around it.”
Salvatore is moved by his brother’s story. “Antonio, my brother and best friend, I have always known this ambitious side of you. I see it clearly, and it’s something most people cannot ignore. You are someone everyone can count on. You have ideas and solutions. You are grander than this small village. It brings tears to my eyes that you are leaving, but you have la grande forza, la volontà, e il coraggio [the great strength, the will, and the courage] to travel to the United States on your own. I envy you. I don’t know if I would have the courage to leave. You are the promise in our family, and you may well bring all of us to America in time.”
Antonio’s recollection of that day steadied him, and he felt strong. Then a distraction, a good one, came his way. Someone called to him from a distance. Walking briskly up the hill were Salvatore, Antonio’s youngest brother Mario, and several cousins. Antonio could sense their energy and excitement. Unlike him, they were singularly focused on the upcoming celebration. While he walked and pondered, they were on their way to the orchards to pick fresh ripe fruit for the feast that would begin in a few hours. The event would not only serve as Antonio’s send-off, but it would also celebrate his upcoming 18th birthday, which would occur on the ship.
Pulled back into the day by his brothers and cousins, Antonio picked up his pace. He walked briskly to town satisfied with the memories he was now carrying with him and fortified by the recollection of his conversation with Salvatore a few months ago. When the road curved, the village came into view and more signs of life were visible. The figures in the distance, the farmhands heading to the family’s pastures, orchards, and groves created a beautiful tableau of his land and the farm’s industry. He tucked that scene in his memories, too.
A Modified Excerpt from Antonio’s Story, Coming of Age on the Battlefields of WW II
Copyright Linda Best, 2022