In 1954 I refused Dean Boyer’s invitation to repeat my first year in law school. Instead I took a job with the Westinghouse Electrical Corporation, in its Aviation Gas Turbine Division. I joined the team that had created the W19XB-2B, the first US- designed aircraft jet engine, they said. I commuted to the plant, located near Chester, Pennsylvania, as passenger in a co-worker’s car.
I was the junior technical writer. That meant I checked the parts’s lists in the latest edition of the engine’s overhaul manual. I certified that the design changes made in the engine had been incorporated into the updated illustrations and that they were reflected correctly in the updated text. That I occasionally consulted with the engineers who had made the changes – and who may have helped design the engine – did not relieve the tedium of the job.
Frustrated and unhappy, I decided to buy an used MG, a bright red one I had long coveted, and I had saved seven hundred dollars toward that end. First I’d have to learn to drive and get a license: a worrisome challenge. Maybe the car would jumpstart my life.
A year after I joined the company, Westinghouse announced that it was relocating our Division to Kansas City. The company had bought a disused World War II defense plant there for one dollar. That was about all, said the wags, that Westinghouse could afford. Move to Kansas City or leave the company. I refused to go but I was able to stay on in Chester while the move took place. The prospect of finding another job was disheartening.
Then my parents, my father newly retired from his job, announced that they were going to visit Sicily for three months, after an absence of forty-seven years. Zu Calogero, my father’s eldest brother, jumped at the chance to go with them. (Zu is short for Zio in Sicilian. Zio which means uncle. Zia, aunt, becomes Za. The Z is pronounced ts: tsu, tsa. ) Many older men and women were addressed as Zu or Za, even when not related to you. If not yours, they were bound to be somebody’s uncle and aunt.
My Parents, 1918
My mother had immigrated to the United States in 1912, when she was seventeen years old. She was sponsored by Aunt Jennie’s grandmother. My father arrived later that year, on his own. Well, his older brother Calogero had preceded him here by two years. He was twenty-two years old, recently discharged from the Italian army. Leonardo and Giuseppina were as yet unattached, but they had traded significant glances in the village.
Their decision to return to Sicily, and Westinghouse’s removal to Kansas City, served to clear my head. Did I really want an MG? Did I want to look for another dead-end job? Italy beckoned. I had more than seven hundred dollars.
I’d go to Italy a month ahead of my parents, to study Italian at the Universita Italiana per Stranieri di Perugia. That’s the Italian University for Foreigners. Then I’d join them in Sicily for a summer-long visit in the natal village of Sant’Anna. The village would become my base for visiting tourist sites in Sicily and Italy.
I got to Perugia in time for the spring semester at the Stranieri. The tuition, subsidized by the Italian government, was about six dollars a month. I found a pensione for fifty dollars a month, room and board. I was the lone American in the house. My fellow boarders were enrolled at the other university in town, L’Universita degli Studi. Mario Gentili, an Italian, was studying medicina; Giorgio Basso (Italian), agraria; Jorge Flores (Honduran) veterinaria; and Gianni Zanakis (Greek) veterinaria.
At the Stranieri I met students from all over the world, including American exGIs who were using their GI Bill benefits to study abroad. The GI Bill? I had some GI Bill left. Was this a way out? A way out to where? Who cared! I’d remain in Italy for as long as I could. I’d tell my parents later in the summer, before they returned to Philadelphia. In mid-April I left Perugia two days before their ship was to arrive in Palermo.
I wanted Palermo to myself for two days, unencumbered by old folks. I found a cheap room in a squalid boardinghouse on the third floor of a decrepit apartment house near the port. The staircase climbed round the walls of the inner courtyard but it was roped off short of the fourth floor landing. Beyond the rope was a yawning drop to the courtyard. The fourth floor had taken a hit during the American naval bombardment in 1943. The neighborhoods facing the water were studded with shattered buildings. The rubble had been cleared but the gaps remained.
At noon I saw a man cooking at a two burner stove in the foyer just inside his front door. A bench and table were on the sidewalk. I had a plate of perciatelli daubed with a splash of sourish tomato sauce, and a piece of oxtail for about thirty five cents. Move over George Orwell!
I couldn’t sleep that night in my windowless room which was in a dead end hallway. In the morning I saw several bright red spots on my chest and legs. The spots itched. On the second night, at the first pinch, my fingers flew to the spot and I captured what I knew had to be a bedbug. I abandoned the hovel and moved into a modest hotel. Later that morning, deloused and showered, I walked to the port where the M/N Vulcania was waiting at its pier. I joined the crowd massed around the gangplank.
I stood at the rear edge of the crowd looking over the heads of those who were scanning the faces of the passengers at the rail. About twenty feet in front of me I saw a group of people with sun darkened faces and starkly white napes, freshly exposed to view by artless haircuts. These were the markers of poor peasants. Under their clothing, the flesh was white, almost luminous, like that of cave dwelling fish. I recognized a face, a face I had seen among the photos at my mother’s house.
It was Zu Paolo Colletti, my mother’s youngest brother, who was about fifty-five years old. He was wearing my chalk-stripe, grey flannel suit. I loved that suit, a well bred Oxford I’d picked up at Pierone and Bruns in Spokane, Washington while I was in the Air Force. A longtime customer had rejected it after it had been altered for him. It fit me perfectly, at half the price! I gave it hard wear and it was clearly past its prime when I relinquished it to my mother. She added to one of many packages of food and clothing we used to send to Sicily before and after the war.
Carlo and Zu Paolo, 1955
Suddenly, Zu Paolo and those clustered around him, spotted my parents and my uncle. They cried out to them, gesticulating, shedding tears of joy. My father and Zu Calogero responded vigorously. My mother waved wanly as she searched the upturned faces in the crowd. She found me and our eyes locked.
My relatives noticed my mother’s riveted gaze and they turned to see its object. They recognized me – from photographs – and they pushed through the crowd to engulf me. There were seventeen of them. They hugged and kissed me. My face was wet with their tears. The conjugations, the precise pronunciation I had begun to learn at the Stranieri abandoned me. I lapsed into dialect.
My cousins, like me, had come in Palermo two days before the arrival of the Vulcania. They were staying, several to a room, in a boarding house run by Santo Tamburro, a former Sant’Annese. Some of them had never been to Palermo before. They had come to the pier each morning, just in case they said, the ship should arrive early. They knew that was unlikely, but the weather was fine and the port life was interesting. They were enjoying a rare holiday.
Two days earlier they had met my ship, the overnight packet from Naples. Of course they were unaware that I was on it. I had recognized them as I started down the gang plank and I turned back. I found the cargo ramp in the ship’s aft and I exited, slipping behind a large container being offloaded. I disappeared into Palermo. Now, two mornings later, I had strolled over to the Vulcania.
My parents and my Uncle Calogero disembarked without incident. My mother was uneasy about the large steamer trunk full of dutiable items: two dozen cartons of cigarettes, a bottle Four Roses – nobody drank whiskey in Sant’Anna! – and many, many bolts of cloth for women’s dresses. She hoped to avoid declaring these goods. My Uncle Calogero told her not to worry.
I took my uncle to the Customs’ Office where he tendered an envelope addressed to a man inside. Zu Calogero was illiterate, but he could count; don’t try to cheat him. The letter was from old man Maggio, the South Philly cheese maker – Yes, that Maggio. He was one of Zu Calogero’s many compari.
Presently a man emerged from Customs Office. He embraced my uncle, kissing him on both cheeks, left, right left. I soon learned that drill, left, right left so as not to bump noses. The three of us returned to my parents who were standing guard by the luggage. Kisses all around. Zu Calogero’s new friend pulled out a piece of chalk and he boldly anointed the luggage and the trunk. A folded banknote changed hands.
I hailed a ragged man from among those crowding near with their two-wheeled handcarts. Mindful of the presence of my elders, and of the conventional wisdom which in Philadelphia had said: “Watch out. They’ll cheat you,” I offered the man two hundred lire less than his price. Two hundred lire was worth fifty cents. He accepted my offer without comment. Shame! Shame! Shame! I have never forgiven myself. But I was newly arrived in Europe; it had much to teach me.
The carter loaded the luggage onto the flat bed of his cart and he took his place between the stays, like a donkey, He trotted ahead of us to Tamburro’s. It was now mid-afternoon.
My Father and Cousin Calogero, 1955
Santo Tamburo found accommodations for my parents and my uncle. My father and Zu Calogero instructed Santo to buy roast chicken for everyone. Santo’s wife would cook the pasta and make the salad. Meanwhile, Santo phoned a man in Caltabellotta, instructing him to send a small bus to take us to Sant’Anna in the morning.
Caltabellotta is a big town near Sant’Anna. From afar, Caltabellotta seems carved from the rocky summit of its mountain which is 2500 feet high. It has a famous view: Menfi, Sambuca,Villafranca, Burgio, Ribera, Sciacca and a dozen other towns are scattered in a broad landscape to the sea.
Tamburo’s dining room was festive. Many people in too small a room make for a good party. Zu Calogero entertained us with stories of his youth in Sant’Anna. The Sant’Annesi marveled at the accuracy of his stories, his faithful description of places, of his memory of notorious incidents, his shrewd appraisal of the paisani. Little had changed in Sant”Anna. He was very funny, especially with a few drinks in him; that is, if you could understand his nearly toothless speech. My cousins understood him; half the people in Sant’Anna were toothless.
I’d raise my eyes to catch a cousin staring at me, at this wondrous creature whose skin was fair, whose hands were not thickened and coarsened by field work. My mother faded quickly and she went to bed. I too tried to leave the party early, to pack I said, but really to explore the streets along the way to my hotel. My Uncle Paolo and young Peppe Colletti – he liked to be called Joe – insisted on escorting me. In turn, I worried about their finding the way back to Tamburro’s.
Next morning the bus from Caltabellotta was waiting for us at curb side. Our driver intuited the way out of the tangled center where the transit buses bullied their way through dense traffic. In Palermo the buses spewed dark, pungent fumes that turned daylight to dusk. By nightfall my shirt collar was ringed with black. In Perugia my shirts lasted three days.
As our bus approached the perimeter but still well within the city, we encountered, indeed our way was blocked by a man leading twelve or fifteen goats. He carried a short slender crook in one hand and a three-legged stool in the other..
The goats wore bells whose jingling summoned housewives and children who emerged bearing jars and pitchers. The goatherd milked the goats and filled their containers. How bizarre! Palermo seemed like my idea of a North African city, with its palm trees, its churches with multiple red domes, its crowded streets and sidewalks, its air of dusty disrepair. And now the goats. Then I realized that the goats were an elegant – elegant in its simplicity – solution to the problem of delivering fresh milk daily to inhabitants who lacked refrigeration.
A church in Palermo
Once past the goats, we drove through a wide swath comprised of rundown housing, large and small garden plots and a patchwork of shabby industrial and agricultural buildings. Then the countryside. We skirted hills whose rising flanks were yellow with the stubble of harvested wheat. High above the stubbled fields were pale green meadows.
We sped through mean, dusty villages whose main streets were barely wide enough for the bus. I could have touched the people drawn back against their front doors. They regarded me blankly as we hurtled by. Peppina, my father’s niece, his brother Giuseppes’s only daughter, was my seatmate.
She was tall for a Sicilian woman, about five feet eight. She was gaunt, with that pinched look of the undernourished, skin drawn tightly over hollowed cheeks and temples. She was twenty-six years old and, unhappily, unwed. Peppina’s front teeth were gapped and they protruded her thin lips. Her teeth, together with her close-set eyes and her aquiline nose, gave her the look of an angry, cross-eyed hawk. She was snappish.
Her two elder brothers had married and multiplied. Peppina was named after her father’s mother, like my sister Peppina, who died an infant during the Spanish Flu. Peppina’s younger brother, Calogero, like me was named after Zu Calogero. Peppina told me, pointedly, that Calogero was engaged to be married.
Peppina asked me about our cousins in Philadelphia. She was surprised to learn how little I knew about them. South Philly was like a village when I was a kid: we were in and out of each other’s houses. But once married, they had scattered to distant neighborhoods and to small towns in South Jersey. We had little in common. I was a bookworm; none of them made it to high school. I saw them only at weddings, at a few christenings and at funerals.
“Our cousins?”, she was amazed . Yes Peppina, our cousins.
The word for cousin in Italian is cugino/a. The word for brother is fratello ; a sister is sorella. In Sicilian dialect, a male cousin is called un frateddu. The double L in fratello becomes a double D in frateddu. Think of Turiddu (short for Salvatorello) in the Cavalleria Rusticana. The final O often becomes a U. A female cousin becomes una soredda, a sister. Cousins were as close as brothers and sisters.
“E tu che vita fai a Sant’Anna?“ I asked her, “What’s life like in Sant’Anna?”
“Dalla casa alla chiesa. Dalla chiesa alla casa.” “From the house to the church, from the church to the house.”
We made a rest stop in Corleone. Did King Richard, the Lion Hearted one, pass through Corleone? Maybe not, but The Godfather’s Al Pacino did, famously. Corleone, a dreary dusty town, was a Mafia stronghold.
Our impromptu stop was a windfall for the fly speckled bar-caffe. We drank sweet, watery soda pop while we waited our turn to use the toilet, a fetid hole in the wet concrete floor. The driver called us back with a blast of his horn. Italian bus drivers, careening toward blind curves, rely on their horns to alert oncoming traffic.
An hour and a half later, almost four hours out of Palermo, our bus entered Sant’Anna with the driver leaning heavily on the horn. We were the first bus, the first vehicle, ever to arrive by the still incomplete mountain route. The unfinished portion looked like a deeply plowed field, not of forgiving clods, but of split, broken, sharp-edged rocks. The driver had refused to risk it. A folded bank-note changed hands. Our entrance into Sant’Anna was historic, our welcome was tumultuous.
Our relatives crowded the piazza which was a widening, a distension in the stark, treeless main street. A long outcropping of bleached, stratified stone rose up out of it, like a boulder in a stream. We quit the bus and were manhandled anew. My mother fainted and she sank to the street in a sitting position.
Somebody called for the doctor. He was nearby, sitting at the cafe’s rickety table, playing tre sette with Zu Pino Colletti. Dr. Nuzio dropped his hand and hurried to us. He examined my mother and pronounced her fit.
My father and I helped her to her feet. We gave ourselves over to Za Vita, my mother’s sister, who, though born after my mother had left Sant’Anna, had become her chief correspondent. The knot of people, no longer exuberant, opened before us and Za Vita led us to her house, trailing a gaggle of Collettis.
Aunt Vita, 1940
Zu Calogero was enveloped by a happy swarm of Perrones which carried him off to his brother Peppe’s house, as had been pre-arranged.
END OF PART ONE