As a young man I knew someone who seemed as ordinary as the rest of us, but wasn’t. I had known Fredo for a long time and I thought I knew him well, but one day I happened to mention a name and I saw a part of Fredo that surprised me.
I was working at a “home and auto” store — an Autozone with delusions of grandeur. It was a blah kind of job, but OK. I’d been made assistant manager and was enjoying a decent pay raise, but my new position came with an annoying problem. I could never sit down to eat lunch without having someone call me out front.
Across the street was the world’s smallest candy store, a tiny place that was actually a hat cleaning and blocking service with cigarettes, candy bars, magazines, and soft drinks to pick up a stray dollar now and then. An elderly Italian named Alfredo ran it. I often stopped in, had a cool drink, and chatted for a while.
One day I was in there having a soda and I got an idea. “Hey Fredo,” I asked him, “if I come over here at lunchtime and have a Coke or something can I eat lunch here? I never get any peace when I eat at the store. They always call me out front.”
“Oh, sure,” he said. “Come on over. We talk.”
So I began going over to Fredo’s place and eating lunch. It was fun listening to Fredo. Inevitably the conversation drifted to New York City where I was born, and to my Italian friends back there. One day I happened to mention Muzzie Battiglia, a kid on our block named after Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator.
You should have seen how old Fredo jumped at the mention of Mussolini! He looked like he’d been bitten! He let out a string of Italian which I recognized as some heavy duty curses from my New York days. Then he smiled.
“Maybe I should not be so angry. That bigmouth ape did me a favor. He’s the reason we came over here.”
And that day he started a story which I heard in bits and pieces over a period of weeks.
Fredo, I learned, fought in the Alps against the Germans and Austrians during World War I, Italy being on our side during that one. And what a miserable experience it was for the poor guy. It was his bad luck to be drafted into the Italian army and sent to the frozen slopes of the Italian Alps.
Fredo told me about about months of miserable, damp, bone-chilling cold, frozen toes and fingers, men so stiff with cold they sometimes had to be carried down off the slopes in the same sitting position they had held all night.
Cold! Cold all the time. No let up. The days were cold. The nights were cold. The food was cold. Coffee that started up to them steaming hot was stone cold by the time it reached the trench where Fredo’s company was dug in along a slope below hundreds of German and Austrian guns that hammered them at will.
That was bad enough, but Fredo fought in a nightmare battle most of us have never heard of, but is as well known in Italy as the Battle of Bunker Hill is here, a battle that Hemingway wrote about in “A Farewell To Arms,” the Battle of Caporetto.
I’ll tell it to you as Fredo told it to me, using his own words as well as I can remember them because they made it so real to me and I want it to be real to you.
“Our trenches were dug along foot of low pass a few miles other side of Tagliamento River. The weather was bad. It was end of October. Rain, snow, sleet, fog. All the time cold and wet.
“I had good friend named Nicco. One night we get call to fall out in trench.
“Late. Maybe one in morning. We can see nothing. It is dark, foggy, ice cold.
“I am 10 feet from next man in trench and I cannot see him. I can barely see Nicco next to me.
“I stand on firing shelf in trench and look uphill toward Germans, but I see nothing. Too foggy, too dark. I listen but I hear nothing. Nicco is shivering in cold. He sits down on firing shelf and says he hopes for once hot coffee is hot in morning.
“German guns begin firing. I get down on firing shelf, back against wall of trench, praying shell doesn’t drop in my lap. Shells everywhere. Bang! Boom! Bang! Dirt rains down like black hail. Barrage lasts an hour and stops. I stand up to look because when guns stop then comes attack, but I see nothing.
“I listen hard too, but can hear nothing, so I look over at Nicco, but I don’t see him in fog. I look harder. Then I see him. Good old Nicco. In middle of barrage he has fallen asleep on firing shelf. I call to him because if Lieutenant comes along Nicco gets punished for sleeping. Nicco opens eyes but instead of getting up he falls down in bottom of trench. He grabs his throat. I think he has gone crazy but then I smell it. Gas!
“Chlorine gas! Heavy. You see? Pours into trench unseen. I start to go to Nicco to help him but just then whole trench lights up. Red! Orange! Yellow! Great noise. Roar like engine. Flame throwers! Flames pour down on poor Nicco. He is on fire. He runs. I never see him again. Then come German hand grenades. Hundreds maybe. Boom! Boom! Boom! Men screaming. More gas. Flames coming out of fog.
“For days we fight. We fall back. Back. Off the slopes. Up some hills. Down again. I am shot twice, and have many pieces of German grenade in me. But I am lucky. I am alive. Of my company I think I am maybe the only one alive.
“We come to the river. We jump in freezing water and swim, but when we get across the river our military police are shooting men as cowards. I am no coward. I have gun but no ammunition. And no food, not for four days.
“I am not executed, but only because my overcoat burned off from flame thrower and I have put on overcoat of a dead policeman.
“At Caporetto we have 10,000 dead and 20,000 wounded. And 200,000 taken prisoner. But not me. I fight as long as I have bullets. But they will shoot me if they know my real name and real company, so I tell lie.
“War ends. I am in hospital. They cut out some pieces of German steel and leave the rest. I go home. I work hard. I am happy to be home with wife and sons.
“Then comes 1922. I listen to radio. Mussolini speaks. He wants to start whole thing over again. I take my wife and my sons and go to America.”
I sat back as Fredo finished, thinking it over ...
“Fredo,” I told him, “I think Mussolini did this country, and you, a big favor.”