Thursday, March 8, 2007


As wars go, my father’s WWII was not the worst. He spent almost all of his time in North Africa and Italy (rather than, say, Iwo Jima), he didn’t kill anybody, and though he was shot at and bombed, he never felt he came seriously close to getting seriously hurt. In addition, as he pointed out more than once, the army was superior to his childhood in this respect: in the army, he always got his chow.
When Italy fell to the Allies in 1944, my old man was there, and he spent the rest of the war in the pacification of a place where a substantial portion of the citizenry was not averse to being pacified. While the de-nazification of Germany took about ten years, the de-fascistification of Italy took about ten minutes. Still, there was work to be done in getting the Germans out of Italy, and Captain Kubacki had to do some of it.
In 1945, when the Germans in Italy had (mostly) been defeated, my father was given a jeep, a lieutenant, two heavily-armed MPs, a strongbox full of money, and a long list of people’s names along with the towns and villages in which these people lived. As the American army had worked its way through the Italian countryside, cleaning out German strongholds, it had taken what it needed from the farmers and townspeople along the way, in each case promising to return with payment at some point in the indefinite (and uncertain) future. It is fair to assume that these promises, to a people who had dealt with the ravages of invading armies for the previous five thousand years or so, were met with a certain skepticism.
Captain Kubacki and his crew would drive into town unannounced, and the Captain would set off to find the mayor or some other nabob, to whom he would explain his mission. “We’re here to pay your people,” my father would say, in his imperfect Italian, “for the sheep and mules and tomatoes and gasoline the American army took last year. Please call everyone together so we can get started.”
The initial response to this, typically, was, “You want to do WHAT?”
Sleepy little Italian towns being what they are, however, people had already started peeking around corners to find out what the Americans were up to, and with entertainment in short supply at the time, there would soon be a crowd gathered in the town square with my father, the lieutenant, the MPs and the strongbox at the center of it. At which point, my father would unfurl his list and call out the first name.
“Vincenzo Massimo!”
All eyes would turn to Vincenzo, who was suddenly on the spot, and with a shrug of the shoulders and a puzzled look, he would approach.
“A mule,” my father would say. The lieutenant would count out some appropriate number of lire and hand the cash to Vincente, who would look at it, hold it up to the sun, wave it in the air for the crowd to see, and return to his pals, who would examine the notes intently.
Meanwhile, Captain Kubacki was calling out the next name: “Luigi Grieco!”
According to my father, the same scenario, with few variations, played out in town after town. In a few minutes, a table would be brought to the square, with comfortable chairs for the captain and the lieutenant. Shortly, a plate of olives would appear on the table, perhaps with a bit of bread and cheese. A few minutes later, a flagon of wine would materialize, along with a young lady whose job it was to ensure the officers’ glasses were never empty. As the soldiers worked their way down to the end of the list for that day, a fiddle or a guitar would be heard somewhere in the distance, and this was a sign that the party was beginning in earnest.
For two months, as their caravan progressed through the countryside, the most difficult part of the job was getting out of town, since it was impossible to accept all the hospitality that was offered. These were people who had nothing, of course, but who invariably insisted on providing my father’s squad with the best beds, the best food, and the best wines.
It’s an irresistible story, and I heard him tell it many times. It’s a war story and an anti-war story at the same time, as well as a tale of American patriotism and values. His favorite aspect of it, the part he seemed to savor in the telling, was the surprise and confusion that greeted their arrival and the realization the American army had actually returned. They were honoring a commitment that literally no one had expected them to honor. Unlike the dozens (or hundreds) of invaders who had come through Italy over the centuries, the Americans were there to make everything right, and pay for what they had taken.

Copyright 2007 Michael Kubacki