November 21, 1922
I just came back from the most wonderful evening! My spirits are higher than they have ever been, and I feel as if I could take on the world, run a few miles, or even pray!
Earlier, Gino accompanied me to our favorite café. I wish you could have been there; the lighting was as dim as the wine was strong. The smell of garlic, pasta, tomatoes, and basil all drifted through the kitchen and into our noses. Our mouths watered with the anticipation of the meal and our souls sang praises when our appetites were satisfied.
“Mussolini has plans, big plans, for the country and for the people,” Gino was telling me while eagerly sipping his luke-warm blood-red wine. His face was pink with excitement and his hands moved in exaggerated motions. His enthusiasm engulfed him. I looked around, embarrassed, and noticed many of the other Italian men were doing the same thing. They all spoke with this… this.. gusto. Yes, a gusto that no one in America speaks with. Their passion is definitely unique.
Gino licked his lips and sinisterly smiled before he continued. “Italy will gain power and be restored to its former glory! And the king, well, Mussolini has special ideas for him.” I produced tight-lipped smirk in my appreciation of his enthusiasm but offered no more comment other than taking a sip from my own wineskin. I felt the tightness of the wine flushing through my fingers and toward my face. I knew our conversation could potentially be overheard, and that would be most dreadful. However, I didn’t care. I wanted to know more. “Tell me about your training,” I insisted as I took another sip of my wine and attempted to slow down my heartbeat. I swear, it was so loud I could hear its thump thump pause thump thump pause thump thump pause thump thump pause over all of the chatter in the café! He pretended not to notice even though I knew he most certainly did.
“Why would I tell you when I could show you?” He belted out as if it were the best idea we had all day. In fact, it was probably the only idea either of us had all day. We had been sitting in that little café since noon and looking around I saw it was beginning to fill with dinner guests! I glanced casually at my watch and grimaced as I noticed the lateness of the hour. No wonder the noise inside the café was so loud. The afternoon was gone, and it was now late into the evening.
“Your English friend has been gone quite some time,” Gino said almost inquisitively, interrupting my thoughts about the time.
“I believe James went to bed. But I will make sure he is thoroughly filled in. He doesn’t do well with the late hour,” I was forced to lie and protect his shadiness. “Likewise, I know he doesn’t handle his beverages as well as you and I. But, we cannot hold that against him, can we? I assure you, he is an upstanding fellow. Really. Just be as trustworthy with him as you are with me.” I flashed him my most charming smile. “Now, you were saying you were going to show me your training practices? How will you go about that?”
“Meet me outside tomorrow morning. 10:00. I will take you there.”
With that, he stood and walked out. He didn’t offer me any more explanation, and I didn’t dare ask. His gruff mood led him out into the night. For his sake I hope it led him to a woman. If any Italian was in need of a romp in the sheets it was he.
I sat at the café to finish my wine. Realizing it would be a shame to let such good wine go to waste, I finished his as well. The oaky aftertaste settled on the back of my tongue before I swallowed each mind-numbing sip.
Ahhhh if only I could describe the effects the wine has on me. I forget things and the wine only helps. It makes me happy again. Well, as happy as I can hope to be. But I must say, the wine in Italy is better than any I have ever tasted, and on that evening I wanted to savor every last drop.
As I sat there drinking, I took a moment to observe my surroundings. Hearing blips and blurps of conversations, my mind became muddled. I eventually rose from my chair, shakily, and noticed the two gentleman at the bar nodding to one another. I gave them a tip of my hat and stumbled the few blocks to my apartment.
I gather we could learn a thing or two from the Italians and their wine. Not that Americans would accept the custom of drinking again. But no matter, I appreciate what I have while I have it. Likewise, I have the Italians and their good wine to thank for my good spirits as of late. I haven’t been this happy in a long, long time. Good night George, I will make sure to fill you in on my trip to the training facilities. I hope this letter finds you in good company. Make sure to give Charlotte and the rest of your family my love!
November 24, 1922
Before you get too upset about my change in address, let me tell you it is not my fault. I am safe, and that is all that matters. I do ask, however, that you send me an advance for my story. I regret to say I lost a great sum of cash.
I am writing to you with my heartbeat still racing. I can barely write for my hands are shaking and my lungs are struggling to catch up with the rate of my breaths. I should have listened to James. “We cannot go to their training facilities,” he told me over and over as we descended into the hotel lobby. “You don’t even know anything about this Gino character. He is a camicie nere for crying out loud! How can you trust anything he has to say?” At this point James’s screaming was sure to wake up anyone else still asleep, but I let him continue on account of his pride. “Don’t you dare tell me you ‘have a good feeling about him.’ Feelings are what get people killed. Have some sense about you.”
“Are you finished?” I asked him once he took a moment to catch his breath. He said not a word but gave me a long, imploring stare that I swear, reached my soul. I tried not to let my goose pimples show, and I heard James let out an audible sigh. I knew at once all was forgiven. “That’s a good boy James. You’ll see. It will all be worth it once we can return home journalistic heroes! I don’t know about you, but I could use some good fortune in my life. Gino may seem a little off, but his heart is in the right place! Can you blame him for being cautious? I mean his size definitely doesn’t do him any good, especially when there are two of us and only one of him. Tommy was always scrawny too. He was always in a hurry to prove himself a man, so much so that not many people trusted him! But his heart would eventually win the public over. Once he opened up a bit, he made you practically fall in love with him! Good ole natured Tommy.”
“Don’t get all sentimental on me now. There are only so many nights I am willing to carry you to your room when your legs fail you. No, one of these days I am going to leave you in the bar and let the devil have his way with you. Stop looking at me like that, will you! Just stop right now. I will go, all right. If you quit talking about your past I will go. But know this, Gino is not Tommy. It would do you well to remember it, or you will end off no better than he did.”
Facing forward I put his harsh words out of my mind and walked the remainder of the way in silence. Gino was standing on the corner anxiously glancing at his watch as if he feared we would not come. “Let’s go,” he said as soon as he spotted us.
I barely realized we arrived at the facilities when we came to an abrupt stop. The building was completely bare of any façade, the windows were covered up, and the door was bolted shut. There was an engraving of a cross on the top right corner, the only remnant left of its history. “I’ll say,” whispered James. “Did this used to be a… church?” Gino didn’t bother with a response. Knock knock ne knock knock knock. Gino’s knuckles rapped on the door in an obvious pattern. We waited a minute or so before the door creaked open in a way only ancient doors can do. Our eyes dilated to the dimness of the interior, for the windows were covered and the only source of light came from four small candles in the corners.
As we walked in my eyes drifted upward to the frescos still in pristine condition. The images were all of Jesus being born, Jesus dying on the cross, Jesus rising from the dead and then ascending into heaven. They were so breathtaking, so real, and so beautiful. Their overwhelming presence almost made me desire reconciliation with God. Then I remembered why I was here in the first place and all sense of divine awe was wiped from me. Instead, I shifted my admiration to the dedication of the artist; to paint such a masterpiece must have been painstaking. The brushstrokes alone were magnificent; he painted them on so delicately! He must have been a man of impeccable patience. I was even silently thankful to Mussolini for not tearing such masterpieces from the walls. They seemed almost real as if they were reaching out, engulfing me. I could feel the joy of the birth, I could feel the blood of Jesus dripping down my body as if it were my own, and I could feel the sins of the world thrust upon my shoulders as a heavy depression suffocated my soul. I forced myself to look away.
“The seats were cleared out so we can practice our guns,” Gino said interrupting my thoughts. “We practice our shooting most of the time, but we sometimes practice our codes, telegramming, and fighting. Fighting is my favorite. No one can catch me. I am too sneaky.” The other camicie neres chuckled at this. I looked around the room. One… Two… Three… I counted internally, Four… Five… Six…
“Why are there so many Italians in here?” James whispered in my ear. “We should go, I am uneasy.”
Brushing him off, I picked up a gun. It felt bulky in my hands and immediately noticed how outdated it was. The Italians didn’t use the newest models. This gun didn’t even appear to be from the past five years. We had better guns than this when we were in the trenches! The gun felt awkward and out of place in my hand. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to admit I was unfamiliar with this kind of machinery. “Gino, my man, I bet I can hit more cans on the opposite side than you.”
Smiling Gino replied with a chuckle, “You wish, fratelli Americani.”
Bang Bang Bang pause Bang Bang Bang. Gino shot off multiple rounds. It seemed he didn’t notice the age of the rifle because he shot with such ease and didn’t miss a single target. In fact, every can was hit straight through the middle.
“That, fratelli, is how us Italians helped you Americani win the war.”
“Don’t think for a second I am going to let you outshoot me,” I replied good-naturedly. “Just step back and watch how an American shoots.”
I don’t need to relay my embarrassment to you, George. I assume you can remember my pitiful shooting from our days in the trenches. Nevertheless, I picked up the gun and aimed.
“GET DOWN GET DOWN!” The voices in my head called to me. BANG BANG BANG. I shot my gun at the German on the other side. BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG. I shot the gun off again and again. Tears began to stream down my face, and I wiped them with my grimy hands. I waited for a second and BANG BANG BANG. “GET DOWN!” My officer shouted at me. “GET—“ his voice ended.
Panting, I looked around. Everyone had stopped what they were doing and I realized I was on my stomach shooting my rifle as if I were in the countryside again. I stood up, wiped the dirt from the front of my shirt, and noticed I failed to hit a single can. Instead, there was a line of holes at the baseboards of the church. Those black holes mocked me. They didn’t lead to light outside; no, they were a black abyss. I handed my gun to James as the other camicie neres went back to their business.
“Well,” said Gino “and people tell me Italianos have an active imagination. I never think I have seen an Americani show such emotion! Bravo! Bravo!” I saw the words come out of his mouth but barely registered what he said. My mind was still in the trenches.
Gino went back to his shooting and left me to my thoughts. I sat down on the floor, my back against the wall, and I took a long sip of wine. James eyed me curiously but said nothing.
I don’t recall how long I sat there. It may have been five minutes or an hour. The time doesn’t matter; yet, I must have been deeply lost in my thoughts because the next thing I knew, James was yelling at me and Gino was standing, almost bewildered, refusing to move.
In my confusion I didn’t understand what was happening. “WE HAVE TO GO NOW!” James was yelling at me.
“No! No! It’s okay. Its okay,” Gino attempted to console him.
“Charles, I am leaving right now. You can either come with me or place your fate in the hands of this camicie nere.”
“What is happening? What is going on? Why do we have to leave? What time is it?” The questions came to me faster than I had the patience to wait for their answer. I could see James’s angst rising with the heat in his face, and I knew something bad must have happened.
“James, where did all of the other men go?” I asked as my voice rose an octave.
“They left, you bloody idiot! We have to leave, now!”
“I was still confused, but I followed his instructions. I gathered my belongings and my wine.”
“There is no need to leave, I make promise to you, didn’t I?” I heard Gino plead, but I didn’t acknowledge him.
“Don’t listen to him, Charles. I overheard his men talking, questioning about us. After your little scene with the guns they didn’t believe we were just tourists coming to see Rome. No, they talked amongst themselves quietly and then they left. Poof! They just left. I know they are bringing more men here. They know we are journalists, and they know you fought in The Great War. We must leave.”
“Everyone just shut up for a moment! Now, James, where do you suggest we go?”
“We cannot go back to our hotel. We must flee. They know us there. No doubt there will be men trying to kill us. Journalists are not welcome here. The fascists have made it quite clear that journalists are enemies to the new regime.”
“Yes, yes, I know all this. But, we cannot just leave our things and—“
“YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND THEY ARE COMING BACK RIGHT NOW YOU BLOODY FOOL! WE MUST GO! I DON’T WANT TO DIE IN THIS GOD-FORESAKEN COUNTRY”
I heard voices in the distance and all at once my suspicions of James were erased. “Lets go.” Turning to Gino I said, “I will not kill you. Not today. Too many people have already died.”
James and I ran as fast as we could. We didn’t dare go to the train station. Instead, we ran into the countryside. From previous experience, I knew the countrymen were more willing to help foreigners than city men. Countrymen were more desperate and accepting to the benefits of cash. Thankfully, James always traveled with enough notes to feed a small American town for an entire year. I promised to repay him whenever I received an advance.
We ran as fast and as hard as our legs could carry us. Hiding behind barns and in the fields when necessary. They didn’t chase us; although, I cannot recollect why. I hoped they assume we are still in Rome. That would make life easier indeed.
Please, don’t worry about me. James and I are going to travel to Switzerland as soon as you send me adequate money. I will write you from there.