THE BLACK SHIRT
When I was at my most left-leaning political point during college, my grandfather, Anthony Febo Peruzzi, told me he had been in the fascist youth organization when he was in high school in Italy. “What’d you do that for?” I demanded with proper liberal outrage. It was the most politically incorrect and embarrassing thing I could imagine having associated with my family. I was still trying to get over the fact that they had voted for Nixon. Twice.
My grandfather, and his five siblings, after being born in Quincy, Massachusetts, just south of Boston, moved to Italy in the late 1920s with their parents, who had wanted for a long time to return to the old country. They lived in the town of Frascati, just outside Rome.
“Hey, it’s not like you had a lot of choice back then,” he told me. “If you wanted to go to school, you had to belong. All I know is one day the teacher told all the guys in my class to start wearing a black shirt and black pants to school. The next thing we know we’re doing military drills every day in the schoolyard, learning how to march. We even went to Rome once and marched in a military parade in Piazza Venezia―we went right by Mussolini in his balcony there, reviewing the troops as they passed by.”
After a few more years living under Mussolini, not to mention barely scraping by in the Depression, my great-grandparents decided in 1933 to finally return to the United States. They were increasingly concerned that their four sons would end up getting drafted as they came of age and have to fight in some war that seemed inevitable as the Italian fascists expressed their desire to expand their empire outside of Italy.
When they were boarding the ship in Naples, the government official checking identity papers at the dock looked at my grandfather, the oldest son, and asked, “Quanti anni ha?” How old are you? “Diciotto,” my grandfather said, without giving it much thought. Eighteen.
“Step out of line,” the official said with a wave of his hand. “Why?” my grandfather asked. “You’re draft age,” the official replied. “You’re going into the army.” “But I’m an American citizen!” my grandfather said, waving his passport. “I don’t care if you’re President Roosevelt,” the official replied dryly. “You live in Italy, you follow Italian laws.”
And with that, an armed guard led him away, while his mother cried and his father cursed. They put him in a jail lockup a few blocks from the dock. About a half hour later he heard his Uncle Benvenuto, known as Benny, who had come to Italy from Quincy to help the family move back, outside talking to the guard in Italian. He looked out and saw the guard stuffing a thick wad of bills into his pocket. A minute later the cell door opened, and he was led out to the street where Uncle Benny stood smiling. “Let’s go,” he said, grabbing my grandfather by the arm. “The ship leaves soon.” What about the guy at the gate?” my grandfather asked. “Where do you think the rest of my money went?” Uncle Benny said with a rueful chuckle. Sure enough, they were waved aboard with a smile.
Within two years, Italy invaded Ethiopia and thousands of Italian soldiers died during that war. My grandfather said he remembered reading about it in the newspaper when it happened. He was convinced fighting, and perhaps dying in Africa would have been his fate if his Uncle Benny had not had the money and boldness to get him freed from jail and onto that ship.
Many times over the decades that followed various family members went to Italy to visit our relatives. But my grandfather always refused to go. “I don’t have anything to go back for,” he said. “Just bad memories.” The joke in the family was that he was still afraid, after all these years, that he would be arrested again, and drafted into the Italian army. So he never returned, not even once, over the next sixty or so years that he lived. And he also, never, ever, again, wore a black shirt.
Brett Peruzzi lives in Framingham, Massachusetts. His poems and prose have appeared in Ovunque Siamo, The Boston Globe, Exquisite Corpse, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Boston Poetry Magazine, Amethyst Review, and other publications. His family came to Quincy, Massachusetts, near Boston, at the beginning of the twentieth century from the provinces of Lazio and Lucca. They worked in the city’s granite industry and eventually owned their own businesses, specializing in headstones and other monuments.