HOW I BECAME AN AMERICAN
(from As Time goes by – In the Name of a Father)
Having acquired a more decent look, after a few hours we were called to roll call and got transferred by train to a camp near Oran, in Mers El Kebir, an ancient port sheltered by a mountain.
Upon arriving at the new camp, we were all led together into a large tent and lined up in front of a table. Behind it was an officer, busy taking notes. When it was my turn, the young American lieutenant sitting behind the desk, very short hair shaved at the nape, white blond, asked me: «Do you speak English?».
I remembered, or guessed, that English meant inglese. I excluded that he asked me if I was English, and decided that he wanted to know if I could speak English. I wondered why I had been allotted for the interview to an American who spoke English only, instead of the Italian-American who was receiving the other line, talking in a kind of Italian interspersed with dialectal expressions (Sicilian, probably) and American slang, and who occasionally laughed fraternally at my comrades’ answers.
«Non, monsieur, seulement Italien et Français, pardonnez moi» I replied in French with a smile to the young officer – perhaps my same age – whose face was showing a friendly expression, as of a schoolmate’s. I strove for keeping my tone on a level of courteous deference, without falling into the temptation of confidentiality or – worse – subservience.
«Can I have a look at your identity tag? Please, give me your name and ID number… Er… Nom et numéro?» the American asked me slowly, spelling out the syllables, his index finger on his US Army dog tag that he took from the neck and showed me, widely gesturing to underline the meaning of the question and the subject of his request. I read the name on it, Brian O’Shaughnessy. I tried to say that I hadn’t had a tag for long; I avoided explaining that I had sold it to a legionnaire in Algiers, as done with the stars in Djelfa and the shirt. It didn’t seem dignified to me.
«Desolé, monsieur, je l’ai perdue en bataille … non plus, rien, nothing, but … je suis Asola Carlo né le 22 Janvier 1924, Troisieme GGFF, numéro 18594Vol» I replied showing my neck, bare of the tag, and attributing its absence to the heat of a battle. I called an Italian fellow soldier, waiting a little further back in the queue of the Italian-American, to testify about my identity. My comrade confirmed my personal details, gesturing and nodding in silence with his head.
«Can you write down your data, please?» lieutenant O’Shaughnessy asked me, not so confident about having precisely understood what I had told him with effort. He handed me a piece of paper and a pencil.
I wrote in my neat handwriting surname, name, date of birth, battalion, and the ID number with that “Vol” at the end for “Volunteer”, which I wrote small, with the excuse of the little space given. I returned the slip of paper to the American.
The lieutenant copied the data to his log. But something didn’t add up, apparently. A doubt assailed him. He scratched his head, fis face darkened, frowned, took the pencil and pointed it in front of my eyes: «You’re not German, are you? … Hem … Vous n’etes pas … what is it called in French … Allemand?»
The question didn’t surprise me. Nothing in this war could astonish me anymore. What’s more, it had already happened to me, for example in Djelfa with the French, when on 9 September we were separated from the Germans. Height and hair had misled others into thinking me a German who for mysterious reasons was passing himself off as an Italian, and so I had to explain my nationality and who I was. This also had happened to my friend Giulio Liuzzi from Rimini, for the same reasons. I replied abruptly: «Non, je suis Italien, Alba, near Turin. Italy, Italie. Piedmont».
I felt a pang of pleasure and pain, as I evoked my far-off hills. The word “Alba” hadn’t come out of my mouth for ages.
The lieutenant examined the data I had declared. His eye fell on those three tiny letters I had written in the margin of the sheet. It seemed that somehow he didn’t like that “Vol”. He levelled his pencil again, its point forward like a Colt 45, his glance at the paper: «Private Asola Carlo, tell me, please, whether you declare yourself to be a fascist or not».
For some inscrutable divine will and for having noticed where the lieutenant’s eyes were pointing on the paper, I guessed immediately the meaning of the question. I didn’t know the answer. The right one, I mean. He put down the pencil, and I took it. “Am I a fascist?” I wondered as his eyes were moving from the paper to my hands, nervously playing with the pencil. “Fascist, does this word still make sense? Besides, for me, and for this American lieutenant, for my future, what is the right answer?”. I rolled my eyes, twisted my mouth into a grimace, pretended not to have caught the question: «No compris,» I said in a terrific linguistic mix.
He insisted, punctuating the words, slowly but blunt, straight to the point but friendly: «Carlo, are you a fascist?». To make himself better understood, he looked around him and (not without embarrassment) quickly mimicked the Roman salute raising his hand only, puffed out his chest, protruded his jaw and planted his fists on his hips.
I opened my eyes wide, hinted at a tight smile that turned into a new grin, and spread my arms. Then, I frowned and spun two or three times clockwise and anticlockwise my L-shaped index and thumb of both hands, as I shook my head in denial. I was surprised by my mimicry. I had never been a good actor, not even at school. To the gestures I added a faint: «Pardon, monsieur. No understand. Comment? Vous pouvez repeter?».
The lieutenant looked up at the ceiling. He sighed. Maybe he snorted. Without losing his patience, he tried again. Slowly, concentrated in the effort to brush up on the little French he had maybe learned at his high school and no longer pointing my pencil at me, but looking me straight in the eye, he spelled: «So, again, are you… sorry, hmm… Vous etes ehm… you know… un fasciste? Ditez moi. Please».
That “please” came with a pleading tone. I bought more time, counting on the evidence of my meager knowledge of the English language. I weighed the effect of an affirmative response, versus a negative one. I had heard that prisoners who declared themselves as fascists, were being deported to prison camps in various US states like Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Mississippi and Virginia, some of them were loaded onto ships for South Africa and Australia, and nothing was heard of again. Possibly they were well off, sound and safe and better than us, but I couldn’t tell. The idea of going to the US didn’t seem so bad to me, but I didn’t know what would happen next. I had already signed up as a volunteer to see Africa with the result of seeing more ugliness than anything: what if the same thing happened in America or down under, in the African southernmost tip of the austral hemisphere? I went for a no: a more appropriate, rational, balanced answer. Compliant with that time and context.
«No, no, je ne suis pas fasciste, mais non» I finally answered, self-confident.
«Are you sure you are not a fascist? Sur de … hm … de n’être pas … damn, how can I say … fasciste?» the lieutenant insisted, pleased to express himself in French, pointing to the sheet I had written my data on, his finger still on the suffix of the ID number, that “Vol” that denounced my status as a volunteer.
I replied without hesitation and with a smile that I wanted to see Africa, not go to war. I said it spelling out the words, to avoid misunderstandings: «Je voulais voir l’Afrique, pas faire la guerre».
To emphasize the concept, while spelling those few words in French, I widened my eyes, squeezed them into slits, brought my right hand to my forehead as a visor and, absorbed, I turned my head left and right to mimic an explorer in observation; I then shrugged my shoulders to remark disinterest in the war. I lingered for a moment in silence, then I looked at the American, continuing to think about the answer given, as if to convince myself: “I wanted to see Africa, not to make war”. I repeated aloud once again, to avoid misunderstandings: «Je ne voulais pas faire la guerre, mais …» and I pointed to my eyes «voir l’Afrique. Pas Mussolini». I did so by mimicking the act of shooting, first, thumb and index finger L-extended from the closed fist, and then (as the lieutenant had done) the Mussolini’s pose: jaw forward, punches on hips, eyes bulging. An imitation that only few weeks earlier would have sounded to me almost blasphemous. Finally I shook my head and index finger in denial, and curled my lips down in contempt. I increased the dose: «Pas Mussolini, mais voir l’Afrique, Africa». I had spread my lips in a beautiful smile as I said the words “Afrique, Africa”.
Having taken a liking to pantomime, though being a Langhe boy neither inclined nor accustomed to using my hands to express myself, I carried on. I brought the index finger of my right hand to my head; I tapped my temples twice with it, and swung the other forefinger to say no and make it clear that I was not crazy. Then I went on, still denying with index and head, dark eyes and lips tightened in a grimace to underline my disgust for the war: «Je ne suis pas fou, je n’aime pas la guerre. No war».
“War” was one of the ten English words I knew.
Brian, the young lieutenant, smiled at me. He winked and raised his thumb in agreement. Out of empathy and of sympathy, fatigue and exhaustion. He wrote on his log, next to my name, “PoW Italian Cooperator”, then affixed, outright, a stamp on. I had the feeling that those three words in English were able to decree my liberation and rebirth, already grasped on my transfer to this camp. I understood, deciphering some words Brian had written under “Asola Carlo, PoW Italian Cooperator”, that I had been assigned to a US logistics department.
I mentally thanked the young lieutenant, as he gave me a sheet of paper to hand in at the orderly room. I took the paper and slipped it into my pocket with utmost care, as if it were a report card with all A’s on. I greeted Brian with my thumb raised, and looked at the stars and stripes flag behind his desk, and the big face with Uncle Sam hanging on the wall, because I too had become an American. Well, nearly so: a US Army Italian Cooperator.
They pointed me to the orderly room at the end of the courtyard. I entered. On a shelf, I spotted a French language booklet in English, that I considered useful on the contrary to learn English, and another booklet that still smelled of print. From the title it looked like a tourist guide about France. Leafing through it, I understood it was used to instruct the US troops on precautions to be taken on French soil. It seemed it made mention of an Allied landing to be made somewhere in France. Where, whether south or north, and where exactly in the south or in the north, a mystery.
Not knowing how to ask for the two booklets in English, I reached out and helped myself, taking advantage of the quartermaster turning his back on me to look for my uniform, shoes and underwear. He was grabbing my side cap in his hand, when the rustle of my fumbling reached him; he took a peek out of the corner of his eye and caught me while I was putting the two little books into my pocket.
«Good job!» he told me, turning to me. «Bravo che li hai presi, stavo per darteli». Another Italian American. He put my new clothing in my hands, along with the tag prepared for me. Neither he nor I spoke again; he smiled at me, winked and greeted me: «See you, Carlo». I was one of them.
When I went out into the camp courtyard, I opened my hand to catch a glimpse of my new US Army identification tag, hanging from its chain. I owned a dog tag again. I looked at it, weighed it; then I observed the American uniform, beautifully folded and ironed, good to show off with girls. I fumbled with my beautiful new boots, that were to replace the worn out English boots, burnt in the bonfire with a heap of awkward uniforms and varied shoes. I noticed the tiny metal coat of arms depicting Italy on the insignia, the only sign that distinguished me from actual US soldiers. I was enlisted in the ISP (Italian Service Personnel) with an American uniform and a pay of eighty cents a day to be spent in American outlets. The POW camps banned Americans from using the word “prisoner” in both written and spoken language. However, I was no longer a prisoner. I was a cooperator in a perfect American uniform.
“An American like any other”, I thought. Unarmed, but I was a stars and stripes soldier, like the blue soldiers at a gallop that I used to applaud at the Politeama cinema in Alba.
I put the chain around my neck, to hang the thin tin US Army dog tag. The writing read, embossed: «CARLO ASOLA 81-I-364995T45 ITAL. COOP». I was fit for duty, for the second time. Now in the ISU (Italian Service Unit) CO. 127.
Meanwhile, the few who had declared themselves as fascists, were immediately rounded up and put on a truck. Destination Casablanca, and then by sea to captivity, America or South Africa or even further away. For us who had given formal availability to collaborate, a new world opened up. I was in America, on the African continent. What more did I want from life?
Teresio Asola is an Italian author living in Torino. He’s had eight novels published in Italy so far: Volevo vedere l’Africa (2010), All’orizzonte cantano le cascate (2013), L’alba dei miracoli (2016), Mùnscià (2017), Spegnere il buio (2019), Raccontare troppo (2019), Tu, Bianca e Johnny (2020), Zuruni (2021). In 2021 his first novel in English, As Time goes by – In the Name of a Father.