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And what did his father remember? From this sultry August day, George Hitler drifted back to a cold, wet spring morning in the Po valley, eleven years before. Morale down, way down -- not like here. How much more mud, more German bullets and bombs? The war was not going to be settled here in Italy -- it was Eisenhower up in Europe that would do it, him and the Russians. Why should anyone take risks now? Just be careful and get through.
In the current clamor, George heard the voices of his army buddies taking it all out on the "Niggers of the 92nd," the black infantry unit, segregated since the Civil War, sent to hold the Serchio valley at the western end of the line. "Eleanor's Own Royal Rifles" they were called, supposedly given the newest, best equipment, while the rest of the Fifth Army made do. Every time they were cold or wet, they imagined Eleanor Roosevelt's special socks on warm black feet -- and cussed up a storm. Every time someone was late for roll call or showed any dumbness or superstition or lack of discipline, he was showered with racist epithets. Just like now.
George wondered if the 92nd was so stupid and superstitious after all. Why should they be risking their necks to come back to this kind of stuff? If he was a second-class citizen, he sure wouldn't fight. The 92nd probably thought they were being led into suicidal situations on purpose. Maybe they were! Hell, he'd have hidden like they did.
Then George remembered April 25th of '45. The whole night, brilliant moonlight, towns burning up and down the hills, the Germans losing it. Big fight over the 92nd, driving into Ferrara. The company spread out, no Germans in sight, lots of corpses in the streets, Krauts, civilians, maybe partisans. Buildings smoldering. Jump out of the jeep at the Piazza Mercato in front of the cathedral, then down via Mazzini. Out a window -- was it from there, or the next building over? -- shots, bullets ricocheting off the concrete, hit on the thigh, no wound. He sneaks low, unhooks a grenade, pulls the pin, lobs it hook shot through the window, and makes for the shelter of the lamp post across the street.
Then, rifles at the ready, he and Charlie Higgins break down a door with a Jewish star into maybe an old synagogue, looks like a storeroom. On the floor near the blown-out window, covered in orange pulp, a young woman is moaning, her blond hair swimming in blood under a dark blue kerchief. He runs over, wipes her face with her apron, inspects the head wound, applies pressure. "Charlie, help me get her out from under this mess." The GIs take her under each arm and try to drag her out from under a pile of shattered pumpkins. One foot seems stuck, so with a huge pull, they free her -- without her lower left leg, which stays there, boot protruding, under the pile of pumpkins. Her left thigh is spattering blood from two large arteries.
"Oh my God!" Charlie cries. George cuts the straps off her apron.
"Give her water, Charlie, and compress the head wound. Keep her head low. I'm gonna tourniquet this."
He begins to lift her skirt, but she resists like crazy, as if he were going to rape her.
George looked over at his wife holding her cane in one hand and his son in the other.
GRITS GUTS GUNPOWDER GRITS GUTS GUNPOWDER GRITS GUTS GUNPOWDER, the crowd was chanting.
The truth of the matter -- he had never told her -- was that he had thought...of something. Charlie restrained her while he pushed up her coat and dress, tied up her thigh, stopping the blood flow, twisted the tourniquet -- not too much -- was she comfortable? Her thigh, the thigh of a young woman considered one of the most beautiful in town, her thigh, with no underwear in this clothing-short time. Cool hand on warm flesh, her blond pubic hair. Even in a pool of blood, even with Charlie there, this young, lonely, cold, wet, muddy young George from Texas felt his heart jump to his throat and his penis rise. He had never told her.
And she, Anna Giardini, had never told him that just four days earlier, she had been raped -- gang-banged -- by four German teenagers wanting to get some in before getting the hell out. She looked like a German Mädchen -- the blond Mädchen of their pinup dreams -- why not? She had put up a fierce struggle.
George sent Charlie to find transport. Anna calmed down, beyond fatigue, partly from trusting this boy so intent on caring for her but mostly from blood loss and its attendant faintness. Before she lost consciousness, she was able to tell him that the Ospidale Sant'Anna was up on the Corso della Giovecca, only three blocks away. That was her name, too -- Anna, she said. Too impatient to wait for an ambulance that might never come, George picked up her limp body and carried her through the streets to the crowded emergency room.
After bringing her out of shock with IV fluids, they sent her on to the bigger Nuovo Ospidale on the east side of town, where George was able to visit her during the two days his unit remained in Ferrara before pushing on to the Po and the victorious end of the war.
Out of guilt? out of love? -- he wrote her every day from then on, keeping his English simple but somehow trying to pay her back for the great harm he had done. As she struggled with writing back in a foreign tongue, he grew more and more fond of her, fond in the sense of liking this obviously remarkable person, and fond in the sense of becoming just plain nuts about her.
He looked over at his beautiful wife holding her cane in one hand and his son in the other. Though she was five years younger, he sensed she was older, so much older than he, from the age-old culture of her ancient hometown. Had he her education, he would have known these lines of Carducci:
Onde venisti? Quali a noi secoli
Their correspondence continued after his return to Texas. He lived his life in order to write her of it. Lunchtimes, he went home from the Feed Mill to check the mailbox, so impatient was he. He who had never written even a postcard in his life learned to write, expressively and well. And as her letters became more fluent and his more rich, the possibility of marriage became obvious. Would this now eighteen-year-old Italian, half-Jewish beauty, flower of the ghetto, this classical violinist with the Botticelli hands, this Old World, half-Sephardic treasure, give up her family in Ferrara for the blandness of Mansfield, Texas, or would George Hitler join her in the ancient land he had helped destroy?
si mite e bella ti tramandarano...
Whence come you? What centuries
passed you on to us, so mild and lovely?
The most difficult letter was the one he thought might end their relationship, the one in which he told her it was he, and he alone, who had crippled her. It took nine days for an answer. The first of those days were filled with letters from Ferrara he thought of as "she doesn't know yet." The last of those days were filled with letters he called "from before she knew." On a Monday noon, a Monday after an excruciating Sunday of empty mailbox, he held what must be the letter in his trembling hand.
Giorgio, my dearest,
They were married in June of '48, she nineteen, he twenty-four. Her "assimilated" parents, her Jewish father, Jacobo, an ex-editor for the Corriere ferrarese (writing freelance, under a pseudonym, since the Nuremberg laws of '35), her mother, Lucetta, a math teacher in the high school, thought it best Anna should see America. She and Giorgio could come back to Ferrara if she were unhappy. Perhaps she could send a little money to help them rebuild. Life would be easier in America.
Do you think I didn't know? Do you think you coming just after the blast, your loving concern, the way you wiped pumpkin off my face did not give you away? Do you think your love does not far exceed this accident of war? Do you think a woman needs two legs to love a man?
Have no fear, my beloved. I will write you again tonight when there is more time. But I answer this immediately, for I can imagine how you are fearful of what I will say. So I just say I am loving you.
who, even though she loves you, will never eat a pumpkin pie on your Thanksgiving
Anna kept her name, Giardini, as a link to her old life in her old world, one of the first women of her generation to do so. George was concerned it was because she didn't want his name. After all...No, she assured him, she knew who was Hitler and who was only "Hitler."
Arnold -- named for his maternal grandfather -- was born on Christmas morning two years later at Mansfield General Hospital, a nine-pound, twelve-ounce strapping, screaming newborn, at the top of the Apgar scale, as he would be at the top of all his classes from first grade on.
But the crying, the continuous crying! Colic? The distraught parents devoured Dr. Spock and tried it all. Troubleshooting: Was he hungry? Just ate. Dirty diaper? No. Would that it were. Safety pin? Never. Gassy, colicky? Belly quiet, and flat as a board. Nothing seemed to help. He cried as an infant, he cried as a toddler, he cried when, finally, at three he began to speak.
His first word was "yellow," a sunshine word for a thunderstorm boy: "Yewwo." He cried for his yellow Dr. Dentons if Anna tried to put him to bed in blue ones. He wanted to play in the yellow-walled kitchen no matter where his mother was in the house. He loved his yellow bear and his yellow-hatted clown, he loved the light streaming in the yellow-curtained windows, and he could sleep only with his yellow twinkle light at night. But most of all he loved yellow fire.
When he was four, he burned his hand, badly, third degree. Palmar burns are serious. Lots of nerves and tendons close to the surface, with little room for swelling. George and Anna had accepted Owen Barlow's invitation to come out on his boat on Joe Pool Lake. It was a windy September afternoon, too early to go back but chilly enough for the crew to take refuge in the cabin.
"Arnie and Sam, no running!"
Sam was a year older and even more kinetic than his friend. He would be Mansfield's High School's greatest track star, faster even than the several black runners who joined the team in 1965. At his father's call, Sam stopped short, and Arnie crashed right into him, falling backward and catching himself with his left hand, directly on the heater. A Southern smell of burning flesh. The grownups were horrified, in pain almost as great as that of the shrieking child. Anna, especially, was affected, ignited through her own agonies, her stump shrieking, her pity, her terror for her child....She could only hold him wailing in her arms and repeat endlessly, "Bambino mio, bambino mio..."
Arnold's hand was bandaged at the hospital, he was given pain meds and sent home to be shaped by a multidimensional trauma his parents little suspected. It wasn't the pain that made him cry. It was the fact that he couldn't move his hand inside the bandage. He was trapped. His hand was not uncomfortable, but he was trapped, and being trapped was the torture. He cried every time he wanted to move his hand and couldn't. Worse, he was doubly trapped: he couldn't leave the trap behind. He could go in the other room, and the trap would follow him. He could go to sleep and wake up the next morning: the trap would still be there. He could walk anywhere, run anywhere, and his hand would still be trapped. His parents couldn't understand. They would offer to cheat on his Darvon schedule, but it wasn't the pain. They didn't get it, and he could not explain. So he was trapped in yet another dimension: he could not communicate what was wrong. Triply trapped. He cried a lot.
Anna tried to distract him: if he would put his left knee to his mouth, she told him, he could talk to Grandpa Jacobo in Italy. Grandpa Jacobo would feel a tickling in his left knee, and put his ear to it and listen, and he would be able to hear Arnold. Then, if Arnold put his ear to his knee and listened very carefully, he might hear Grandpa Jacobo talking back to him.
Could he talk English to Grandpa? Arnold asked. Would Grandpa talk English back? Anna assured him that since she had moved to America, Grandpa Jacobo had been studying English. She told him to try it and see. Curious, and ever wanting to please, Arnold gave it a go. He rolled up his pajama leg to expose his left knee (the left knee his mother lacked) and whispered into the joint, "Grandpa, can you hear me?"
"Now put your ear to your knee, and let me know what he says."
Arnold listened very carefully.
"Close the window," he told his mother, "so it will be more quiet." She did, and he listened for two silent minutes.
"He says he can hear me, and he wants to know how everyone is, and if I go to school yet. He says he and Grandma Lucetta miss me and miss you and Daddy, and they want us to come visit them next summer. He says he will take us on a trip into the big mountains. And he says that Pepi died last week."
"Yes. Pepi died last week from being old."
This was a little uncanny. The missing, and the trip to the mountains -- OK -- a child could make that up. But Pepi...She called her parents that very morning.
Pepi had died nine days before.
. . .
Arnold spent much of his convalescence talking to Grandpa Jacobo. But as soon as the bandage came off, he forgot about the connection and went about his normal four-year-old business -- asking questions. Anna would read to him -- picture books about animals.
"Why is a fox called a fox?" he asked.
"It's called a fox just in English. In Italy, it's called un volpe."
"But it's a fox? The same fox?"
"It's the same fox, but it has a different name."
"How can it have a different name if it's the same?"
"I don't know. It just does. Italians call things differently than Americans."
He began to cry.
Or, another time:
"Would you drink a glass of my spit? If I filled a glass with my spit?"
"No! Don't be disgusting."
"Would you drink a glass of your own spit? You spit into a glass until it's full, then you drink it?"
"Arnold, enough of spit!"
"But what's wrong with spit? You swallow your spit and you don't mind. You swallow lots of your own spit."
"Spit, spit, spit!" and more tears.
The child began to perceive a rigid stupidity among adults, even his own parents, who knew most things. Did time have a beginning? he wanted to know when he was learning about clocks. If you went back and back, would you get to a place where there was no more back? He asked every grownup he met -- it was his question of the month. No one would take it seriously. "I don't know." Period. Or, "Who knows?" Why weren't they perplexed, or even interested? This was no idea -- question, it was a real question. He was trying to understand. Surely grownups must know simple things like that. Did time ever begin? Or will it ever end? They just took the whole thing for granted. "That's how things are. Talking isn't going to change them. Discussing is a waste of time waste of time waste of time." What else did he have to do?
At four and three-quarters he hit the books for answers. He didn't know how to read, but he could do research anyway. There was a big book filled with pictures of paintings and sculptures and buildings, the 1926 edition of Art Through the Ages. There was the Bible and La Bibbia Santa. Did God speak English or Italian? If He was so smart, maybe He spoke both. There was La Divina Commedia, with scary etchings; Italian Through Pictures, a book with funny stick people pointing at themselves; The Blue Guide to Italy with a string bookmark at the map of Ferrara, page 262. There was a book called The Naked and the Dead with no pictures at all, neither naked people nor dead ones. And that was it. Some cooking magazines.
His favorite was Art Through the Ages. It had so much to show him -- not just the world of artists and architects but the whole possibility of Otherness other-than-Mansfield. There was a picture of a big church in Milan, in Italy, near where his mama had lived, and Milan was very far away. And even if you could only see one building, for Arnold it was proof that Milan existed, proof that Italy existed, proof that even far away, things existed.
Nobody ever thought of reading Art Through the Ages to him, and when he asked for it, he was told it wasn't a reading book, it was a looking-at book. So he looked and looked at the pictures, and he invented stories about them, for example, a story about the naked lady standing on a seashell, and why she was standing on a seashell, and why she was naked. His father didn't like him looking at naked ladies, but his mother let him anyway. She had Botticelli hands. When she looked at the book with him, she told him about how this building or that painting had been destroyed in the war. In this way he learned about destruction.
Arnold was determined to learn to read since, except for Art Through the Ages, there seemed to be in books many more words than pictures. So the words must be more important, right? He could make up his own stories, but bookwords would tell him the real stories.
It was an epiphany. The marks on the pages turned out to be instructions about sounds. If he could learn the sounds and put them together, he would wind up with -- words. Amazing! Wouldn't it have been easier just to have little pictures for everything? Stick figures like the ones in the book to learn Italian? But no. This was the way the grownups did it, and they must be right. George and Anna taught him the alphabet. He cried when he found out that "c" could be pronounced "k" or "s." Why do you need "c" at all if it doesn't have its own sound? His parents didn't know. When "ph" and "qu" showed up, Arnold didn't cry but became furious, then petulant. By this time, he was beginning to sense some conspiracy of the old against the young. If you can't trust grownups, whom can you trust?
But "c," "g," "ph," and "qu" became finally minor annoyances-exceptions to the fascinating task of stringing letters together to arrive at -- miraculous -- familiar words! Each time a difficult sound sequence popped into place, he experienced a tingling up the back of his neck. Sounding out words: what a clever and good thing to do. Noble. Like scientists and detectives. The act of reading was as fascinating as the content -- but daunting, too. Would he now have to read everything, of which he was sure there was much? Would he be allowed to stop if he wanted to? Not yet five, he was cognizant of some anticipatory, menacing commitment.
And if he could read, he would have to write. Assiduous, he practiced his alphabet. His first written note -- vetted by his horrified mother -- was to his friend, Sam. It read, "YU AR A GRATE BIG DOODEE HED, AND I WILL FLUSH YU DOWIN THE TOYLET." She wouldn't let him send it.
Why not? Why not? He had worked so hard on it. The letters were all recognizable-even neat. Anna explained that "doody" was not a nice word, and that Sam would not like being called a doody-head and might not want to be friends with him. "But he calls me a doody-head." And, again, he burst out crying. Eventually, Arnold gathered that there were good words, which you were allowed to say and write, and bad words, which you were not. But what made a good word good and a bad word bad? Grownups were nuts.
Needless to say, when he started school that fall of 1956, he found Dick and Jane, whose mother had two legs, not one and a half, insufferably stupid. They seemed to live in a world only vaguely related to his own, some kind of harmless, cute, safe place, without dirty words, without the bombs and dead people his mother would talk about, without the niggers who could be his friends after school but who couldn't go to school with him, and whom people hanged on the flagpole.
"Mama," he called out during a self-assigned homework session, "you know what?"
"What?" Anna turned delightedly to her little scholar.
"There's no story in the Dick and Jane story."
"What do you mean? Doesn't the dog run with the ball, and..."
"I mean like the story of the naked lady on the seashell, or the girl turning into a tree."
Though Anna found them charming, such thoughts did not bode well for his career at Mansfield Elementary. He did not love school; he loved his own gathering of words, which revealed to him the infinite world of things, the many forms of the specific, of the substance and strategy of the world. He was the best reader in his class, he was popular, he got the best marks in all his subjects, but he became expert in deceit. Verbosity, exile, and cunning.