"Mr. Parolini" (fourth part)

(To Gregorio Vella)

Several days passed in the repetitiveness of things, seeing me with Parolini only in passing.

I met him early one morning, at the crater.

The crater was a large artificial chasm, circular in shape and dug in a small clearing without trees. It was used to burn safely and periodically, all the launching explosives that surpassed by the sampling for the stability tests and by the defects of verification of the various ammunition.

Also for this activity the procedure was rigid and repetitive.

I was learning that working with ammunition and explosives, absolutely requires to acquire a rigid and repetitive mental form, is a rule that does not allow exceptions. Nothing should be left to improvisation, nor to chance. Everything, even the most trivial, must be done exactly as it is prescribed to be done, learning it well, performing it with order, without care and without skipping any passage. It will be questionable, but I think it is true, that there are character aspects or natural qualities that present themselves in a more or less accentuated form in relation to their geographical extraction. In fact it is no coincidence that the best gunners of Marina, for capacity and reliability, are the Sardinians, for which it is proverbial the indisputability of orders and the absolute and strict respect for deliveries.

I remember that a few weeks ago I was at the Officina Caricamento and Capo Filigheddu had "requisitioned" an almost empty bottle of denatured alcohol that was, for years, in a box for medications; explaining that the subparagraph of this article, on the other hand, strictly prohibited the introduction of alcoholic beverages. He was told that the alcohol was denatured and was there to clean up any wounds; to which Filigheddu objected, amiably serious and in his friendly Sardinian cadence; "yes, but who tells me that they do not drink it anyway ". It can make you smile, but I agreed with Parolini, when he said that if someone has to leave for the war, it's better to do it with people like that.

Parolini together with Brentani, at the bottom of the crater, had emptied some aluminum containers, forming a snake of a dozen meters of different stuff: explosive throwing of different calibers, all in spaghetti, small tubes, cylinders with seven holes, small, large, greenish, yellow, black, white and also celluloid cutouts that were progressing from the manufacture of the combustible plugs of the 127 / 38 fillers. Parolini, inserting the stiff micciotto, had pushed Brentani away and set him on fire at the end, also calmly moving away, until he reached the rim of the crater, where there were also two non-commissioned officers, as members of the Commission who Reported, verbalizing the destruction of the material.

The reddish vapors rose up for several meters, quickly burning the material and changing in intensity, liveliness and color with the sequence of the type of explosive with which the snake had been formed.

  • He sees Parolini used to say to me - what we see burning so quickly, if we close it inside a shell sealed by a projectile and set it on fire with a primer, it burns even faster, so quickly that it explodes, producing gas at such high pressures that they shoot the bullet, that comes out of the barrel to almost a thousand meters per second. It is cellulose, like the wood burning in the fireplace of the house; only that it has been nitrated. By becoming nitrocellulose, it has all the oxygen it needs to burn inside. The wood in the fireplace, to burn, the oxygen must take it from the air and then puts more; so a kilo of wood and a kilo of nitrocellulose, burning liberate about the same amount of energy only that the wood does it in ten minutes while the nitrocellulose, if it is well closed it takes only a few hundredths of a second. Gregory, if he allows me, I ask you a question. If I tell you to reflect on what the economic activities of the nation are, if we were unfortunately in wartime, what comes to mind?

  • Well, the thing that comes to mind is the effort that the nation must do to create the industry to make war or to convert some industrial productions to war needs. Even in ancient times and I think a bit 'to the Romans and how many spears, arrows, swords and shields had to make before leaving to go to make the empire, but also to how many planes, tanks, ships and stuff, have manufactured the belligerents to prevail during the last conflict.

  • That's right. But if the relationship between industry and war is clear and obvious, this is not the case with agriculture. The first thing that would come to mind is that in wartime even agricultural activities should be intensified and optimized with the few available arms, to feed the nation in autarky and produce food to feed the soldiers at the front. But there is an agricultural sector of fundamental strategic importance, which is the cultivation of a flower without which war can not be done

  • A flower?

  • Yes. It is the cultivation of cotton. After the age of black powder and the first firearms, everything that fires, from the pistolettina for lady of the caliber 6,35, perhaps with the grips of the mother-of-pearl handle, up to the sixteen-inch naval guns, throwing projectiles from a tonne to more than 40 kilometers, everything works with nitrocellulose, or cotton-collodion or fulmicotone, if you prefer; gelatinized, laminated, variously additived in various formulations, but always nitrated cellulose.

Cellulose can be obtained from a lot of things: rags, paper, wood, straw and even vegetable waste; but the best, the most suitable to be nitrated up to the high nitrogen content, condition that allows the necessary ballistic stability and to enclose great firepower in little weight and little space, is that of cotton, even better if obtained from short filaments of the cotton flower, what are called linters.

I think that few have the historical knowledge that when the sixth German army spread to the east and pushed deep into the vast Russian territories, it was not just to get to the Caspian Sea and the Baku oil wells early and water the tanks and the vehicles, which were subject to insecure supply lines and thousands of kilometers (and whatever else is said, the fundamental weapon to win wars has always been logistics), but it was also to reach the fertile and endless Ukrainian plains which, together with Egypt and the southern states of North America, they are the best places in the world to produce excellent "war" quality cotton. But what happened at a small point on the map, where Stalingrad was written, between the summer of 1942 and the winter of 43, completely changed the course of things and certainly of history.

  • Thanks Parolini. Magnificent synthesis of history, economics and applied chemistry. The nitrocellulose affergiù thing I knew it but in no book is so well explained and so interesting. I add only a little story; that the invention of the nitrocellulose is due to a German chemist of the nineteenth century, or rather to his wife, who was a bit 'hysterical and that fed up with seeing the umpteenth lab coat, the pissed husband, threw it in the fireplace . Only that the coat was made of cotton and had been ruined by nitric acid (which had then been nitrated), so that a chimney rose from the chimney, which intrigued the chemist and hence the discovery. But, about war, did you make the war?

  • Thanks for the story. No, at least not directly, but I was not ambushed. I did the war in the Officini di Lochi, down in Fossamastra and I must say that, perhaps, like suffering and risking the skin, even if it was not like at the front, or by sea, it was not even less.

I told him that in the thirty-eight, there was already a smell of war in the air, and my mother, who had already given her husband to the Fatherland, did not even want to give us her son. Poor woman, she had a difficult life and was more than understandable. So he did his best to convince me to apply for the School of Arsenal workers in La Spezia. I would have liked to be a railwayman machinist, it had always been my dream. As a kid, I spent hours in Monzone waiting for the trains that made Garfagnana to see them pass by. It was a great emotion for me to hear them coming, with the puffs of smoke approaching, rising closer and closer above the trees, until the locomotive came out of the curve, after the bridge on the Lucido and passed close to me, panting, black and powerful, breathing a gust of hot breath and the smell that was inebriating for me, like the breath of an extraordinary animal. For a moment I saw the machinist or the stoker, with his black faces and round glasses; I greeted them excitedly jumping on foot together, they answered me with a short whistle. I found that they had something legendary, as heroic, and I would have given what I do not know to be with them and like them.

So I was admitted to the school. I had asked to do the driving course, for the trains carrying ammunition from the Vallegrande stores to the ships to be filled and moored at the Pirelli pier, but the request was not accepted. Long afterwards I also knew the reason; it was because my poor father was the second cousin of Amadeo Bordiga's wife, the one who in the twenty-first in Livorno had split the socialists and founded the Italian Communist Party. The Carabinieri sounded deeply between kinships and friendships of all the employees; I had the attenuating of my sixteen years and the fact that the Bordiga I had never even known her; but this was enough to make me matriculate as a student blaster, with a red dot near my name on the register and sent to Lochi, in a department where I could be better controlled and where I learned and worked in a place as almost a punishment, both for the kind of work that of discipline, that compared to the military one was the college stuff of young ladies.

The school lasted for three years, during which almost a third of the students were discarded, or because they were abandoning finding work better paid (learning at his expense that our wages were always historically low) or for matters of discipline or for failing to exceed the art tests or end-of-year exams. At the end of the three years they started for the military service and after the leave they were hired, but the most capable or most useful could be declared revisable by the Command, when it considered more suitable that they worked in the Officine.

  • I bet they made it revisable and that did not make the naja

  • Well, yes, but it was because I had been assigned to a particular job, now they would call it strategic. We attacked in the morning at eight, already changed and ready. But to show up at the precise time was already seen badly, let alone a delay! I do not remember one time being left in the workshop with hands in hand, it was not like now. The siren of the work stopped at five o'clock and then again at five twenty for the exit. The guardians controlled everything, they rummaged in the lockers, bags and even in our coffins, with the lunch we took home and in the morning we left in the locker room, in a large box with half a palm of water kept warm, waiting for the half an hour for the midday meal. Sometimes if someone brought some special delicacies, perhaps advanced from Sunday lunch, he often found it "tasted"; but nobody claimed.

The bad notes were flaking; for example, to be found inoperative or, worse, to chat or even if, in the judgment of the guardians, we started in the workshop in the morning with too slow pace or at the exit too quickly. In crossing the gate at the exit, neatly in line and one at a time, each one had to pull the handle of a device called "impartial" and that randomly sounded; who happened to play was sent into a dressing room and wait for his turn for a meticulous search, "the frugal", made by the guardians. So who came from outside, for the time it took for the scrabble could also lose the train to go home and if there were not others or were too late, we spent the night at the station or at someone's home, and at those times the phones to warn the family are not that they were so widespread.

During the working hours to leave the workshop and for any reason, you had to ask permission from the workshop and get the "transit pound", a kind of punched brass medal which was attached to the suit and that each Workshop it was supplied in a number of two or at most three; who was caught out of the workshop without the pound on the suit, meant that it was not authorized and were serious trouble. The latrines then were out and also quite distant and woe to have diarrhea or be weak bladder or have the habit of smoking, also because the Official Manager was given by the foreman the calepino where they were marked the distances with the schedules and if they exceeded what he and according to his judgment he considered reasonable, they ran the risk of not finding their own folder to be stamped the next day and to go home. It meant being suspended and if I relapsed even fired. Yes, also because nobody was obliged to give you the explanations, but then they were all written in the fortnightly agenda and posted to the painting, where however there were not only the notes of demerit with the motives and fines, which were up to four-eighths of the daily pay, but there were also, and there were many, the notes of complacency and praise, which when they exceeded the three in a year triggered the overshoot; it was not much but the satisfaction was so great.

It's strange but maybe it's also normal that I remember that period as the most beautiful of my life. The discipline might seem exaggerated, but after all it was a school of life, in my opinion positive and it was never an end in itself, because when it was applied to work, it formed our character and we became men. We experimented with the most beautiful friendships and matured together the awareness of responsibility and doing our duty, respecting roles, rules and, above all, work. It was very satisfying to feel "team", each with their own individuality and perceive the fact that the more we grew professionally, the more we were considered and respected for what we were able to do, motivated you the desire to always improve. It was nice.