"Il Signor Parolini" (seventh part): the story of Sandro

(To Gregorio Vella)

Acciaroli Alessandro, born in 1922. Istrian from Pola, second and youngest son of a wealthy family (father, director of the Registry Office, mother high school principal, one older sister, Benedictine nun).

The entry into the war caught him at eighteen, in full preparation for the exams for the high school diploma. The exams that year and in most of Italy were revoked, due to war and all the graduates obtained the qualification or not, on the basis of hasty scrutinies on the performance in studies in the school year.

Sandro's father could have brigged among his numerous acquaintances to avoid that his son sooner or later had to go to war as a conscript soldier, but he did not oppose Sandro's decision to enlist as a volunteer and probably secretly crying, either because he knew what war really was, having fought in the previous one as a non-commissioned officer of the genius and both for the precise presentiment that the nation was heading towards a terrible tragedy.

So Sandro applied to become a paratrooper, inspired by the natural youthful propensity for daring things (but, and I add with reasonable certainty, also confirmed by Parolini, without this choice having been influenced by any ideological inclination) and also because it was an absolute Announcements.

The request, having passed the selections thanks also to an excellent physical shape, was accepted and then incorporated into the newly established air force parachuting school in Tarquinia (it would become the Army's Folgore Division almost two years later). Several months of hard training followed, first in the barracks and then launching from the SM-82, also along the coast below Livorno, between Quercianella and Calafuria and then on the more secluded Salento cliffs, learning to get out of the sea in all conditions and climb like a spider. on the rocks with all the equipment on; on the rocks that looked a lot like those of the Maltese coasts.

But there would be no launch on Malta. The baptism of fire (but without fire, since there was no resistance) Sandro had it by launching himself on the plain of Argostoli in Kefalonia, "conquered" in April '41. Then the destination was North Africa, but by sea and with no more parachutes; on foot like the infantry and escorted by the unfortunate conviction of the general staff that, after four months of military success, there was only to make the last leap of one hundred kilometers, give the last push and that soon we would arrive in Alexandria, then in Cairo and finally in Suez.

The last leap of one hundred kilometers towards the east and towards the finish line of victory; above all due to the dramatic and chronic shortage of supplies, it quickly turned into a retreat to the west, almost all done on foot for two thousand kilometers. But then it was not really so short, since an entire allied army corps, with a superiority of 5 to 1, with the absolute domination of the air, well armed, well fed, with real tanks, cigarettes and liquors of excellent quality and without any problem of supplies, which came quietly from Suez in sensational quantities, he was nailed almost with bare hands by obstinate beggars who, even if deprived of everything, did not want to give up. They were the boys from Pavia, Littorio, Bologna, Brescia, Aries and Etcetera (with a capital "E") and, last to yield to the south of the grid, on the edge of the infernal and impracticable depression of El Qattara, selling the skin really at a great price, those of the Folgore Division, entirely destroyed in combat. Less than three hundred survivors out of about six thousand effective.

A great deal has been said and written about what happened between October and November 42, along about fifty kilometers south of an anonymous little station on the Egyptian coast called El Alamein, and the writer has no title, nor can allow you to add nothing to this story, if not silence and the greatest respect.

One of those stubborn beggars was Sandro, crouched in appalling conditions inside one of the many holes set up to hinder the advance of the avalanche of iron and fire, liming himself under the sun during the day and freezing at night, amidst the stench of corpses in decomposition and the moans of the dying, with no more ammunition, devastated by dysentery, thirst and flies. He came out of the hole hopping on a wounded foot when the cart approached, to have it pass over and, supine between the two tracks, place the magnetic mine (of war prey) on his belly. If he was lucky he could have drunk the boiling water from the radiator instead of his own urine and soothed his hunger, if he had found some delicious can of "corn beef".

Captured, with a "come with me, please", But without having raised his hands and without having yielded not even a meter, he hardly pays any attention to the honor of arms recognized to the survivors by the winners, destroyed as it is by the guilt complex of having remained alive and with the thought of the many comrades to the which he feels he belongs to and who have been atrociously sacrificed. Boys from all parts of Italy, from all walks of life and who in the vast majority had fought and died, not because they were motivated by more or less high ideals but, more modestly, because they loved Italy and in the awareness of inalienable necessity that one's duty had to be fulfilled in any case, collectively, always doing one's best, in full and with dignity; boys who by the thousands, dead and unburied, would have remained for several years and some forever, abandoned without a cross, in the Egyptian desert.

Luck was lacking, not valor. It's true. But, as Parolini said, there was also a lack of gasoline, ammunition, adequate armaments, food, water to drink and many other things.

With a half broken shoulder, a beginning of gangrene in his foot and a certain number of medals, Sandro is sent to Iraq and interned in a prison camp, where he remains three years without any news from home, working as an electrician and learning to do the watchmaker. From time to time he wrote with his sister, through complicated ecclesiastical channels. Sister Matilde wrote that she was fine and that she had been forced by the superior, together with her sisters, to hastily abandon the convent of Koper and then, using a kind of humanitarian corridor, to arrive and find asylum in an abbey, fortunately garrisoned by the Royals (again for little) Carabinieri, in an unspecified country of the Casentino.

He had no news of his parents or relatives and from what his sister wrote, Sandro understood with anguish that Pola was almost certainly no longer Italy and that things for the Italians of Istria and Dalmatia had not been going very well.

He was repatriated at the end of 45 to Bari, for Christmas, in a materially and morally broken nation. There was April 25 but there is no one to welcome back. Paradoxically, the only "honors" rightly received by the vanquished were only those bestowed by the enemies on the field. He is missing large chunks of information on the nation's affairs over the past three years. Above all, he cannot understand how, two years earlier, the enemies suddenly became allies (or, using a somewhat extravagant term: cobelligerants) and the allies became enemies and how and how many improvised "opponents to the regime", in regime finished, have jumped out from all sides and now, with ostentatious pride, crowd the winners' wagon. As the days go by, the precise sensation of feeling out of place, perceiving himself in a hostile environment, of annoying himself, as if to find himself involuntarily and without understanding why "on the wrong side", becomes more concrete, as if he were to forgive something.

Everyone wants to forget and the veterans, from Russia, Africa, the Balkans, are like an inappropriate object of a past that is too recent and cumbersome, and that one does not know where to put.

Some are reintegrated into the new Italian Army. There are no uniforms or weapons and the new allies supply British ones and rifles Enfield without the shutter; some find it grotesque to dress up as former enemies with the bowl helmet, but the need for any identity and hunger have the power to anesthetize the best feelings and sometimes even dignity, or what remains of it.

He remains a little more than a week in Bari. Some high-ranking people know his service status and also know what character he is and, despite having remained slightly lame, he is offered a more than dignified military career in the army of the new State, almost certainly republican.

It does not take into consideration the proposal and the possibility of putting on a uniform. First he wants to go back to where he was born, to Pola, where his home is, to find out about the fate of his mother and father, his relatives, his many friends.

On foot, with makeshift vehicles, jumping on the truck bodies or on the few trains that, almost at walking pace, go up along the un-bombed stretches of the Adriatic line, crosses the Gargano, arrives in Termoli, Pescara, Civitanova, Ancona; up, up to Ravenna and then to Venice, eating whatever happens and resting where and when you can. He knows that it is not safe to pass through the uncertain border of Trieste. He stops in Caorle and looks for Mario, a Caorlotto comrade in arms from the time of Tarquinia with whom he had then lost sight. She does not find him but finds her father who lives in the agonizing hope that sooner or later his son will return from Russia. Mario's father listens to him, understands and immediately makes himself available, first feeding him well and then introducing him to a fishing boat owner who, deviating from the course of a fishing trip, at night and risking big, with lights off and with the engine at a minimum, he lands on the Istrian peninsula on a cold night in early January, on a beach between Fažana and Rovinj, a few kilometers from Pula.

The perfect knowledge of the territory favors him, he knows how to move and he knows how to avoid inappropriate encounters. He manages to track down Goran, a Croatian schoolmate with whom he shared socialist sympathies at the time of high school. Now he is a big shot in a Yugoslav partisan formation; but no reason or no ideology can tarnish an authentic friendship and the friendships born between the school desks are certainly among the most long-lived and unstoppable.

Goran helps him, at the risk of his own skin, and finds him safe accommodation, food and suitable clothing. He then lets another couple of former classmates know of Sandro's presence, who are also delighted to hug him again and who spread a discreet but efficient safety net around him.

He learns that his father (under the eyes of his mother) and in the same days in similar circumstances, two of his uncles and two cousins, were taken away almost a year before and nothing is known (and will not be known) about them.

The mother is no longer the principal of the high school; she was "nominated" as a worker-welder by the current authorities and, even though she is over fifty, she kills herself by working twelve hours a day at the "scoglio degli ulivi", the shipyard of the arsenal of Pola. With other Italians she lives in a sheltered position, in promiscuity and under strict surveillance, with very little food and in horrible hygienic conditions, right in her former school, which she had loved so much. Their beautiful home and all family assets are or are in the process of being permanently confiscated.

The friends organize a meeting with his mother for Sandro, with all possible prudence. Agnes. Finding themselves after five years, they find it difficult to recognize each other, they remain embraced for an indefinite time, without speaking, each bathing in the tears of the other. They remain together until the dawn of that night, caressing and whispering many things to each other, but delicately and softening or keeping silent both, about the mutual and most frightening tragedies that both and differently had experienced. They leave with the solemn and mutual promise to do everything possible to get away from Pola, go to Italy. Goran promises Sandro that he will do everything possible to protect and help his mother, also because he still has a sincere and respectful respect for his former principal, but he cannot guarantee anything.

In 1947 Sandro's mother went as a refugee to Italy, with the steamship “Toscana”, loaded to the point of unbelievable with exiles and desperation, during the painful Julian-Dalmatian exodus. With her is Ada, her thirteen year old granddaughter, orphaned. On board, with Ada there is also her boyfriend who, hand in hand, never leaves her alone for a moment; he is a boy with good eyes, shy and kind, his name is Sergio, his surname is Endrigo; in the 60s in Italy he will become a famous singer. He will compose "1947", a song that tells of his detachment without return, from Pula, from his beautiful city (".... It would be nice to be a tree, which knows where it was born and where it will die ....").

After a few months, living as refugees in a refugee camp in Brindisi, they will settle in the parts of Camaldoli, near the monastery of Sister Matilde, his daughter. Agnese, even if in precarious health conditions, will have great satisfaction, being able to teach Italian literature in a gymnasium for three school years. Ada will attend that gymnasium, then the University in Bologna and will become a very good pediatrician, will marry very young (not with Sergio) and will have four children.

Sandro's mother died in 52, suffocated from pulmonary fibrosis contracted for all the welding fumes she had breathed for years and without any protection in the arsenal of Pola. She will quietly go out in the arms of Ada and her children, uttering her husband's name with the last breath, while the notes of "fly dove”Sung by Nilla Pizzi, in a primordial Sanremo festival, permeated by the optimism of an Italy that is rising again. But he won't have time to follow the flight of that dove and he won't have time to see Trieste return to Italy.

A few days after meeting his much sought-after mother, Sandro will return to Italy via the still boiling Trieste border, disguised as a Titine partisan, with false documents and with the remote direction of Goran, speaking perfectly in Croatian dialect. Polesano.

In the following years Goran will make a brilliant career in the high ranks of the state administration of the Yugoslav federation, taking on important positions. Every now and then they will write to Sandro, using false names of senders and recipients of convenience and, in recent times, they will sometimes have the opportunity to hug each other again, meeting in various places. But never again in Pula.

Sandro finds himself alone, without roots, without references, without a place to stay and without resources in an Italy in ruins, still traversed in the north by a silent, merciless and asymmetrical civil war. Almost by chance he found a job at Piaggio di Pontedera, as an editor; where the genius of the engineer Corradino D'Ascanio conceives, designs and builds a funny trabiccolo on two wheels, powered by a small two-stroke engine, keyed directly on the rear wheel. It was said that it was the engine recycled from warehouse leftovers that survived the bombings and that it was to serve as the starter motor of the P-108 (the only large strategic four-engine, built by Piaggio, used in war in very few specimens by the Royal Air Force (never perfected and which for its numerous problems was nicknamed “flying weakness”; in a test flight Bruno Mussolini will lose his life).

That funny trabiccolo will be the Vespa, which together with the Lambretta will power Italy and become one of its post-war and second Risorgimento symbols. In the first ten years of production alone, over one million units will be built; it will be a worldwide success, abroad it will be synonymous with Italy and will become much more famous than Garibaldi or Michelangelo.

But Sandro is uprooted and in solitude, and is always in the company of an incoercible thought that never abandons him and consumes him, at any time of the day and, above all, of the night. A dense and ineliminable thought, which still binds him tightly to the sands of the Egyptian desert, to its changing colors, to the unique and penetrating smells, to the roar of combat still clear in his ears, to the flow of hundreds, in his mind, of the images of his companions who died next to him and who are still there, in the desert.

His mind falters and risks becoming seriously ill, but Providence, which does not abandon him even this time, presents himself in the guise of a person, the count and baron, engineer Paolo Caccia Dominioni di Sillavengo (a man of illustrious lineage, as well as of nobilissimo soul), whom he had met at the front when, with the rank of major, he commanded the battalion "Ravagers of Africa", silver medal for military valor.

She met him in Viareggio in '49, thanks to a providential word of mouth among veterans. He knows that Caccia Dominioni has returned to Africa, has resumed his profession as an engineer in his studio in Cairo and has undertaken, on his own initiative and at his own expense, the activity aimed at recovering the bodies of the Italian fallen. He will then recover some of all nationalities and will subsequently receive from the government a preliminary assignment to design the Italian military cemetery and shrine of El Alamein. What will then be "Quota 33".

Sandro offers himself as a collaborator, almost vehemently, without conditions and without compensation; Caccia Dominioni thinks about it for a while, perceives his great motivation and accepts, as long as the conditions are in any case defined and the remuneration (which will depend on resources and availability) paid and accepted. The engineer has developed a natural ability that allows him to evaluate people without first having frequented them well. He is rarely wrong and immediately realizes that Sandro is "first choice material".

So Sandro resigned from Piaggio (whose management, however, hoping for his return, without his knowledge placed him on leave), went to Camaldoli to greet his mother and sister and went to Naples to board.

The ship, a bit shabby and survived the torpedoes, is the Marianna F., the destination is Benghazi, Libya. They embark on a lot of material, including a truck with huge wheels, a "Saharan" AS-42 Fiat-Viberti, which also survived the conflict and which in the war had proved, by far and on both fronts, the best means of its category. The engineer had a 5 mm thick sheet steel welded to the underbody and in Benghazi they will also add sandbags to the bottom. It is because of the countless minefields, placed by both belligerents and still existing and perfectly active. From an estimate, which is inaccurate by default, their presence approximates to over three million pieces of various types and nationalities; the reclaimed areas are few, not completely safe and there are no reliable maps of minefields.

As for a paradox of destiny, Sandro finds a new and unexpected serenity, returning to the places where the most unspeakable sufferings had deeply marked him, in body and spirit. He perfectly recognizes the places, still dotted with hundreds of ferrous wrecks that the wind and the desert have patiently sanded. It is as if he had never gone away from there and finally listens to the silence, with a sense of peace and intimate satisfaction, in working, with passion and with all himself, to recover the remains and give dignified burial to his companions, as if this represented a necessary and unavoidable conclusion of a cycle of his life.

Sandro thus becomes an expert bone finder, in a well-knit group, coordinated by the engineer and formed by other volunteers and local employees (unfortunately someone will leave their skin and someone else their legs, jumping on the mines). The activity, in which Sandro participates for three years, even if in alternating phases will last over ten and will culminate in the construction of the “Quota 33” Shrine.

The remains of over five thousand Italian soldiers will be recovered, many of which will remain unknown and almost as many of different nationalities, who had been interred in hundreds of small and improvised cemeteries, in single or common graves, scattered along the path of what had been the front. Sandro becomes a specialist in recognizing the presence of improvised burials from slight irregularities in the ground different from natural dunes. Unfortunately many of those burials have already been looted by local looters, who in addition to uprooting and destroying the crosses, have plundered boots, clothing, identification plates and some personal effects. But the desert still gives a lot. In addition to human remains, there are countless fragments of life and humanity, objects that belonged to those remains. They are pieces of fountain pens, small diaries with a black cover and a red border written in tiny handwriting, letters from home, prayer books and above all photographs. It seems incredible how the desert, which has undone the bodies, has not completely corrupted the photos. They are photos of girls with unreadable dedications, group photos of friends or family, of children. Snapshots of affection and ordinary happiness that death and time have crystallized in the sand.

Sandro is there that he finally feels at home. He settles in Derna where he is well received; becomes part of a varied community of Italians who have lived and worked hard for generations, in complete harmony with the local population. In a little party he meets Ornella, a good and beautiful girl, a primary school teacher and daughter of wealthy farmers, owners of farms.

They fall in love, get married and have two children, Agnese and Arturo. Helped by his father-in-law and making use of the electrical skills learned in captivity, Sandro sets up an electrical system company that has been doing very well from the start and will continue to grow and employ several families for many years.

It seems that life is finally making him, with interest, everything that he had denied him up to thirty years old. Now he has a wonderful wife, two wonderful children who go to excellent schools, no financial problems, they live in a comfortable villa owned by the sea and in an excellent social context, they are in good health and the future seems peaceful.

But that's not quite the case. 1970 arrives and things suddenly change in Libya. The Italians are deprived of all their possessions and driven out. He is forced to stay three months to finish the wiring of a power plant under construction. But the situation deteriorates from day to day; shooting around and tribal violence is unleashed; there are deaths in the streets.

At the beginning of '71, they went to Italy as refugees. Sandro, as if he were prey to destiny, is so for the second time. All they have is only the clothes they are wearing and the few things they have managed to pack in three suitcases.

But life goes on. Fortunately, Sandro will be able to take advantage of the benefits provided by the laws enacted for refugees from Libya and will be granted a state job, in the establishment from which he will take his leave with the small retirement party described in the previous episode and from which this story, which here is concludes, has taken the moves.