Sarnano Rest

About a war veteran and a past that keeps returning.

A few miles out, he asked the driver of the hired car from Ancona, by his accent a Syrian refugee, to stop on the graveled shoulder of the secondary road at Gavella Nuova, next to the Christ figure which marked an intersection and one way into the Sibillini Mountains National Park. He decided to walk the last few kilometers to Sarnano, a small hilltop village an hour from the sea; honor paid to those who once marched line abreast with him, helmets pushed back in the summer heat, slung weapons and packs. Many were dead long ago and difficult to remember; their faces had melted together in the span of years.

Closer to the village, he could see the outline of towers and the ringed houses, hear the church bells marking the hour. The sun was at its height and the sky clear. He walked as the soldier he had been, looking for ambushes, escape and defensive positions, eyes moving, missing little, habits of a lifetime. Seen from a car he was a slight old man with white hair and a limp.

He hated walking, had enough for three lifetimes. Years before, young and untried, he joined draftees and enthusiastic volunteers in 1943, landing in Tunisia to fight Rommel and his armour. He continued to Sicily, Salerno, past Monte Cassino to Rome with crowds and girls, through Tuscany, broke the Gothic Line into France and entered Germany, countries with different languages and missing signposts, torn up roads, ruined cities. He was a centurion with better boots, a M1943 field uniform, Garand M1 rifle and grenades, conquering the world, sometimes riding on a truck or a tank above the rattling tracks, fighting with boys from farms and the large and small towns of America. The enthusiasm was gone. Prayers were to get home safe. Replacements came when hope, Jesus and the artillery failed. He forget them as they quickly died from inexperience. Along with fear, anger and exhaustion, he carried weapons and ammunition, a bedroll and entrenching tool, water in a dented canteen, soap, squares of toilet paper, toothbrush and socks; learned to dispose of anything that had weight and slowed him down, stealing what he needed.

He served; asked if it could be exchanged for steak, ice cream and sleep. He was not a reluctant killer. It was a long war and hard, harder on the people whose countries he helped destroy. The allied armies outlasted the other guys, beat them with Made in the USA. Europe was filled with mountains of rubble and dead. When they got to Berlin, the war ended and the fighting stopped. There was relief, brandy and plans for home. Fewer returned than had come, corpses waited for graves in fields, no longer volunteers. It took months for wounded bodies to heal.

He returned to Brooklyn on a slow troopship. The war had changed everything. He had nothing better, stayed in the army and after leave went to new battlefields, promoted because he knew how to read the terrain, find the light marked spoor of the enemy, good at war after years of practice. He learned languages on different continents. The army improved his weapons; progress in killing. Faces and landscapes changed, hedgerows to desert and jungle with mountains to climb. Marching was the same.

More than three decades and pairs of boots had worn out. Years went quickly, one conflict, one tour following another. He was older than the calendar, tired of the combination of military and business. In a land perfect with libraries, drug and department stores, gas stations with neon signs, he became confused, too simple to live in that world. Passenger cars traveled on the interstate highways, driving to anywhere else. He was excused from duty, no thanks from a grateful nation. Memories, veiled, kept to themselves.

He loved a woman who wanted to travel. They decided on Italy where she had come with her mother and liked the music in the words, the peace of small places. She enjoyed walking in fields, on grassed trails, the narrow ridges of mountains, hearing the cobblestones’ echo, the silence of the breeze. They found Le Marche and Sarnano, bought an apartment in the Centro Storico from an honest agent. It was comfortable and settled, a quiet town. Sarnano had incandescent street lamps and the picassera with hardwood benches and neighbors who gossiped in the evening by the water fountain. He would be cleansed. There were smiles and glasses of wine.

Wherever he had wandered, the World War Two jacket came with him, a security blanket and reminder. When that was unwearable, he replaced it with the M1965. They tracked his life; the stains of earth, oil and blood were palm lines on cloth, Africa, Europe, South America, Vietnam, tied the decades together, shielded him from the weather and the violence he had attended. The uniforms kept secrets.

He and his wife wandered through Italy, crowded cities in the industrial north to the caves of Matera. They walked through Duomos, met the descendants of Picenos, Etruscans and the Roman Metellus, found solace in lanes, the shadows of the night, plants that spilled from window pots, sunflowers in fields, their golden petals turned to the yellow sun. In Sarnano they lived where partisans were shot by Nazis in the Piazza Perfetti and outside the thick walls. The story was told of Germans and Partisans playing Soccer. The Partisans scored, won and fled the field, despite assurances of amnesty. The Italians had their own journeys.

His wife died, her life’s cycle complete. The town noted the loss with a nod, hug and touch on his shoulder, a page on the death board below the Brunforte Gate. Death was something he was familiar with. He mourned, wished it was different, understanding a person’s time in the light was short, without appeal or substitute. Objects, letters and photographs, were on walls and shelves. She remained the constant of years, framed paper images near the bed, standing with him at the macelleria and the negozio di ferramenta. Her flatware was in the kitchen; perfume on the bedside table.

This happened a decade ago and he was accustomed to her absence. Sarnano was old with the patience of centuries in the bleaching sun. The days whispered to each other; he discovered yesterdays buried in the paths of stone. Figural pipes lay on a table, waiting for rebirth. The town accepted the stranger but recognized he was an outsider. His dog shortened the hours. At dusk the shutters were drawn close and locked.

It may have been that his earlier life wanted release or the American Memorial day programs on the radio playing the V Discs of Sinatra and Glenn Miller, protest songs from the Vietnam war, On a Note of Triumph, the radio poem to the end of World War Two. Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Fortunate Son.

At midnight one fall evening he found himself screaming, shaking in his bed. He rolled to the floor, reached for a weapon that wasn’t there and tried to crawl beneath the tiles. Dead and damaged men came to him, torn in pieces. The Maremmano comforted him, licking his face and whimpering. He stood, went into the dark and rain, returned with the dawn, made an espresso in the moka pot and looked at the mountains.

The past could not be bricked over like the medieval death doors in the Centro Storico. Something triggered the horror. Nights he would wake in sweat, terror and exultation. This went on for months. In Vietnam it was said that the night belonged to Charlie. Now, Charlie had moved west to the Sibillini Mountains. Repair and restoration were there as well. Small things, the earnest deaf man who swept the streets with a straw broom, women going to the comune for work in the morning, bringing gifts of pastries and happiness, a bottle of water and lunch in a cloth bag. The third generation butcher holding hands with his young daughter, the rough texture of thousand year quarried bricks and iron tie rings for horses before cars. The fruit seller sitting on a slatted bench, eyes closed outside his shop, the pensioner tending flowers in the hidden cortile, riches of color, vines growing downward and surrounding him as an overcoat. Children who came to hug the puppy taller than themselves, the smell of ripe tomatoes being put up, the elderly women who cared for stray cats, went to church and found salvation. In the morning the sweet yeasty aroma from the bakery.

These were stages of life; invincibility, joy and disappointment, bargaining with eternity. When the sky turned charcoal he remembered and suffered, grieving for himself and those he had known, friends and others, loved and harmed, those he hoped had forgiven him.

In the end, Sarnano won the day and possibly his soul. The town is the hero of our story, the lead actor standing full front on the pine boarded stage. A haunted man who had been a soldier heard the words of Billie Holiday, holding the crystal mic in a single spotlight Harlem nightclub, “I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you”, history and the future woven on a loom into seamless patterns.

Shattered faces are reassembled into wholeness, the jackets of war caressed, folded and put gently away in the cupboard’s drawer. Acceptance comes slowly and by inches; redemption is beyond the horizon in mother of pearl cloud. Sarnano, the hilltop village between sky and mountain, and those who live in it, will remain as they are, looking to the rainbow.