••• The International Writers Magazine - 21 Years on-line - Life Stories
A boyhood in Italy
My avocation is writing so indulge me. I was thinking about my many memories of childhood in Italy, 13 years all together. To begin with my father converted from atheist Russian Jew to Catholic in the Philippines during WWII when he was military governor of Palawan where he met French Catholic nuns at Kooloowan Leper Colony. (He changed his name while in the Army to escape antisemitism for which his Jewish relatives never forgave him.) His governor’s mansion on the top of a mountain was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. But that’s another story.
I myself am gnostic (as opposed to agnostic) but I went to Catholic boarding school in Rome for 5 years about ten minutes from Vatican City by bus and so I consider myself an honorary Catholic of sorts. A couple of us students became friends with Father Flavian who was a Polish priest in charge of billeting all the visiting priests at the Vatican. From time to time our parents used their liquor rations for the commissary at Camp Darby near Pisa to buy cases of Scotch as gifts for the priests at the Vatican as they had their own bar inside Vatican City and the bar and bar stools had actually been donated by the US Army. Johnny and I became friends with the Swiss Guard and they use to let us into the Vatican to deliver the cases of Scotch with a two wheeler. Sometimes we would go into St Peters Basilica when we couldn’t find our friend Father Flavian and head to the confessional marked Polish and whisper to see if he were in there and he would come out and talk to us. On several occasions small groups of us students as well as American military families got private audiences with the Pope and I met the beloved Papa Giovani XXIII who was Jack Kennedy’s contemporary as well as his successor Pope Paul VI and also Cardinal Siri of Genoa.
There were three other Catholic priests who were important in my childhood. Fr. Anthony Capitani was our base Catholic Chaplain and a captain in the US Army and even though I was not Catholic I liked to hang out with him and help him set up Mass. He use to take my brother and I fishing and sometimes we would stay over at his house. One time we went trout fishing and caught nothing so on the way back to returning us home we stopped at the commissary and bought some trout and pretended we had caught them to save face….LoL.
He volunteered for four tours of duty in Vietnam. I lost track of him when he retired to Florida.
There was also Farther Piero, who ran an orphanage for hard core juvenile delinquent Italian teens who worked in the iron mines in Elba during the summers and they use to bring me Iron Pyrite crystals for my mineral collection as I was always into science and the quintessential geek. Father Piero would come to play the organ during the Catholic Mass at the base chapel which was shared also by the protestants. At Christmas some of us Army families would dress up like Santa’s elves and deliver presents to his orphanage at Christmas…God knows what those juvies thought of us….
The third priest who I befriended in childhood was another Fr. Anthony who was a monk in a monastery near Pisa called the Certosa di Calci. They were a French order called Carthusians who had taken the vows of silence. You might wonder how I managed to become friends with someone who didn’t speak. Well the monastery tried to be self sufficient and sold their produce and honey at a near by farmer’s market and he was in charge of the booth and was allowed to speak to conduct the sales. After sometime my brother and I decided we wanted to know what it was like to be a monk so we went and stayed in a cell in his monastery for two weeks and didn’t speak except to sing during mass. I actually studied Latin in school. There was a bell tower and Fr. Anthony would let me ring the bell to call the monks to mass. Once the big bell in the tower started ringing it was strong enough to lift me up off the ground while hanging on to the rope and it was so much fun that I rang it more than if it had been Christmas and all the poor old monks came running.
One of the tasks they assigned to my brother and I was to help transfer honey from large ceramic crocks into small jars to make ready for market. I still remember my poor brother struggling down a flight of stairs with a wheel barrow holding a crock of honey about 300 pounds worth down to the basement where we were working. At one point he tripped and a wave in slow motion like a Tsunami of honey crested and silently crashed onto the floor and started to disperse eventually creating a layer about 2” deep across the entire floor. The industrious monks scooped it off the floor into the jars and off it went to market. We had made friends with the priest in charge of the kitchen and I helped him harvest egg plants from his garden. I think his name was Fr. Bernardo. We gave him boxes of ready mix chocolate Angel Food Cake from the base commissary and the mold to make the cakes and the monks got a special treat. By the time Saturday rolled around he took pity on me and loaned me his bicycle and told me to go down the hill into the village and talk to the village girls. He kept loading up my pockets with little bottles of Chartreuse which you may know is a very strong green colored liquor which they also made at the monastery…I think he loaded me up with ten little bottles bulging in my coat pockets and told me to go have fun. I was about 14 or 15 at the time. I don’t know where my brother who was older, was at that moment. Anyway I set off on Fr. Bernardo’s bicycle drinking one little bottle after the other and tossing them as I went until I was weaving from one side of the street to another all the way down the hill occasionally bouncing off a parked car. I think I ended up sleeping it off under a tree. I don’t remember my return trip at all….
||My two favorite Catholic Saints are St Francis because he talked to the animals and St Galgano who was a medieval knight who had a vision and forsook violence and sank his sword into a stone much like the King Arthur tale only you can still see the sword in the stone on a mountain above Siena where there is also the ruins of a cathedral after his name which has no roof where the world famous Chigiana school of music of Siena would organize sonatas under the star light and I attended one given by the flautist Severino Gazzelone. (Photo: Brian extreme left)
One of the things I am hoping to see this trip after I am done with the business is to go to Subiaco outside of Rome with a friend and see the only known portrait of St Francis made in his lifetime which is painted upon a stone there.
When I was in boarding school in Rome we boarders once took a field trip to Assisi and stayed in a convent there. I had befriended a classmate Prince Paolo Pignatelli who had had two popes, the Innocenti in his family. Count Chigi founder of the Chigiana music school in Siena also had a pope in his family around the time of Bernini who was like the Michelangelo of the Baroque era. Anyway Prince Paolo and I were running through the woods and he accidently let a branch swing back and it hit me right in the eye. I had to stay bed ridden for several days in the convent while the nuns took care of me in Assisi with a patch over my eye. When the patch came off everything looked yellow out of that eye. Anyway no permanent damage. Paolo and I use to go out onto the football field behind our school at night and sing communist songs just to make trouble.
Years later he served as interpreter when all those mafia bosses; Carlo Gambino, Joe Bonanno, etc were being tried in NYC.
© Brian Appleton March 2020
My past is like an old friend whom I have had to abandon by circumstance and time and distance.
The Certosa di Calci
Once when I was a teenager, I decided I wanted to know what it was like to be a monk.