Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veterans Day, Armistice Day and horsemeat

It's Veterans Day and also Armistice Day; so naturally my thoughts are on the time Linda and I went to Europe after I finished my four years in the Navy and I ordered a Hamburger Aux Cheval in a Paris restaurant. I had learned enough in two years of French classes during high school to think the name denoted a hamburger riding on a bun. Only when I noticed it tasted just a little funny did I realize that the perfidious French were feeding me horsemeat.

Not that I was breaking new ground in the family by eating horsemeat for Grandpop L had eaten quite a lot of it when he was a young man. That came about because Grandpop L was clever enough to make his way to an American army recruiter in 1917 before he could be drafted into the Italian army. Not a trivial decision; because as a result he became a U.S. citizen and Grandmon L became a citizen in turn when he married her.

One of Mom's favorite stories was of the time she embarrassed an arrogant high school teacher who singled her out in class as a naturalized citizen. "No," Mom said, she wasn't a naturalized citizen. Yes she was, the teacher insisted. And Mom repeated that, no, she wasn't. But you were born in Italy, the teacher said. "Yes," Mom agreed, she was born in Italy. "So, I'm right," the teacher triumphantly announced, you can't be a citizen by birth. At which point Mom informed the teacher that she was indeed born abroad; but she was also a citizen by birth because her parents were American citizens living abroad when she was born. Mom loved that story.

Another benefit of Grandpop L joining the American army is that he thereby probably increased his odds of surviving the war by at least tenfold. The losses suffered in World War I by the Italian army are nearly inconceivable to us at ninety years remove. In that war the U.S. lost 116,708 men killed out of a population of 92 million. Italy, by contrast, lost 651,010 men killed out of a population of 35 million. Italy also suffered 589,000 civilian deaths, while the U.S. suffered 757. Think that through. More than one out of every thirty Italians alive in 1914 died in that war; and, additionally, one out of every thirty people left alive in the country in 1918 was a wounded soldier. Grandpop L made a very good decision indeed when he travelled over to present himself to the Americans who were recruiting Italian peasants for service in artillery units.

If you a want a relatively painless take on that war, in which Italy fought on the side of France, Britain, Russia and the U.S. against Germany and Austria-Hungary, there is an excellent novel by Mark Helprin titled A Soldier of the Great War. Helprin's presentation of Orfeo Quatta, the typewriter hating dwarf who starts the book as a servant to the family of the book's protagonist and ends it as a war department bureaucrat, is one of the greatest comic riffs in literature.

But this was to have been a post about Veterans Day, and I still have to get to horsemeat. Pop never ate horsemeat; and he always said that we, the U.S., had no business getting involved in World War I. To him it was a European business. But he didn't feel that way about World War II even though it cost him his health. It could well have cost him more; because as soon as he was old enough he and a buddy went down to Main Street in Norristown to join up with the Marines. But, as it turned out, the Marine recruiting office was closed when they arrived. So they walked next door and got into a conversation with a Navy recruiter, and the next thing they knew they were on the way to training and then to the South Pacific as Seabees.

Instead of storming ashore with the first wave, or the second wave, of Marines, Pop and the other Seabees went ashore on island after island to build roads and airfields and barracks and hangars after the Japanese were pretty much beaten. From some of his stories about Japanese bodies still littering the beaches and the fields, and about needing to watch where you walked because of occasional sniper fire and artillery it's apparent that sometimes the Japanese hadn't been fully informed that they had been beaten.

Pop survived the war fine, but the trip home on a slow freighter nearly killed him. By the time he got to San Francisco he was coughing pretty good; and then by the time he got home by train he was on his way to pneumonia which lead to tuberculosis, or perhaps it was vice versa. So he was in and out of Veterans hospitals and sanitariums for the next couple of years; and as part of his treatment they collapsed and then removed most of one of his lungs. The blessing in it all was it made him as calm and optimistic a man as you will ever meet. He was told by a Navy doctor in 1946 that he should put his affairs in order because he would probably not survive long. As it turned out he outlived that doctor by about twenty-five years; and he lived virtually every one of the days of those years suprised and glad he had wakened up alive, and intensely interested and involved in the world. He took life as it came and he definitely did not sweat the small stuff.

But I have to cut this off, and I still haven't gotten to the horsemeat. Well, the reason the American army was in Italy recruiting all those Italian peasants like Grandpop L was that artillery units in those days had a lot of horses to pull the cannons and the hundreds of wagons that carried the shells and the powder charges and the other equipment. And some bureaucrat like Orfeo Quatta in the U.S. War Department came up with the idea that Italian peasants would be good to have because they would know how to handle horses. An interesting idea, but sorely wrong, as it turns out, because Italian peasants rarely used horses since fields in Italy were mostly small and broken up, making it more efficient to do most of the farming work by hand.

Grandpop, of course, was smart enough to tell the recruiters what they wanted to hear when they asked about his knowledge of horses; and he was also smart enough to learn what he needed to learn to handle the horses just fine. He and his compatriots in the artillery unit were also smart enough to forget to put a gas mask on one of the weaker horses during a gas attack whenever their diet lacked in meat. And, finally, they were also smart enough to share the resulting bounty with their sargeants and their officer. Grandpop often said that he had never imagined eating as much meat as he ate when he was in the army.

Update: 80 89 89 80 80 87 79 ;<)


Anonymous said...

we say "hamburger à cheval", means you get a fried egg on the top

uh, interesting story though !

so you are from italian origin, what about your pseudo, sully, isn't it from irish "Sullivan" ?

the frog

Sully said...

Zut Alors! My blog has gone international. After your former posts I thought you were one of my nieces playing tricks because they make a big thing of it when I write about my frog and it would be like them to play games.

I'm not only Italian, I'm purebred on both sides from the same originally Roman town (Ascoli Picento) in the North near the Adriatic. Of course I have gray/blue eyes so somewhere along the line a German or a Swiss or two must have wandered through.

We figure my paternal grandfather encountered an Irishman when he immigrated and filled out his papers. He pronounced his Sylvano something like SUleeVANo. My grandfather applied his X to the signature spot and became Sullivan.

Anonymous said...

are you sure it wasn't sulleyman ? :lol:

or a tedeschi with blue/grey eyes

I doubt that your grand-father pronounced Silvano with an english accent, it's may-be the person who registred his name that understood something alike Suleevano, and englishised his name as Sullivan. I think it was current at these times

Once I knew a Silvano in Italy, some kind of summer boy-friend student in Art school, anyway I visited quite a few churches in Ferrara with him, ate some tagliateli, heard some poetry from the "regreted Pasolini"... and he influenced my life in that way it became evident for me that I also had to study Art

the frog

Sully said...

Are you Canadian or French? And how did you find this blog?

Anonymous said...

From reading your stories, I knew that you were Italian on both sides. Knowing how the Italians and Irish felt about each other way back when, I just couldn't imagine how it came to be that your parents gave you an Irish name.


Sully said...

Don't get the wrong idea. Italians have nothing fundamental against the Irish or any of the other northern europeans. We're kind of proud that our ancestors used to take the time and trouble to send out humanitarian expeditions to catch them, wash off the blue paint, and then civilize them.

Anonymous said...

I have seen your pseudo on many places, clicked once on it

also there are many different "sully" all over the net

but it was the nuclear power post that drove my attention into your place

Im french

the frog was an indication :lol:

Sully said...

We Americans love to pick on "the French", but we really love France even though you guys cut off the heads of your compatriots who helped out with our revolution.

The history classes at school didn't really focus on the timeline, so I didn't make the connection until I noticed a big portrait of Marie Antoinette in Independence Hall and asked a guide about it.

And you did give us the Statue of Liberty, even though someone (maybe it was you?) alluded to the fact that you tried to give it to the Egyptians first. If that's true, or even half true, I will be writing a post on it, but I haven't checked it out yet. It's almost unbelievable that I never saw anything about it back a few years ago when we had folks writing "I hate the French" books and advocating "Liberty Fries," And even before that, surely somebody like Mencken or Twain would have written something funny about it if there was any hint of evidence that ?Borglund? palmed off a remaindered or rejected statue on us.

NOMAD said...

It's where I first knew of the original project

Lady Liberty misaventure

click on the links, "Nomad" was me