LOUIS A. DE FURIA
THE ROAD FROM ARIANO IRPINO
Brani scelti e tradotti – con testo originale a fronte – a cura di M. Sorrentino
Titolo originale dell’opera: “The Road From Ariano Irpino”
Library of Congress Control Number 2002091646
Copyright by Louis A. de Furia, 2002
All Rights Reserved
Published by Rubicon Printing Co.
32 McCall Avenue ,
Livingston, NJ, U.S.A., 07039-1327
Printed in the U.S.A
Foreword (di M. Sorrentino)
“…this work by L. A. de Furia is effectively a successful attempt at resurrecting persons, facts and places which no one had written seriously about before. Until now it was impossible to feel that they had ever existed. No one had ever considered them, and this is disturbing, as worthy material for a literary narrative either in our homeland Irpinia or in the little American community that traces its origins back to that relatively unknown mountainous region in the South of Italy…
Thankfully there still exists in the inhabitants’ fount of memories oral traditions, songs and folk-tales, religious beliefs and superstitions, and finally soundly based family legends. These are the elements that cousin Louis has wonderfully blended together. Here you have a historical novel in which persons and facts, that other writers spurn, miraculously assume life and impress us as memorable and lovable. And to my Italian ear, this prose and especially the turn of the sentences, even if in English and reported by the narrator in the indirect speech of the various characters, evoke the spoken words of my dear parents, neighbors, and lost friends. In brief, all the linguistic idiosyncrasies of my homeland where the dialect is still spoken when one wants to express oneself affectionately and with friendship…
Overture (pp. 3-4)
“…The major portion of this narrative came from the stories preserved by my father, Alfonso De Furia, in an effort to chronicle the verbal histories recounted as he was growing up. He recorded them while he was still a comparatively recent immigrant here in America. Having recently lost is father his anxiety was that the Italian component of our history would be lost to future generations born here in the new – to them, enigma called America.
He found his impellent, the summer of 1934, at a display of Underwood Typewriters at Atlantic City, NJ, while enjoying an inexpensive depression era family vacation at a paesan’s boarding house there. Entertainment consisted of the vibrant scenes and sounds of the bustling, hustling boardwalk, all of it free. Opening at the boardwalk level of the Resort Hotel was a show room with a giant model of a typewriter, at least twelve feet tall, if memory serves, controlled by a console at a remote desk. The japanned and nickeled gleaming monster caught and fired his imagination. He watched it type out letters eight or ten inches tall and it seemed like the answer he needed to complete his journal of family history quickly and efficiently. He purchased a portable machine saying later, meekly, to Mom – already pregnant four months with what would prove to be their third son, that it would be beneficial for the children to learn to type. Thus began what you read now, Placido’s chronicle, which Dad typed hunt and peck, two fingered, in the dialect of his hometown…”
Chapter Two (pp. 27-31)
“…He was carrying a bundle under his arm containing personal laundry – a shirt, handkerchiefs, socks and a new pair of pants to use on Sundays. Also he had a small container with the tools of his trade, carpenter tools that had belonged to his father.
The few tools he carried in that container were his portion of the tools he had divided with his brothers. Some of the woodworking tools his father Liborio had made using hardwood such as heartwood walnut that seasoned eventually hard as iron. When satisfied with the tool’s shape – for a true ‘masto’ would be concerned with aesthetic appearance as well as its functionality, he would take it to the iron monger Lanza and order tempered blades to complete the tool. This way he had a variety of moulding planes he would use in millwork and large planes to smooth boards. Placido was careful with this patrimony, he knew how hard his father had worked making these tools. Replacing them would be not only difficult but costly.
Coming to the church of the Madonna dell’Abbondanza – Bountiful Lady, at the edge of the city, he turned down into the Via di Monte Carmelo, a short cut leading to the countryside. In less than a hundred meters he came to a large intersection, hosting a communal water fountain, called “la Fontana della Tetta”, literally meaning the Fountain of the Teat. Somehow it had gained the reputation of being beneficial for breast feeding mothers. Perhaps the fountain supplied a water borne nutrient. The Arianese also thought drinking the waters brought good luck. That cool water came from a stream higher up on the mountain that had been piped into a cistern through terra-cotta pipes laid down by the Lombard farmers centuries ago.
He stopped and with a sigh of relief, after nodding to several women drawing water , put down his increasingly heavy bundles. He took the hammered copper ladle hanging from the wrought iron peg, held it under the running water issuing from the pipe to fill it and drank.
Placido knew this was the last fountain he would come to in Ariano Irpino…
Nodding wordlessly to the women filling containers with water to be carried home, he resumed his walking. No one acknowledged his nod, but he didn’t expect it of them. Social propriety frowned on such familiarity by a woman…”
Chapter Three (pp. 37-38)
“Fedele Tedesco was a master woodworker living in Montecalvo Irpino. He was highly respected in the commune as well as the surrounding areas for his skills. Not only did he do millwork – windows sash and doors, but he also had a well-deserved reputation for fine furniture. He willingly did whatever he could to support his family. This ranged from honeycomb frames for beekeepers to fine carved furniture. He took an inordinate amount of pride in his work.
Unfortunately he was not a man with a sense of humor – to him life was serious business. He seldom smiled, except at this daughter Mariantonia. When her voice, laughing with her mother intruded on his work, involuntarily he would smile revealing his affection for her. When looking at her one could see his countenance brighten.
One of the stories about him repeated whenever his name came up, was of the chestnut tree he had bought, “on the hoof”, so to speak. He contracted to buy a standing chestnut tree that the owner wanted removed. Fedele paid a minuscule amount – a few Lire at the most, because he knew he’d have to cut it down and haul it off before he could realize any return on his investment. A large portion of his time would go into this tree before he saw a profit.
By all account– perhaps exaggerated a bit as most legends are wont to do, he lived off that tree for a whole year. From using the thin branches, split, to weave baskets to sawing planks for furniture, everything was used. He carefully capitalized on his investment and incidentally, in doing so, added to the folklore of the commune. ‘Masto’ was not an empty honorary salutation where he was concerned.
Having no son, he had agreed to accept an apprentice into his workshop. There he would work with his assistant teaching him woodworking skills. Placido, his new apprentice, was related, no blood ties, to the Tedesco family through marriage, hence the title Zio, i.e., uncle.
Fedele, an incessant worker, had learned his trade, as did his brother Domenico, from his father. An inheritance almost as valued as money or property. There was a ‘slight’ difference between the two brothers – as you would expect. As diligent as Fedele was, Domenico was easy-going. A good carpenter the jovial Domenico was drawn to card playing and merriment more than to carpentry. Can we mention that a taste or two of wine when offered to Domenico was never refused? It just wasn’t in his nature to offend his host by refusing. Fedele disapproved of such antics, finding Domenico’s life style capricious and wasteful. However, every one liked the rascally Domenico who was as social and outgoing as his brother was reserved.
Zi’ Fedele’s daughter, Mariantonia, was an efflorescence of youthfulness. On seeing her even strangers were captivated. While she, being of inordinate modesty, was quite unaware of her effect on others…”
Chapter Seven (pp. 102-105)
“…It was several years after Placido had opened the grocery store that the workers laying railroad track reached the valley outskirts of the comune. Ordinarily that should have been a fortunate circumstance. Here he had the chance to profit from an influx of hungry workers.
The railroad workers consisted of a few northern Italians but mainly they were laborers recruited from the environs of Naples and along the way. A polyglot mixture of Italian and French freebooters, German wanderers and Austrian vagabonds, socialists and brigands hiding from the authorities. Also peasants, and adventurers as well as the usual gamblers and camp followers. The crews were working in the region called ‘Cristino’ and by now many of the rail workers had long tired of dealing with peddlers – shrewd as gypsies, that followed them hawking basics. The workers were also by now sick of the often moldy, stale bread and the oily thick soup, concocted with less than palatable organ meats and fatty scraps that went into those soup vats supplied by the contractor.
The workers came to the comune looking to buy food – decent food, on credit. Why credit? Because the contractor, a Signor Melisurgo, would pay the workers every two weeks. Maybe yes, maybe no – payday varied with the whims of bureaucratic administrative functionaries. Company accountants and paymasters. They, minor subordinates, were as rapacious as small-minded men with a modicum of power can be. They were highly prone to the blandishments and blatant bribery by official of towns along the way. Comunes anxious to have the workers spend their pay at their local cantinas and other enticements would bribe the officials to delay or accelerate disbursements of wages, always in arrears, to the workmen.
However favorable it may have seemed, in truth men moving along laying track couldn’t be called, under any circumstances, creditworthy – except by the guileless. They were a milling ever changing mob of coarse workers who slept on railroad cars, in bunks filled with straw. Many just slept out in the open, covered only by the dark and scrap of rag on heaped straw. They slept with their shovels and picks at hand since the loss of any of their tools would mean the cost of such implements would be deducted from their pay. Some of the more fortunate, mainly northern Italians – the more skilled workers, were housed at the Hospital dell’Annunziata.
Placido had customers amongst the workmen. This extraordinary event, he reasoned should prove profitable to the store. He sold food and other goods and reluctantly was cajoled and convinced to give much of it on credit. The railroad workers pledged, swore to pay faithfully – per la Madonna – by the Lady, when the bosses paid them. Then, he was incessantly reassured, he’d receive his money. Placido knew it was risky but how often would such a chance to improve one’s status come about? How many railroads would come this way? He was sure Providence was smiling on him, so he gambled on having good fortune.
Time passed and really nothing of any consequence had been paid to Placido but promises and flattery. But again as the track continued moving further and further from the comune, the workers still promised to make restitution for all they had consumed. Some continued to drift back at day’s end, a long arduous trip up the mountain, to continue eating and lounging about in the piazzas. When the workers were finally paid they were in the Pianerottolo region – beyond Montecalvo Irpino. His ‘customers’ naturally had moved along with the track head.
Patiently waiting for quite a while without receiving any money – at Anna’s insistent urging he went with his son Gaetano, then a young boy, to find the workers and collect. The store’s suppliers were getting edgy, threatening to contact a constable. Placido was forced to go and collect the money owed him, he had little choice. With his credit ledger in hand they traveled to the work site looking to secure their money.
They went seeking familiar faces in the working crowd. First he asked for permission from the Padrone – the job boss, who answered his request with a haughty “Help yourself.” He’d been through this story before, all down the line with almost every advance the track head made since leaving Naples.
Placido had carefully kept a credit list of names and charges. Meaningless – for the most part the workers couldn’t read anything never mind add up a bill. The greater majority could only sign with their mark. It was amazing how many scrawls and crosses looked like half dozen others confusing seller and buyer alike. His accounting was subjected to vehement denials. He was appalled when some of the workers told him how many of his former customers had ‘died’ or left for home suffering from some ‘terrible malady’ since the railroad work camp had packed up and moved down the line.
They were greeted with howls of “Oe!” and whistles alerting other hard characters further down the work line. Many denied – if after being forewarned they could even he located, with a well-practiced lie of even knowing where Montecalvo Irpino was, never mind his store. The by now harassed father and son didn’t know what to do next – as there was anything they could have done. Derisively they were refused payment, and the mood had turned surly and ugly. If Placido and his son weren’t fast on their feet the threatening mob would have taken great joy in beating them both senseless as a reward for their naiveté…”
Chapter Nine (pp. 147-150)
“…The boy was aware that the town’s ‘forsaken’- whispered to be an excommunicated priest was his father’s brother. In all the years he had seen this old man sitting in a piazza warming himself in the sun or walking about, never was he spoken of or acknowledged as his uncle. Nonetheless he knew this man was his father’s brother. A scary little man who had once stared at him with eyes that for a fleeting moment reflected recognition. Eyes that had been degraded and dimmed by dissipation and time.
Gaetano was proud that he carried the name of another uncle, one who was a highly revered cleric, one his father talked about incessantly. It bothered him that he couldn’t find in his mind a charitable niche for this unrepentant alcoholic, this debased man, disdained by all in the comune. Not that he had much time to sit pondering the strange man.
Once, sent by his mother, the sympathetic Anna, Gaetano brought to the Municipal Hall old clothing to be given to Liberatore. The clothing of a neighbor who had passed on – she thought they might benefit the old man. Compassionately women seem to recognize and, even if non condoned, will make allowance for the forces that can diminish a man. Better than another man can in any event – it must be something natural in their genetic background. What Gaetano had brought was barely usable, threadbare, nothing was discarded until the last dregs had been wrung from them. A chance meeting ensued with Liberatore during this exchange, catching them both off guard, surprising them both. Gaetano later tried to remember, was he really so small – or was he so warped by rheumatism he couldn’t stand fully erect any longer?
The boy hadn’t stayed long enough, to gather, to remember. He put the bundle on the ground close to Liberatore at the town hall. He did remember later a sense of being frightened. Now he didn’t know why. Later he thought of this unwarranted feeling and realized the old man couldn’t – wouldn’t hurt anyone. As he turned to leave he hesitated when the sound of his name “Gaetano” issued from- from where? It had to be from Liberatore. Gaetano was never sure. Was it inquisitive? Assertive? Plaintive? He couldn’t recall when questioned by his father. Later he wasn’t even sure he had heard it. Had the old man recognized something in the visage of the boy that for one extraordinary instant illuminated a memory in his past? Can you imagine how sweet that name on Liberatore’s tongue? The impressionable young boy never forgot the chance encounter, it remained a memory that stayed with him all his life.
Eventually Liberatore’s sad epic was revealed to him. Anna had to disclose the troubled priest's pas’ so incessant had become the boy's questions. His father, the boy was given to understand, was ashamed of his familial connection with someone so resolutely irredeemable. A “God forsaken drunk” but he was wrong- Liberatore’s God never left him. We can be sure Liberatore thought as much. How can we know this? Because when found dead he had clutched in his hand his Rosary. A Rosary made of olive pits said to be from the olive trees that grew on the Mount of Olives where Christ had preached. An indication, surely, that he still considered himself, though degraded in the eyes of others, a Christian. There was another sign- I hesitate to speak of it, but as the boy later told his father- in the dry taunt skin on Liberatore’s forehead was scratched the sign of a cross. Who could have done it if not the old priest? What did he mean it to signify?
It was Gaetano who with a borrowed horse and wagon had to attend to burying Liberatore. A grave digger, hired by the town, rode on the wagon with the small shroud wrapped body of Liberatore. The luxury of a pine coffin was never discussed. Together, these two were the cortege present at the woeful end of the cast out priest. They transported the corpse to an anonymous burial site. Where he was buried no one remembers, no cross or stone nearby bush, however temporary, was thrust into the soft freshly dug earth to commemorate his passing.
When they had finished and Liberatore was secure in the earth’s embrace, the boy was suddenly overwhelmed with pity. He felt he had to do something, maybe pick a few wild flowers, a few clover buds and maybe some sweet grass to lay on the mound. He hesitated and didn’t to it, fearing the contemptuous scoff of the impatient gravedigger. That worthy laborer wanted to start for home instantly- grumbling. “I was paid damn little for this job and I’ve spent enough time on that worthless cadaver”…
Chapter Eleven (177-180)
Masto Gaetano was appointed as Post Master to administer to three communes in 1880. He was the sole postal official in Montecalvo, Casalbore and Sant’Arcangelo Trimonte. His time in the postal service lasted 52 years, the longest recorded, a record he was very proud of attaining…
A carriage drawn by two horses, laboring by the time they attained the summit, brought the day’s mail up from the railroad depot. Driven with a studied show of official importance by the driver, they’d be idly watched by the lounging old timers in the piazza who would comment on the sweat or lack of it on the horses- “he must have stopped somewhere.” One wouldn’t be too strong in thinking his arrival was one of the highlights of their. Once gaining the level area, the driver would slowly walk the pair of heavily breathing horses across the piazza to the front of the Post Office.
The Post Office at the time was fitted into a stone room that looked out on the Piazza di San Pompilio Maria Pirrotti. The space was salvaged from the abandoned St. Catherine’s Annunziata Hospital. The small chamber had earlier been a sort of triage there. Unfortunately the hospital, at this location, had terminated many years ago after a devastating earthquake destroyed most of the town.
Stopping the carriage at the Post Office, the driver would climb down and set the wheel clamp preventing his horses from straying off. A necessary precaution he swore on more than one occasion. He was absolutely convinced the horses were disturbed and restless because they could hear the moaning and murmurs of ghosts that he insisted inhabited the ancient building. Maybe so but Gaetano, tired of the same old story, insisted it was the wind rising up the slopes that invaded the chinks and crevices of the old building’s stones that made the unusual sounds. The driver would have no part of so simple an explanation, he knew what he knew and he believed in his horses’ psychic foreboding.
The driver would hand over the bag of incoming mail and Gaetano would sign the release form. Then after signing the postal clerk’s daily register the driver would take the outgoing mail, and put it into a return bag. Both bags carried the insignia of the House of Savoy.
Habitually talking to the horses, the driver would always promise them a long rest back down at the railroad station. It never varied, his prattle seemed to have a calming effect on them. After watering the horses at the fountain with a bucket that hung from the rear of the carriage he’d begin the return journey down the mountain to the train station. Funny thing about those two horses, when he watered them he had to remember who was first the last time they were watered. If he got the sequence incorrect the wronged horse would reach over and tip the water bucket the proper horse couldn’t drink. Having refilled the bucket the proper horse would drink undisturbed, while the other stood patiently awaiting his turn. He delighted in this charade, mock scolding the errant beast to the amusement of any spectators. He could have carried two buckets but if he did then no one would know just how intelligent his animals were…
…Post Master Gaetano would take the sealed bag into the archaic stone room and after unlocking it he would immediately begin sorting by sectors. Then by the house numbers in each section. That way in as short a time as possible the mail, weekly newspapers, etc., could be distributed. A few of the old timers standing about regularly received remittances from children who had emigrated. Most often the envelope contained just the money order. Seldom did more than a few words beyond “Tanti baci-Many kisses” accompany the letter, usually written by the issuing clerk and read to the recipient by the mailman. Occasionally the envelope contained a photograph which was always a happy event.
Meanwhile, the usual group of piazza dawdlers stood about the front of the post office laconically debating politics or trading local gossip- in short “chewing the fat” while waiting for their mail. However, they were not above interrupting their conversation to visually critique any pretty girl that had the temerity to walk by. Always the same men, a small unchanging group, waited for the mail carrier to open his window. When opened they immediately would ask him, “Nothing for me?” “Anything for me?” Gaetano patiently endured their crowded inquires, their impatience lightened his load. Some were openly disillusioned at not receiving mail. Gaetano knew one or two hadn’t gotten mail for years. Puzzled sometimes he wondered about them, what were they expecting- what distant long gone relative did they hope to hear from? What fortune threaded through their imagination that they were expecting to arrive in the mail?
Leaving the building, after securing the doors and the little pass-through window, he’d start his rounds. Making his way through those still standing about, he’d tack up on the boards mounted next to his door, if there were any in the mail, public notices required by the government. Gaetano then would go around that piazza first. He walked around to the homes facing the piazza, bantering words, and distributing mail. He’d promise to return, to read or write for those incapable of doing so. He was in his element…
Chapter Eleven (pp. 183-186)
“.. As sacristan he would assist the aging priest don Ciccio, a friend he’d known and loved all his life. The priest came to the church of San Sebastiano a young man and stayed throughout the career in the Church. He and Gaetano’s father Placido, both entered the comune about the same time. Don Ciccio had been entrusted with much of Gaetano’s early education. Being a true Catholic, his assisting don Ciccio at the altar lasted over nineteen years.
At the same time, as though he hadn’t enough to do, he speculated in buying and selling wine. Vittoria, his long suffering wife, however, swore he drank more than his customers bought. She was fond of complaining, only half joking, that he lived between God and the devil- as the nearest cantina. Which would have been his sister Serafina’s tavern located in the street directly behind San Sebastiano’s Church.
The end result of some liberal wine tasting one day found him slightly off-center when serving at Vespers. After the usual prayers and responses to the Holy Sacrament – at the point where he must join don Ciccio at the altar and put the cope on the priest’s shoulders – he left! He went out the door instead. He left the priest standing there with the back to the small congregation with his hands raised waiting to receive the garment. The confused priest, looking around, called “Gaetano- GAETANO!” Gaetano was not there. Picking up the cope, don Ciccio put it on his shoulders and hurriedly finished the ceremony. He fairly flew out of the church across the square to Gaetano’s home. Indignation filled the priest with a need to reproach Gaetano and demand a reason for his disrespectful behavior. Gaetano was not at home- nowhere to be seen. The long suffering Vittoria suspected it was the wine. However, she didn’t feel it was incumbent upon her to make excuses for her husband. Don Ciccio knew him as well as she did, almost- certainly much longer.
She walked with the priest back across the Piazza del Carmine to the church to look for Gaetano. Thinking, perhaps, he went to sleep in the Chapel of Our Lady of Carmine. The priests kept a large bench there for the comfort of wandering pilgrims as well as the parishioners. Here one could sit and meditate in the solitude and quiet. If so inclined, and unobserved by the priests, you could lie down under the protective gaze of Our Lady and sleep. But Our Lady hadn’t seen him either. They continued their search throughout the building. Vittoria and the old priest couldn’t find him, but not for lack of trying. The building wasn’t big enough to miss him if he was there.
Vittoria sent her son Alfonso- with the added warning by the priest to the boy- “Don’t come home without him!”, to see if he was in one of the cantinas. But no one had seen the postman. The boy was out until nearly midnight asking everyone he met, “Have you seen Gaetano, il Portalettera?” No one had seen him. Gaetano was nowhere to be found. The exhausted Alfonso returned filled with uneasiness and said to his mother, “I can’t find my father, no one has seen him.” Don Ciccio, who hadn’t waited for the boy to return, was convinced the earth had opened up and Satan snatched the scoundrel! “It would serve him right and teach him a much needed lesson,“ he whispered crossing himself. He was frustrated at not being able to vent his anger on the crown of the miscreant’s head- the elusive Gaetano.
With a sinking heart the poor woman didn’t know what to do. Her mind was imaging all sort of sinister happenings. Could he have had a distant mail delivery? No, he would have told her beforehand. She didn’t know what to think, this was unlike the usually constant Gaetano.
She resigned herself and her fears to prayer.
Weary and apprehensive, finally retiring lying on her bed unable to sleep. “Vittoria hears a snort and a snore- she’s startled. Searching the room for the source of the sounds, she came to find that Gaetano had fallen asleep in the coffin. Coffin? What coffin? Let’s back up a bit…”
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