Friday, July 12, 2013

War Planes and Champagne

My father embodies the stereotype of what I think it means to be a boy: 
aficionado of classic cars, choo-choo trains, and old war planes.

So it came as no surprise when dad rang out of the blue to say he'd be "popping over to Milan" and that he'd also begun to organize a visit to the crash site of an old World War II plane- the Bristol Beaufighter. He'd recently read an article on the Huffington Post that had piqued his interest about the fallen Whispering Death, and was now wondering whether I'd be willing to translate a letter conveying his interest to the locally relevant Italian enthusiasts.

Weeks later, the sound of a crunch brings me back to reality: I am cheerily munching cookies in the backseat of Giulio's car with crumbs down my front and dad to my left. In the front seat rides an ex-Italian war pilot- archetypal in his phlegmatic demeanor, and (naturally) adorned with one of the most consequential mustaches I have ever seen. We are going plane hunting.

After several sweaty hours in the car, we arrive in the hills of Piacenza in a small town called Gusano. A friend of our new mustache-bearing ex-pilot friend meets us there, and together they articulate the hypothesized manner in which the Bristol Beaufighter crashed that evening of September 6, 1944:

"It started like this, flying low while following a car on a foggy night..."

"...they had little instruments at the time, so it was not until it came around the bend, that it saw the hill... it tried to pull up... but it was too late...":

"oh, so it started over that way?..."

"... and came around this way?.... 

"Yes that way."
"I see.."

And with that, I find myself in the middle of a potato field with our new friends and a metal detector, scavenging for airplane parts. As I mindlessly look around, I begin to consider that this was shaping up to be a rather surreal Saturday afternoon:

... but then the tizzy of the metal detector brought me once again, back to reality.

It had taken no more than five minutes to uncover a vegetable-root-covered, twisted piece of metallic wartime history: 

The search thereafter continued (FOREVER) on who-knows whose property. 

Just as I was beginning to get distracted by the fantasy of a cocktail, a portly farmer from behind a bush poked his neck out to ask what we were doing. 

I imagined the worst was about to happen, that he would pull out a shotgun or sic a pack of rabid wolves on us. But as a matter of pleasant surprise, he instead invited us to have a look at his repository of "parts" that he and his family had collected from their property over the years. He had little idea of their significance.

Ok, let me just take a break for a moment to reiterate that war planes are not my thing, I prefer things like pedicures and champagne. However, even I knew that what was happening in this moment was a decidedly awesome disclosure of partially unexposed history. 

Dad and his cohorts had already found one small remnant of the fallen Whispering Death, which obviously represented more decadence than I think my father could have dreamed about only hours before; 

but when the proprietario came out with this:

I witnessed four grown men try to mitigate their inclination to flap with excitement; a scene I can only relate to the way I feel when (confined by my own standards of social etiquette) in an upscale restaurant, after a waiter has just delivered me a piping hot ramekin of chocolate souffle. 

And it didn't stop there. 

One piece of war history after another became our endeavor to reconstruct the puzzle that was once this great freedom-fighting machine. It was truly a spectacular series of perfect moments as each gorgeous piece of metal made its way out of its own dusted history, and into our glittering reality.

After a few hours of relishing in second-hand archeology, we took a riposa to enjoy a meal of wild boar, tortelli with ricotta and truffle oil, and local red wine- so rejuvenating that it incited another post-prandial metal-detection session.

We marched back into the grass with our treasure-detector. 

After some minutes of silence, the alarm sounded frantically, almost enough to cause a resurgence of my own enthusiasm (which admittedly was an emotion I thought I had abandoned in my mid-twenties). 

I'm not an expert on debridement, but whatever this thing was that lay beneath the earth's most superficial layer, required the aid of a hearty shovel, a grown man, and thirty minutes of impassioned digging (during which the property owner came out again and warned us of MINES, no joke).

Everyone was sweating with anticipation (except me, I had wandered off and found a wild cherry tree. I appreciated how it stood there passively as I robbed it of its gifts from the earth). 

Then, the sound of metal against metal.

I ran back just in time to see what I expected to be an engine being excavated from the earth's crust. 

Instead, I saw this:


a bloody SHOVEL HEAD.

The irony was enough to curtail any future plans to dig (at least for the rest of the day). 

Dad's interest in the plane that fell at Gusano became fodder for the local media, and he was interviewed as "the son of an Irish war veteran represented by British military, who heroically fought for the liberation of Italy".

And so it was.

[many thanks to Pierlino Bergonzi, our pilot, for being a most excellent guide]

1 comment:

Elyse Homel Vitale said...

Thanks for translating into "girl".