I just came in from helping my wife spread mulch around her young arborvitae trees. Arborvitae are a species of Thuya, a genus also found in the Atlas Mountains. In the United States, they are often referred to by the Latin name given to the tree by Jacques Cartier, the early French explorer who explored the St. Lawrence River, and gave Canada its name, too. His sailors, sick, possibly from scurvy, drank a tea made from the branches of the plant. The tea brought them back to health, so Cartier named it arborvitae, the tree of life.
The sky is overcast and dark, and, as I was finishing my task, snow began to cover the yard. Despite major snowfalls and bad weather along the East Coast, we are just getting a dusting here. In November, snow falls regularly, but we seldom have snow cover till around Christmastime. Just south of us, along the Pennsylvania border, the higher elevations receive much more, a boon to skiers and hunters. The ski stations need the colder weather more than snow since they utilize snow-making machines; there is no sense making snow when it just melts. For hunters, snow makes the woods quieter, and once an animal has been shot, snow makes it much easier to track.
In Sefrou, it only snowed a couple of times during the four years that I lived there, but a couple of thousand feet higher, snows were common, and heavy snowfalls occasionally blocked the main road south, which was known as treq es-sultan, the Sultan’s road, the route connecting Fes with the Tafilalt. Really heavy snowfalls often resulted in trucks sliding off the road. The trucks seldom had snow tires, and their drivers did not always know how to drive safely on the snow-covered highway. I am sure that they thanked God every time they passed safely through the mountain snows.
Thanksgiving is next week, a holiday celebrated to give thanks for the blessings of being an American. The early settlers, called Pilgrims in New England, faced a harsh winter and, having survived, thanked God for his grace and mercy. The tradition I was taught in elementary school emphasized the role of the Native Americans, some of whom kindly helped the Pilgrims, who were unfamiliar with the plants and animals of the New World. Fortunately for the Pilgrims, Native Americans did not perceive them as a band of asylum seekers, greet them with hostility, and send them back across the Atlantic. The United States has always depended on immigrants to fuel economic growth, and has a long history of welcoming immigrants, with the shameful exceptions of the Chinese and Japanese.
My father’s family origins are in 18th century England, but my mother’s are much more recent. Her parents, Frank and Anna Cortese, had emigrated separately from the Mezzogiorno near the end of the nineteenth century. They did not seek asylum, just a better life and opportunities for their family. He was from Calabria, she, from Abruzzo. Sometimes when they argued he would call her a peasant. He came from a region with cities and thought Abruzzo was backward. She took that as the worse of insults, and got really angry, but most people remember her as a sweetheart.
They met in Philadelphia, early in the twentieth century, married, had children, moved to Western New York, and had still more children. A set of twins perished during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1919, another child died as an infant, but eight others, four brothers and four sisters, survived to become adults.
All four brothers fought in the Second World War. The brothers in order of birth were Frank, Anthony, John, and Alfred, the baby of the family.
Al, despite his short stature, was also quite the athlete.
Frank was the senior brother, and already fairly old when the war began. He had helped raise his siblings, and was still unmarried. He joined the army as a construction engineer, and was sent to North Africa.
Anthony joined the army but left shortly due to sickness. He died of cancer in 1952.
John also joined the army and became a medic, and he too was sent to North Africa.
Alfred joined the Navy, and was assigned to a ship in the Pacific theater. He was someone who enjoyed a good joke. One of his first letters home, while still in training, contained real “fake” news.
Frank knew that his little brother, John, was in North Africa, and he tried for a long time, fruitlessly, to find him. His rank wasn’t high enough to get the military brass to pull strings, and wartime censorship made communication almost impossible. In the meantime, John was wounded in North Africa and received a Purple Heart. Frank and John finally met up in Italy toward the end of 1943.
Both could understand Italian, but probably spoke a broken, amalgam of dialects that their uneducated parents used to communicate with in America. Having visited Italy, albeit under the clouds of war, their experience made them happy to have been born in America.
The brothers dutifully wrote their parents and sisters, and supported the family with their military salaries. I believe that my uncles supported their parents from the time each was able to work. My grandfather’s occupation was listed in the census as shoemaker, and I doubt he made much money during his lifetime.
The sons’ letters are full of questions about family and friends and what was happening in Niagara Falls. Frank asked, among many things, about the family dog, Brownie.
The letters contained virtually nothing about their experiences in the war. Happily, they all returned home safely, married, raised families, and enjoyed civilian life as grown men, older and wiser than the boys they were when they had gone off to war.
Most of the letters were addressed to their sister Grace, who lived with her parents. Grace was third of the four Cortese sisters.
Grace’s older sisters, Philomena (whom everyone called either Mamie or Jenny) and Mary, were already married in 1941. Her younger sister, Rose worked at Bell Aircraft making P-39s. Rose was my mother.
Frank Sr. was illiterate, so Grace was the translator and interpreter. Grace worked at Kimberley Clark during the war. She was outgoing, athletic, someone who seemed to know everyone, everywhere.
Not only did she she write her brothers all through the war, she maintained an extensive and steady correspondence with many other local servicemen, and kept voluminous scrapbooks of clippings from the local newspapers with every mention of a serviceman from Niagara Falls, whether she knew him or not!
Going through her scrapbook pages the other day, I noticed she also included among all the war materials, a few articles on murders, presumably by organized crime. The Italian community no doubt knew the victims as friends or neighbors or maybe even relatives!
The immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe faced considerable discrimination from other Americans, including the descendants of Irish and German immigrants of the mid-nineteenth century. Until the second half of the twentieth century, for example, Italians in Niagara Falls were excluded from elite clubs and organizations to such an extent that they banded together and formed a club of their own, The Century Club, so named because every member contributed 100 dollars for its creation. Today it is gone, demolished, and the Niagara Falls Country Club will happily accept applications from anyone who can afford the entry fee!
An assiduous correspondent, Grace kept up the morale of those she wrote by filling them in on what was happening in their hometown. Who could do it better than Grace? Grace was a bit of a gossip and busybody, but she had a heart of gold. The brothers sent letters and cards while in the States, but once overseas they had to rely on heavily censured V-mai.
Eventually my Aunt Grace married one of them, Peter Lozina.
Peter was the son of Croatian emigrants who kept a tavern on old East Falls Street in Niagara Falls. Pete enlisted in the Air Force and was sent to Tyndall Field in Florida to train as a gunner for the B-25 medium bomber.
For years, a plaque hung on the wall of their dining room, thanking Pete for his brave service. As a child, I saw it everyday, but never really understood what it meant.
Uncle Pete had flown 70 missions over Italy, and returned safely, but he never talked about his war experiences. Years later, having read Catch-22, I finally began to appreciate what a hero he had been. 70 missions was not uncommon for B-25 crews, but it was nothing to sneeze at either. The B-25 was a medium bomber, and most of its missions were short range, and often lasted less than an hour.
On the other hand, B-25s often flew at lower altitudes, making them vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire. Uncle Pete was a gunner. He never talked about it, but he had been shot at.
Frank and John passed through North Africa on their way to the invasion of Italy, and, Pete probably did too, since France was occupied and Spain remained neutral. Before I left for Morocco in 1976, I spent Christmas Eve with my relatives at the house of Uncle Bill and Aunt Mary. Until it became too much for them, Bill and Mary would host a party, during which seven fishes would be served, a southern Italian regional custom. People would gather at their house for drinks and Christmas cookies, and the few who were religious would cross Military Road at midnight to attend mass at the Prince of Peace church. Often there was a poker game, because many of the relatives loved cards, but most of all everyone just enjoyed eating and talking and being with family and friends. After midnight, people ate and presents were unwrapped and little by little the guests departed.
I remember talking with my Uncle Frank. He had been impressed by the modern design of buildings in Oran, and didn’t remember North Africa as poor or backward. However, the interaction of military forces with local people was limited. I remember reading Carlton Coon’s recounting of his exploits as a member of the OSS, and thinking to myself that North Africans were simply not part of the narrative, except for some Rifians with whom Coon dealt. In much French and English literature, North Africans appear much in the same way as they do in Camus’ novels, shadows in the background. It is much the way blacks are treated in prewar literature.
Americans celebrate Armistice Day as Veterans Day, a day dedicated to all who have served in the nation’s many wars. My uncles and aunts are all gone today. All that remains are memories of them. Children of immigrants, they served their country bravely and with honor.