Our teacher asked us what gifts we would like for our First Communion in May, the same day as my birthday. She told us about a wonderful story called “Heart: A School-Boy’s Journal” and we realized that Edmondo De Amicis’s book would be our present. The end of the school year was not far off and there would be plenty of time to live the adventures of Garrone and his friends. The book was assigned to us as reading for the school summer holidays but since Miss Polifemo was a substitute teacher, she did not come back the year after.
All of a sudden, Italia, the school caretaker, knocked on the classroom door. It was not her usual knock and she was quite out of breath. She handed our teacher a large book with a message from the school head saying that lessons would end early that day and the day after. This time, the news did not make most of us happy because Italia was crying and sobbing as she read it. Normally smiling and cheerful, she dried her eyes several times with a white handkerchief which she held in her hand in a crumpled ball and put in the pocket of her blue apron and took out several times before she left. She whispered something in our teacher’s ear who was visibly disturbed by what she had to say.
The bell rang not long after and there wasn’t time to solve the math problem. I remember that that day we learnt about the metric equivalence of surfaces, something I grasped without any difficulty. In no time at all, I had picked up my book, exercise book and pencil case and flung them into my old satchel that I had had since the third year of primary school and was already out on the school lawn. That day I didn’t even have to bother with my coat.
I remember the blue sky suspended between the trail of a white cloud that has just vanished. I looked for the swallows as they darted backwards and forwards-outside the classroom, their swerving and diving seemed even more disconcerting than their chirping. With flapping wings that glistened in the sun, they hid behind the branches of the almond tree in blossom above me. The mothers, who already knew that lessons had finished earlier, were waiting near the school gate in their slippers. Guglionesi, the town nestled in the delightful Molise hills already knew what had happened but I didn’t.
My parents and grandparents were emigrants and I was born in Milwaukee in the state of Wisconsin in the north of the United States of America when my parents were working there. A few years earlier, some of my family had returned to live in Guglionesi. My relatives had kept an old habit from America and they would speak amongst themselves in English on special occasions so that we children couldn’t understand what they were saying.
I tried to grasp what they were talking about but all I could understand were their frightened tones. And so, even at home, I was unable to understand what was happening on this strange day. Two years earlier, something similar had occurred at home when a long period of discussions in English had ended when my younger brother was born but this time it seemed highly unlikely that Italia’s crying and leaving school early could be connected in any way with the birth of a third brother.
I finally understood what had happened on March 16, 1978 when I saw the news. A special edition on TV, which was still in black and white, announced the tragedy at Via Fani in Rome where a group of terrorists called the Red Brigade had abducted a member of parliament, Aldo Moro, and had shot dead his five body guards in the attack. One of the policemen who had mercilessly been gunned down was a young man from Guglionesi, Giulio Rivera. A prominent Italian weekly wrote about the terrible destiny that persecutes poor women in the countryside like an ancient curse. They give birth to children who want to escape a life with very few prospects and, like Giulio, join the police force unaware of the fate that awaits them.
The television showed shots of several places in Guglionesi, the Castellara gardens, the church, part of the old town, Giulio’s house and the heart-rending grief of Giulio’s mother as she bent over her son’s body. Giulio was twenty-four and had been in the Police Force for four years. Everyone knew him as a sociable, cheerful person who was lively and sensitive. His body riddled with eight bullets, he died in the seat of the white car he was to drive on his last journey as he escorted Moro, the politician.
In the afternoon, we had one of our First Communion classes that was held in the nursery school run by a group of nuns. Giulio’s house was a few doors along from the school and I distinctly remember the obituary notices that covered the old walls of the humble dwellings in that old part of town.
The class began with a prayer in memory of the young policeman and for the first time in our lives, we all really prayed. The news had profoundly moved the families of Guglionesi. They talked of nothing else and each one added another piece to the human vicissitudes of the Rivera family. For nights I lay awake in bed asking for glasses of water without being thirsty just to break the uneasy wall of darkness that reflected those images of tragedy and panic.
The funeral was held on Sunday, three days after the via Fani attack. Nearly all the inhabitants of Guglionesi, drawn by a mixture of grief and curiosity, were there in the pouring rain enveloped by a cold spell that had returned to cancel out the first signs of spring. I was one of the altar boys in the procession and walked ahead of the coffin draped in the Italian flag and carried by Giulio’s friends. It was escorted by a line of policemen holding machine guns, accompanied by the tears of members of his family and a silent cortege of institutional banners. The noise of footsteps on the old Vesuvius flagstones could be heard marked by the slow tolling of the church bell.
His mother, Esperina, cried throughout the funeral service. “Goodbye Giulio” was her last farewell to her son. In the words of the authorities, he had served his country whereas for his superiors, he had served his duty, for his avengers, he had been sacrificed for a cause, for the academics, he would become a part of history and for all those who loved and knew him, he would have been fifty years old today.
written by Luigi Sorella