Natale Misuraca was born in Boston to immigrants from Terrasini, Sicily. Like most Terrasinese, his family wound up in Gloucester, Massachusetts—a town where they could replicate the fishing culture they left behind in Sicily.
Given how many Sicilians settled in Gloucester, they retained their distinct identity. In fact, despite born in the United States, my grandfather always spoke English as if it were his second language.
From what I know of his childhood, it wasn’t easy. He was one of 13 siblings, and the Great Depression was not kind to them. Although nobody ever starved to death, hunger knew their names, where they lived, and visited frequently. Gloucester being a fishing town, there was always some food available at the docks, and kind captains would usually give a kid a fish for his family. One time, a captain shooed Natale away when he came begging for a fish. My grandfather complied with his wishes and left.
Then he returned with a wagon and his friends and stole every damn fish that was on that boat and gave it all away before the sun came up.
On December 7, 1941, he was already in the Army. He eventually found himself in North Africa as an infantryman. He told us of how he marched through the desert, day after day, and learned to sleep nowhere near a vehicle, and to get as far away from a vehicle as possible during any action. The vehicles were targets.
Nevertheless, he felt like his feet were going to give out on him. A truck driver got killed, and they asked Natale if he knew how to drive. He lied and said “yes,” because he was sick of walking. He put the truck in first gear, and according to him, drove it that way all the way to to Tunis.
Over the months of advancing through North Africa, he found himself up for promotion a number of times. However, he told me that he figured that the more stripes, the more of a target he was. He wasn’t there to get promoted. He wasn’t there to get medals. He didn’t give a damn about Mussolini or Hitler or anything else except getting back to his fiancee — my grandmother, Antoinette. Any time he was up for promotion, he would get in a fight or do something to ensure that the old rumpled private chevron he had just stayed on his uniform. After serving for five years in the army and being presented with the same number of promotions, he came in a private and left a private. That’s how he wanted it.
When I joined the army in 1991, Papa’s advice was “Don’t volunteer for anything, and don’t get promoted. Do your time and get the hell out!” I guess he didn’t really grasp that I wasn’t drafted. As I recall, he couldn’t understand the concept of enlisting unless drafted. But, his advice was counter to what you might expect a “greatest generation” veteran to tell his grandson. Of course, it wasn’t as if I was going to war — the most exotic place I wound up in the military was in the back of a police car at Fort Benning. But, Papa’s advice was “be a coward. If they shoot, you HIDE. Let someone else get the medals and their head blown off.”
Taken out of context, that might seem like advice that doesn’t really resonate on Memorial Day. But, as I unpacked that advice in my mind, I looked at my box of war memorabilia that he gave me when I was little. I always remembered a 5 Franc Algerian note that was in that box. In the margin of it, he wrote “you are always in my heart, Toni.” (My grandmother) He made pieces of aluminum from shot down aircraft into jewelry – nothing beautiful about it except for the little inscriptions all dedicated to my grandmother. His advice started to make sense. Your family mattered more than anything. He could have stormed up a hill, bayonet affixed, “for his country” and gotten a little crucifix in Arlington for his trouble. His “medals” were his grandchildren. What difference did it make what country he invaded for what other country? The country he was invading, Italy, wasn’t really a nation in the strict sense of the word, since most Sicilians then (and many even now) considered themselves Sicilian first, and Italy was just another occupying power. He had an American flag on his uniform, as he invaded his parents’ island. What idiot would die for that?
That is about all he told me about World War II.
But, in 1993, I went to Terrasini (for the second time) to find my relatives. I was with a friend, Fabrizio, who was a bodyguard for a prosecutor in Palermo. We drove there in his Alfa Romeo complete with two bullet holes in the windshield, on the passenger side, right in front of my face. When he told me what they were, I asked “why don’t you replace the windshield instead of just putting tape over the holes?” He explained, “why bother? They’re just going to shoot at it again.” That wasn’t much comfort to me, given that I’d have two rounds in my forehead if it happened again.
You can imagine that getting out of a car with bullet holes in it, with a guy who was about 6 foot 5, carrying a gun, was not exactly an inconspicuous way to go about things — especially in Sicily. Fabrizio started asking people if they knew anyone with the various last names in my family. Everyone denied ever having met anyone with those names, and suggested that maybe he should check the next town over. Meanwhile, little crowds of old women started to gather and whisper. Finally, I send Fabrizio back to the car — he seemed tone deaf to the fact that his presence was not exactly helpful. People thought we were there to kill or arrest someone.
I put on my “Gloucester, Mass” t-shirt, complete with the Man At The Wheel graphic, and started up small talk on the street. Everyone in Terrasini has family in Gloucester. Every. One. I’d imagine that a quarter of the town has lived there at some time or another. Given that many Americans can’t say “Gloucester” properly, you can imagine how the Sicilians say it.
In Goishtenee, we have a “game” called “Whose Are You?” When a young person meets an older person (almost always Sicilian) the old person will invariably hear your last name, and then ask “whose are you?” Then you say your mom or dad’s name. But, since Sicilians tend to name their kids all the same, saying “John Randazza is my dad” usually only results in a further round of questions. Then, the old person always finds some way that you’re related to them, seventeenth cousins six hundred times removed, and proclaims you as their flesh and blood. Then, there is a varying degree of affection showered upon you, depending on who you are, who they are, and what the weather is like, and usually how close the date is to St. Peter’s Fiesta. At Fiesta time, everyone is about as close as twin brothers to non Sicilians. No matter what, you never leave a round of “whose are you?” without being informed that your family is exponentially larger than you thought before.
As I kept hearing Goishtenee and seeing people point at my shirt, I finally got it. I started talking to some of the old women. One told me that she knew my family, and dispatched a boy to go get them. Then more arrived. Then more. Soon, I had a crowd of people, many claiming to be related to me somehow, and they all explained to me how we were related. Yes, “whose are you?” but in thick Sicilian dialect, which I struggled to understand — given that I had not learned dialect, but rather “the beautiful Italian,” as my grandmother described it.
Then (and this makes me fucking tear up every time I think about it) one of them pointed at me and yelled “IL SOLDATO!!!” The soldier. Well, yeah, I had been — briefly, but how the hell would they know that?
Then another said “che soldato?”
A crowd of oohs, aahs, and then a lot of people touching me in very affectionate ways. Hugs. Kisses.
Clearly something just flew over my head.
Then, a couple of the old women, one being a great aunt or something (I really could not keep it straight) explained.
During World War II, Papa ironically found himself part of the force invading Sicily. He had never been there, but his older siblings were born there. Soon after his unit landed in Sicily, Natale decided to go to Terrasini — where his family was from, and not coincidentally where my grandmother’s family was from as well. His family had all left. But, my grandmother still had cousins on Via Ungheria. There was one little problem. Terrasini was still ostensibly Mussolini’s turf. Papa didn’t give a shit. He was going to go check on his family. He put on a dress uniform and simply hitched a ride into town. Then, he walked up and down Via Ungheria calling out their names.
And of course, this scared the hell out of them.
Here was an enemy soldier. Walking down the street. Alone. Calling out their names.
Finally, curiosity overcame fear, and one of them peeked out the window and acknowledged him and asked “ma chi siete?” Who are you?”
He explained that he was betrothed to her cousin. Another round of whose are you completed.
They invited him in. And to hear her explain it, they sat down at the table and she put a glass of water in front of him and a bowl of moldy bread and dead rats. Or maybe moldy rats and no bread. I’m sure it was less dramatic than that, but lets just say that it was probably apparent that there wasn’t much to eat, and that they were mortified by that fact. She said that she apologized for the lack of food, but you know, wars and famines and all that kind of thing really cuts into the level of generosity and hospitality you can show around your table.
At my grandparents’ house, if you came into the house, you were gonna eat. Friend dropping me off from college? He had to come in and eat. Stumble in drunk at 3 AM? Grammie got up and cooked for you. Your friends are out in the car? They better get in here and eat. “No” was not going to be taken for an answer. “No” meant you only ate one bowl of pasta and not three.
So I can imagine the scene. As Papa looked at them, gaunt, starving, family.
He left and told them he would be back.
I don’t know what happened when he got back to his unit. But, they told me that when he got back to Terrasini the next day, he had a truck full of food. He stole it. He stole a truck, full of food, and then drove back into unsecured territory, across fucking enemy lines and parked that truck right on Via Ungheria and gave it all away, screaming “Cibo per tutti quanti!” (Food for everyone!)
I stood there, almost 50 years later, and listened to these old women talk about my grandfather. They said “he saved our lives.” They called him a hero.
When I got back to Gloucester, I told the story to my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Papa was right there at the table, eating. He didn’t even really seem to be interested in the story. When I finished telling it, my sister asked him “Papa, is that true”?
Without even looking up, he just said “Yup.” Then he got up from the table with his food to go watch the Patriots game. Thereby telling us (without saying anything), “that’s just what you freakin’ do.”
He died a few years ago – on November 28, 2011.During his funeral, a bunch of old soldiers showed up with information about various battles Papa had been in. Big ones. Apparently, he was decorated for something or other. That was the first time any of us ever heard about that. He never felt it was important to talk about it. Meanwhile, these guys showed up with a 21 gun salute, and a bunch of medals to pin on him before we buried him.
It wasn’t that he was not one to brag about things he found important. On the contrary. He bragged bigger than anyone I ever knew. He just bragged about things that he thought were important. For example, nobody in Gloucester was ever allowed to forget that he was the first one to win the Greasy Pole. That, he never let anyone ever forget.
But, demonstrating exceptional bravery at Anzio? It took some strangers to show up to his funeral with medals and a fusillade to tell us about that little detail in his life. And, showing ridiculous bravery, which could have gotten him both killed and court martialed, just to bring food to his family? That we had to hear from strangers too — 50 years later.
Natale was a certified bad ass. And a guy who always preached against being anything close to a hero. But he will always be my hero.