Il Soldato — Natale C. Misuraca

May 26, 2014

Meeeeeee what handsome!!!!

Pvt. Natale Misuraca

Today being Memorial Day, I thought I’d write about my favorite war hero, my grandfather Natale Misuraca – or as we all knew him, “Papa.”

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.

Until nightfall.

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.

Goishtenee “GOY-shten-ee”

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?”

“Misuraca!”

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.”

The only honor he ever cared about.

The only honor he ever cared about.

He died a few years ago – on November 28, 2011.

Close up of the plaque on the Greasy Pole.  Meeeee what handsome.

Close up of the plaque on the Greasy Pole. Meeeee what handsome.

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.


Are We in an Abusive Relationship with Our Silicon Mistress?

May 25, 2014

Perhaps I sound like a neo-Luddite, but I think the time has come for a little bit of retrograde thinking when it comes to technology. We are in a bad relationship with a mistress made of silicon, and maybe it is time to break up with her.

A recent story reported on a gentleman who made a wrong turn onto train tracks, where he narrowly escaped death. Why did he drive down the train tracks? Because his GPS told him to. Donald Sterling learned that our ubiquitous smartphones can be more than that, and can be electronic archivists of our stupidity. The European Court of Justice recently found a “right to be forgotten” (for Europeans anyway). Nevertheless, having technology that gives the entirety of human knowledge to us in a device that we can hold in the palm of our hand also means that we can never be forgotten – law or no law.

Is this technology really making our lives better? I remember being a young man who spent a lot of time at the beach and not a lot of time working. AT&T had an ad campaign that said “Have you ever sent a fax from the beach? You will.” It was presented to us as a promise. It was presented to us as a gift, that we would be able to spend more time at the beach, because we could work from anywhere and we would be freed from our desks and chairs and monitors. Perhaps I was overly prescient, but I saw it them threatening me, not making me a promise. Back then, one may have never sent a fax from the beach, but by god, we all do now. Instead of enjoying my recent trip to the beach, I spent most of the time standing in the shade sending emails and monitoring the office from afar. Certainly it was better to enjoy watching my children out of the corner of my eye than not to be at the beach at all. But, with modern technology the day never ends. We send the fax from the beach, not because we can, but because we have to.

And the man who drove his car onto the train tracks because he listened to his GPS? Back before we could send faxes from the beach, if we were going somewhere we would ask someone how to get there, or we would consult a map that would give us a greater idea of where we stood in the world. Maybe sometimes we got lost. Maybe it was inefficient. Sometimes we got lost and it was a great adventure.

As I get older, I begin telling younger people to be careful what they wish for. With every bit of success comes responsibility and stress. Well now we have, as a species, succeeded in creating machine after machine and device after device that promised to make our lives “easier.” It isn’t easier. It isn’t better. Instead of human interaction, we have machine slavery. Those companies that once started in garages and dorm rooms – challenging the dominant captains of capitalism? They are now the huge behemoths, and they care nothing about you. Google’s “don’t be evil” credo is now an unpublished “lets be evil, its good for business.”

What can we do?

Can we break up with our silicon-implant mistress? Maybe just a little. Maybe just for a minute.

Today, instead of texting someone, turn your phone off and go visit them. Ride your bike or walk over to their house. If you get lost, so what? Take a bit and wonder at what’s around you. I don’t know that I can break up with mine. She blackmails me. I cannot get away from her, lest she retaliate with great force. Some people never got into that kind of a relationship, and some people are too young to have done so far. I don’t call for any banning of technology or just to “rage against the machine,” but I do ask that perhaps we consider what “progress” really means, and what it has given us. Perhaps if people had realized back in the 1990’s that AT&T wasn’t promising us anything, but rather threatening us with something, things might be different.

Knowing there isn’t much to do about it, I find myself wondering if the few souls on Pitcairn Island might have use for an American lawyer to live among them. It sounds better than sending another fax from the beach, or taking a wrong turn because a robotic voice told me to.


Our “right to be forgotten” online.

May 14, 2014

Marc Randazza’s article on CNN regarding Google’s defeat in the European High Court, which requires it to remove links to outdated information that is not a matter of public interest when asked to do so by the subject of those links.


Arresting Children

May 13, 2014

Apropos to this morning’s poast. Vice article on how common it is to arrest kids in America.


The twisted path of justice

May 13, 2014

On May 10, Italian Carabinieri responded to a call Telse Terme, Italy (just inland from Naples) from a grocery store owner. Two women had just absconded with two packages of hamburger meat.

The women explained that they stole the meat because they were broke, had four young children, and nothing to eat. The Carabinieri, after listening to the story, paid the grocer for the hamburger and moved on to deal with real crimes. (source)

Holy mother of fucking god.  The Shogun Burger!

Holy mother of fucking god. The Shogun Burger!

It is ironic that this story came across my screen today, as just today I was eating a $26 hamburger at lunch (instead of lettuce and onions, it had sea eel and foie gras on it) and told the story of my short career as a prosecutor.

Yes, I worked as a prosecutor.

For one day.

It was a long time ago, in a shithole called Ocala, Florida. It was an externship during my visiting year at the University of Florida, and it was supposed to be the last 6 credits of my law school career. Cruise through four months of this, and then off to the big-salary firm job already waiting for me.

It would be great experience.

Perhaps fun even.

Real live “being a lawyer” experience! You know, like professors often don’t even have.

On the way in to my first day, I was listening to NPR, and a story came on the radio about how juveniles fared in adult prison. As I remember the program, to which I was not listening very intently, 50% of them would die in prison. 100% of them would be raped. I don’t know if the stats are correct. Like I said, I wasn’t listening that carefully. It might have just been about one facility. It doesn’t really matter.

I walked into the office, waved on by men in badges who saw me as a new guy on their team. I sat down at my desk, and was given my very first file. I started to fill in a form. I have forgotten the name of the perpetrator, but I will never forget the name of the “victim.”

Wal-Mart Corporation.

The perpetrator had committed the dastardly act of shoplifting. She stole maternity clothes. She was 16 years old. She was pregnant. She had prior arrests, so I couldn’t just let it go. Her priors? I shit you not – stealing medicine from a drug store and stealing food from a supermarket.

All three times she got caught. All three times she got arrested. Who knows, maybe she got away with 100 other crimes. But she had three arrests, and reading the reports made me want to lock someone up, but it sure was not the “perpetrator.”

I sat there staring at the forms. I didn’t want to move. I just sat there and asked myself “what the fuck am I doing here?

Juvenile convicts, 1903.

Juvenile convicts, 1903.

Then my supervisor busted into my office. “Hey, come on down here, there’s a hearing.” This was going to be exciting. “We’re trying to get these two guys put in adult prison. Violent offenders. Real bad guys.”

We went over to the courthouse, and there were two 15 year old boys on a monitor. They were arrested for bashing a guy over the head with a tequila bottle.

They were not sympathetic characters. In fact, they were awful monsters. There was a guy out there with half a tequila bottle buried in his head. They thought it was funny. My supervisor argued to the judge that they should be put in with the adult population, meanwhile the boys looked disinterestedly around while on closed circuit TV. They were either too stupid or too uninformed to have a clue what was happening to them.

Then I started thinking about the NPR story. Was I remembering the details right? Was it really 100% would be sexually abused? Nah, that’ couldn’t be right. Maybe it was 50%. In any event, there I was calculating the odds as to whether something I was involved in would result in one or both of these boys dying, or being turned into someone’s fuck toy.

There was a 100% chance that I felt like a piece of shit right then.

After the hearing, I went back to my office and saw the file staring up at me.

Victim: Wal Mart Corporation.

I sat there until 5:00, staring out the window. Then I went home.

The next morning, I went in to the office and quit. My supervisor was incredulous at first. I told her that I knew that this likely meant that I wouldn’t graduate — at least not that semester. I told her that I just couldn’t do that particular job. I explained to her that I understood that someone had to lock these criminals up. I explained that yeah, society might fall apart if everyone just takes what they want from a store. Yeah, one of those 15 year old tequila-bottle wielding psychopaths might bash my mom over the head at an ATM machine one day. Someone had to be a prosecutor.

But it sure as shit didn’t have to be me.

I walked out of that place, pretty sure that I had just fucked myself pretty hard. But, I had to live with myself. I was not going to be part of that.

Of course, I’m sure they found some willing person to take over. I’m sure that Little Miss “Perpetrator” got prosecuted anyway. So, did I change anything? I guess not.

But maybe if that “Perpetrator” had gotten a little compassion like these Carabinieri gave to the two mothers… maybe if that was the typical reaction. Where is the real “crime” when someone doesn’t have enough to eat? Why the hell didn’t everyone involved stand up and say “no, this is not justice“? You know, like everyone stood up and said “I am Spartacus!” If a bunch of slaves could do it, why the hell can’t an entire office full of prosecutors do it?

When a pregnant 16 year old girl needs fucking maternity clothes and the only way she can get them is by stealing them, where is the real crime?

Call me a socialist if you want, but there is no way in hell that a 16 year old pregnant girl who has to steal maternity clothes from Wal-Mart is a “criminal.” And, when you are in a nice suit and $800 shoes, calculating whether your actions will result in two boys dying or being raped beyond recognition, you’re doing something wrong.

I was proud of myself for quitting. I realized that I probably didn’t change anything, and there was no “Jerry Maguire moment” where anyone followed me out the door. But, if nobody says “I will not” then we certainly can’t ever get to “everybody.”

Of course, I was now screwed.

Epilogue:

The next day, I walked into the Dean’s office. I explained the situation. The rules said that I was fucked. No graduation for me this semester. It was February, and there was no way I could graduate until the summer, at best. A year’s worth of income, and a lucrative offer from a law firm went plop, plop, fizz, fizz, flush… right into the crapper.

I was bummed, but I still thought it was worth it.

The Dean and I talked for a bit, and he came up with an idea. There was a class in the business school that counted for law school credit, and since they were on a different calendar, it hadn’t started yet. He could get me into that for three credits. He then volunteered to let me do an independent study paper for him for another three. That way, I could graduate on time.

You see, there were rules. But there was also “justice.” The rules yielded and the right thing happened. At least for me. Not so much for the poor kids in Ocala whose files I left on my desk. No, for them, rules was rules.

FINALLY this boring fucking story gets interesting!

FINALLY this boring fucking story gets interesting!

I’m way too fucking cynical to let my readers end there though. Happy endings and shit. Happy endings are for Spielberg movies and shady massage parlors.

A few years later, that same Dean wound up getting arrested for some really creepy crimes — he was on some pedophile chat boards, giving guys advice on how to drug their kids before raping them. He also apparently had a stash of child porn. He wound up pleading no contest and got two years house arrest and eight years probation. (source)

I have no idea what ever became of the girl who stole the maternity clothes or the two boys who went to adult prison for bashing the guy’s head in with a tequila bottle.

But it does feel weird that I owe at least part of my career to a pedo, whom I never would have even met, but for that unnamed 16 year old girl who stole maternity clothes. And, who (despite his pedo thing) seemed to have at least some sense of justice.

Grazie a Carlo per l’ispirazione


Today on the lost privacy wire…

May 12, 2014

If you try and keep a handle on your privacy online, that makes the NSA think you’re suspicious. (source)


“Baldwin’s Nigger”

May 12, 2014

I usually wouldn’t post a video of such a length. But, if you find yourself with 43 minutes to spare, you really should listen to this lecture by James Baldwin and Dick Gregory in 1969. Even if you disagree with what they have to say, your mind will be larger once you do watch/listen.

H/T to Connolly for bringing this to my attention.


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