The Magi from Texas

I was born in the little town of Giovinazzo, a typical southern Italian coastal town 11 miles northwest of Bari. Its origins can be traced to the colonizing ventures of the ancient Greeks, and parts of the old town go back to Roman times. In most of the centuries since then, life in Giovinazzo was relatively quiet, though it has seen many important visitors pass through.

The apostles Peter and Paul could have easily taken the eastern route on their way to Rome but used instead the Mediterranean to get there. St. Francis of Assisi probably passed through on his way to Bari in order to reach the Holy Land. Crusaders traveled from all parts of Europe, regrouped in Rome, got the papal blessing and reached Bari in order to sail to their destination. Later, marauding bands of pirates regularly raided the city, taking everything useful. Today, the town’s main natural resources are sunshine, plenty of free time, and plenty of able-bodied young men and women without work.

The Christmas season is the highlight of the year and a source of wonderful memories. When I last visited Giovinazzo at Christmas, in 1989, the holiday was celebrated the same way it has always been. In the evening, we could hear the sound of fireworks in the streets and piazzas. It was cold and wet; the street lights only accentuated the dreary atmosphere of the evening. I remember watching on television ghastly images of the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, who had just been captured, defiantly demanding an immediate release.

Such images reminded me of similar circumstances when Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was captured in 1945. And my thoughts took me to the war I grew up in – on another Christmas Eve, when the darkness and deprivation of our lives were interrupted by an intervention of goodness.

That year, even though the war was at its height, my father, Vito, built a presepio (Nativity scene) to prepare for the celebration of Christ’s birth. When it was finished, he carefully unwrapped figurines that would populate the scene: Mary, Joseph and a manger for Jesus; an ox, donkey, shepherds and sheep. Then Vito placed more figurines to depict everyday life at the time of Christ: a fisherman with his pole (placed by a brook with running water), a woman washing clothes, and a butcher.

The three Magi, initially placed at the farthest point from the main grotto of the presepio, were moved almost daily so their arrival would coincide with the 12 nights after the birth of Gesubambino (Baby Jesus).

Finally, Christmas Eve came. Everyone was dressed in his best clothes and, at about midnight, a little procession was improvised, with each person carrying a small candle. It began with me, the youngest of four children, bearing the figurine of Baby Jesus. Everyone else followed and sang the traditional Italian Christmas song “Tu scendi dalle stelle, o Re del Cielo” (Oh, King of Heaven, you come down from the stars). Not everyone sang in tune or in unison, but it did not matter. We were all taken by the emotion of the moment, as we asked Gesubambino to come and bring us peace and happiness.

Christmas 1943 was memorable for other reasons. My father had recently returned from Albania, where he had worked building roads, but now had no job because of the uncertain political and military situation. The Americans had invaded Sicily the previous summer and – along with British, Indian, Moroccan, Yugoslavian and Polish forces – were making their way north. The Germans, who left Giovinazzo in September, were regrouping and preparing a counterattack to stop the invaders on a line from Cassino eastward to the Adriatic that they called the Gustav Line.

By winter, U.S. and British military convoys were heading north on State Road 16, which crossed our town. From our home across from the railway station, we observed similar troop movements on flat-car trains.

One evening in mid-December, as my brother Paolo was crossing the highway on his way home, a Jeep with lights dimmed and with three human shadows on board stopped in front of him. They were U.S. soldiers looking for a cantina where they could order a glass of wine. It was late and my brother told them that the only cantina in town was already closed; he suggested instead that they could come to our home, where my father spoke English and would be happy to offer them a glass of wine.

The Americans invited my brother aboard the Jeep and, in a few minutes, they were at our doorstep. My father welcomed them warmly. They turned out to be three airmen from Texas, stationed at the Gioia del Colle air base not far from Giovinazzo.

From my 5-year-old perspective, they looked very tall, carried huge pistols, and were very courteous.

My father, Vito, told them he had been a soldier in the U.S. Army during the First World War and had fought at Verdun. He then showed them his two medals and discharge papers; all that was news to me. Later, I came to understand why such information had been kept quiet over the years: the Fascists had looked at my father with some suspicion because he had been a U.S. citizen.

The American pilots, feeling comfortable and secure in our house, embarked on a long and amiable conversation with Papa. Of course, I did not understand English. But I thought it was rather strange and confusing that the enemy who had caused us so much fear and anxiety for two years with their aerial bombardments should be not only in my home, but also be so friendly and congenial.

I looked at my father’s face and saw he was happy. His fear that, for whatever reason, they might take him away was soon dispelled.

When the conversation ended, the only bottle of wine we had was empty. My father apologized for not having any more wine or food to offer them, and the Americans thanked my parents for their hospitality. The three airmen said only that they would return to see us before they shipped out.

Throughout the war, food had become more scarce for us. Meat, sugar, fish and butter were the first items to disappear completely from our table. Everything was strictly rationed. The Fascist rank and file, from the mayor on down, were well fed; the few land-owning families and the clergy ate moderately well, and the rest of us just had to make do. One night, my older sister told my mother that I was crying from hunger. Her reply was to put me to bed anyway, because there was no food.

Two days before Christmas, the presepio was completed and ready for the following night’s ceremony. Yet there was sadness in the air despite my parents’ attempt to disguise it, for there was no food to serve for the traditional Christmas Eve dinner.

During the day, I noticed my father standing in front of the presepio whispering, “Gesubambino, pensaci tu” (Please, Christ Child, help us).

That evening, the U.S. Jeep stopped in front of our home and out came the three Texan pilots, their arms filled with food of all types: canned corned beef, a whole cooked ham, a whole turkey, gallon cans of powdered milk and powdered eggs, chocolate bars, chewing gum, cigarettes, nylon stockings and other assorted goods my family had not seen for years.

We all stood there and watched the unloading operation, speechless. As my father tried to find words of thanks, he was clearly overwhelmed by such abundance. My mother began to prepare dinner with the practicality and lightning speed that women show in such situations. By the time the family and guests had settled down from the excitement, my mother was bringing dinner to the table.

The pilots thanked her but said they had already eaten at the base; the food was all for us to enjoy. But they joined us at the table, sipped wine, and watched with smiles and satisfaction the effect of their generosity. Thus, the Christmas Eve dinner that only a few hours before had seemed impossible became the most opulent dinner I had seen in my short lifetime.

I noticed the Americans’ politeness as they attempted to communicate with the rest of the family through the few Italian words they knew. I was intrigued that they only spoke in infinitives, and later realized they did not know how to conjugate Italian verbs. No matter. Their warmth, friendliness and generosity came through their fractured Italian. For the first time, I felt that our family was being protected – not only because of the food these Americans provided us, but because they had become our true liberators. They knew how to win the hearts and minds of conquered populations. Nothing and no one could harm us anymore.

From that day forward, we looked at the B-17s in the sky and knew their bombs were not for us. On Christmas Eve 1943, the war ended for my family and for the whole town of Giovinazzo. Author’s note: This story is dedicated to my father, Vito Cervone (1892-1951).Anthony V. Cervone, Ph.D., is a retired professor of Romance languages and Latin at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. He now resides in Winter Park, Fla.