THE VETERANS’ DINNER - A DON CAMILLO AND PEPPONE STORY
"Reverend, it's November 4, and tonight we old fighters are going to meet for the usual supper. It would make us all very happy if you came."
And Don Camillo gave the usual answer:
"Thanks, but I can't, for many reasons. Please consider me present in spirit."
Barchini shook his head:
"No, reverend: this time your body needs to be present as well."
The first memorial supper, or "Victory Day mess hall meeting", had been organized by the village veterans for the evening of November 4, 1919, and so, the morning of that same day of November, Barchini and five or six other members had gone to the presbitery to invite Don Camillo, and Don Camillo had explained to them, one by one, the reasons why he valued the invitation but could not take part in the reunion.
The reasons in question were so obvious that Barchini and partners had taken them to be valid not just for that particular year but for the thirty-three that had followed as well. And now all of a sudden, come the thirty-fourth supper and the thirty-fourth invitation, suddenly Don Camillo's reasons were no longer convincing.
Don Camillo was duly surprised:
"Barchini, is something going on that I should know?"
"Yes, Reverend, there is. This year you have to come, because Peppone is going to."
Don Camillo let out a yell:
"That no-goodnik is going to be there? Great! One extra reason for me NOT to be!!"
But Barchini would not give up:
"We didn't invite, Peppone, he's invited himself. He's coming make propaganda and break up the whole affair. You're the only one who can hold him back and stop him from making trouble."
Back in 1919, when he had been told of the memorial dinner, Peppone answered very rudely about having had quite enough Army food in the Army. He then added that if they felt sentimental about the war, there was a better one coming soon, against the capitalist bloodsuckers who had sent all their friends to get killed for gain.
Back in 1919 Peppone was already at the head of all the hottest young Reds in the village: so they neither insisted then nor bothered to try afterwards.
Peppone had given the veterans no trouble until the eve of November 4, 1945: but on that day, speaking both as mayor and as leader of the local proletarian masses, he had published a fiery manifesto that declared that the “people” took no pleasure in veterans’ meetings and so-called memorial mess suppers. “The only Victory that matters to history is the victory of the People against tyranny,” stated Peppone. “If there is any honest fighters as wants to celebrate Victory, they can join the heroic mountain fighters, rather than waste time on nostalgia.“
The veterans gave up meeting in the tavern, and had their meeting in a private home instead. And it was such a success that, even when they could have gone back, they never had the Victory mess supper in the tavern again.
And now all of a sudden Peppone was turning up again: no longer as threatening as when he had signed that poster, but courteous and smiling:
“I’m a veteran too, like you” he had said to the supper’s organizers. “I hope you won’t send me away if I turn up.”
Peppone had a plan - it wasn’t as if he had just suddenly felt his blood bubbling with nostalgia of ancient grey-green uniforms.
“I have got to reach out to these guys a bit,” Peppone had explained to Smilzo. ”We ought to have a common front of fighters, old and new, in the cause of the people, bringing old and young together. If it works out, well and good, otherwise I’ll work at setting them one against the other and getting the club broken up.”
Smilzo had not spoken of it with anyone, but villages are so made as to get people hearing even what was never said. And so, Barchini and the other leaders of the old soldiers had become alarmed and called on Don Camillo’s help.
“All right,” said Don Camillo when Barchini had explained, “I’ll be there.”
“Thank you, Reverend,” broke out Barchini, suddenly cheerful. “Don’t forget to take your old mess tin along”
“My mess tin?” sniggered Don Camillo. “What, you’ve still got that sort of guff on the brain? Just imagine. I threw the damn thing away the moment I got home.”
“And you were wrong,” replied Barchini in an earnest tone; “we all kept ours.”
Cascina Vecchia, the Old Farmhouse, had once done excellent duty as a storehouse to age cheese for the Lollis' Parmesan business. Then the Lollis went bust, but Cascina Vecchia had not stopped being a large and solid structure. That was where the old fighters' club met every November 4 evening, since 1945, for the celebrated meal. There were all the benches, trestles and boards you could possibly want. No need for cutlery, because everyone had the mess tin with its lid: and as each mess-mate was expected to take his own fork, spoon, knife, glass, and (if he wished) table napkin, it's easy to see how, once a few large pans and pots had been procured, the organizing committee really had little left to do.
The meal's menu was simple: salami and shoulder ham, pasta, chicken chasseur or veal stew, two or three cakes the size of cart wheels, chunks of Parmesan cheese and floods of wine in bottles. The meat was brought in already cooked and only needed being kept warm, the rest came ready for use; all the kitchen detail had to do was to cook the pasta.
And, when Peppone made it to Cascina Vecchia on the Fourth of November evening, the giant pan with the water that was to boil to cook the pasta had been just placed on the fire, and they were waiting for the arrival of the trays of sliced ham and salami.
It was a big bunch of some seventy men, all yelling and laughing and hitting big fists on the table. They were all having as much fun as if they had all gone back to being teen-agers, and even drooping old men made their share of noise, calling out loud for “the due”.
However, when Peppone walked in and greeted the company out loud, the noise stopped, and the people, after a second or two of near total silente, starter chattering again, but in a much lower tone.
The great cutting boards appeared, with piles of sliced cold meat, and this greatly improved the general energy levels. Wine did the rest.
The gathering went back to being its jolly, noisy self: but Peppone – even though his immediate neighbours spoke with him – felt lonely and isolated, even more than at the moment when everyone had first seen him and fallen silent.
That’s how it went for a while, and then suddenly Torelli walked into the hall.
“Silence!” he yelled. “We have put the pasta in the boiling water at eighteen hundred and twenty hours, so the kitchen detail must be ordered to the kitchens to pour and serve. We mustn’t allow it to overcook.”
“Good!” shouted the band. “Kitchen duty, fall in!”
Remo Tondelli rose:
“Quickest way” he explained “is to draw lots, and let anyone called do it.”
“No way!” replied Torelli. “We must go by seniority. The recruits must do kitchen duty.”
“Hooray! Greenhorns to the kitchens!” Yelled the gang. “Recruits, fall in!”
“YesSIR”, replied one fellow as he rose.
And it was none other than Antonio Nosbelli, who had been sent to the Front at forty from the Territorials and who was now pretty nearly seventy-seven.
Nosbelli’s gag drove the whole gang crazy with mirth, and the glasses rose, full to the brim with wine, amidst enthusiastic shouts:
“Hooray for the ‘Terribles’! Long live our regiment’s grandddaddy!”.
Then, since there was a ranger that the kitchen detail might never assemble at all, Torelli, a former infantry sergeant-major with the habit of command and precision, hushed the wild gang and brought them back the matter at hand.
“Let’s get moving and not let the battalion down. Youngest men, stand up and fall in .”
Cleto Morini, the shoemaker, rose and shouted:
“Born?” demanded Torelli.
Morini was about fifty-three, and wore a moustache that made him look at least sixty.
The men threw out a salvo of yells:
“Greenhorn!… Novice! Look at the baby there with his moustache on and trying to look like an adult!”.
Then a riotous gang starter with a chorus:
«Se giri tutta Italia
non trovi più pipiate
le hanno requisite
per il novantanove
bim, bom bom
al rombo del cannon!…».
All those years ago, in the grim grey days of Caporetto, when the old men of the Territorials and the boys of 1899 were being pitch-forked into the Front to stand in the way of disaster, that song had been part of the defeatist repertoire: but here, sung by people who’d done their fighting, and not badly either, it sounded quite different.
Morini tried to rise above the noise, in defence of his age class:
“We of ninety-nine..” he started, but he could not make it any further through the noise.
Then another voice was heard, like thunder through all the yelling:
“We of ninety-nine,” roared the second representative of the greenhorns, “we of ninety-nine, that’s what we can do!”.
Everyone turned to the voice, and they saw a kind of demon, who bent over a heavy chair, bit its back with his teeth, and by the strength of his jaws alone, raised the chair to a horizontal posture and lifted it up. The demon, of course, was Don Camillo, and people fell silent and wonder-struck.
But Don Camillo had not even opened his jaws to drop the chair, when another voice broke in:
“And we can do this, too!…”.
All eyes turned to Demon no.2, the third representative of the junior age-class.
Demon no.2 seized a bit of an oakwoook beam that had been lying around, thumped it scientifically left and right to show its solidità, stretched his arms and raised it high. Then he suddenly brought it down, in such a way that the beam’s midpoint his his head.
Peppone’s head was not broken the oak beam.
The crowd went mad,roaring and trumpeting their approval, and amidst that triumphant noise, the class of 1899 marched proudly, victorious and coverei with glory, towards the kitchen.
And Morini, who was following Don Camillo and Peppone, passed before Torelli, and sneered: “You try, sergeant’s stripes and all – you just try to do what we of 1899 can do!”
When kitchen duty was done, Don Camillo and Peppone went back to their places and the queue formed up.
“Everyone get his tin,” ordered Torelli, “and take his place in the queue. When you are by the pot, you get the pasta. Understand? And remember that what is due is one mess tin full of pasta to the top but no further. No confusion and no trying to sneak extras.”
The gang of wild men slowly moved to the pasta pot and beyond, each carrying his tin. That mess tin that had gone with them on the Carso, through Caporetto, on the shore of the Piave.
Suddenly there was a furious outburst:
“No! No! No sneaking! All soldiers must get the same!”
The distribution ground to a halt, and all because of one mess tin – that of Don Camillo. Which was indeed a mess tin, but a double-sized one of the kind issued to mountain fighters.
“That is my tin,” declared Don Camillo, “and you can see it by the name engraved on the top. Besides, I am not used to having my word questioned.”
“Nobody does question your word,” he was answered. “But you were not in the Alpini, the mountain fighters, and that makes it an illegal tin.”
“All right,” replied Don Camillo. “Now you fill an ordinary tin, then pour i tinto mine, so I only get the legal share.”
“You may use mine!” said Peppone, stepping forward and handing his tin over.
There was another earthquake, because Peppone also had a double-sized Alpino tin.
Seeing how things were turning out, the lunch commission resolved that the two tins should be considered legal and regular.
“For special merits.”
When everyone had his tin full of pasta and had sat back down on the long table, Torelli rose and shouted:
“A moment’s silence! The chaplain will make a memorial speech.”
Everyone fell silent, and Don Camillo rose and said:
“Peace on Earth to men of good will. Let the Mayor speak.”
Peppone rose and said:
“Viva!” answered back all the gathering.
“Now enough talking, eat your lunch before it gets cold,” commanded Torelli.
Late in the evening the gathering broke up and everyone went off home. Don Camillo and Peppone walked together till Crociletto, without saying a word.
Before they broke up, Peppone said:
“You know….” answered Don Camillo, spreading out his arms.
The great river, with its thick muddy water, shone among the poplars. It heard all those words, and was pleased, whispering:
“These folks of mine sure know how to speak.”