Mario could almost smell his mama's signature penne dish. The recipe had been passed down from generation to generation in Italy, and Mario's mama had decided to bring it to America. Mario's mind drifted to the sweet smell of the homemade tomato sauce and the green basil on top. Each mouthful was soft, comforting, and delicious. He began to dream of being back in Italy when…
Bang! A large dump truck dropped a huge metal dumpster, taking Mario far away from his thoughts. It was February 23, 1974. The New York City streets were full as usual with cars honking obnoxiously at each other, vendors yelling to sell their products, and trains roaring from underneath. The air was cold, and the sidewalks and streets were frozen. Mario was walking home from school. He had a black backpack strapped to him, white shoes, long pants, a blue long-sleeved shirt hidden from a sweatshirt that read, I Heart NYC. Around his tanned skin, was a gold chain, holding a crucifix. Mario was 18, and an immigrant from Italy. His father, Vincent, and mother, Celeste, had not see a bright future for Mario in Italy and therefore, they had immigrated to the States. Currently, Mario was walking on Rochester Avenue, a block away from his little house on St. Mark's Avenue in Brooklyn. Money was scarce...so scarce that both of Mario's parents worked full time. Vincent worked in a car repair shop while Celeste was a convenience store clerk. They worked from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., while Mario left for school at 8 a.m. and came back around 3 p.m. each day.
Squeak! The door creaked as Mario opened it, dropped his heavy backpack down, and read a note written by his mother saying, "Cena sul tavolo, godere," or "Dinner on table, enjoy." It had only been a month ago when Mario and his family had come to the States. They could speak broken English, so in the house, they spoke Italian.
As the microwave went off, Mario grabbed the hot dish, full of ravioli and meatballs. Once nothing remained on his plate, he put it in the sink and continued upstairs. The lights suddenly flickered off. This was not unusual, as the house was in one of the poorest parts of New York City, and so the electricity went on and off. Mario flopped on his bed, did his homework, put a ring on his dresser that he had stolen earlier that day, and went to bed... A typical day for Mario. The only good change he possibly could have would be in his dreams at night.
"Who were two generals of the Patriots during the Revolutionary War? Mario! You haven't spoken all class. Who were two generals of the Patriots during the Revolutionary War?"
Mario looked up from his thick textbook. The gold chain around his neck glistened in the sun. "Da generals of Revolution... Alessandro Pavoloni e... Benito Mussolini."
Except for five other Italians students, the entire class roared with laughter, including the teacher.
"No Mario, those are two Italian generals. Henry, can you name two generals of the Patriots during the American Revolutionary War?”
Henry answered, “Richard Montgomery and Horatio Gates." The bell immediately rang, dismissing the class and ending the school day.
"Hey Mario get over here." It was Gilberto, another Italian student in Mario's class.
Gilberto was standing with four other Italians, all immigrants directly from Italy. Gilberto was 6 foot, an inch shorter than Mario. He had blue eyes, black hair, and seemed to be in control. Next to him was Corrado. He was the shortest of them all at 5'9. He had green eyes and blonde hair, and unlike Gilberto, he was more welcoming. The last two were Luciano and Leanardo, who everyone called them the L brothers. Even though they were brothers, Luciano was 6'5 and Leanardo was 6 foot like Mario. Together, the five of them made up the "banda."
"We heard you new in the city Mario e Italian. You rubbed off a good reputation so far after tre weeks. Us Italians need to do what we need to do to survive in this city. We want you in da gang. I'm Gilberto, and these are the others: Tony, Corrado, and the L brothers, Luciano e Leanardo."
"I got nothing to contribute,” backfired Mario, “I got no i soldi, no auto, no cigarettes, I got niente."
"But that is why we want you in the gang,” answered Corrado. “We are fratellis. We got each other’s backs. Join us."
Mario looked up and examined each and every Italian standing there on the cold street. "Sicuro" Mario said, in a hesitant voice, now making a total of six in the gang.
Luciano took a slight step toward Mario, reached into his pocket, and handed Mario a new gold chain with a warm and shiny "F" connected through the links. Mario took it, still circumspect, and put it around his neck.
"We are hangin’ tonight around nove on 1st street, si puo venire se si desidera," commented Gilberto. "Hey Mario, where you live?" he added.
"Otto on St. Marks," responded Mario.
"Aight we might stop by to get you some nights, see ya around Mario."
Mario turned and walked away with two necklaces on instead of one, signifying two things that he had in his life now...God and hopefully a loyal gang.
Once home, the screened door screeched open once again as he pulled it, and a similar note was stuck to the counter. "Mario , la cena sul tavolo. Tuo padre e io sarò a casa molto più tardi questa sera per guadagnare denaro extra. Ci vediamo al mattino. Buona cena!" Mario, knowing that his parents would not come home that night, quickly ate his delicious ravioli, and hurried upstairs. Like before, he plopped onto his bed, and took off his new golden chain. The "F" stood for fratellies—brothers. But Mario found himself wondering if these strangers were really brothers to him now. He remembered what Gilberto told him: that they were hanging out on 1st street at nine tonight. Mario had nothing to do because his mother and father were working overtime hours, and when the little clock in Mario's room reached 8:30, he got up, put on new clothes, and left St. Mark's Ave. for 1st Ave.
"What's up Mario?” Corrado greeted Mario. “Ayy sit down.”
“Hey Mario, you want a cigerette?” Gilberto handed Mario his first cigarette since Italy. Mario's mind had been trying to adjust to America, and he had totally forgotten about cigarettes. All six gang members were sitting on the steps of a convenience store, watching the cars zoom and listening to the engines roar.
"I heard there was a partito a few blocks down, anyone want to come with me," asked Luciano.
Leanardo answered, “Securo,” and so did Gilberto.
"We will meet up with you guys later," said Gilberto.
Corrado, Tony, and Mario were still sitting on the stone steps and smoking. It was reaching 10 p.m. when Tony groaned because he was out of cigarettes and money. Mario had brought none and Corrado was all out as well. They had nothing to do. All three Italians looked into the convenience store where they had previously bought the cigarettes, but the store was closed for the night.
Tony stood up slowly, walked up the rest of the stairs, and looked through the window very closely. "Nobody is in there nor on the streets this late, let’s just break in through that side window, and grab a pack of cigarettes, and then try to meet up with the others. No one will ever notice what we stole."
Corrado and Mario looked at each other, trying to decide if they were going to approve the plan. This would be the second minor robbery Mario would have committed. The first had been stealing a ring. But the rest of the gang committed robberies almost everyday, so this was not a big deal to them. Therefore, Corrado and Mario stood up next to Tony and waited for further instruction. Corrado found a steel wrench in the back alley where the window was located and handed it to Tony. Tony winded up like a pitcher on the mound, and he threw the wrench against the thin glass, shattering it into millions of pieces all over the New York City street.
Tony jumped in first, then helped Corrado, and finally Mario. The three were in the closed convenience store, but once they reached the counter an alarm louder than the roaring engines of the New York City taxis screamed in the immigrants’ ears. Corrado grabbed two packs of cigarettes as they ran back toward the window, but Tony also grabbed a handful of money. Mario, scared as a baby, leaped through the sharp and half-shattered window, and he landed on the cold, hard street. He could already feel the oncoming of a massive bruise on his right hip bone. Corrado leaped next but did not make it cleanly through. A shard of glass punctured and ripped through the bottom of his arm to his wrist. As he yelped, Tony made it out last, but Corrado's yelling was not nearly as loud as the alarm which continued going off in the store, or as the sirens of police cruisers racing to the crime scene.
"Correre di nuovo per le vostre case!" yelled Tony.
All three brothers began running back to their separate houses in Brooklyn, but their hearts were pumping, their chests were pounding, their heads were spinning, and Corrado's arm continued bleeding.
When Mario reached his plain, white screened door, he opened it quickly then closed it. Mario struck the lights on and sat down on at the table. He closed his eyes and imagined himself sitting with his extended family back in Italy with the soothing smell of tomato sauce, pasta, and meatballs. Then, Mario took his right hand and grasped both golden chains, the crucifix and the "F." That was all he had...God and loyal brothers...He walked upstairs as the lights flickered off, and went to bed, now with a change in his life.
The next day was a Saturday. The sun was shining on the lively city, Mario was with the rest of the gang, except Corrado, and was trying to explain what had happened last night.
"We got worried about you guys when you didn't meet up with us again last night," said Gilberto.
Mario answered, "We tried to sneak through a window at the convenience store, but the alarm went off, Corrado got cut, and da policia showed up. We all just ran casa."
Tony added, "I got $300 last night...I couldn't help stealing it."
Leanardo said, "You boys are ragazzi! Tony, policia are going to know that $300 is missing, and we are the only banda on these blocks!
Mario chirped in, "And I got no idea where Corrado is."
Leanardo added, "He wasn't at his casa cause I walked by and it was totalmente empty."
"Ayy lets check the station,” stated Gilberto, “the policia might got hold of em."
As the five were walking and talking down the streets of Brooklyn, Corrado ran to them with a red stained bandage on his arm and a scared face. "Sono su di noi ragazzi!"
Gilberto slowed Corrado down, "What?"
Corrado said it again, "They are on to us. They found my fingerprints on the broken window."
"Oh no,” commented Mario, “questo e e.”
Three cruisers, six brothers, one gang. All six members were handcuffed in the back of police cruisers on their way to the New York City Police Department. Mario was as scared as he was on the night of the crime. As a calming aid, he closed his eyes, and he imagined that he was looking out at the Italian landscape eating his flavorful penne with homemade meatballs. So delicious... As 12 wheels pulled into parking spots, Mario, Gilberto, Corrado, Tony, Leanardo, and Lucciano were escorted into the police station. Then, they were brought into a questioning room. All six, all at once.
"Boys don't even try to deny that you robbed that convenience store last night, stole a package of cigarettes, and $300. We have fingerprint samples and we had access to live footage of you boys breaking in. With that, we have reviewed your records, and other than that cut on Corrado, you are all healthy, and as you know the country that you are currently living in right now is at war in Vietnam. Therefore, we want you boys to serve America in Vietnam. If you go, there will be no charges, you will be paid by the military, and when you come back home you all will be heroes. What do you say to that?”
Mario did know that America was at war currently, but that was in the back of his mind. In his heart he still felt Italian, not American.
"How long will we have to serve in prison and pay for the charges if we don't join?" asked Gilberto.
The officer replied, "Give back $300, each of you pay a fine of $1500, and serve one year in prison." The young men looked at each other in amazement.
Without a word discussed, Gilberto answered for them all, "si, I mean yes."
“Perfect, all six of you will board a military bus tomorrow morning at 7:30 a.m.”
When they took the silver handcuffs off Mario, he felt relieved, and he rubbed the engraved marks the cuffs had made in his soft skin. Everyone was in shock...they were going to war in a foreign country while wearing a foreign uniform, holding a foreign gun, and absolutely surrounded by foreigners. Mario thought back to his last History class. They were learning about the American Revolutionary War. He remembered how the thick textbook taught the students about how many lives were lost during the tragic war. Could Mario's life be lost as well?
As the gang split back up to walk home, Mario was thinking of ways to tell his parents that he was going to Vietnam. He could not tell them about the robbery and the harsh consequences. All Mario could say was that he was going to war for America. He opened the white screen porch, and read the note written by his mother. "Mario , la cena sul fuoco , ha fatto il tuo preferito , penne , godere l'amore." In English, it told Mario that his favorite dinner was on the stove and to enjoy. Mario took the most savory bites he could while eating the perfectly cooked penne because he knew from reading that soldiers did not get that much food, especially penne. When he closed his bedroom door and the lights flickered off, in the next blink of an eye, he was sitting in between Corrado and Leanardo on the recruit bus, heading towards the U.S. Army training camp down south in Virginia.
"A six man foot regiment, fully trained from Virginia. All Italian from New York City," Gilberto answered a commander.
"Thank you soldier. You boys will be traveling with two other regiments on a helicopter to Catecka Base Camp. When you arrive you will receive your first mission. Good luck soldiers."
The sweet smell of basil on top of the thick tomato sauce. The red sauce buries the soft pasta. My mouth is watering...just waiting to begin the first relaxing bite. The chopper's blades spun faster and faster, and Mario suddenly opened his eyes and looked directly down. His feet were hanging off the helicopter bringing them to the base camp. When he looked down he saw thick dark and light colored green. Jungles covered the Earth's soil in Vietnam. The only sights of the ground Mario could see were the places bombed, just covered with dead rubble. Then he pictured his home. At first, Mario's mind had a difficult time deciding what his home was; Calle del Traghetto near the Grande River in Venice Italy or St. Mark's Ave. in New York City.
The choppers kept spinning and spinning until the regiment reached the Catecka Base Camp in eastern Vietnam. Mario now had three necklaces on. Two gold and one silver. The Crucifix, the "F," and now a dog tag reading Mario's full name, address, age, and so on. By now they reached the commander of Catecka. The Italian American regiment was receiving its first mission.
"You soldiers as one regiment will be used as reinforcements at Chu Lai deep in the jungle. We will give you guys enough supplies to get you there, a closed top jeep because you can reach the destination by road, and if you are wounded on the way, come back immediately...it means the enemy is gaining land. They will outnumber you boys. Do you think you can handle this?"
"Si, I mean yessir," answered Gilberto.
It was completely dark except for the two jeep headlights. It was completely quiet except for the engine of the jeep, reminding Mario of the New York City streets. Mario's eyes were wide open, but no one was talking. They were all scared, not knowing what was going to happen next. Gilberto was driving, and Luciano was up in the passenger seat beside him. Mario and Corrado were looking out the left and right windows while Leanardo and Tony were on patrol out of the trunk window.
Silence...Darkness...Bump...Nothing Paved... Mario started to space out again...the sweet smell of... BOOM... the back of the jeep was hit, and lit up like a bonfire. Mario and Corrado jumped out of the sides of the jeep, while Tony jumped out from the burning back. Luciano also leaped out, followed by the driver. They had loaded machine guns in their arms, and, their hearts were ticking as fast as timers. Tick...tick...tick... BOOM... the front part of the car blew up like the back. The enemies thought someone was still driving.
The boys found a ditch, and jumped in. Tony was seriously wounded, he barely could hold his gun, and he limped to the ditch as a bullet punctured him. The rest of the young men were starting to fire back, until it was all silent again...like nothing happened... BOOM... a grenade nearly landed in the ditch they were hiding in. Luciano yelped with pain. Tony crawled into the ditch, half alive.
Mario was leaning against the back of the ditch terrified, and he thought back to New York City and all of the times that he had staggered up the stairs in his little house on St. Mark's Ave. wishing for more action in his life. He thought that there was too much silence in his life. Moving to America was not enough, living in the busy city of New York City was not enough, attending a new American school was not enough, but when he came across his fratellies, the silence in his life had been shattered. Now with his fratellies, he had stolen, he had traveled to Vietnam, and now he was fighting and people around him were being killed. Was his life too loud now? Was some of the silence good? In that very ditch at that very moment, Mario's final thought of the night came across him. His fratellies were the best thing that had happened to him. Mario's fratellies did not cause Mario to have a loud or a silent life, but to have a life where Mario could look back and see his fratellies' eyes right behind him, looking out for every move and decision Mario made.
Still sitting in that ditch, the smoke that was blinding Mario before had seemed to disappear, and for the first time Mario could see what he was firing at. As Luciano was gasping for air on his back, Mario, Gilberto, and Corrado kept firing their guns. Sweat and dirt had built up on Mario's face, but somehow Mario wiped it all off with the sleeve of his camouflage uniform. The crackle of fire in the dark Vietnam jungle grew louder and louder until the bullets penetrating the air suddenly stopped. All the Italians could hear were the hopeless clicks of their Colt Car 15's. Tony leaned up. They were weaponless.
A second Vietnam grenade flew through the warm air and landed in the ditch. The grenade was in the middle of all five of them. Before the deadly grenade exploded, Tony, with triumph in his eyes, dove on it as quickly as possible. He hugged it, saving the four others...four fratellies. After securing the area, 12 Vietnamese soldiers hurried to the ditch. The Italian-American Regiment could not do anything else but surrender and become Prisoners of War.
It was late March, 1975. The horrible war ended a month later. No harm was done to the Italian-American regiment, except that Tony and Leanardo were gone. Two brothers were gone. Two fretellies...
I was alone all this while
in search of a real friend..
You came with a smile
and took me by my hand.
You made me walk on the path of stones
just to let me know there are flowers ahead..
You made me learn how to smile
after all my tears had shed.
You took me through the cloudy sky
just to show me the sunny part of it..
You made me realize that happy days are here
and together in the garden of happiness we sit.
You took me to the closed door
and told me where is its opening..
You gave me its key
and told that its just the beginning.
The doors of happiness and trust were open
and it lead me through a flowery road..
without you where could I be
in troubled waters was my boat.
THANKS to you DEAR BROTHER
for always being there in my grays..
for bringing out my real self
and for promising to be my shade.
THANKS DEAR BROTHER for the love you gave
its been six years of all this care..
I pray that this doesn't over
FOR, A BROTHER LIKE YOU IS RARE!!
Mario, Gilberto, Luciano, and Corrado were walking to 1st Ave. The streets were cold again because winter was walking into New York. The cars and taxis were beeping, the subways were roaring, the vendors were yelling just like a typical New York City night. The boys talked, trying to forget the past. After Mario came back through the plain white front door of his house, he sat down at the table. The note was sitting there as usual, written by his proud mother. He did not bother to read it because he wasn't hungry. He closed his eyes once again, but instead of an Italian dish appearing in his head, that night in Vietnam popped into it. Then came all of the terrible memories. He saw the Vietnam landscape, smelled smoke, smelled gunpowder, tasted plain bread and water, and felt the jagged gun.
But Mario also felt a real change in his life and a purpose for living. He grasped his three necklaces. The Crucifix...the "F" for Fratellis, and the dog tag. Two gold, one silver...Two gold, one silver... Mario initially thought that the silver did not fit in... it did not look good or familiar because the American silver did not fit with the Italian gold. But now he thought differently. It had to be there because he, an Italian, did not just fight for America, but he fought for America with his fratellies by his side. America had granted him the dreams the country promised. In this case, Mario's dreams were loyal fratellies who would watch his back, but his fratellies had done more than just that...they had risked their lives for each other. That is why every day from now on, the silver dog tag would always be next to the golden "F" and Crucifix, representing his new life and a fulfilled dream... Thanks Brother...