Guard Duty

It had taken the enemy sapper just twenty minutes to cut through the wire and crawl on his stomach over almost 250 meters of open ground, pushing a bandoleer of high explosives in front of him with one hand and dragging his AK-47 assault rifle with the other. The man was clothed only in shorts, and the rest of his body was blackened with mud. He was aided in his mission by a very dark and cloudy night with no visible moon. 

The sapper could now hear the hum of the giant American generator. He silently cursed it and the searchlights it powered, which swept over the kill zone, where he was hoping to avoid detection. Now twenty-five meters from his target, he located the deadly enemy claymore mine just to his left and moved to it. Satisfied that the Americans had not booby-trapped the mine, he gingerly picked it up, turned it around 180 degrees and angled it up toward the bunker directly in front of him…. 

Aunt Lia

Aunt Lia was renowned for many dishes. Her stuffed squid and other seafood treats, which she prepared on Christmas Eve, were truly delicious. But Aunt Lia did not like following recipes. She viewed them only as a guide and objected to following them strictly, feeling they would inhibit her culinary creativity. She could also find fault with certain food traditions, even sacrosanct ones. For instance, she didn’t really object to participating in the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve; she was just offended that the saints had limited the feast to only seven edible sea creatures. 

“So where do they get off telling us what we can and can’t eat?” Aunt Lia asked my mother.  “I mean, they scare the shit out of us by saying we’re going to burn in hell for eternity if we eat meat on Friday. That it’s a mortal sin. But then they tell us it’s okay to eat fish. Isn’t fish meat? I bet it was Saint Peter that made that rule up. He was a fisherman, right?” Aunt Lia looked pained in her exasperation… 

The Baby 

At 4:40 a.m., the whistling whine of 100-pound rockets played their brief warning melody and then began to rain down on us. The rockets exploded in thunderous roars, indiscriminately spewing chunks of hot metal that landed harmlessly in open areas or tore through structures and into sleeping human beings. If you heard the impact, you were safe, at least for the next few seconds, and usually able to scramble outside your hooch into the protective bunkers. 

Rolling out of my cot, I ripped the mosquito netting and in a rush, fueled by pure adrenalin, I stumbled out of the hooch and fell hard, tripping on the wooden steps. I was vaguely aware of men running over and around me. I lay there for a few seconds unable to move. Stunned by the fall, I was now also paralyzed by the sensory overload, as the sights, sounds, and smells of the attack overwhelmed me. I drank it all in: the bright white flashes and red flames, the searing heat, the acrid burning stench, and the deafening explosions….

Grandpa Salvatore

My grandfather, Salvatore Emilio Costanza, was the founder and proprietor of the Chestnut Baking Company, a business he had dreamed of and saved for during fifteen years of backbreaking labor in the coal mines of north central West Virginia. His and Grandma’s journey to, and success in, this country reflect the prototypical American Dream story. And I was able to learn about it in bits and pieces through the years from the adult relatives in my large Italian-American family.  

The two Italian immigrants began their life together in a company house, amid the squalor of the coal camp. In particularly dark moments, Grandpa would shake his head at the irony of his situation. “La Bella America,” he would mutter, feeling as much like an indentured serf as those friends and family he had left behind in Calabria. But here, he would reassure himself, there was still hope. Here, there was opportunity and Salvatore Costanza would make the most of it…