Monday, 3 November 2014

The life of a Palermitan

This is a guest post.

Pietro was born in 1917 (I will leave much of his childhood out of this version of the story) but by the late 1930s Italy was conscripting young Italians to serve with their campaign in North Africa. Italians, and particularly Sicilians (who, for centuries, have been invaded by many peoples) understand that integrating invaders into their system is better than fighting them. So Sicilians are not the best people to conscript into an effective fighting force! Pietro had two brothers and two sisters, the eldest. Lina, will die during the second world war from a blood infection. While the children are growing into adults, there will be murder within their mother's family and their father will spend time in prison. There are many unanswered questions even to this day!

As Pietro is from a family of farmers, the offer of a military position, as a conscript, where he can learn a trade seemed particularly interesting to him. Additionally, his mother has just destroyed his bicycle. Pietro loved cycling the Sicilian countryside - and even won races (recorded in Giornale di Sicilia). It was a family affair and his youngest brother Giovanni even had a bicycle shop at one stage. The three brothers would cycle to Mondello just for the fun of it and for the beach. For Pietro, losing that bicycle was the last straw, and he entered the army to demonstrate his independence. 

In military service, Pietro learnt quickly, and rapidly advanced from a Fiat trained mechanic to a vehicle driver for senior members of the military force in Abyssinia (Ethiopia). We know little of his actual war service other than he was captured at Amba Alagi in 1941, along with thousands of other Italians, mostly conscripts. The British had a problem with so many prisoners and shunted them off to India while Australia organised to accept many of these POWs. Pietro was in India for more than a year and we have only a few "palm tree" photos as proof of this period. He was eventually sent to Australia where he ended up at the Cowra POW camp along with, by near the war's end, 14,719 other Italian prisoners.

Like most of the Italian POWs, Pietro saw that life was mostly good in Australia, and that there were opportunities that didn't exist back home. Of course, in the meantime his home had been bombed and perhaps he didn't realise how bad it was there until he was forcibly repatriated more than a year after the war had finished in Europe. But while he was in Australia he was happy to be sent out to work on farms around the Cowra area. It was on one of these farms that he met his wife-to-be. Joy was in the Land Army, which was an organised volunteer group of women sent to help with agriculture while their brothers and fathers were fighting in Europe and South Asia. Joy's father, Bert, owned some land and grew some food for the war effort - a veteran of WW1, he was also employed in the Australian Army in WW2! Joy and her mother Emily were very fond of Pietro and perhaps Emily was a little shocked when Pietro escaped from the POW camp with Joy and took the train to Sydney where they married - only an uncle was present as witness. Of course an escaped prisoner, even an Italian POW who was used to returning without guards to the camp before sunset, was a problem. So, Pietro, after a short while, surrendered to Victoria Barracks and was sent back to Cowra with armed guards.

Both Joy and Pietro's new mother-in-law, worked hard to try and have Pietro remain in Australia. It was the government's policy that all POWs would be repatriated, so despite many letters, including some to the federal Minister for Immigration, Pietro was eventually sent back to Italy. Back home, he renewed friendships but we're not sure how his family viewed his return - was he the long lost son, or as the eldest child, the one attempting another escape from his family obligations? Either way, in just twelve months he had found the money for the fare back to Australia. He would never return to Sicily.

In a short time, he found employment with General Motors Holden in Melbourne, assembling Australia's first home grown car. Pietro and Joy's first child arrives right at the end of 1949. He builds a house and another child is born in mid 1953. Pietro finds it difficult in a post-war Australia but he works hard and decides that the city is not the place for his family. He buys a small property but cannot make anything from it so he works for a successful dairy farmer near Yarram while learning all he can. In a short time he has the deposit for a dairy farm of his own near Woodside in South Gippsland. His children go to the Bunnaloo primary school and then secondary school at nearby Yarram. His wife loses two girl-children shortly after birth before a boy Philip and then a girl Donna are born. Joy is only a slight woman and her health has been affected by childbirth and the stress and isolation of country life (remember she is a city girl from Sydney and her parents are getting old and frail and cannot visit regularly). Joy's mother passes away during this time. Pietro's mother also passes away, and although he never returns to Italy, he hears of his Italian relatives' progress through his remaining sister Antonietta who regularly provides updates and occasional photos.

While farming at Woodside, Pietro's brother Giovanni arrives with wife Grazia and three children. Strangely, the brothers have managed to have two boys, each called Peter and Philip - but this is not unusual as the Garganos believe in recycling their ancestors' names! It is unclear if the two brothers successfully rekindled their childhood friendship and it's quite likely that each found the other profoundly changed by a lifetime of quite different experiences. Giovanni finds a place in Melbourne with Grazia and their children. At this point no-one knew that Giovanni's health would gradually, almost imperceptibly at first, decline, and that his children and wife would be putting him into care around 20 years later.

Pietro's dairy farming business is very successful as he is an intelligent and hard worker. His neighbours are jealous of his success! With his hard earned wealth, that he does not splash around for others to see, he feels the need to move out of the demanding life of a dairy farmer to an irrigated property in southern NSW where the regularity of the morning and evening milking is replaced by the demands of heavy machinery required to sow and reap rice and wheat, and the seasonal work required to manage sheep and some few cattle he keeps mainly for milk and meat.

Pietro and Joy's two older children are successful academically and both receive scholarships to go to university. The two younger children are still at primary school when the two elder children leave home. Perhaps Pietro would like his first son to work on the farm with him? More likely, he would prefer his children have professional careers in an increasingly technological world. Neither Pietro nor Joy make demands of their children - they know that they themselves have made choices that saw them leave their families for a different, and sometimes difficult life, that they perceived would be better.

Eldest daughter and son, Prue and Peter come home from time to time, even allowing their parents to have a holiday with the younger children while the property is looked after. Pietro meanwhile rekindles a wish he had many years ago to move further north to an irrigation area that didn't exist until after WW2. Prue has married and moves to The Netherlands to have two children, while Peter continues studying and trains to be a secondary science teacher because he can't think of anything better to do! Time marches on and the younger children are almost ready to finish school. Peter has now taught for two years and decides he has enough money to travel overseas. He leaves in early February 1978. That year his father finds a property in the Coleambally irrigation Area. There is much work to do at this new property and his family are surprised they will be moving.

But by the end of the year, a time that sees Joy, Donna and Philip temporarily living near Echuca for Philip's final school year, tragedy has struck. Pietro is knocked from his agricultural motor bike by a teenage bank teller driving near the property on a Wednesday before Christmas 1978. It will be several days before Peter can come from England and Prue from The Netherlands. Pietro is dead at just 61 years old.

His brother Giovanni will arrive for the funeral from Melbourne but he gets lost - this is one of the first sure signs all is not well with Pietro's brother. It's unclear if any of Pietro's Italian based family had enough warning of the funeral, or if they were in a position to come such a long way. Antonietta will arrive some years later with her son Giulio to see her brother's grave which is in a semi-grassless lawn cemetery - she will be shocked that Pietro's only memorial is a small brass plaque, and her Australian born nephews and nieces will find it impossible to explain that this is not unusual in Australia.

Peter, Donna and Philip along with Prue, who stays for a short while before returning to The Netherlands, will reap the rice crop that Pietro has planted. There will be a "clearing sale" where farm equipment is sold and plans are made for Joy and the family to move to Canberra where Peter has begun a second graduate diploma (in Computing Studies). But another tragedy will befall the family - Joy will die in a "head-on" vehicle collision on the same day and almost to the same hour as her husband, but a year apart. Prue will again travel from Europe, this time with her two children. Peter will travel by car from Canberra and will have his own accident about 100km from home - two droving dogs will race out onto the road as Peter drives past and there is no time to stop. Both dogs will die instantly, Peter will be confronted by the dogs' distraught owner pulling a shotgun on him, and will be "saved" by a following motorist slowing and jerking the dog owner out of his apparent trance. Peter will report the incident to police and will repair his car at his own expense. This time he will see his remaining parent's blood and he will visit his brother and sister in hospital. And years later, recalling this, he will shed a tear that he could not find then.

There is another funeral. Peter is amazed that he finds his parents "friends" stealing their  personal possessions even before his very eyes. At 26 Pietro's son experiences some of the harsh realities of life Pietro at the same age would himself have experienced as a newly minted Australian POW of 1943. He ponders if this behaviour is normal at funerals in a country created from convicts and immigrants. This isn't the first time Peter wonders who he really is, where his home is, and who his friends really are, but it will start him asking questions about his family - just as his father probably did 36 years earlier.

There will be a single new plaque for Pietro and Joy, who will be laid side by side in the same lawn cemetery. It is the first few weeks of the 1979/1980 Australian summer and it is hot in Coleambally.




Peter Gargano

Caveat emptor: some of the dates and times are written from memory.

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