5/27/2009

Part 11 - The Ghosts of Ancient Cassino Awaken For the Giro


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(photos: Cassino, 1944)
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Roma, the night of Friday, May 27th. Dino Buzzati writes. . .

Why wasn't the ancient and noble town of Cassino waiting for the Giro's
racers today as they traveled from Napoli to Roma?

It would have been so nice, but on the contrary: There were no pretty girls
at the windows.

Even the windows were missing.

Even the walls were missing where windows should have opened.

There were no multicolored paper festoons strung between dilapidated little
pink houses.

Even the houses were missing.

The streets, too - there was nothing but shapeless rocks, baked and bleached
white by the sun,

and dust,

and wild grass,

and brambles,

and even a few shrubs indicating that nature was in charge here, to with rain, wind, sun, lizards, various members of the plant and animal world...

But man was no longer here - the patient creatures who for many centuries had lived, worked, loved, procreated in the intimacy of the dwellings they'd built for themselves, stone upon stone.

None of that exists any longer.

But was there really no one left in the gigantic white scar which gleams so savagely in the sunlight on one side of the valley?


But yes, there were some people still, reduced to unrecognizable fragments, bone slivers, or ashes. An old man, perhaps, or a woman, or a young man who had stubbornly refused to leave when the latest model of heavy artillery began the most meticulous and total demolition the world had ever seen, so that not even a two-meter stump of wall remained, not even the slightest bit of shelter behind which one small person had the chance to take cover. Everything was leveled, as it was at the beginning of the world; more so, in fact, because originally there were probably trees and bushes.

"The Giro?" came a reply. "But we here, the residents of ancient Cassino, are not ready. We lack everything necessary to properly welcome the racers. Be patient - we no longer have streets for them to ride on, nor eyes to see them, nor voices with which to cheer them, nor even hands to applaud them."

"Come on, wake up!, even if only for a moment. Bartali is here, and Coppi, too. Don't you want to see them, if only out of curiosity? Half a minute is plenty... come, make some effort, and then you can go back to sleep. They go fast, these Giants of the road - you barely manage to get a glimpse of them, and they are gone" (But this is a lie, because today the Giants of the road, these "devourers of kilometers", these human locomotives, looked more like lazy slugs as they ambled along in friendly groups, chatting away, not even thinking about doing battle; and only at the last moment, almost at the gates of Roma, will there be the obligatory attack by young novices, so full of hope, but the Aces will not concern themselves, so the eight escapees - Ricci, Frosini, Pasotti, Rossello, Vincenzo, Schaer, Busancano, Cerami, Dubuisson - will arrive at the Appio velodrome with a small lead, and will finish in that order).

"No, no, let us sleep." the voice of old Cassino replied, "Go ask the others - those who stayed some distance away. See? There, where the valley widens. They are starting to rebuild there, the "new" Cassino, I mean - it is already rising. They've worked hard, haven't they?"

"Yes, we see, but it is something quite different. A stirring and quite beautiful example of human tenacity. However the hideous, prison-like architecture has nothing to do with the city of old. It isn't even logical, since life in such ugly houses will always be sad and uncomfortable. This is not Cassino - it is a strange and different creature that makes the scar on the side of the valley stand out even more cruelly."

"I understand," the voice said, "but it is too late. If we were to rise again, even for a minute, it would terrify the living. They remember and love us, as long as we remain silent and motionless underground. Too much time has passed. The years erase everything. Just here is where my room used to be, my bed, a picture of my favorite saint, a corn cob hanging on the wall, a rifle, two or three books, a wash stand and basin - now there is a hazelnut tree, and robins hopping among its branches. Perhaps it is better this way, and better for us to forget the Giro."

"The Giro? What's that?" asked Martin J. Collins, awakened by the ear-splitting racket of the Klaxons (car horns) and the noisy rattle of bicycles. He was once a soldier attached to ammunition supply, and now, a bloodless ghost, settled here for all eternity. (There had been a white flash, a tremendous explosion, a great cloud of dust, and nothing remained of the handsome young man, not even his helmet, himself mere dust - in fact, just a vague memory.) And with some difficulty he raised his sleepy head from his rustic tomb of rock and wind and sun.

"Was ist los?" asked a voice a meter away, the voice of former feldwebel Friedrich Gestern; he, too, transformed into pure remembrance by a masterful shot. He was sleeping, he was awakened by the sound of cars. He rubs the sleep from his tired eyes.

And others, invisible to us, awaken along the slopes that have become green again in the small valley that today, in the May sunshine, looks like a tiny paradise, but which five years ago was crawling with corpses. How many there are! A massive army of mixed uniforms and races - men who butchered each other and who now rest side by side in peace, reconciled by eternal armistice.
"Not to worry, brave men." we say to them. "It's the Giro; it does no harm. These boys pedal, exert themselves, try to race as fast as they can (except for today). And why? For nothing of any importance... for the pleasure of winning. For the satisfaction of those who watch them, because if man isn't fighting in one way or another he becomes uneasy.

But pardon us - perhaps this is not something for you. It is life, that's what it is, in its most ingenuous, sensationalized form, but for you I'm afraid it's somewhat irritating,. Pardon us.

"We were only passing by. If we have awakened you, we apologize. We wanted only to say "Hello" to the old Cassino that no longer exists (and you know a thing or two about that). Do not worry, we are leaving right away, then you won't see us again for at least another year. Sleep well, my children!"

And the procession of Champions (well, perhaps not champions today) with its sacrilegious voices filed past below the terrible white scar, then vanished again into the green countryside. Soon not even its echo could be heard.



And back there in new Cassino, at the far end of the valley, the stonemasons started hammering again, and time began to pass once more over the shattered rocks and white rubble which follows the side of the mountain.

The haggard specters lay down again, rested their cheeks against the compassionate earth, and went back to sleep. And us? We looked at the swarm of racers, so cheerful with all those colorful jerseys and sparkling bicycles, we looked at the spectators quivering with impatience, the traffic policemen bustling to control the retinue's speed, that whole little world galloping madly toward the north of Italy.

The sunshine was splendid. . . it was hot.

And then they will ask us, "Are they all still together in one group?"

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