Angel of Petawawa
by Terri Favro
She looked like a pin-up of Betty Grable, hair curled into seductive blonde sausages, naked shoulders like two perfectly rounded scoops of ice cream.
“Need a ride, soldier?”
Mario tugged off his cap. “Oh, only if I’m not taking you out of your way, Muh-Miss. I’m headed to, to St. Catharines.”
The lady laughed. Mario smiled, not certain what was funny.
“What do you think, Charlie?” she said.
“You kiddin’? It’s two hunnert miles in the opposite direction.”
The deep voice came from behind the wheel, a peaked cap outlined by moonlight. Confused, Mario reached for his papers until he realized the driver wasn’t an officer but a chauffeur.
“Get in, young man,” said the lady. “Tonight of all nights, it’s impossible for a Canadian soldier to take us out of our way.”
Peering in at the lady through the open window of the roadster, Mario thought he saw a skinny white dog baring a mouthful of needle sharp teeth.
Saying a quick mental prayer that this wasn’t a dream – patri, figli e spiritu sancti – he opened the back door.
The roadster was a midnight blue Rolls: pre-war model, thirty-seven or -eight. As Guglielmo had told Mario when they were still working at the foundry, the minute Hitler invaded Poland, Rolls Royce stopped making cars and started cranking out Spitfire engines. Those Brits, they don’t miss a trick, said Guglielmo sliding his thumb sharply down his cheekbone.
This was the first Rolls Mario had seen outside of a movie house and the only vehicle of any kind he’d seen in two hours of hitchhiking with nothing but the creak of cicadas and the clack of his boot heels for company. To pass the time, he had fallen into humming a dreamy hymn to home cooking, his footsteps a metronome: ri-SOT-to, po-LEN-ta, agno-LOT-ti, zabag-LION-e, mine-STRON-e and a particularly wonderful BOUILL-ia-baise when his mother could get the fish. Belly empty, his mouth began to water.
With his head stuffed full of the rhythm of a breakfast of hot cas-TAGNE con latte, he didn’t notice the approaching car until the headlights caught him full in the face. He was so startled that he forgot to stick out his thumb. As the car slowed, then stopped, he stood on the gravel edge of road that fell into a weed-choked ditch, one of many that Guglielmo had dug in and around Petawawa.
The roadster’s headlights were the only glimpse of light beyond the harvest moon that hung in the sky like the red circle on the back of Guglielmo’s shirt, that time Mario passed him a pack of smokes through the barbed wire fence. A gift from Guglielmo’s wife Anna, mailed to Mario for safe passage; this little act of kindness could have got Mario into trouble – even taken into custody – but with his blonde hair and Canadian Infantry uniform, the guard had assumed that Mario was just a soft-hearted Canuck sharing tobacco from his care package with some poor bastard of a POW. Or so the guard would think, as long as he didn’t hear the rag ends of Mario’s accent: flattened, clipped, beaten down in the forge of the Ottawa Valley, but not completely gone. New acquaintances in Petawawa often squinted at him and asked What are ya, a Frenchman?
No words were exchanged as Guglielmo took the Chesterfields from Mario: he simply touched his nose twice before turning away. That’s when Mario saw the red target between Guglielmo’s shoulder blades, and watched him saunter over to the guard and proffer a few smokes; the guard looked away as he slipped them into his tunic pocket. Even behind barbed wire, Guglielmo knew how to grease the wheels.
The back of the roadster was as roomy as a good-sized pantry, with a butter-soft leather seat as wide as the chestefiore in Mario’s parents’ front parlour. When he crawled in next to the lady, he glanced a bit nervously at the skinny white dog, until he realized it was a length of fur ending in the head of a sharp-toothed rodent. A fur, on a hot August night? And since when did fur coats have teeth?
“Why are you staring?” asked the lady.
Mario nodded at the fur. “I, I, I thought it was a dog.”
Up front, the driver snorted.
The lady frowned and rapped on the sliding window between the front and back seats: “That’ll be enough,” she told the driver, then turning to Mario, added: “It’s a mink stole.”
For a moment Mario wasn't sure he had heard the word correctly.
“A meenka?” he tried.
“Mink,” repeated the woman, then added. “A nasty little animal with sharp teeth and lovely fur.”
Mario nodded. In Petawawa he had met lots of animals you could describe this way, beautiful but malevolent. Once, on maneuvers, he came face-to-face with a beast with bristling silver fur, canine in appearance, but too wild for a farm dog.
The dog-like animal had stared at him, mouth half open to reveal a picket fence of gleaming teeth. Mario thought he heard a low growl. It occurred to him that this dog might actually be a wolf, something he had never seen in Canada although his father had told him about hunting them with shotguns back in the Old Country. Pop had probably never been as well-armed as Mario was as a private in the Canadian Infantry. Even the old Franchi was confiscated from the hall closet once the family was put on the list of Enemy Aliens.
Unlike Mario, the wolf was accustomed to moving fast in deep snow. Mario gripped his rifle a little tighter but after a few careful paces forward, the doglike beast stopped and almost seemed to grin at him as if to say: If you and I went to your mamma’s house for a meal, would she give me something good? And then, thinking better of Mario and his gun – which he’d only ever fired at straw men in farmers’ fields – the animal turned tail and ran, setting off a fall of icing-sugar from some low-hanging branches. Mario was left alone in hip-deep snow with his silent weapon and a pounding heart.
That had been ages ago, January, before the thick heat and black flies made Mario long for the deathly cold of a Northern Ontario winter. Even though he was still in the army, everything else had changed since then. In May, the Germans surrendered and Mario’s heart was filled with joy thinking he’d be able to go home, until his regiment received news that they’d be moving west to “help the Americans,” as he explained in a letter to Juliana. He was going to British Columbia, and from there, to Japan.
All that changed again in early August when the Americans dropped a super-weapon on Hiroshima and again on Nagasaki. Mario guessed that the Americans had figured out how to split the atom – no surprise there, with the great Italian physicist Enrico Fermi on their side. Mario paid attention to such things.
Like a magician conjuring doves from a box, the lady produced two crystal glasses, rims spreading like lilies, and handed one to Mario. From a bucket of ice at her feet, she picked up a heavy green bottle and filled both their glasses.
“So, soldier, what shall we drink to?”
Mario, always a little shy with strange women, said: “Whatever you please ma’am,” then braver, added something he’d heard the other guys say: “It’s your party.”
The driver made a derisive sound, somewhere between a grunt and a laugh. The lady rapped again on the sliding window.
“That’ll be enough,” she said, then turned to Mario. “Don’t mind Charlie, he’s a vet, too, you know.”
“Oh yeah?” said Mario. “What theatre?”
“Not this lousy war,” answered the driver with a touch of scorn in his voice. “The Great War. France. I was at Vimy.”
Mario felt put in his place.
The lady lifted her glass and gave him another smile. “How about we toast to the end of the lousy war?”
“Sure,” he said, uncertainly; he was worried that he might not be demobilized, peace or no peace. There had already been talk of his regiment being re-enlisted to fight the Russians. Nonetheless, he lifted his glass and took a sip: fizzy sweetness filled his mouth, like Brioschi mixed with white wine. It was the first time he’d ever tasted champagne.
The lady watched him over the rim of her glass. “We haven’t been properly introduced, have we? You can’t keep calling me ma’am and I can’t keep calling you soldier. I’m Alice Fraser. And you?”
“Muh, muh, muh….”
The darn stammer again – it always happened when he was nervous. To make matters worse, he couldn’t decide whether today he should be “Mark” or “Mario.”
The stammer decided for him. “Muh, muh, Mario.”
“Ah, a French-Canadian boy. Thought so! You have the teensiest bit of an accent.”
Mario sipped his drink. No point in explaining things to her. What was he anyway – Italian? Canadian? British subject? Enemy alien? Safer to change the subject.
“Puh, peace!” exclaimed Mario. “I can’t believe it.”
“How can you not? The world is going crazy! It’s parties from one end of Renfrew County to another! I should imagine that’s why you went AWOL and started hitchhiking in the middle of nowhere.”
Mario lowered his glass, resting it on his knee; whatever was in this stuff was going to his head.
“No, Miss Fraser. I duh, didn’t go AWOL. I, I found a non-com to sign a 72-hour leave, so long as I go back to Petawawa.”
For the first time the lady’s movie star smile collapsed into a puzzled frown. “But the War’s over, sweetie.”
Mario took a deep breath, suddenly aware of just how bone weary he was. He waved his hands, trying to find the right words; he still hadn’t been able to teach himself not to gesticulate, as they called it in basic training. “I got to be demobilized first. Paperwork, ruh, rubber stamps. My discharge papers.”
Alice Fraser shook her head at him. “Then why in heavens’ name go to St. Catharines tonight? Some good parties going on in Ottawa where I live. We could go there now and have you back in Petawawa tomorrow, although I can’t guarantee you won’t have a sore head.”
Mario slid his hand down the stem of the glass. Good crystal, something he used to see when he caught a glimpse of the officer’s mess, a spread of heavy white plates and shining glassware, as glittering and luxurious as any table he had ever seen, even if the food looked miserably bland – boiled beef, mushy peas.
Julianna would love a set of glasses like this one. For their wedding, they had used his mother’s wine glasses bought at Eaton’s after one of his father’s little houses had sold. That would have been, what, 1938? When Mario was eighteen. A different time, a different world, when Pop could still make a living in construction, hiring Irishmen who’d been laid off from pick-and-shovelling the Welland Canal.
“I got a telegram from my mother this morning,” he told the lady. “My wife, she’s in labour. Our first baby. Maybe she’s even had him by now. Or her.”
The woman smiled down into her glass. “Well, well. A married man. What are you, eighteen? Twenty?”.
“Twenty-five,” declared Mario, slightly offended: why did everyone always take him for a kid?
“For a man of your years, you certainly are sweet looking. I guess the war was easy on you.”
Mario felt an uneasy sense of stepping into deep, deep water.
“I didn’t mean to embarrass you,” she said softly. “Am I making you nervous?”
“Nuh, no,” Mario lied.
Alice Fraser lifted her glass. “And what would your little wife say to all this?”
Mario searched for an answer.
“She, she’d say, thank you for bringing her husband home.” He paused. “She, she’s been real worried since I wrote her I was going to Japan.”
Alice Fraser shook her head and gave a laugh; not one of merriment. She almost sounded angry.
Mario threw back the rest of his drink. He had to get the hell out of here. Now.
“Ma’am, muh, miss…”
“Miss Alice, I, you, can let me off right here.”
Alice Fraser sighed. Sipped her drink. “I said Charlie and I would take you home, and take you home we shall. How long were you out there on the highway?”
Mario checked his wristwatch. “Two hours. And a half.”
“You must be all-in. Why don’t you get a little shut-eye? It will be hours before we’re anywhere close to St. Catharines.”
With that, Alice Fraser removed the glass from his hand.
As if granted permission, Mario laid back his head on the seat and closed his eyes. Exhaustion did the rest.
He found himself at Club Italia, 1939. Only this wasn’t a dream, not really, but a memory. The night Mario first danced with Juliana. Gu, as always, was greasing the wheels.
“Go dance! The girls all got eyes for you,” he kept urging Mario. “They think you look like Lesley Howard, that nob in Gone With The Wind.”
“Ah, ah, c’mon, Gu,” muttered Mario, embarrassed.
“È vero! And Anna says that one, the little firecracker in the red skirt, wants you to ask her to jitterbug.”
Mario had known Juliana most of his life, really, their families were paesani. But with her thick black curls and shapely legs, she seemed out of Mario’s league. Besides – and this was unusual for the girls from the neighbourhood – Juliana had her grade eight and was almost finished high school. She wasn’t just a cute little thing, she had a head on her shoulders.
“But I don’t know how to jitterbug,” protested Mario, letting Gu propel him forward with a laugh.
Then, the dream rushed him forward in time. He was at the foundry, the winter they took Guglielmo away.
There was no rhyme or reason to these things. Both Mario and Guglielmo had been fingerprinted the year before, both had been warned to report to the local police station every time they left town. But only Guglielmo was taken into custody.
Old Mister Sands provided a partial explanation: “We’re doing a lot of machining for the Forces. I need you. You’re skilled labour, Mark. You’re worth more to the war effort here than cooling your heels in some camp.”
“What about Guglielmo – I mean, Bill? He’s a good worker too. He was here before me.”
Sands shrugged. “You fit in better than Bill does. You seem more like a Canadian. You should thank your mother for your blonde hair and blue eyes – customers don’t even think you’re Italian. And Bill’s always hanging around at that club. Maybe he is a Fascist, who knows?”
Mario looked at his boss in surprise. Sands sometimes seemed to forget that Mario was the immigrant and Guglielmo the one born in this country.
“Mr. Sands, Bill’s no Fascist. The Fascists were the reason my folks left Italy. They, they tortured one of my Pop’s cousins; they, they do this awful thing with castor oil –”
Sands raised his hands. “Simmer down, I read the papers you know.”
“Guglielmo – Bill – he’s not like that.”
Sands crossed his arms. “Yeah, but what about the rest of them hotheads, filling the young guys’ heads with ideas? This is war, son. They could be fifth columnists.”
Mario struggled to control his emotions: he knew exactly why Sands was uncomfortable with Gu and his friends. Their slick black hair, their loud laughter, their religion, their language, their music, the way they whistled at women in the street. Drinking homemade wine out on the sidewalks in the evenings, when the police weren’t looking. Dragging tables outside to eat, sometimes with old Caruso records blasting on the gramophone.
“It’s a social club, Mr. Sands. They play cards and talk and have a little fun. Is that against the law in Canada?”
Sands shrugged again. “That’s what they claim they’re doing. But who knows what they’re babbling about? They could be plotting anything.”
Mario went back to work without a word. As he set up a part to be machined, he noticed that his hands were shaking.
That evening, at the kitchen table with Ma and Pop, there was a knock at the door. Ma stiffened, eyes wide, her hand on Mario’s arm until Pop opened the door to one of the neighbourhood kids.
“Signora Carlucci tol’ me, come get you, Mario,” said the kid, scratching his neck. “The Mounties, they wrecked their furnace.”
Mario got up and went for his jacket. Ma got up and followed him.
“Non andare,” whispered his mother, clutching his arm. “È pericoloso.”
“You end up in jail too, you not careful,” warned Pop.
But Mario had already put down his fork and was pulling on his boots. “If I end up in jail, I end up in jail. Guglielmo's wife is in the family way. You want me to leave her to freeze to death?”
“Sette zu, her people will help her,” insisted his mother.
Mario looked down at Ma. She wasn’t hard hearted. She had lost two older children to illnesses in the Old Country and lived in terror of losing Mario, too. She gripped the sleeve of his coat.
“I’m just going to fix their furnace,” Mario assured her, gently unfastening her fingers.
In the end, his father came with him, the two of them trudging through wet snow drifting to their ankles, hands in their pockets as they marched in silence the five blocks to Guglielmo’s house, a tiny stucco bungalow not far from the foundry. Anna met them at the door, her face red with tears and worry, her pregnancy hump protruding through the shawls that covered her. The house was freezing.
When she saw Mario she burst into tears. “Bless you, bless you! Everyone else is too afraid to come!”
In the basement, they found the boiler broken in pieces, scattered haphazardly on the dirt floor. Mario crouched down and surveyed the damage. It was going to be hard working down here in this low space; every time he stood, he smacked the top of his head on the ceiling pipes.
“Why they’d do this?” muttered Mario, rubbing his eyes. “Taking a man’s furnace apart and not putting it back together? Makes no sense.”
“They say they look for guns,” whispered Anna.
“You know where they take him, Missus?” asked Mario’s father.
Anna wiped her face with her shawl. “They no say. But the neighbour next door, he say they take his father to Toronto, then make them go up north. A place with an Indian name.”
Petawawa, said Mario to himself. He’d heard of others being sent there, starting in nineteen-forty. Not long after they’d closed down the high school for a week and dispersed the older Italian male students, including Guglielmo and himself. When the school re-opened, it was without the Italian boys, Mario’s hopes of a university education disappearing overnight. A few of the guys from the neighbourhood had disappeared, too. That’s when the word Petawawa starting going around. A camp where they sent soldiers but also prisoners of war.
Mario and his Pop worked through the night, calling on a friend down the street who had been a welder. As the house grew colder, Mario’s fingers began to go numb. Finally, he sent Pop home with Anna on his arm. Once his mother saw the pregnant woman, she’d look after her, danger or no.
After that night, Mario took care of Anna and her son – or tried to. When the bank account went empty, Mario sent a little extra from his paycheque. He talked to the priest, to the neighbours. He even got Sands to chip in.
Pop worried. “You gotta stay clear of this business or they take you too.”
“Guglielmo got me my job after they threw us out of school,” insisted Mario. “You just want to leave his wife and child to starve?”
“Her paesani should help her.”
“Her paesani are afraid.”
“You oughta be afraid too,” Pop pointed out. “They take you, maybe me too. Then what happen to mamma? Something happen to you, it kill her.” And there the conversation ended.
When Mario’s draft notice came in the mail, he showed it to Sands. The old man shook his head.
“Those idiots! You’re worth more building parts for tanks than riding in one.”
“Don't think I’ll be doing that either,” said Mario, examining the paper. “It says something about Military Intelligence.”
Sands spit into the sawdust on the foundry floor. “You know what they say about Military Intelligence? It’s a contradiction. Anyway, good luck to you, Mark. You get out of this in one piece, there’s always a job for you here.”
And with that , Mario followed Guglielmo to Petawawa, his early months in the Forces overlapping with the final months of Guglielmo’s detention. After that one visit through the barbed wire fence, Mario was relieved to receive a letter from Anna, telling him that a judge had signed Guglielmo’s release. They could simply find no reason to keep the man locked up.
But a few months later, another letter came from Guglielmo himself, saying that he’d been drafted into the Canadian expeditionary forces. He wrote to Mario that when he showed up at home in uniform, his little boy started crying at the sight of him.
I guess I’m a real Canadian now, he wrote to Mario in a letter heavy with blacked out sentences. The censor made sure that almost nothing was left of what Gu wanted to say.
When Mario married Juliana, Guglielmo stood up for him before they shipped him out to Sicily. A friend took a snapshot, Mario and Guglielmo both in uniform, Juliana’s hand through Mario’s elbow.
Guglielmo was sent home six months later, minus an arm. Despite not being “in one piece,” Sands grudgingly did the right thing and offered Gu his old job back. But the gulf had grown too wide. Gu signed up for correspondence courses in accounting and agreed to help get Mario’s father’s construction business back on its feet.
This war won’t last forever. When it ends, they’re going to need houses for all the vets, he wrote to Mario. Anyway, whoever heard of a one-armed ditch-digger? I‘m better off using my head than my back.
Mario awoke in the car to a soft, floral-scented weight on his shoulder: Alice Fraser asleep, her mouth open, snoring softly. The empty champagne bottle rolled at her feet.
Gently Mario adjusted her so that she was arranged more modestly on the seat.
Up front, music softly played. Moonlight Serenade. They must be within broadcasting range of Kingston or Toronto or some other big city.
“Where are we Charlie?” Mario asked in a low voice.
“Just comin’ to the edge of Hamilton. Almost home, buddy.”
He looked down at Alice Fraser asleep beside him, her blonde curls in disarray.
“She doesn’t seem very happy,” commented Mario.
“No reason to be,” said Charlie. “Lost her fiancé on D-Day.”
“Oh Jesus,” said Mario, breaking his own rule about taking the Lord’s name in front of women. He said a silent prayer of thanks that he was being sent back home, to his mother and Juliana.
Up front, he could just see the outline of Charlie’s jaw. They were on the Number 8 Highway now, familiar country, the headlights catching the rows of fences and fruit trees that rolled for miles. Good land around here, thought Mario approvingly, peach orchards and strawberry fields. It was even decent earth for grape growing, something Pop wanted to get into in a big way. The August air wafting in through the window smelled of home, sweet with that heavy smell of ripening peaches.
“Y’know Charlie,” said Mario. “Muh, miss Fraser was wrong. I’m, uh, not, Fuh-French-Canadian. I was buh-born in Italy.”
“Yeah, I figured it was something like that,” said Charlie. “Anyway, war’s over for you now, so who cares?”
“Right,” agreed Mario. “So, you say you saw action in France? What regiment were you in?”
Charlie cleared his throat. “Didn’t say nothing about action. I was in the construction battalion. Digging trenches, building shelters.”
“Ah, an engineering unit,” said Mario, nodding. “I, I’d like to be engineer myself one day.”
Charlie snorted. “Engineering’s a nice way to put it. Ditch digging, more like.”
Mario chuckled and looked out the window. He was beginning to like Charlie. Next to him Alice Fraser groaned in her sleep. Mario put a hand lightly on her head which lay somewhat immodestly on his khaki covered thigh. But he didn’t try to move her, instead praying for her future happiness.
“Brace yourself. We’re coming into town,” announced Charlie. They could hear the crowd on St. Paul Street before they saw it. Shouting, singing, music, the roar so loud Mario could feel it in his bones. And then, thumping: the revellers pounding the car doors and jumping on the hood. Someone spraying beer through the open window, shouting, Get out here soldier!
“Jesus,” said Mario, breaking his rule again. The car was stuck fast in a throng of people. Mario looked out in amazement at the joyous faces and dancing bodies pressed against the sides of the car.
“Don’t think we can go much faster than you can walk, pal,” observed Charlie. “You want to hoof it to the hospital from here?”
Charlie turned around to look back at Mario, a smile on his face.
It was only then that Mario realized that Charlie was a black man. He opened his mouth to express his surprise, then shut it. What was there to say? They were both vets, after all.
Mario nodded. “Thanks, Charlie.”
As he picked his duffel bag off the floor of the car, Alice Fraser sat up blurrily, her hand on her forehead. Mario took her hand in his, and kissed it.
“Thank you, Miss Fraser. I wouldn’t’ve made it home tonight without you. You’ve been an angel God sent to help me, I think.”
Alice Fraser shook her head. “You’re the angel, soldier. Get along to your wife, now.”
Mario tried to open the door, but the pressure of the crowd was too great. Finally he pushed his duffle bag through the window and followed it out, feet first. The crowd caught him and carried him away; he found himself swimming in the direction of Hotel Dieu Hospital, bodies buoying him up.
Ahead, on the hospital steps, he could see his father standing next to Guglielmo, whose left sleeve was pinned emptily to his shirt. When Mario finally staggered up the stairs, they both rushed down to embrace him.
“Buona fortuna! You have a daughter!” shouted Guglielmo, pounding his back. “If you’re lucky she’ll have Juliana’s looks and your brains.”
Mario kissed his father, whose face was streaked with tears – the first time he’d ever seen Pop cry. “How’s Juliana doing?”
Pop wiped his face with the back of his hand. “She good, even though the doc almost didn’t make it through the street. She give us the first Canadian baby in the family.”
Guglielmo laughed. “Hey, we’re all Canadians now. Go see your little girl,” and with his good arm, he pushed Mario firmly through the hospital door.
Dedicated to the memory of my father, Attilio “Tee” Favro, enemy alien, private in the Canadian Infantry, electrician and plant engineer, whose wartime experiences and long journey home on the night of August 15, 1945 inspired this story.
Terri Favro grew up in the Niagara area and lives in Toronto where she works as a freelance copywriter and magazine writer. Her work has been shortlisted three times for the CBC Literary Awards.