Monday, June 11, 2018

EOCAWKI: What my dad taught me about patriotism

My father, Gino Mattera, emigrated from Italy to the U.S in 1946, joining his father, Antonio, who had been supporting his family by living and working here since the 1920s. My grandfather, a longshoreman on the Brooklyn docks, sent money back to Italy regularly and went back to be with his wife and kids as often as he could manage. World War Two made travel back to Italy impossible for a number of years,  but they were able to exchange messages
My dad, Gino Mattera, enjoying Manhattan Beach.
He loved living in that neighborhood.
through the Red Cross. My dad used to tell of opening envelopes from his father and pulling out letters wrapped around crisp $5 bills. Those letters and gifts were much needed since times were tough in Italy.  My father and his siblings came of age under Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship when both money and personal freedom were scarce. And the messages from my grandfather were signs of hope for a better future.
      My dad and his brother, my Uncle John, both told me at various times how they were required at school to sing fascist songs and demonstrate their patriotism with fascist salutes. Patriotic fervor was encouraged with beatings for those who failed to sing or salute with enough enthusiasm.  Ultimately, Italy was liberated by English and American troops. When the war finally ended and communication with the U.S. was re-established, my dad readily agreed to join his father in the U.S., land of opportunity and freedom. He arrived in New York on a cold and snowy
The Marine Shark, the Liberty Ship that brought my
       Dad to the U.S. in 1946.
day in February 1946 aboard the USS Marine Shark, a Liberty Ship.  My grandfather met him at the dock. He had a warm coat waiting, placed it on my dad’s shoulders and said, “Let’s go home.” My father said it was strange to hear those words since he was so far from what had been home to him. But it wasn’t long before his heart and his home were American.
     My father never took for granted his freedom or the opportunity this country gave him to be successful. After serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, he bought a fruit and vegetable store in Brooklyn. After a couple of years, he sold it and went to work in the fashion industry.  He and my mom, Gilda, eventually owned, operated, then sold a well-regarded firm that imported women’s clothing. Ultimately, they retired comfortably in Manhattan Beach, a neighborhood in which my dad always aspired to live and where he was very happy and comfortable.
    A couple of weeks after 9/11, I went up to visit my folks. Like so many others they were traumatized by what had happened. They were glued to the TV. The smoke rising from Ground Zero was visible from the end of their street. My dad and I took the subway into the City to get a first-hand look at the horror. From the moment we exited the subway at Fulton Street, the smell of smoke and death was with us. My father held a handkerchief to his face the whole time. The devastation was horrendous, but I think what hit him hardest that day was the sight of soldiers carrying automatic weapons in Lower Manhattan. Armed soldiers on the street in his city, in his country! This wasn’t supposed to happen here. It must have brought him back to a time he had left far behind. He told me, “This doesn’t feel like the country I came to.” Yet, he loved it here to his dying day, in large part because he knew what it meant to live under an authoritarian regime.
    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my dad and the compulsory patriotism of his youth under Fascist rule. I don’t for a single second say or even imply that we’ve descended to that level in our country. I do, however, get concerned when I hear people complaining about how others choose to display their patriotism in public — or choose not to.
    I inherited my dad’s love for this country.  I learned from him what it means to live in a country that isn’t free. So, I cherish what we have here. I get chills when I hear our National Anthem at the Olympics and I stand and sing it proudly at ballgames. And one reason I do is because I know that in this land of the free, no one can force me to do that if I don’t want to. And if this truly is the home of the brave, no one ever will.

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