A Trip Down la Strada…
And now, a guest post from my great-grandfather. For my book project on his life, I’m going to be drawing quite a bit from Guy Hickok’s letters and articles and, in some cases, offering them unedited. This is one I will probably leave uncut: it was written for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in April 1927 and was one of two articles written by Guy Hickok when he and Ernest Hemingway made a 2,000 mile drive through fascist Italy, the trip depicted in Hemingway’s short story “Che Ti Dice la Patria?”.
Mussolini’s Fascist Militia Good to Look at, but Make Botch of Guarding Crossings
Genoa, Italy, April 8–There are more kinds of police and inspectors in Italy than anywhere in Europe, with” the possible exception of Spain. And the lot of them are uniformed and armed like soldiers.
In fact, one may say with a certain facetious justice that in Italy all of the agents of authority look more like soldiers than the soldiers do.
The smartest, the most ubiquitous, and the most authoritative of all are the Fascist militia. Though a strictly party army they are on government pay, and are the best dressed and equipped of the lot. One finds them everywhere, at customs frontiers, in public squares and even on. duty, guarding railroad crossings.
Not So Good as Crossing Guards.
Most of the crossings do not need them. They have gates which old women nearby close as often as they can and open only when they must. And their value when they do guard crossings is doubtful. One we found doing so nearly got us killed and then made us pay a fine for it.
We were bowling along at the head of the usual cloud of ‘Italian dust when we approached a crossing from which one could easily see a mile in either direction. We would have seen the mile, too, had not we first seen our uniformed Fascist away the other side of the track, waving his hand in some kind of a frantic signal.
In a desire to get near enough to see what he wanted we drove up to him just as he arrived in the middle of the tracks; and then only did we see an electric train coming,
Hades-bent-for-election, straight at us. The militiaman blocked the way across; and the best we could do was to back off as the locomotive whirled by, the motorman shouting uncomplimentary comments at us until out of hearing.
Prompt in Assessing Fine.
Our Fascist had his little book out and was writing the amount of our fine in it before the last car went by.
“Aha! You didn’t stop at an open crossing. You’ll pay for that,” he said, and wrote our license number down.
“How were we to know?” protested Hemingway in Italian. “There is no sign to say so. And why were you on the other side of the track if you are on guard here?”
“It makes no difference. It’s the law,’ said the militiaman. “I saved your lives anyway. I stopped you in time.”
“You did not save our lives. You nearly got us killed. If you hadn’t been making such a fuss we would have seen the train. And if we hadn’t seen it, we would have been across in plenty of time. You stopped us on the track. We had time to reverse and back off as it was. We could have gone 100 feet ahead a lot quicker.”
This did not please the militiaman at all.
“The next time I’ll let you get run over and then we will all be content;’ he said. “Give me 25 lire ($1.25).”
Paid to Avoid Delay.
We gave it. (The alternative was to await trial.) We went on very warm under our collars. And afterward we wasted a lot of time stopping at crossings where there were no trains and, we saw always too late, no Fascisti. Another one fined us later for something else; but that is another story. The Fascisti are usually in gray, in the uniform of the famous old Arditi, toughest of Italian troops, whom they have absorbed.
Ordinary street policemen are in quite as soldierly uniforms, puttees, pistols and all, but in navy blue. A few of the carabinieri, or country police, wear the old, archaic, long-trousered uniform, with a Napoleonic varnished hat with a flat back that facilitates leaning against the nearest walls; but most of them as well are in dark army duds.
Customs Guards Another Type.
Still another type of soldier-police are the customs guards. One finds them cycling or walking along country roads, presumably looking for smugglers, though what smugglers would be doing away inland is a mystery. They, too, are in army tailored uniforms, also navy blue.
The Dazia, or municipal customs men, who tax food, wine, oil and other commodities as they cross the various city lines, and who stop all automobiles, although they obviously carry nothing but tourists, are equally soldierly in appearance.
Then occasionally we would pass a more forlorn looking military person near a big barrack building.
As a newcomer I could at first identify none of these various uniforms. But Hemingway fought the war in some of them and used to know Mussolini two years before he had the Fascisti ready to march on Rome. In fact, Hemingway prophesied the march a year and a half before it happened, but then nobody believed him. Anyway he knew the uniforms. And when I asked about the poorest and most unmilitary looking uniforms we saw he said: “Oh, that’s a mere soldier. He’s just in the regular army.”