Grandpa Caruso is the patriarch of the family. He is an octogenarian who is full of living history. He was not born in America, but he was born in the year of the stock market crash. With no hospital in the town, he was born at home, with a doctor in attendance, a rather modern occurrence for the small town in Sicily. The Caruso family was considered middle class, having both a home in the town and a retreat in the mountains where his father had a vineyard. Winters were spent in town and most of the summers were at the vineyard.
His home town, Santa Maria di Licodia, was founded in 1143 AD as a territory of Paterno, a larger nearby town. In 1840, Santa Maria di Licodia gained administrative independence and became a province of the larger city of Catania, in southern Sicily, where it still remains. Sicily can better be described as a large island completely surrounded by the clear blue Mediterranean Sea. The southern part of Sicily exists in a tropical environment. Snow is visible year round, but only as a shawl like wrap covering the upper portion of the very active volcano, Mount Etna. Mount Etna is a looming, dominant, presence visible throughout all of southern Sicily. Throughout most of the year, the evening sky displays halos of red at the top of Mount Etna. The red glow is often highlighted with shooting sparks of golden molten lava. Santa Maria di Licodia sits along the southern baseline of Etna and fortunately, more than ninety-five percent of all lava eruptions flow down the side of the volcano away from the town. Even with the nearly nightly displays of lava activity, snow remains affixed to the volcano just below its peak. It is an awesome sight of fire and ice.
The lava enriched soil is accredited with making the trees, flowers, fruits, and vegetables of Southern Sicily bigger, more beautiful and lush than elsewhere in all of Sicily. Prickly pears grow abundantly wild throughout the area. The average person would be greatly puzzled to understand the fruits’ allure for Grandpa Caruso when the ruby red interior meat is bitterer than any sour lemon…ever. The fruit has genuinely earned its name; having long prickly stickers all over its exterior. Another large produce is their world famous blood oranges that reach their peak during January. The blood orange has a ruby red interior that resembles a red grapefruit. Its taste is also bitter, like the grapefruit.
Little Grandpa Caruso’s father worked in an orange grove during the fall and winter and grew his own grapes during the spring and summer. The end of the grape harvesting season marked the start of the orange growing season. The crossover from grapes to oranges was, and still is, marked with a family event. Everyone in the close family circle, grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and children would gather at the vineyard on one Sunday in October. That day the men would pick the grapes; the women would prepare and cook specialty foods for the huge meal, complete with roasted chestnuts and homemade pastries. The children had a wonderful day in the country, playing around the house at the vineyard, helping to roast the chestnuts, dancing to the accordion someone was playing, or tagging behind the men as they harvested the grapes.
After the meal, the men would sit around the patio telling stories of times past, play cards, or sing to whatever song someone was playing on the accordion. The women washed dishes, cleaned up the eating area, folded chairs, and replaced dishes and silverware in the drawers of large handmade wooden closets to be ready for next year. The linen tablecloths and napkins, no paper towels or napkins back then, would be taken into town, washed, ironed, and folded for someone to take back to the vineyard. The Sunday grape harvest was a time that everyone looked forward to with delight. That was one day when the family was all to be together and to help each other as a labor of love. It was not a national or religious holiday, it was a family day. This was the annual way of life for Little Grandpa Caruso; that is, until World War II.
During the war years in Europe, 1939 to 1945, the family spent more than one day a year at the vineyard. When the Nazis occupied Sicily in 1939, they established an airfield in nearby Cervini, taking over an area of wheat fields. There never was a runway built, the aircraft would take off and land on grass. The Nazis made a lot of demands on the people of Santa Maria di Licodia to give up all their weapons, radios, chickens, and horses. Rather than surrender their possessions to the Germans, Little Grandpa Caruso’s family loaded up their cart, hitched it to the family horse and relocate at the vineyard. For nearly three months the family stayed in the mountains and hid the horse in a cave.
Just like in M*A*S*H, everyday at high noon from 1940 to 1943, actually anywhere from 11:50 to 12:10, Allied plans would fly over the lower ground and drop bombs in hopes of striking German targets. The planes were too far away to precisely determine if they were American or British aircraft. Little Grandpa Caruso’s parents were very compassionate and would share whatever they had with anyone who reached their location. The Carusos, and whoever else was at the vineyard, would watch the daily airstrikes from the relative safety of the hillside.
Little Grandpa Caruso thought all that time at the vineyard was a great adventure, not fully realizing the dangers that his parents were trying to protect the family from. That is, until the day that his father asked Little Grandpa Caruso to walk over to the hillside home of the village butcher to get some meat for the family. The town butcher had also left Santa Maria di Licodia for the safety of his mountain home. The butcher was also a great humanitarian. Occasionally, during the months in the hills, the butcher would risk being discovered by the Nazis by taking a cow to the slaughter house in Santa Maria di Licodia. The meat was then wrapped in sheets and carted back to the hillside. The butcher would distribute the food to whoever came to his home; payments were left to fate for when people returned to the town. That day, when Little Grandpa Caruso was on his way back to the vineyard with the fresh meat wrapped in a sack on his back, he came across another relocated townsman.
This man told him that the Germans were on the hunt for more horses so they could travel light as they deserted their airfield in Cervini to make their way to Messina as they wanted to avoid the invading British forces. The man also told Little Grandpa Caruso that if he wanted to see what happened to German soldiers who tried to take people’s horses, all he had to do was look behind a certain large tree at a certain bend in the road on the way back to the vineyard. Little Grandpa Caruso wanted to see what the man was talking about and watched for this spot on his way back. The location the man spoke about finally came into view and Little Grandpa Caruso left the edge of the road to see what was in the brush. This was the first time that he had ever seen dead bodies, three of them to be exact. This in-your-face- sight of the facts of war matured Little Grandpa Caruso like nothing else could have. He had a greater appreciation for what his parents and the other townspeople were trying to do to protect themselves and their families.
Little Grandpa Caruso’s parents, and the others in the town, were totally on the side of the American and British forces. Shortly after their retreat into the hills, the British arrived and took over security of Santa Maria di Licodia. The townspeople could not have been more grateful. Little Grandpa Caruso was deeply moved by the valor, compassion and bravery of the British troops. But, it was his love for the America his mother told him about and his love for American big band music that sealed Little Grandpa Caruso’s determination to come to America when the war was over. His dream came true when he arrived in New York City on May 14, 1949.
(Writer’s note: Now that you have been introduced to Little Grandpa Caruso, I hope that you will check back to read about his life and times in the years before and during World War II in the town of Santa Maria di Licodia).