In Italy when I was young, men were still required to do national service. If I had to be in the military, I wanted at least to do something I thought would be exciting, so I signed up for the paratroopers. I liked to fly, didn’t mind jumping from things. They were fascists mostly, and they despised people like me from the South. Terrone was the word they used. Doesn’t translate well into English.
This guy from Torino, we usually used our last names in the army, but he came up with the name daisy for me. We were sitting outside on a really hot day, sniffing poppers, stoned. We were on break, but still if we’d gotten caught we’d have been in trouble. “Daisy,” he said, looking at me. It stuck. After that everybody called me Daisy. Wasn’t because I was gay or anything. I kept that to myself, was careful around the other guys. It was recognized on some level, I guess, deep down, but it was never an issue. Even later, when, let’s call him Massi, and I had started to spend time together, after we became lovers, nobody said a thing about it. We held hands on the plane the whole time coming home from Africa and nobody said a word. There was a respect within the group, respect for one another. Even now, if I needed somewhere to stay, they’re the guys I’d call.
As I worked for the Colonel, the guys would come to me if they needed anything.
I didn’t have to wait in line for food at the canteen, could always get an extra plate of pasta for someone if they asked me for it. We were hungry all the time. We were growing boys. And I could be sure you got a weekend out of camp, or the best schedule, the choice work details. It was like being a prison boss, only I was a skinny 19-year-old kid with his pants hanging over his boots. You were supposed to keep your pants tucked into your boots when you were a newbie, but I never did. Daisy was a respected guy. He could do a hundred pushups. I was the first one to jump from the high board in the pool. 12 floors up, and I had to put potatoes on my face because I hurt my eyes. But I was respected.
It wasn’t like the army seems to be now. We smoked a lot of weed, horsed around. Our parents might not have been hippies, but they were affected by the changes coming from beyond Italy. Even the fascists had parents who’d taken on some of what was happening in Paris, in California. What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that when it came to the army, we weren’t believers, most of us. We were nineteen, twenty. The military gave us a place to stay, food. We had girls, booze. The camp was in Siena, which is basically a small town. At 6pm, when the bell would ring and the new recruits could leave the caserma, there were girls waiting for them, and some gay guys as well. I had a few off my own, older mostly, thirty-somethings who’d taken the train from Florence.
I didn’t meet Massi until later, in Somalia. He was in the Folgore like I was, just a different battalion. It was 92, 93 and we were part of the ONU, the peacekeeping mission sent to try and keep the cease-fire in place in Mogadishu. I wasn’t expecting to go myself. I was too short, had poor eyesight. I was hungry for any kind of new experience, so I was disappointed when they said I didn’t qualify. But there, on the roster for the week, I think it was a Thursday when we got our work assignments, was my name along with the other men being sent overseas. A week later I was in Somalia.
When you see it in the movies or read about Mogadishu at that time, you get a pretty grim picture. Terrible things were certainly happening, but my experience there was a little different. Other than protecting the old Via Imperiale, the major route running north to south in the country, my battalion mostly distributed food to villages outside the city. Our base was pretty far from Mogadishu, surrounded by desert. When we did have to go on patrol, and I scouted by myself a bunch of times at night, what was striking about the place was how beautiful it was. It was strong, definite. The sky was everywhere, stars so thick when the sun went down that you could walk from one to another like rocks across a stream. It was dry most of the time, but when it did rain, I’ll never forget the way the sand developed cracks that raced off in every direction. The sun was intense, irrepressible. Out from under shade, and with all the gear we had to wear, you’d forget to breathe it was so hot.
Of course most of the time we were stuck in camp. There were these huge tents that had been put up by the people before us. That’s where everybody was most of the time, when you were off work at least. The army’s a job, meaning you have hours when you’re assigned stuff to do and then after 4 you have your own time. That’s when you’d see people at the spaccio, playing cards, drinking coffee, having a sandwich or something. One of my jobs was working at the spaccio. I used to make the guys laugh, try to lighten the mood. We didn’t serve drinks, but I played the part of the bartender. People would tell me things. They got very protective of me, probably because they recognized it didn’t make much sense my being there in the first place. I wasn’t as big or strong as some of the other guys, and I wasn’t good at soldier stuff. We were having shooting practice one day, flat on the sand. I hadn’t hit the target once. My clip fell out at some point. I was the last to finish. You might expect the other guys to go after me for that, but they didn’t. There was an innocence to the whole thing, an innocence to us, despite where we were and what we were doing. It’s tough to explain.
It was late in my deployment, not long before I was to go back to Italy. Massi came up, big smile on his face. I couldn’t help smiling too. He was from Sicily, handsome. He was clean shaven, his hair straighter than mine. There was something sexy in the way he wore his uniform, in the way he leaned. Immediately there was something between us. We wanted to touch one another but couldn’t. He didn’t say much. We never did say much, just smiled. We smiled for a month and a half.
I can’t remember the specific things we said, but when we did talk, we teased one another. It was a kind of seduction. We were playing something out, but in a place where we knew none of this would be allowed. I would give him free stuff. Sometimes maybe one of us would touch the other’s shoulder, like a friend might, nothing obvious, nothing that could get us in trouble. Like I said, the Folgore were facist, particularly the officers. They wanted things a particular way.
Massi and I never talked about politics. The general feeling wasn’t very positive, at least in terms of the conflict. We were there but weren’t allowed to do anything, even when they knew where the guys were who created most of the problems. For me, the whole place was remarkable, I was surprised to see men holding hands when I got there, intrigued by the way people lived, religious things, the call to prayer.
On the last day we got stuck in Mogadishu waiting for the plane to take us back to Italy. Somehow Massi and I ended up walking together towards the beach. Both of us knew what was going to happen without words. Our pace quickened as we moved farther from the rest of the platoon. It was the beginning of sunset, the boulders lit up then dimmed. The beach was rock, not sand, but we found a boulder to lay on. Bombing had started a mile or so south and inland. He and I were wearing different uniforms. Massi was in sand camouflage, I was wearing green, our camp colors. Could have been two different sides if someone didn’t know better.
We stripped off our equipment, backpacks, our shirts. It took forever to get our boots off, so we just left them on and pulled our pants down to our ankles. We smiled about that, like we’d been smiling all along, but different somehow, our hands quickened.. Even in the evening it was hot. We were sweating, hadn’t washed in days. The army sent shower kits in boxes, but they didn’t work that well, and in any case there wasn’t enough water at camp for a shower more than once a week. I liked the way he smelled. The heat coming off his body and passing into mine. There were bombs going off a little closer now, spirals of light and smoke like fireworks, spark. the thud of the of ground, bombs and buildings coming apart.
It felt like it was just for us, all of it, the sea, the city in the distance, the way time stuttered a little. I don’t know how long we were there, but we had weeks of keeping each other at a distance to make up for. It was passionate, our love making, the initiative being taken up by one of us, then the other. We paced ourselves, pulling the moment in around us, our senses working double time, like we knew there was something happening right then that we should recognize, honor in some way, hold onto like we were holding on to each another.
His face was close, but his eyes moved in and out of shadow, only visible when the flare of an explosion brightened things for a moment. The light holds for longer than you might think, but impatience pulled us forward. It was dark again too soon. Moon and stars on the water, but otherwise no light. We put our clothes back on, headed to where our plane had now landed, the two of us walking slower than before but still in silence.
The little kids would sell us red weed outside the gates of the base. There was a barrier where the jeeps would stop, and the kids would throw us these plastic bags full of weed, a pretty good amount. It was up to you what you paid them. I used to give them 5 maybe 10 US dollars. Never more than that. There was no talking then either, except maybe between the kids themselves. Strange that the silence between those of us on the jeep and between me and Massi should be so much the same. There was something in the corner of that silence, a thing you’d strain to try and hear but somehow couldn’t make out. It was like you could hear it but couldn’t understand, like the sound was something you knew but had forgotten somehow.
We were quiet on our flight home, holding hands the whole way but not looking at one another. I don’t remember if Massi and I said anything when we landed, but I do remember we kissed. We kissed right there on the tarmac, right in front of the whole goddamn circus. We kissed and we hugged and for some reason we didn’t care what it looked like. We were there for a while, we hugged after that, held one another close, tight, and still nobody said a thing. There were no looks of disapproval, no whispers. Maybe everyone else was too busy with their own hellos and goodbyes to notice. We’d been to Africa together and come back, most of us.
It wasn’t until weeks later, when Massi and I had a chance to see one another again on base, and ran into one another’s arms, that finally someone decided what we were doing wasn’t quite in line with keeping with army standards. An officer who had seen us running across the parade ground kept us in the army for three extra days as punishment. We were on cleaning duty most of that time, latrines, the kitchen.
It was worth it.