“Get off of your lazy butt, Marco” my dad calls out in his boisterous voice as he rubs his coarse hands through my hair before heading off to work in the same grease-stained blue coveralls he’s been wearing for more than thirty years.
“See you tonight, Dad,” I reply, probably in a volume too low for him to hear. Working a mechanical crane in the dockyard that long will make anyone lose his hearing.
As my dad makes his way out the door, I look down at my legs. At least, I look at my left leg, and where my right leg used to be. What stares back at me is a stump extending out from my hip toward what was once my knee. I lost everything below the knee from the plane crash in ’36. The doctors thought they would be able to save the knee but in the end had to settle for cutting above it. Now I have a stump from my thigh down.
My dad did not want to be working this long.
Nor should he have to.
Yet, I cannot bring in much money at the bookstore. Mr. Del Pozzo is overly generous to us as it is by letting me clerk for him since I cannot lift or carry much.
Between the two of us, Dad and I get by with enough for me to go to the cinema every two weeks and for him to enjoy Friday nights out with his fellow dockworkers.
That’s better than most men my age are faring right now without anywhere to go but to war.
I lift my upper body from the mattress with my arms pushing up from behind me. Swiveling my legs out to the right, I’m able to plant my left foot onto the floor.
This is exhausting.
From here, I have to pause for a moment to catch my breath.
I used to be able to run 100 meters in under 12 seconds. Now I cannot even lift myself out of bed without losing my breath.
During my pause for breath, I begin to hear the faint purring of distant aircraft motors. As a former flyer, I’m very perceptive to the sounds of incoming aircraft.
I hobble my way over to the window where I am greeted by a mass of German aircraft approaching quickly.
That’s the most German planes I’ve seen since they tried to take Malta.
Small black dots fall from the German JU-88’s as they fly over the port facilities.
They’re bombing the port; probably bombing the ships too.
Soon after seeing the bombs fall, I can hear explosions and then feel them rocking the earth beneath my foot.
They are bombing the docks!
Dad couldn’t have made it there yet.
Having already released their bombs over the harbor, a squadron of four Ju-88’s buzz over the house. Their machine guns remain silent.
That’s not how we flew in Ethiopia. We fired our machine guns at the people on the ground.
As my gaze retraces the planes’ route back to the harbor, I am surprised by the color of the smoke rising above the buildings. Instead of the normally acrid black of a bomb’s post explosion flame and smoke, the rising clouds are a mustard, yellowish-green color mixed with the black. The yellowish smoke billows forth in all directions, as if occupying available space, rather than simply rising into the sky.
The Germans would not have used mustard gas bombs, would they?
Without registering with my brain, my hand reaches for the doorknob. As I open the door, my body follows out the door, down the stairs, and into the street.
I have to get to Dad before the yellow smoke does.
He could not have gotten far.
Leading a mass of people covered in yellowish dust who are hacking in desperate gasps for breathe, black and yellowish-green smoke begins drifting up the street toward me.
“IT’S GAS! IT’S GAS!” I call out to anyone listening.
No one listens. They attempt to scurry by, hoping to outrace the expanding yellowish fog.
Knowing that I cannot standup to the mass of people scurrying past me, I pull to the side just as the billowing mustard smoke reaches my body.
I CAN’T BREATHE!
My nose, ears, mouth, and eyes fill instantly with the smoke; it penetrates through to my lungs before I can sense it.
FLAMES ARE CONSUMING ME FROM INSIDE AND OUT.
My eyes, ears, and lungs burn from the gas eating away at my flesh.
I CANNOT SEE.
All that my ears now pick up is a high-pitched drum of ever-increasing rhythm as if the small bones are attempting to capture the sound of the ear itself melting away.
I CANNOT BREATHE!
My hands clutch at my throat, clumsily attempting to dislodge gas.
Something grabs my right arm, twirls me into the air like a rag doll, and with a shudder reminiscent of a car hitting a brick wall, and lands me atop the shoulder of a moving person. With the speed I used to possess, this person scrambles onto the hard surface of the pavement below.
Who is carrying me?
I CANNOT BREATHE!
For more than a minute, the hard-hitting feet pound the pavement, jabbing a shoulder into my suffocating lungs. My eyes are no longer useful. I cannot hear.
I CANNOT BREATHE!
The person throws me down to the ground, landing me upon my stump leg, which shoots a knife of pain up through my sciatic nerve and into every nerve ending in my body. My mouth is ripped open, and a liquid is poured over my head.
I hear a familiar voice, Dad’s.
“MARCO, MARCO, MARCO, . . .MARCO. . .MARco. . . MArco. . . marco. . . . . . . . marco. . . . . . . . . . .mar .. . . . . ma . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .”
During World War II, the United States shipped chemical warfare shells to multiple theaters of war in case they were needed for retaliation against the use of such weapons by the Axis powers. Putting these weapons into the European theater led to the greatest loss of life in a gas accident during the war. On December 2, 1943, a German air force bombing raid on ships in the harbor of Bari in Italy led to the destruction of one ship (among seventeen total destroyed in this raid) that carried 100 tons of mustard gas bombs. More than 1,000 Allied personnel and Italian civilians were killed as a result of an attack that provided Bari with the distinction as the only European city to suffer from chemical weapons in World War II. The Allies did not use chemical weapons in anger throughout the war, although Winston Churchill advocated for their use multiple times and was voted down by his military staff as well as his American partners.
This particular incident is ironic in that Italy used mustard gas against Ethiopian soldiers, military personnel, civilians, and international humanitarian volunteers during its invasion of Ethiopia in 1936.Italian planes flew in close-knit formations and rained down a yellow gas upon the Ethiopians. The Ethiopians, who lacked most modern weapons, did not know what to make of the strange rain. Few of them had long to contemplate it.