Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky. (slithytove) wrote,
Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky.

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Catching thrushes by hand in the rocky fields

Lazare Ponticelli, the last French foot-soldier of WWI, died on March 12th. He was 110 years old.

Obit in the Economist.

Interesting character. The 'last French foot-soldier' wasn't even French.
He was an Italian, from dirt-poor Emilia-Romagna, who followed his family to France to find work. Some of his childhood, peacetime memories were perhaps as rare as his wartime ones: catching thrushes by hand in the rocky fields, hand-stitching his own shoes, setting up a chimney-sweep business in Nogent-sur-Marne. He thought France "paradise", and enlisted in the Foreign Legion at 16, under-age, by way of thanks. When Italy joined the war in 1915 he switched to an Italian Alpine regiment, but only because two policemen marched him bodily to Turin; and he kept his French military passbook carefully on him through three years as a machine-gunner, until he was able to return to paradise again.

In recent years, France showered military honors, including the Légion d'Honneur, on a soldier who thought war was idiotic, and didn't understand the need for it:
It was as important to him as it was to them to underscore the horror and futility of it. More than anything, he was appalled that he had been made to fire on people he didn't know and to whom he, too, was a stranger. These were fathers of children. He had no quarrel with them. C'est complètement idiot la guerre. His Italian Alpine regiment had once stopped firing for three weeks on the Austrians, whose language many of them spoke; they had swapped loaves of bread for tobacco and taken pictures of each other. To the end of his life, Mr Ponticelli showed no interest in labelling anyone his enemy. He said he did not understand why on earth he, or they, had been fighting.

It's curious how many archetypes, and legends, when examined closely, turn out to be not all of a piece, but a difficult-to-characterize mass of idiosyncrasies, human peculiarities and particularities, local history, homely detail, random events, and the like. All these things we try to shape into a sort of public vision of how we feel history *should* be, that fits our expectations, and makes us comfortable, but is ultimately untrue to actual history and human lives within it.

Another example: Stephen J. Gould's famous essay that deconstructs—and pretty much demolishes—the official history of baseball: The Creation Myths of Cooperstown.

BTW, does anyone else out there read The Economist from the back to the front? (Does anyone else read The Economist...?) Their obits, in particular, are often fascinating.
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