“In the Forest of Tombolo” is fiction inspired by the tales told by a native of Auburn, a veteran of the Second World War. At the time I knew John Squillace, he was near the end of his teaching career, a great story teller but a poor teacher by the standards of the 1970s. More than one principal at Monroe High School made an effort to fire him, but he fended them all off with repeated promises of retirement.
James Monroe High School in the Bronx
High school English teachers spend their lives immersed in works of literature, and second only to complaining about the administration or the students, their favorite topics of conversation are the great writers, from Shakespeare to Salinger. This is why I was so surprised that I knew John for years before he happened to mention his friendship with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and how he came to know Ezra Pound.
Black GI's in Italy, 1944
None of those big names mattered to John. The story that he told me was not about literature but about love, an all-consuming love for the woman he met in Italy during the closing days of the war. Michelina Colonna was herself the mother of one of the Beat poets, but she had abandoned her son as an infant and fled from an abusive husband back to Italy in the early 1930s. By the time John met her, he had deserted from the American army after witnessing a massacre and ended up with a group of renegades and deserters inhabiting a tract of wasteland near Pisa, the forest of Tombolo. The band consisted mostly of Black GI's who had deserted in the face of the overwhelming prejudice they faced in their own army. A number of Italian women, including Michelina, had joined them in the marshes and woods along the coast between Pisa and Livorno, and there was also a small camp of German soldiers left behind when their forces retreated northward. Together, this collection of outcasts survived as thieves and middle men in the thriving black market. When the outlaw camp was finally broken up by a raid led by American MPs and the local carabinieri, the story was front page news throughout Italy. (A 1948 film by Federico Fellini, "Senza Pieta," drew on these events at Tombolo in its depiction of the love between a Black American deserter and an Italian prostitute.)
At the same time, the American poet Ezra Pound was arrested for treason, having spent the war making broadcasts for Fascist Italy, and imprisoned under harsh circumstances at a detention center near Pisa. This is where John first met him, and as far as he was concerned, the poet's incoherent and deeply anti-Semitic ranting marked him as no more than an old madman. “Just plain nuts is how I saw him,” is what John said. Then a line of poetry emerged from the endless and vile monologue, words that brought to John's mind the woman he thought he had lost forever: “What thou lovest well remains, all the rest is dross.” Against orders, he spoke to the disgraced poet and came to know him as he was composing the “Pisan Cantos,” considered by many scholars as the best section of Pound's largely obscure grand opus.
An English teacher might be inclined to quote Shakespeare that “the course of true love never doth run smooth,” and that of Michelina and John certainly did not. He was sent to the Pacific, and then back home, and it was many years before he could afford to go back to Italy to find his lost love. Returning to the United States together, they searched in vain for the son she had abandoned. It was only after becoming friendly with a young Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and their fellow Beats that they found her son.
Allen Ginsberg in the early 1950s
It was when he told me about Michelina's son that I had to question John's story. He said that the boy's name was Gregory Corso, a protege of Allen's who became well known in the world of American poetry and died in 2001. The details John provided certainly correspond with Corso's life except when it came to the eventual reunion of mother and son. I cannot account for the discrepancy other than to think that the memory of Michelina was too painful for John to be completely honest about how their love ended.
I cannot provide any evidence for the accuracy of John's account of Pound at Pisa, or later at St. Elizabeth's mental hospital, but neither does anything he said contradict the historical record. His accounts of conversations with Allen and Jack Kerouac at the West End Bar, and at William S. Burrough's apartment in Greenwich Village, also correspond to what many others have reported of those days. The exception might be the quotations from Allen's “Howl” and Jack's “On the Road,” which literary researchers do not believe were written as early as John claims to have heard them. Perhaps both writers were already working on versions of those major works earlier than is generally believed.
A final note: John's occasional racism and homophobia reflect his upbringing but he was a man who overcame many of the limits of his early life. A high school dropout and a less than heroic soldier, he became a man capable of great love.
Seventy years after the events in this story, the swamps and woods of Tombolo are now an Italian nature preserve, still home perhaps to the ghosts of Caesar, Buffalo, Washington, Fritz, Concetta, Lucilla, Luigi, Michelina and John.
Excerpt from the novel: A scene in William S. Burroughs' apartment near Washington Square around 1951. Gregory Nunzio Corso has no idea that he is talking to the mother who abandoned him as an infant.
When the hashish pipe made its rounds, I took a puff just to be sociable but she declined. I must have fallen asleep on the couch because when I came to, I saw Nunzio and Michelina sitting on the floor chattering away.“My old man is dead to me, the bastard,” he was saying. “He dumped me in a bunch of foster homes and only took me back in '41. He thought that if he had a kid living with him, they wouldn't draft him, but they did.”
“Oh, poor boy. Who took care of you then?” she was leaning toward him, and I could see she was fighting hard not to throw her arms around him.
“I was on my own. Tito at the Vesuvio bakery would give me bread every morning and the guys with the fruit carts gave me apples or oranges, and that kept me going. I went to school, as if nothing had happened. I got pretty good grades, too. The nuns loved me. But before long, the landlord kicked me out of the apartment. So, I slept on the subways and kept going to school. I became an altar boy just so I could sneak into the church at night and sleep there when it got cold.”
I could see how his story was tearing Michelina apart, but he was so caught up in it that he didn't notice the effect he was having on her. Kids are like that, of course. Their own life is the biggest deal ever.
“I'd never stolen anything at that point, and I only got into trouble when a man asked me to deliver a toaster for him. Somebody offered to buy it off me, and I took the deal because my clothes were so ragged they were falling off me. I bought myself a nice white shirt and a tie and went to see a movie. It was “The Song of Bernadette,” about the Blessed Mother appearing to a girl in France. Do you know that movie? You see, I was looking for a miracle too. I wanted to find my mother.”
Michelina shook her head, and he continued without noticing her tears. She wiped them away as best she could.
“The cops were waiting outside the theater and nabbed me for petty larceny. I was a thirteen year old kid, a good kid, but they threw me in the Tombs. I was in a cell with a maniac, a man who had killed his wife with a screw driver. I had nobody to put up the fifty bucks bail so I was locked away for two weeks with that nut, thinking every night would be my last. Finally, my old man's mother showed up but I couldn't take living with her, she was too quick with her hands, so I went back to sleeping on the subway. It must have been in the winter of '44 I started to sneak back into the school and sleep there. When the priest caught me, he blamed me for a string of thefts I never did and it was back to the Tombs. This time I was in such a panic I ended up in the psych ward at Bellevue.”
“Your mother...I..” Michelina almost told him then and there that she was his mother, but he didn't catch on.
“Yeah, by then I'd accepted that my mother was dead like my old man said she was. I was growing up and interested in girls. That's what got me into real trouble. I asked this girl out and since I needed decent clothes, I broke into a tailor shop on Orchard Street. The suit was too big for me but I put it on anyway and headed for the corner where I was going to meet the girl. We were keeping our date a secret from her parents because they thought I was a bum. Anyway, I didn't get three blocks before the cops grabbed me. This time, it was no more youthful offender status. With two priors, they gave me a three year sentence to Dannamora. You ever hear of it?”