Wednesday, November 13, 2013

TOP STORY >> Cabot couple takes trip of lifetime

Leader staff writer

June Tortolano Windsor never met her father’s parents who came to America from a small town in southern Italy sometime around the turn of the last century.

They both died while they were still in their 30s. But she knew that it was a desire of her father and his uncle to go back and visit their ancestral home. When they also died without realizing that dream, June and her husband, Malcolm, went in their place.

“They always talked about the little town, and it was always a mission of mine to get there,” June said.

The three-week-long trip in October, the Windsors said, was far more than they imagined it would be.

For June, who retired recently from teaching at Cabot elementary schools, the biggest surprise was that that the residents of Sant’Ambrogio weren’t awestruck like she was by the antiquity of their surroundings.

The little town on a mountainside, surrounded by small farms, was established in 950 A.D. near Monte Cassino Abbey.

Many of the houses are large, June said, but they are set close together and some front doors literally open onto the streets.

“People live with immensely ancient things around them,” she said, adding that even the newer homes are built in the old way to fit in with the surroundings.

Today, just as when her grandfather left, the young people move away from the small farms and towns to find work.

The only businesses June said she saw were a pharmacy and a small café, just the basics needed by a town of retired people.

The school has closed and babies are called miracles because only one or two are born there in a year, she said.

June was also amazed by the traffic in the larger towns the couple visited.

“The Italian people are warm and gentle and kind,” she said. “But they drive crazy. I had to close my eyes a few times when we were in taxis.”

Malcolm, who served in the Navy and retired from Little Rock Air Force Base, was captivated by the history of the area, some of which he wrote about in a letter to Cabot Mayor Bill Cypert requesting that the city commend the mayor of Sant’Ambrogio Sul Garigliano in the province of Frosinone for the hospitality extended to him and his wife while they visited there.

“Located on the Garigliano River, (the city) lies approximately 7 miles southeast from the ancient town of Cassino, Italy,” Malcolm wrote.

“Sant’Ambrogio has been subjected to the ravages of war on three occasions. It was first destroyed by the Normans under the rule of William the Conqueror in 1057 AD; then by the war with France and its Ottoman Empire allies against Spain in 1544; and, finally, by the fighting between the Nazis and the Allied Liberation Armies of Italy in 1944.

“At that time, the town was strategically located on the Garigliano River and was part of German General Kesselring’s Gustov line that ground the Allied Army to a halt and caused a five-month stalemate between the dug-in legions.

“The British failure to cross the river and take Sant’Ambrogio from the Germans was a major factor in the American Army’s Texas 36th Division disastrous loss in their failed attempt to cross the Gari-Rapido River in January 1944.

“The town was finally taken by the French Expeditionary troops during Operation Diadem in May of 1944. The Moroccan troops assigned to the French added to the misery of the Sant Ambrogians with their rape and pillage of the inhabitants of that region. It was against this backdrop of the Moroccan atrocity that Sophia Loren starred in her Oscar-winning role as the tragic figure Cesira in her movie ‘Two Women.’

“Sant’Ambrogio has since risen from the ashes of its destruction to bloom again into a beautiful city on a mountaintop overlooking the Liri Valley of Central Italy,” he wrote.

That hospitality for which Malcolm asked Mayor Cypert to commend Mayor Biagio Del Greco included the presentations of two books on the history of Sant’Ambrogio during WWII, pictures of its destruction during that time and a collection of pen and ink drawings by an Italian artist/poet of the town.

Cypert responded almost immediately, inviting the mayor in a letter to come by his office if he ever visited the area and saying, “From the pictures presented to me and my staff, it is apparent that your city has a rich and fascinating history with a reputation of good-will and kindness for its inhabitants and their descendants.”

As it turned out, the mayor of Sant’Ambrogio wasn’t the only hospitable person in the town. June said, when they arrived, they called a woman whose last name was Tortolano, the same as her maiden name, and she showed them the sights.

They also located Fiorenzo Broccoli, another of June’s distant relatives and a senior executive with Bell Helicopter. He introduced them to the mayor who turned out to be distantly related as well.

June said she learned that in her grandparents’ time at Sant’Ambrogio all the good, flat land was owned by the wealthy while those less fortunate eked out a living on the rocky hillsides. So they left for America in the hope of a making a better life for their children.

Although she tried, June said she didn’t find the home they left behind but she will always remember how she felt looking down those rocky hills to the river. “There was such a feeling of peacefulness there,” she said.