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Salvatore Taranto and the Ghost of Gino Strombetto

Story ID:2974
Written by:John Ward (bio, contact, other stories)
Story type:Family History
Writers Conference:$500 2007 Family Memories Writing Project
Location:Cefalu' Sicily
Person:Salvatore Taranto
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Salvatore Taranto and the Ghost of Gino Strombetto

Salvatore Taranto and the Ghost of Gino Strombetto

As a boy growing up in Sicily my Grandfather, Salvatore Taranto, lived a simple and healthy life. Like the other boys in Cefalu’ he got into mischief, played in the streets, pretended to be a carabinieri and sometimes a crook, but unlike the other boys, he developed a special friendship with a young man he met one day when the youth took an apple from a food stand.

The apples had been arranged in a decorative pyramid and when this youth, who seemed to be about nineteen years old, took the apple, the pyramid collapsed. Unfortunately for Salvatore, the collapse happened as he was passing the stand and the shop keeper, Enzo Mazzoli, assumed it had been eleven year old Salvatore who had tried to steal the apple. He grabbed Salvatore and cuffed him a couple of times shouting that he knew his father and would report him. Salvatore knew that if the man told his father it would mean the leather strap, but he never revealed the truth of what had happened, he just kept saying: “It wasn’t me… Non ci stato io, non ci stato io!” The shop keeper demanded: “If it wasn’t you, who then?”

The young man had stopped and was standing on the other side of the street watching the "furore." He was impressed by Salvatore’s ability to stay mute and not reveal who had stolen the apple. He knew Salvatore saw him there, because he would glance over every now and again, between cuffs, but he never revealed the identity of the true thief, even to save his own skin.

After a few neighbor shop-keepers had calmed Signore Mazzoli, he released Salvatore with the admonition that if he ever tried to steal from him again, he would call the carabinieri! My poor Grandfather walked off despondently until he heard a call behind him:

“Ei raggazzo!” It was the youth.

“Che c’e?” Salvatore asked.

“Listen,” the youth said “I like your style. You didn’t turn me in, how come?”

Salvatore looked at him and said: “I don’t tattle.”

“Hey, you’d make a good Mafioso!”

“Do me a favor” Salvatore continued, “stay away from me; you’re bad luck for me.”

“No, you’ve got it wrong," said the youth, “you’re good luck for me! My name is Gino, what’s yours?”

“Salvatore Eugenio Taranto” replied my Grandfather.

“Here, take my hand," said Gino "we are friends from this day.” With that handshake they became fast friends and started the events that would lead to a most frightening experience for my Grandfather.

The friendship between my young Grandfather and nineteen year old Gino Strombetto grew into a sort of mentor – apprentice relationship. Gino was an artist. He painted beautifully, but could not make a living at it. He wrote poetry and love stories that people enjoyed reading, but they wouldn’t pay for them. So, much of the time, Gino went hungry. He took food where he could and would sometimes be treated to a glass of wine in a friendly trattoria.

Gino was in love with a beautiful girl from a very rich, noble family. Graciella Antonioni loved him too and their communications would be furtive and frustrating, involving messengers and servants. The family saw Gino as an opportunist, out to land a rich wife. He was handsome and dashing. He wore a cape and a wide brimmed hat with a single feather which gave him a rakish look and was probably the most romantic figure in town. For a lira he would write and then read a romantic poem to the fiancée of a man who couldn’t express his love. Evenings would often find him at local restaurants, pen in hand offering his services to couples who looked like they were in love. Unfortunately his dashing good looks lost him a lot of opportunities because of insecure boyfriends. The town said that his poetry and paintings were so good because of his overpowering love for Graciella. Many nights one could find Gino walking the empty cobbled streets, singing his sad love songs to her as if she was with him.

Gino had no family. He lived his life in a tiny, single-room garret on the perimeter of town. His furnishings were meager. A bed, a small table and chair where he wrote, were his only furniture. He had made an easel out of scrap wood and the walls were stacked with paintings and drawings. His prized possession was a beautiful flint-lock pistol, the only thing he had from his long lost family. He would show it to young Salvatore and explain how it had to be loaded from the barrel end, packed and primed at the breach and then fired. He explained how the hammer held a small piece of flint and that the spark from that flint colliding with the pan ignited the powder which in turn blew the ball out of the end of the gun. Salvatore learned so much about everything from Gino. He also learned urban survival skills which, years later, helped him survive the First World War.

One day the two youths were walking past a high wall behind which lay a beautiful vineyard. Gino said: “Hey Taranto, feel like a feast of grapes?” He would often call Salvatore by his last name and Salvatore saw this as an expression of friendship and respect. “Si, perche no?” he replied and Gino said, “I know a secret entrance to the vineyard behind this wall. Come on…” And they adopted their romantically conspicuous, crouched-thief postures. A section of the wall had crumbled but the vintner had not rebuilt it as there was a thick hedge of thorns in front of it and no-one in his right mind would risk the thorns for a few grapes. Gino never claimed to be in his right mind and no-one was as hungry as he consistently was. Salvatore followed him through a concealed tunnel he had cut and, with only minor scratches, they were in the vineyard.

It was the fall of 1909 and there had been no rain all summer; perfect Mediterranean weather. The grapes were at their sweetest without the extra water and ready for the harvest. The boys ate like kings, jokingly lying on their backs and imagining beautiful harem women feeding them the grapes in a tantalizing way. Then they threw them at each other and tried to catch the grapes in their mouths. It was a great year and neither Gino nor Salvatore had ever tasted grapes this good. They lay in the warm sun, their bellies full of sweet bounty and drifted off to sleep.

At dusk they awoke and after checking to make sure they had not been seen by anyone they left for their respective homes. No-one had seen them, the vineyards were cleared for the impending harvest; it was a good day.

The next two days, Salvatore had to go to Palermo with his family. Upon their return, Salvatore went off to find his friend. As he started through the town he heard a commotion and curiosity made him walk towards it. A local shopkeeper that knew him and Gino called to him saying: “Salvatore, did you hear?” “What?” he asked. “Your friend Gino, he shot himself!” “What!? Impossible, I was with him three days ago!” “No, just this morning, he was found in his garret with a ball from his pistol in his head!” the shopkeeper continued.

Then Signore Mazzoli, the fruit vendor came over looking very sad and said: “Salvatore, Gino went crazy. He decided he had enough of waiting for his love and he took a horse, galloped to her house and called her out on the balcony. When she came out he told her he loved her more than anything in the world and asked her to come down, get on the horse so they would run away to be married. She accepted, but her mama came out on the balcony and started to scream at Gino. She cursed him and his family and said he would never marry her daughter as long as she was alive. At this Gino pulled out a pistol, took aim and shot at the screaming woman. Unfortunately he missed her and hit the daughter. When he saw her go down he screamed and galloped off.

Gino must have gone back to his garret, thinking his love was dead and by his own hand. He shot himself in the head. La Signorina survived and the dottore is with her now, but poor Gino is dead. Dio mio, why could she not just let them marry?” Signore Mazzoli's shoulders shook with sobs.

Salvatore was stunned. He couldn't seem to grasp the magnitude of the tragedy. Only half believing what he heard, he ran towards the commotion; as he got nearer he noticed it was at the coffee shop near Gino’s garret. This had been Gino’s favorite place to sit and talk. A crowd had gathered around the entrance and into the shop itself. Salvatore approached carefully and peered in. Everyone was staring at an old woman who seemed to be insane. She was talking in a deep sonorous voice and talking about things no-one understood. The shop keeper was explaining that she had just come in, sat down and started to talk gibberish. Salvatore had never seen her before and her behaviour was very peculiar. Suddenly, looking around the faces, she spied him and he felt a chill down his spine as her piercing black eyes held his gaze.

She stopped talking and spoke only to him. “Ei Salvatore! Vieni qui, come here” she instructed with the downwardly curved hand Italians use to beckon. Salvatore was frozen in fear. How did this woman know his name? The crowd pushed him forward as his eyes grew into saucers. The old lady grabbed his arm, pulled him close and said in a conspiratorial voice: “Ei Taranto, those grapes we had the other day, they were great, no?”