Playing with the Italians

Playing with the Italians

Despite my father's fears, those men were not the enemy.


On the last day of a conference, I attended a workshop that sounded harmless enough. It had to do with what one person could do to help create a sustainable environment. To my horror, the leaders started right in by asking us to hold hands with the people beside us. I usually manage to avoid this sort of thing—the handholding, hugging, foot massage sort of thing. But it was too late. The woman beside me was clearly a workshop pro and quickly had my hand in a firm grip.

We were instructed to tell each other a story about the first time, in our memories, in which we had taken an independent action that had made a difference. I'd gone to hear a good talk, maybe get inspired—who knows, maybe get an idea for a sermon, and here I was trapped, hand-held, and we were going to share. “You go first,” I said. Off she went with barely a breath.

Part of my brain was registering her story—while another part was frantically trying to come up with something to say when my turn came. I had nothing. A bell rang. My partner stopped talking. I was on. I had nothing. For an awful moment, my mind stayed blank.

And then out it came: the story of an experience I had not merely forgotten but actually didn't even know I knew. I was seven years old, maybe eight, being raised in England. It was the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. We lived in a large city, across from a park. In winter, when it snowed, we kids took our sleds to the long hill in the center of the park.

That winter, we discovered that the hill had been adopted by the Italians—Italian prisoners of war. The war had long been over for them. They were held in minimum security while governments made the deals that would send them back home. Confined to camps during the night, they were free to roam the city during the daylight hours.

They had discovered the park and the iced-over hill. They had no skis but their big hob-nailed boots served well enough in a sport second nature to them. Knees bent, arms outspread, they flew down the hill laughing, shouting in their wonderful, so un-English language, thrilling in the familiar bite of the cold wind. They had survived. They were alive. And, soon, they would be going home.

We found each other, the children and the Italians. The first brave boy—it was not I—allowed himself to be picked up, slung up and over and onto the shoulders of an Alpine skier sans skis, and borne laughing and screeching down the hill. The adventure went on for days. We rushed to the hill after school and early in the frosty weekend mornings. Friends were made. Friendship and trust. “Hey, Harry, look! No hands!”

One evening, I came into the house flushed and breathless.

“What on earth have you been doing?”

“Playing with the Italians!” I said with joy.

My father was furious. The Italians were the enemy.

“But the war is over. They don't have any guns. They weren't bombing us. They didn't even want to fight us.”

But I was up against the official view. We'd spent the nights of two years or more in a damp and stinking air-raid shelter. Much of the city was still in ruins. Great Aunt Rose had died in the London blitz. And I was playing with the enemy.

Loud and clear. Stay away from the Italians.

I was a good boy. Obedient. Happy. My dad's pal. But something was wrong with being forbidden such joy and friendship because of something called “the enemy”—a concept that didn't fit my experience of these loving and life-loving men.

I disobeyed.

It had been a long afternoon of sliding, walking, playing soccer—even, I remember as I write, games of cowboys and Indians. I must have been late getting home because, as I was leaving the park, my father was crossing the street toward the entrance. “What have you been doing?” he shouted, getting right to it.

Tears fought back. Tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. Not grown enough yet for that British stiff upper lip. But I came out with it. “I was playing with the Italians.”

He slapped my face. That was terrible, the most terrible moment of my life. Terrible more in the shock of it than the pain. My father had never hit me. Never did again. And—here's the moment remembered that started the story flowing—I remember looking full into his anger and saying, “Alright. But I'm going back.” It's odd, but I don't remember anything of what happened next. No doubt there were threats about what further disobedience would bring. But my parents must have given it up. Because I did, in fact, go back to play with the Italians until, one day, they were gone.

That was the end of the story I told my workshop companion. But it's not the end of this story. When the exercise was over the leaders asked if anyone wanted to share with the whole group what they had said to their partners. I couldn't believe myself. What on earth was I doing? My hand was up. I was going to “share.”

I told the story again and then found myself unfolding what, moment by moment, I was realizing the story meant. It was a story about self-discovery, personal power, and taking a stand that would make a difference. My father's reaction to my playing with the Italians came out of so many hard, sad, and bitter places within him, places he had built for himself out of the stuff a harsh life had handed him. Some of his reaction simply came out of the culture that made him—a culture of colonial pride that the sun never set on the empire's flag in a world of foreigners to be fought, hated, feared, ridiculed.

But in that moment of defiance—in that declaration, “Alright. But I'm going back”—in that moment I was confronting all of that with the reality and the legitimacy of my own experience. I was separating myself out from the tangled mess of ingrained bigotry, fear, and self-serving stereotypes. Those men were not the enemy. They were just men. Fathers. Brothers. Sons. They were friends. They were not evil—and, if that laughter, friendship, joy-sharing was evil then I was going to play with it and know it firsthand.

My father was wrong. And, if that's how everybody thought, then “everybody” could be wrong and I would forever have to make up my own mind and trust my own inner sense of “rightness.”

That's what the workshop leaders were helping us to find, of course—some moment in our lives in which rightness, truth, justice were revealed so crystal-clear and unadorned that acting upon it was a matter of course. After all, the story I recovered was not about courage. The point is not that I had the nerve to defy my father so that I could go back and have fun with my friends. What came to me so clearly as I recounted the story was that I was determined to go back to my friends quite simply because it was the right thing to do.

I was not defying my father so much as I was responding to something no less than a revelation. My experience of the men I played with was the pure experience of relationship with people—not as Italians, not as foreigners, certainly not as “the enemy.”

The poet Wordsworth wrote that we come to earth “trailing clouds of glory.” He was expressing a popular Romantic notion that the newborn are embodiments of pure spirits, that we are born with all the inherent power we need to fulfill our possibilities. That power to fulfill our possibilities is what some have called the “true self.”

The Unitarian theologian Henry Nelson Wieman referred to that “true self” as our “original experience,” “every experience we can have when we do not conceal it or overlay it with conventional experience.” Original experience, he said, “is the true self, in contrast to the uniformities adopted by everyone in society to facilitate the routine adjustments of everyday life.” Sadly, among “the routine adjustments of everyday life” are the adjustments to myths of inferiority, prejudices and bigotries, the division of humankind into “them and us.”

From birth, then, our true self, our “original experience,” begins to be suppressed by the social demand to conform to conventional experience. Originality, unique individuality, begins to fall under the requirements of the herd. This is the empowerment of the mass and the disempowerment of the individual.

The leaders of the workshop I attended knew that each of us has given up much of our power along the way, “to facilitate the routine adjustments of everyday life.”

My childhood experience, with its illumination of my power to see truths to which my own parents and teachers were blind, that experience did fade from memory. In time the story itself was lost and, perhaps with the lost story was lost something of that awesome, absolute conviction. Like most of us, I had forgotten that I had the power to stand before the world—even before God—declare what I know, and vow to act upon it. Somewhere in us is a story in which we are the hero, fearless before gods and giants, knowing for a certainty that right makes might. Each of you has a story, waiting to be remembered, about the power you had and have still to make a difference. Begin to tell your story to someone—even though you may not know yet that you know it. Just begin by saying, “The first time I realized I could make a difference was. . . .” The story will rush forward to be told.

By the way, as it happened, the story of my story had not ended. There was a hearty round of applause and the program was over. As I was making my way out of the crowded room, a young woman came up to me and said, “My grandfather was an Italian prisoner of war in your city. He often spoke of playing with the boys in the park. Thank you for playing with my grandfather.”

This sermon was one of three first-prize winners in the Richard Borden Sermon Award Competition.