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One of my favorite parts of my job is learning about my patients. I take care of some fascinating people. Such as Anthony Cocchini, born in Scranton, PA in 1918. His parents had moved there from Italy in about 1912. They were from Tuscany and had known each other in Italy. They moved to Scranton separately, found each other again, and got married.
His father was a coal miner, and his mother ran a small grocery store that sold Italian ingredients to her Italian neighbors – neither ever learned English, so the only language Tony ever heard at home was Italian. He learned English in the community and at school but was also fluent in Tuscan Italian, which is a very neutral dialect.
When WWII came along, Tony was sent to Italy to help communicate with the locals. His neutral dialect was helpful, and he had an ear for the various other dialects, so he could imitate other accents he heard pretty quickly. He was assigned to a small group of American soldiers who traveled around Italy late in the war trying to build relationships with local administrators and such.
He and his small group were traveling through Milan one day, and one of his buddies pointed toward a town square and said, “Look! I think they just killed Mussolini!” They wandered down the street, and found Mussolini hanging upside down from an Esso gas station overhang, with his girlfriend and some other associates. They walked right up front to get a close look, and as luck would have it, someone took a picture at that moment (that you have probably seen in WWII books). Mr. Cocchini is the GI with the darker helmet, toward the right.
I asked what he did at such a remarkable moment in history. He said, “Well, we stood around for 10-15 minutes, but we had places to go and things to do, so we got going after a bit.” I said, “You just left? At a moment like that? That’s one of the biggest events in the 20th century!” He responded, “We had places to go, and things to do.” Which, I suppose, they did.
Hitler committed suicide two days later and WWII continued to wind down.
Mr. Cocchini is 99 years old now. Sharp as a tack, still drives a car, and still goes out to his favorite Italian restaurant every Friday night. It’s a wonderful gift that I get to spend time with him. He agreed to take a picture with me today. I’m not as tall as I look here – I’m 6’2” – Mr. Cocchini is not very tall. So now I have two pictures of Mr. Cocchini, 73 years apart. One with Mussolini, and one with me.
These people are dying. How many people are left on the planet who have seen Mussolini or Hitler in person? There are fewer every month. Their experiences and perspectives are irreplaceable.
My kids think WWII is ancient history, like the Peloponnesian War or something. It’s wonderful to hear a first-hand account. I look forward to my visits with Mr. Cocchini. I want to just sit and talk to him, and soak it all up. I could sit there all day. But at the end of our appointment, he gets up and shuffles down the hall, because he has places to go and things to do. Which, I suppose, he does.
I’m thankful that I got to spend time with him today. It was a wonderful visit. I didn’t want it to end. But all things must pass.Published in