By Rich Filippi
As we remember the 100th Anniversary of the end of the Great War (World War I) that claimed over 20 million casualties, we reflect on some of its participants. One in particular was the iconic American writer, Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway served as a volunteer in the Red Cross Ambulance Corps on the Italian Front. On July 8, 1918, he was wounded and recovered in Italy. His war experiences were the basis of the novel, A Farewell to Arms, written in 1929. Hemingway has had a special place in my own life experience. I grew up in Miami and frequented Key West in my youth, often visiting some of the writer’s favorite haunts. From an early age, I was drawn to Hemingway’s narrative style and tried to adopt it as my own. He was trained as a newspaper reporter for the Kansas City Star, so his style is sparse and to the point, as opposed to the long, eloquent narratives of the early 20th century authors. As with any male youth, I was drawn to his worldly adventure stories that fired my imagination and passion for travel.
I also have a connection with Hemingway’s war time experience. Both of my Italian grandfathers served in the Italian army during the Great War. Last year, I completed a personal pilgrimage, visiting the mountaintop sites where their units defended Italian soil from the German and Austrian armies. It represented a culmination of some years of research into their histories. It was surreal to be standing in trenches carved out of solid rock over 100 years ago, imagining how their lives might have been. Fighting in the mountains of Northern Italy proved more difficult than on the rolling plains of Flanders on the Western Front. Hundreds of thousands died from winter exposure, frostbite, disease, and avalanches. Attacks, measured in mere yards, resulted in massive casualties. My two grandfathers survived the armed conflict, but many of their friends and family did not.
During my recent flight to Italy, I reread A Farewell to Arms to set the mood for the journey. While there, I visited Fossalta di Piave, the town where Hemingway was stationed, the spot on the Piave River where he was wounded and the hospitals where he recovered. I had hoped the experience would help me better understand Hemingway, the man, who took his own wartime experiences, added first-hand accounts from others and wove a fascinating story about the emotions and insanity of war. For me to walk the dirt, from which this story is drawn, added much to my travel experience.
The Northwest Regional Library System offers many ongoing programs that add to our life’s learnings and experiences. On Tuesday, February 13, from 2-4:30pm, Bay County Public Library (898 W. 11th Street, Panama City), is offering a free viewing of the Oscar winning 1932 movie, A Farewell to Arms, starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes. Following the movie, I will lead a lively discussion on the historical facts and fictions presented in the book and movie. The public is invited to attend this free presentation.