In memory of Vittorio Cevasco (1916-2006)

Yesterday my grandpa passed away, due to an aggravation of his health condition, breathing problems and various other complications. He died in hospital, on Liberation Day, the Italian national holiday celebrating the liberation of our country from the nazi-fascist regime by the Allied troops and partisans on April 25th 1945. He died exactly 61 years after that day.

I'd like to remember my grandpa today, because he most certainly deserves it, as he was a really extraordinary person.

“Yes, I'm sure he was, isn't everybody extraordinary in some way?”

Definitely: everybody is special, and people tend to say that especially when someone passes away. In my grandpa's case, actually I can say that in a slightly more absolute sense: his life was truly uncommon and very active.

A very active life

Vittorio Cevasco, my grandfather, was certainly the most active member of my family. We're talking about a man who was still able to drive a car up to last September (he was nearly 90 years old), and used to drive 500 Km on the motorway and mountain roads every year to go on vacation: he went to the same place, Mals Vinschgau, near the Italian-Austrian-Swiss border for over fifty years. He never had particular troubles to walk, and just in the past months started using a walking stick… before that he used to walk around the city by himself everyday, in his endless meanderings. He always had something to do: visit friends, go to public offices, go to our house in the countryside – he still used to cultivate the land with potatoes, tomatoes and basil as a hobby until a few months ago – and so on: he was really a busy man.
I can certainly say that I never though he was really old until after his wife, my grandma, died, about a year ago. Since then he really aged, and quickly, as she probably was one of the main reasons of his existance.

When he was “young” (i.e. less than 80) he used to compete with the lift in his flat running down the stairs. Everyone else was taking the lift, but he always chose to go on foot down the stairs, to keep in exercise. His other exercise was cultivating our land in Sessarego, near Bogliasco (Genoa, Italy), as a hobby more than anything, providing us with fresh biological products like that extraordinary basil essential to make our very tasty local pesto sauce.
He always tried to convince me to do some work there, and he actually taught me various tips and secrets which will hopefully be useful in near future. Sadly, when he was alive I wasn't too keen on the idea of cultivating and maintain our land from time to time… but I kind of changed my mind recently, and I know he realized that just a few days before he died.

After WWII he did various things, he even was erhm… somehow active in certain international import/export activities of watches from Switzerland to Italy – quite a common thing back in the day, especially considering that the border was at just a few hours drive.
Later on he became an estate agent, working for a local office and then helping out some friends running their activity. In 2001 he hit his own personal record selling a fancy villa worth one billion of the old Italian Lire – which convert to approx. 500,000 Euro, but at the time it was much bigger money than that. With the commission generated by that sale he bought a brand new Ford Fiesta: he was 85 years old.

But no, these are not the most extraordinary episodes of his life of course. He could fly – literally.

He was one of the first man in Italy and the the first in Genoa area to get a flying license, back in 1934. A news which made the local papers at the time, and we still have that article somewhere. He wanted to become a civil pilot, but he never did: the Country needed him to protect our sky, when Italy joined the War in 1941.

The Aviator

My grandpa lived the early years of his youth in the village of Sessarego, where my great-grandfather bought an old house, after taking part in Giuseppe Garibaldi expedition at Marsala (1860) fighting for the Italian independence (he's listed among the ones who actually landed there).
There his parents used to have a few cows and produce milk, and one of his tasks was milking delivery… no scooters or cars, at the time, of course, and certainly not for a teenager like him: he often had to carry the milk barrels up and down the hill on foot, and I'm talking about 1-2 Km with at least 30-40 kilos on your shoulders!

But my grandpa's plans were much different: he wanted to fly away, and high – literally. You can imagine the face of my grand-grandfather when he expressed his wish to become a pilot! Nobody ever did that, in the area, and becoming a pilot was, at the time, like becoming an astronaut in the seventies.
The price of the license was really high at the time, 1,200 Lire. That would be like at least 30,000 Euro now, especially considering that his parents weren't exactly rich. In the very end, my father supported him and provided as much money as he could afford: 1000 Lire.
But he still needed 200 Lire, so after hassling the flying instructors he signed an agreement stating that if they anticipated him the money he'd have paid them back once he started working: it was clear in fact that he'd have became a military pilot, as the Regime needed people for their brand new aircrafts, and the was felt imminent.
He paid them back, eventually, after passing both the civil and military tests. He became a sergeant for the Regia Aviazione (Royal Airforce), with a salary of 20 Lire/month, ten of which went to the flying school, for many months, but he was still earning some very decent money.

One of the most peculiar things about my grandpa was his memory: he was always able to tell you the story of his life, all the events, with the same details and all the exact dates, on every occasion. Even when we took him to the hospital, a few weeks ago, when we asked the nurse if he was self-conscious she said: “Yes… well, he was talking a few hours ago, but I don't know if he was raving or what… he said he was a pilot, and that he used to fly at 350Km/h…”

Damn right. His old Re 2002 was able to fly at 350 Km/h if pushed, at a standard altitude of 35,000 m, while carrying a 500Kg bomb. It was his plane, and he never forgot that, even a few days before he passed away. He'd tell you all the stats, the mechanics, the technical details and all the tricks to perform acrobatic maneuvers if you asked him… Not that actually anybody ever did, because every time something reminded him of that, even slightly, he'd start talking about the old days when he was commanding his squad patrolling the Italian borders.

Last year, after my grandma died and he didn't feel like driving 500Km to go to the mountains (for the first time in his life), I had to drive his Fiesta myself in my first long driving journey. At first I wasn't too sure I'd have enjoyed the drive, partly because of the long distance and partly because I was going to be alone with my grandpa for about six hours, and I was afraid of not be able to find enough topics of conversation…

That fear went away almost instantly right a few minutes after we started the journey.
When we got on the motorway, I started complaining that my dad was going slightly over the limit with his brand new Peugeot 307: “Look, he's already going at 140km/h and we just started the journey!”

“Centûcäranta chilumetri l'ûa… û më aeruplannu pûeivä fâ ï trexëntusincûanta cûmme ninte!”
[140 kilometers per hour… my plane could easily do 350!]

He normally used to speak in zeneise (“Genovese”), Genoa's dialect, mixed with some Italian if he really had to. That was it: if you started talking about speed, technology, engines, history or any other topic which was slightly related to his plane, the war, the regime etc. he always started off talking about his past and his plane, ignoring everything else.
My grandma used to get kinda annoyed about it… on every occasion, if he had a chance, he'd start talking about that particular day in 193x/4x and so on: we all knew that, and actually I enjoyed listening to his stories, mostly because they were genuine and authentic relics of an old and glorious past. I think in his mind he wanted us all to remember him in that way, to always keep in mind that he was a pilot and how he enjoyed it, even when he went in jail for it, even when his plane was taken down…

On that day right after he was assigned to a new base, they asked him to perform some exercises in the air, loops and all sort of acrobatics: “ë sölite cöse che së dûviëiva fä in t'ë l'aviäsiûn” [the usual things you had to do in the airforce].
He was just starting practicing the Re 2002 at the time, but he quickly found out that it was extremely maneuvrable, at least to the standards of the time: the equivalent of a top range today's fighter.
He started off with some usual things, performing various twists in the air, loops, etc. etc. until he had to end his exhibition with a dive from an altitude of 10,000m down at maximum speed to a limit of 1500m… On that particular day a colonel from another base and some other high-ranking officer were down on the ground near the aircraft to enjoy the show, and check that everything was performed correctly. My grandpa was aware of that, so he decided to perform a great show especially for them that day: he went up to 10,000m, and then dove down accelerating, helped by gravity… he went down and down, faster and faster, people down on the ground were staring at him waiting for him to pull up the plane, but nothing, he still went down and down so that quickly the small crowd of captains and colonels got scared and run away in every direction: “He'll crash, he'll crash!”
He did not crash, not that day… he went down up to slightly less than 100m and then pulled up the plane: ar real wonderful extreme performance. Now imagine this beast of a plane coming down at 300Km/h and accelerating, making a terrible noise typical of the engines of the time and then pull up suddenly right above your head: one more second and he wouldn't have been able to tell that story.
He was called by the commander of the base who told him: “Cevasco, you're hell of a skilled pilot, but now I have to put you in jail for a day for not obeying your orders of staying above 1500m” – That, I reckon, was one of the best days of my grandpa's life.

He was never captured, but his plane was taken down by an English Spitfire in the South of Italy. The war was nearly finished, and there were just those little air fights from time to time. He really risked a lot that day, and managed to attempt an emergency “landing” completely destroying his plane along as part of his jaw, which was alright after a few months.
Since then he never flew again, and managed to escape to be re-called in duty. But he did like flying back with his memories to those glorious days.

A few years ago my dad showed him Microsoft's “Flight Simulator 98”, and some other flying games. He was amazed at the graphic, but not so satisfied with the whole simulation thing: not even close to reality, too damn easy.

“Cäu më, te vûeive vedde tïe a fä vûlá û më aeruplannu”
[My dear, I'd have liked to see you trying to fly my plane]

…and that was it: the beginning of another journey back in time.

He always had a very practical view of life and especially of technology. He wouldn't take you seriously and would not be interested in knowing about programming and the Internet, unless it could produce some concrete result:

“Ti che ti stûddi da insegnë e che ti stë sempre davanti a-û cumputer, nun te puriësci truvä ûn sistemmä de anä in t'ë a banca e piggië qualche miliûn the Euro?”
[You that you're studying to become an engineer and that spend so long in front of the computer, couldn't you find a way to get into a bank and get out some million of Euro?]

He'd have loved me to become a [rich] hacker, probably… But the last time I saw him, last Friday, he seemed happy enough to hear that I was just about to start working.

He realized that I finally found a good job after my studies, and then my dad told him Roxanne and I would have moved to the countryside, in Sessarego… He made a big effort to move the muscles of his mouth in a large smile: he was happy.