Chapter One

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December 25, 1938 - Asmara, Italian Eritrea

Poised at the starting line of the first ever Circuito Asmara Christmas Cup, 27 cars were aligned in nine blocks of three, their engines sputtering and growling. The drivers glanced sidelong at one another, grim and determined, making adjustments to their controls while waiting for the starting pistol. The circuit was 40 laps around town, or 68 miles, beginning in front of the opera house on the Viale Roma. It was Sunday, and the wood smoke-tinged African air wafted through the Italian colonial town situated at 7,600 feet above sea level.

Mario "Soldi" Caparrotti gripped the wheel of his 1934 Fiat 508 Balilla Sport Spider with its four-speed gearbox. He wore sponsor-furnished white racing togs emblazoned with Pirelli and Alfa-Romeo patches, his thick dark hair and his ears crushed beneath a tight-fitting brown leather helmet that laced in back, his eyes ghoulish behind the scratched plastic lenses of the thick nicotine-colored rubber goggles. The foul smell of processed latex filled his nostrils.

His open two-seater racer cabriolet, with its long sporty hood and distinctive "insect tail" body design, was painted red. He had bought it used over a year ago from an Italian businessman who had moved to Asmara from Tripoli where he raced the car but over time had lost interest. The previous owner had abused it, if the deplorable state of the engine was any measure. And the two torn tawny leather seats left no doubt, nor did the crack in the fold-down windshield.

In the year and a half leading up to the race Mario had raced often against three of his friends, and from these he almost always emerged the victor. The old men who came out to watch—retired mechanics, mostly, from the twenty-odd garages in Asmara, included several whom had raced years ago in Italy. They were quick to notice how he handled the wheel, and nodded and muttered approvingly strolling over to watch with interest as he tinkered with his car's engine between races. Quick to start betting amongst themselves on the outcome of the contests they nicknamed him 'Soldi' —money, because he almost always won.

Mario surveyed the restless and wobbling crowd of Italian Asmarinos who seemed to have celebrated Christmas Eve with too much Spumante and, from the look of things, were still celebrating. Boisterous and impatient, they thronged in front of the opera house, crowded around the Renaissance scallop-shell fountain, and overflowed onto the tiered balconies and the Romanesque portico supported by Classical columns.

Sidewalk venders were roasting chestnuts, and the appetizing smell filled the air, adding a savory counterpoint to the harsh tobacco smoke filtering through the crowd. Overhead sharp-eyed raptors drawn by the enticing odors perched immobile on the edge of the building, resting before they resumed their flight over Asmara on their way to wintering grounds in central and southern Africa. Others, their sail-like wings extended against a cloudless sky, rode the downdrafts, circling lazily while taking a respite from foraging in the garbage dump on the other side of town.

As far as Mario could see down either side of the wide and empty asphalted Viale Roma, originally built as a parade ground, nothing moved except the Dunlop and Castrol advertising banners draped across the stirring branches of the eucalyptus trees. This was the center of town, the Campo Cintato, the closed area. It was off-limits, for reasons of "public order and hygiene," to native Eritreans after work hours and on weekends and holidays. Mario, who like all Asmarinos knew about the ordinance, wasn't surprised when he couldn't spot a native face in the crowd. From his vantage point low to the ground in his cockpit his legs extended, his anxious fingers gripping the throbbing steering wheel, he looked down the avenue at the spectators standing three and four-deep on the sidewalks and at the small children seated on their fathers' shoulders waving little Italian flags.

That morning's Life and Events in the Colony column of the daily Il Quotidiano Eritreo supposed that 30,000 spectators or more would attend. Mario, viewing the crowd from his cramped cockpit, decided the paper's estimate might have been close to the mark. Certainly the Fascist editorial commentary in the same issue—to set aside whatever plans Asmarinos might have made for Christmas Day in favor of attending the race and cheering for their favorite driver—seemed to have swayed the colonialists in what otherwise would have been a quiet day spent at home with family and friends. It would show solidarity, concluded the editorial, for Prime Minister Mussolini's campaign to showcase to the world the Italian African empire, the blossoming industrialization that had developed and the hardworking colonialists who inhabited it.

And then his thoughts drifted and he thought about them again—he had never really stopped thinking about them—the Italian couple that had so thoroughly revolutionized his life. He wondered where they were now, though he knew they were no longer in Asmara, and what they were doing—Emilia, in particular. He'd driven past their house last week, the daffodil Villa Veneto in the Geza Banda part of town, and found it closed and shuttered silent behind its bougainvillea wall.

His eyes swept the crowd again noticing this time on the sidewalk a cordon of dark suited inattentive aides and their chattering wives arranged in a crescent around the unofficial-looking Governor General of Eritrea, Maurizio Bocchiardo, and his wife Carmelina. Short and rumpled, with the idle demeanor of a bureaucrat who wished he were elsewhere, the governor wore a white hat and a loose fitting matching suit with wide lapels accessorized with a red tie. He stood fidgeting alongside his wife who wore a pale red dress with a white sash. The crowd chuckled spying them, many openly ridiculing his authority, the women making light of the fact the couple were of the same height and stature and the men pointing out how they both wore the same bewildered expression. The ill at ease gubernatorial couple stood at half attention uncertain of the protocol, whether to stand ramrod with their chests out for the playing of the Song of the Italians, the national anthem, or to brace for the crack of the starting pistol that would launch the race. It seemed no one had bothered to inform them.

When at last the portly white-haired official from the Reale Automobile Club d'Italia stood on a stool, raised his right arm and fired the starting pistol the crowd roared its encouragement. There was a terrific explosion of engines, the tires shrieked on the hot asphalt and in a moment the cars had disappeared in a cloud of exhaust down the central palm-lined avenue leaving behind the smell of gasoline and burning rubber. And in the unnatural silence that followed broken only by the stirring spectators and the rustling palms, the crowd settled in to await the leader.


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