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Chapter Twelve - The Strike
DON CAMILLO walked into Peppone's workshop and found the owner sitting in a corner, reading his paper.
"Labor ennobles man," Don Camillo observed. "Take care not to overdo it."
Peppone raised his eyes, turned his head to one side in order to spit, and went on with his reading. Don Camillo sat down on a box, took off his hat, wiped the perspiration away from his forehead and remarked calmly: "Good sports¬manship is all that really matters."
Just then Smilzo came in, out of breath from having ridden his racing bicycle so fast. At the sight of Don Camillo, he raised a finger to his cap.
"Greetings, Your Eminence," he said. "The influence exercised by the clergy upon minds still beclouded by the Dark Ages is a brake upon social progress."
Peppone did not stir, and Don Camillo continued to fan himself with his handkerchief, only imperceptibly turning his head so as to look at Smilzo out of the corner of one eye.
Smilzo sat down on the floor, leaned up against the wall, and said no more. A few minutes later, Straziami came in with his jacket over one shoulder and his hat pushed back on his head. Taking in the situation at a glance, he stood against the door-post and gazed at the world outside. The next to arrive was Lungo, who pushed some tools to one side of the work-bench and sat down on it. Ten minutes went by, and the only sign of life among the five of them was the fanning motion of Don Camillo's hand. Suddenly Peppone crumpled up his paper and threw it away.
"Devil take it!" he exclaimed angrily. "Hasn't anyone got a cigarette?"
Nobody moved, except for Don Camillo, who went on fanning.
"Haven't you one?" Peppone asked him maliciously. "I haven't smoked since early this morning."
"And I haven't even smelled tobacco for two whole days," Don Camillo answered. "I was counting on you."
"You asked for it," Peppone shouted. "I hope you're enjoy¬ing your De Gasperi Government."
"If you were to work instead of reading your paper, you'd have some cigarette money," Don Camillo said calmly.
Peppone threw his cap on the ground.
"Work! Work!" he shouted. "How can I work if no one brings me anything to do? Instead of having their mowers repaired, people are cutting their hay with a scythe. And my truck hasn't been called out for two months. How am I supposed to get along?"
"Nationalize your business," Don Camillo said calmly.
Smilzo raised a finger.
"The Marshall Plan is the enemy of the people," he began gravely. "And the proletariat needs social reforms, not just a lot of talk."
Peppone got up and stood with his legs wide apart in front of Don Camillo.
"Stop raising a breeze with that damned handkerchief, will you?" he shouted. "And tell us what that Government of your choice is doing about the general strike."
"Don't ask me," said Don Camillo. "I can't fit newspapers into my budget. This last month I haven't read anything but my missal."
Peppone shrugged his shoulders.
"It suits you not to know what's going on," he said. "The fact is that you've betrayed the people."
Don Camillo stopped fanning.
"Do you mean me?" he asked gently.
Peppone scratched his head and went back to sit in his corner with his face buried in his hands. In the half-dark workshop silence once more reigned. Each returned to his thoughts on the general strike which had been called from the national headquarters of the Party. Bulletins had been issued, pamphlets distributed and posters put up to explain what the Party leaders were accomplishing for the people, with the result that in the little world of Don Camillo the people were hungry and life in the village was at a standstill. As the days seemed to grow longer and the tempers shorter, Don Camillo had begun to worry.
"To think that on the other side of the river there are people who might work and choose to strike instead!" Don Camillo exclaimed. "At a time like this, I call that a crime!"
He had diplomatically referred to the neighboring town¬ship, which was outside Peppone's jurisdiction. It was an important agricultural centre and there, as everywhere in the valley, the farmers, unable to get labor, were forced to tighten their belts and watch their harvests rot.
Peppone raised his head.
"The strike is the workers' only weapon," he shouted. "Do you want to take it away? What did we fight for in the Resistance movement?"
"To lose the war faster."
So they began to discuss who should pay for the war, and that argument took a long time. Then they emptied some tins of petrol into the tank of Lungo's motorcycle, and Smilzo and Lungo rode away, while Don Camillo returned to the presbytery.
At midnight a boat shot silently out over the river. In it were five men in overalls, with grease all over their faces, looking like mechanics of some kind; three of them were fellows with especially broad shoulders. They landed on the opposite bank, quite a long way downstream, and after walking a mile through empty fields found a truck waiting to take them to a big commercial farm. They proceeded to clean the stable and then to milk the cows. Although there were only five of them, they worked like a whole battalion. Just as they were finishing with the cows, someone breathlessly spread the alarm: "The squad!"
The five barely had time to get out of the stable by one door before the squad appeared at another, where cans of milk were lined up ready for delivery. The squad leader kicked over one of the cans and said: "I'll give you a lesson in making butter!" Then, turning to his followers, he added: "Some of you take care of the rest of the cans, and the others come with me to give a lesson to the strike-breakers."
He advanced threateningly towards the five, but the iron bars wielded by the three with the broad shoulders did the work of eight, and their two smaller companions were as slippery as eels and gave just as much trouble. Before long the squad retired, licking its wounds. But, three hours later, a veritable army came to reinforce it. The five picked up pitchforks and awaited the attack, while their new enemies stopped some sixty feet away.
"We don't want to hurt you." shouted their leader. "We're after the farmer that got you out from the city. You go on about your business, and we'll settle accounts with him."
The women of the family began to cry, and the farmer and his two sons were white with fear.
"No, we can't let you do that," mumbled one of the five, and they held their ground, while the others, waving sticks, advanced towards them.
"Look out!" said one of the giants. And he threw the pitch¬fork in the direction of the advancing enemy, who drew back while the pitchfork went into the vacated ground. Then he ran into the stable and reappeared just in time to face the enemy's regrouped forces with a tommy-gun in his hand.
A tommy-gun is no laughing matter, but what is even more frightening is the face of the man who bears it, which reveals from the start whether he intends to shoot or not. In this instance the bearer's face made it very clear that if the enemy didn't desist and retire, he would mow them down. They made another attempt late at night to besiege the stable, but a volley of shots decided them to keep their distance. The strike-breakers stayed on the job twelve days, until it was all over, and when they went away they were loaded down with foodstuffs and money.
No one ever knew exactly who the strike-breakers were. But for some time Peppone, Smilzo, Lungo, and Straziami were very quiet. When Don Camillo discussed the matter at the altar, the Lord reproached him for having carried a tommy-gun, but Don Camillo insisted it had been Peppone. Finally, however, he threw out his arms and gave in.
"What do you expect, Lord?" he said. "How can I explain it to You? We were so alike that no one could say which was me and which Peppone. All strike-breakers look the same by night."
And when the Lord insisted that the tommy-gun had been carried by broad daylight, Don Camillo only threw out his arms again and said: "There are circumstances that cause a man to lose all notion of time!"
Go on to chapter thirteen, Thunder on the meaning of life website.