Chapter Nine - A Solomon Comes to Judgment
ONE DAY, after Don Camillo and Peppone had settled a slight misunderstanding to the mutual satisfaction of both, the Mayor turned to the priest and said, "There's no sense in turning everything in life into a tragedy. If we reason things out, we can always compromise."
"Right you are," said Don Camillo warmly. "Why did God give us brains if He didn't expect us to reason?"
The two men parted on this note, and a few days later something happened in the valley which clearly proves that man is a reasoning creature, especially when it comes to living peacefully with his neighbor. First, however, you need to know the local geography of the little world or you won't understand a thing about it.
The Po River rolls on its mighty way without so much as an if-you-please and on either side it is fed by countless streams and tributaries. The Tincone is one of these little streams. Now the Molinetto road, running parallel to the Po, connects the tiny communities of Pieve and La Rocca. At a certain point the road crosses the Tincone. Here there is a bridge; it is, in fact, a structure of some size because at this point the Tincone is fairly wide, being only a mile or so away from where it flows into the big river. Pieve and La Rocca are each about three miles from the bridge over the Tincone, which is, indeed, the boundary line between them.
This is the topography of the story, and its point of departure is the problem of public education. The school that served both communities was at La Rocca, and for the people of Pieve this was a serious matter. Every day their children had to travel six miles, and six miles are thirty thousand feet, even in the flat river valley. Children can't resist taking short-cuts, and since the road they traveled was straight as an arrow, the short-cuts always led them a longer way round.
One day a committee of women from Pieve came to the Mayor of the whole township, Peppone, and announced that unless they were given a schoolhouse of their own they wouldn't send their children to school. Now the township was about as rich as a traveling rabbit and a new school would have entailed not only building costs, but double the amount of teachers' salaries as well. So, having by hook or crook raised some funds, Peppone decided to build the new schoolhouse at the bridge over the Tincone, halfway between Pieve and La Rocca, and send the children from both communities there. But at this point the problem became thorny.
"That's all very well," they said at La Rocca, "as long as it's on our side of the bridge."
"All well and good," they said at Pieve, "but of course it must be on our side."
To be exact, both of them were in the wrong (or in the right, as you prefer), because the real halfway point was not on either side of the bridge, but in the middle.
"You don't want the school built on the bridge, do you?" Peppone shouted, after a long discussion with committees from both villages.
"You're the Mayor," they answered, "and it's up to you to find a fair solution."
"The only real solution would be to lead you all to the bridge, tie millstones round your necks and throw you into the water," said Peppone. And he wasn't so wrong either.
"It's not a question of a hundred yards one way or the other," they told him. "Social justice is at stake." And that silenced the Mayor very effectively, because whenever he heard the phrase "social justice," Peppone drew himself up as if he were witnessing the miracle of creation.
Meanwhile trouble began to brew. Some boys from La Rocca went by night to the bridge and painted a red line across the middle. Then they announced that anyone from Pieve would find it healthier to stay on his own side. The next evening boys from Pieve painted a green line parallel to the red one and intimated that anyone from La Rocca would be better off at home. The third evening, boys from both villages arrived at the middle of the bridge at the same time. One of those from La Rocca spat over the green line and one of those from Pieve spat over the red one. A quarter of an hour later, three boys were in the river and five had severe wounds on the head. The worst of it was that of the three boys in the river, two were from Pieve and only one was from La Rocca, so to even up the score another boy from La Rocca would have to be thrown in. And of the five boys with head wounds, three were from La Rocca and two from Pieve and so another boy from Pieve needed a beating. All, of course, for the sake of social justice.
The number of head wounds and boys thrown into the river increased daily, and soon the numbers were swelled by grown men, both old and young. Then one day Smilzo, who hung about the bridge as an observer, brought Peppone a piece of really bad news.
"There's been a fist fight between a woman from Pieve and a woman from La Rocca."
Now when women get mixed up in an affair of this kind, the trouble really starts. Women are always the ones to stick a gun in the hand of husband, brother, lover, father or son. Women are the plague of politics and alas, politics are about ninety-five per cent, of the world's occupation. So it was that knives were drawn and shots began to fly.
"Something's got to be done," said Peppone, "or else we shan't need a school, but a cemetery."
Apart from the fact that there's more to be learned in the cool grave than in a schoolroom, this was no joking matter, and Peppone handled it in masterful fashion. Out on the Po there had lain for years an old floating water mill, made of two big hulks with the millwheel between and a cabin bridging them over. Peppone had these towed under the central arch of the bridge across the Tincone. He chained them to the supporting columns and then remodeled them in such a way as to make them into one, joined by gangplanks to both banks of the river. So it was that one day there was a solemn opening of the new floating school. A large crowd was present, including a group of newspapermen from the big city.
The only accident ever recorded took place when Beletti, a boy who had to repeat the third grade for six years in succession, threw his teacher into the water. But this did not upset Peppone.
"Italy is in the middle of the Mediterranean," he said, "and everybody must know how to swim."
Go on to chapter ten, Thunder on the Right on the meaning of life website.