March 11, 2010

Veteran's 'Your Lives' offers more than a war memoir


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Just when you thought you'd seen the last World War II memoir, Richard Fisco of Brunswick has published his fascinating account of fighting with the 509th Parachute Infantry and other Army units more than 65 years ago. Combat jumps in Africa, Italy and France and shootouts at the Battle of the Bulge are all a part of his heart-wrenching chronicle.

While the focus of ''Your Lives Will Be Beautiful'' is World War II, it's more than an account of one man's war experience. The book begins with a description of Fisco's hardscrabble childhood in Depression-era New York City.

Best of all is the author's account of his romance with Louise Cecchetti, a young French woman he met in Nice in 1944 and married during the war. Readers will be moved by their love story, which began with a chance meeting on a sidewalk and led to a lifelong devotion.

According to his book, Fisco had just left a barbershop in Nice when he saw ''a beautiful young French girl'' walk by in a white cotton dress with pleated skirt. He ran after her.

''As I caught up,'' he writes, ''... I called out in my one-year-of-high-school French mixed with a 10-months-in-Africa accent: 'Ou allez-vous, mademoiselle?' To my surprise she stopped, turned, smiled and answered me. I looked into her large, beautiful, clear brown eyes and said to myself, 'This is my wife.' I was twenty-four years old and until that moment had no intention of marrying anyone.''

At the start of this 206-page, self-published book, Fisco notes in large, bold type: ''I am not a writer. It is a story that just had to be written.''

Those who read ''Your Lives Will Be Beautiful'' will probably conclude, as I did, that Fisco is indeed a writer. At his best, he writes with a polish and sincerity that puts you in the airplane next to his parachute buddies preparing to jump behind enemy lines.

If there's a fault with Fisco's memoir, it's a tendency to include too many details about the war and postwar years, details better summarized or omitted. But it's a small fault in this otherwise excellent chronicle. Once you begin the book, you'll have a hard time putting it aside.

One thing that strikes a reader is the staggering number of comrades Fisco lost in the course of the war. His 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion was disbanded before the war's end because of casualties, its survivors sent to another unit. Fisco survived by good luck and the interest he took in battlefield maneuvers.

Geography, map reading and a shrewd knowledge of the German enemy were his specialties. Lieutenants sought his advice and sometimes deferred to his judgment when Fisco's plan for attack differed from theirs. He was also a marksman who developed a fast crouch and shoot-from-the hip style that saved his life several times.

Once, confronted by three German soldiers intent on killing him, Fisco dropped to his fast-crouch position, the butt of his Tommy gun centered on his belly.

''I called back 'Americano' for some reason,'' he writes, ''giving the word an Italian twist, and squeezed the trigger. Perhaps I had stumbled on a professional gunman's technique: divert your opponents' attention when you kill them. All three folded up. They didn't dive for cover; they just folded up.''

An incident that bothered Fisco years after the war was the death of 16 fellow paratroopers who made a predawn jump in August 1944 into what they thought would be Le Muy, France. But clouds obscured visibility.

''They were in plane number one and had been given the green light over open water,'' Fisco writes. ''... By the time they saw the water it was too late for them to inflate their Mae Wests.''

Each paratrooper carried more than 100 pounds of arms and supplies. Fisco's jump brought him closer to shore, and he maneuvered his chute to reach land.

After his return from war and recovery from a bullet wound, Fisco and his bride lived in Brooklyn and on Long Island, N.Y. For many years he was a fireman with the New York City Fire Department. The couple made frequent trips to France.

In the late 1980s they moved to the Brunswick area, and Louise Fisco received treatment for cancer in Portland. In ''Your Lives Will Be Beautiful,'' the author writes of quiet times together in their Maine house, where ''Every minute we spent together was precious.''

''We loved each other,'' he continues. ''Nothing could take that away from us, and we had the peace that comes only from God.''

Now 89, Fisco lives with his son, Richard, in Brunswick. A deeply religious man, he continues to practice the Catholic faith he shared with his wife. His memoir is an epic story of survival, good humor and love.

Lloyd Ferriss is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Richmond.

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