Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Remembering an unassuming warrior

(Above) Elmo Trasolini sits on the wing of a captured German aircraft in his ancestral homeland of Italy in 1944. (Below) Norm Trasolini, the clown prince of Vancouver baseball, carries a lamb under each arm at the ball park. (Bottom) Pioneer aviatrix Tosca Trasolini (far left) poses with the Flying Seven.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 13, 2009


Elmo Trasolini volunteered with the Boy Scouts and bowled in Vancouver’s city league. He spent his working life with the Vancouver waterworks department, rising to become superintendent. On holidays, he escaped to a cabin in the Chilcotin, where he liked to hunt and fish.

An ordinary life. On the surface.

Elmo Stanley Trasolini died last week, aged 86, the youngest and last survivor of five remarkable children born to parents from Italy.

He counted among his siblings a brother who was a star baseball player, a sister who was a wartime intelligence officer, and another sister who was a pioneer aviatrix.

Elmo was the youngest. During the war, at a time in which a son of immigrants invaded his parents’ homeland, it would fall to this young, unassuming man to make an emotional return to the family’s ancestral home as a conquering warrior.

“My father had seen some heavy action, but he never spoke about the war,” said his daughter, Mary Wood. “He opened up a bit in later years.”

Growing up a Trasolini meant she was encouraged to explore any interest. She raced pickup trucks and now works in the paint shop at Langley Airport. Her brother, Austin, is a newspaper deliveryman whose current quest is to visit a volcano on each continent. Three years ago, he appeared in a photograph in the Vancouver Courier holding a copy of the paper on Kala Patthar, a mountain in the Nepalese Himalaya.

Elmo encouraged his children to pursue their fancy.

“I was never told I couldn’t do something because it was a boy thing, or a girl thing,” Ms. Wood said. “There were never those boundaries.”

Elmo Trasolini had a lean physique, a result of a long struggle with what was eventually diagnosed as Crohn’s disease. He was an easy-going figure, a handsome man who grew a military regulation mustache beneath a prominent nose.

It is believed his father, Luigi, known as Louis, came to the New World in search of riches around the time of the Klondike Gold Rush. He eventually settled in Vancouver. Before the Great War, he and his wife, Raffaela, known as Rosa, posed with two infants at the Hollow Tree in Stanley Park.

Baby Norman grew up to become a fireman and a baseball catcher nicknamed Bananas. He was the city’s “clown prince of baseball,” performing stunts to entertain fans before a game, or posing for newspaper lensmen while sliding down a fire pole to raise interest in a charity game for flood victims in 1948. He once silently disputed an umpire’s call by sticking a long, lit wooden kitchen match into the dirt near home plate. The humourless umpire kicked out of the game for questioning his judgment.

Baby Tosca became such a tomboy her mother would later tell Elmo, “She should have been born a boy.”

Tosca Trasolini won renown as a sprinter, a ballplayer, a lacrosse player, and as a javelin hurler. She once humiliated the young men in the Italian community by climbing to the top of a greased pole to grab a cash prize that had eluded them. She drove motorcycles and flew airplanes.

She was a founding member of the Flying Seven, an all-female club that captured the imagination of the city in the fall of 1936 by staging a dawn-to-dusk flight. Despite drizzle and a dangerous ground fog, Miss Trasolini took off from Sea island Airport to begin the successful stunt.

After the outbreak of war, she was barred from joining the air force. Her contribution to the war effort included a “bomphlet” raid over Vancouver, during which 100,000 “Smash the Nazis” pamphlets were tossed from planes. (Alas, a brisk southeast wind blew many into English Bay.)

It was not easy to be an Italian-Canadian during the war years.

All the other Trasolini siblings spent the war in military uniform.

Norman served as an army captain, seeing action in northern Europe; Salvador was a staff sergeant in the medical corps; and, Fulvia, a sergeant in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, was assigned to the intelligence branch of the U.S. Army.

Elmo signed on with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.

He invaded Sicily as part of Operation Husky, saw heavy action at the Battle of Ortona, survived the assault on the Hitler Line.

While overseas, he got a letter from his mother. She wanted him to visit her relatives, the Raino family, and the Trasolinis in Torrice, outside Frosinone, about 75 kilometres southeast of Rome. Young Elmo, 21, got permission from his commanding officer, who only insisted who do so in uniform and armed.

The quest is recounted by Raymond Culos in the first of his three volumes titled, “Vancouver’s Society of Italians.”

Elmo entered an osteria where he was eyed by men who sat drinking. He found an important-looking man in a white suit who spoke English.

“He took me to the town and said, ‘This is the Trasolini from Canada.’ Holy mackerel, things just exploded. People came from all over. ...

“I couldn’t speak Italian, which I really regretted. But I was treated as a god, the centrepiece. And everybody, including my cousins Eddy and Johnny, who were only around nine and 13 at the time, just stood there smiling, talking and looking at me.

“And the custom (was) the men sat down and the women stood behind. I had the best bed, full of corn husks. Unfortunately, I was only able to stay overnight. And I only had meagre rations. Cigarettes and chocolates. I gave them all I had.”

Elmo eventually returned to his Vancouver birthplace with news of the ancestral home. He got hired by the city, an unpretentious man who took it as his duty after the war to ensure the waterworks performed as expected, a rather ordinary duty for one from an extraordinary family.

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