Fernando’s Footsteps

by Tony Carreño

 

Thanksgiving had become Fernando's favorite holiday. He viewed it as the quintessential American celebration, and it was on this day that he felt the most "American". He often reminisced of his first Thanksgiving 38 years ago at La Gallega boarding house, a few weeks after his arrival in Tampa. So much had transpired, most of it for which he felt grateful. This particular Thanksgiving of 1938 was one of conflicting emotions. The Spanish Civil War raged on with no end in sight, and recent reports suggested the fascist rebels under General Francisco Franco were likely to prevail in overthrowing the legally elected government. Its ferocity exceeded what anyone had expected. The German and Italian air forces, especially the Condor Legion of the Luftwaffe, were regularly bombing civilian and military targets. The United States, along with most of the world, failed to support the democratically elected Spanish Republic. The war had so far killed close to half a million Spaniards, many of them civilians. This represented one out of every fifty Spaniards. News was sketchy, and Fernando had virtually no information concerning his family. 

On the brighter side, Fernando and his family were well. Carmela and her husband had given Fernando and Giuseppina their first grandchild. Pilar was engaged to a wonderful man, and Luciano was in his senior year at Hillsborough High School. Not only was he an outstanding scholar, but a star player on the school's football team, one of the best in the state. Luciano had grown into a strong and agile young man, and one of the best high school fullbacks in the state of Florida. 

At times, Fernando couldn't reconcile the conflict and the guilt he felt. His idyllic life in Tampa certainly was a stark contrast to the hell his family in Spain was probably enduring. As he smelled the aromas coming from the kitchen, he wondered if his family had any food at all. His despairing thoughts were mercifully interrupted.

"Papa, me voy! El partido empieza a la una y el equipo tiene que estar en la escuela a las once y media. Voy con Frank en el tranvía." 

Luciano, in his usual booming voice, told Fernando that the game started at 1:00p.m. and the team needed to be at the school at 11:30 a.m. He said that Frank and he would go on the streetcar.

Fernando raced over to his son before he could run out the door. He grabbed him by both shoulders and planted a kiss on each of his cheeks. Luciano, smiling, reciprocated. Fernando proudly watched from the front porch as his son ran two houses over to meet his good friend and teammate, Frank Busto. Frank was the quarterback on the team.

"The game" to which Luciano referred was Tampa's most important football game of the year. It pitted Hillsborough High against arch-rival Plant High School. Hillsborough was located in the working-class neighborhood of Seminole Heights, just north of Ybor City. Plant High was located across the city in the Palma Ceia neighborhood. The rivalry was intense, and the game was traditionally played on Thanksgiving afternoon. These two schools were the only two public "white" schools in Tampa. Many people viewed the rivalry as a match between the elite and wealthy professionals of South Tampa, and the blue-collar working classes of Seminole Heights, West Tampa, and Ybor City. Hillsborough High was the high school for the vast majority of the immigrants and their children. This year's game was especially important, as the winner would earn the championship for the central part of Florida, and the right to play for the Florida state championship. After the game, the Suárez family and their friends would enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner at the Suárez home. 

As usual, Fernando insisted on arriving at the game early. Fortunately, this year's game was at Hillsborough High, only a ten-minute drive from El Barrio Candamo. Ignacio, Sofia, and Rafael met them at the stadium entrance. Rafael, already graduated from Hillsborough High, had been an excellent football player as well. Not as stocky as Luciano, he was better suited for baseball, and was a first baseman in the semi-pro leagues.

Sofia and Giuseppina spent most of the game discussing the Thanksgiving dinner preparations, as well as praying that Luciano would not be injured. Rafael sat between Ignacio and Fernando, explaining the rules of the game as it unfolded. Rafael explained that because of their size, fullbacks are usually used to block for their quarterbacks, as well as for short yardage gains. Luciano was versatile in that he was also a fast runner, despite his large size. Rafael hoped, but doubted, that they were understanding. 

As expected, the game was a thrilling one. The roar of the crowd was so loud, Rafael gave up trying to explain what was happening because it was impossible to hear him. With two seconds left on the clock, Plant was ahead by a score of ten to six. Hillsborough had the ball on the Plant three-yard line, and it was fourth down. The ball was snapped to Frank Busto, the quarterback. The coach had allowed Frank to call the play, but Frank misread the defensive lineup. Luciano, lined up next to him, realized what had happened. Frank and Luciano had fantasized about and practiced this situation numerous times in sandlot football at Cuscaden Park, near El Barrio Candamo. He yelled out to Frank, as the game clock hit zero and the final buzzer could be heard. The play was still in motion.

"Paco, la falsificación! La falsificación! Aquí, hombre!"

Luciano had yelled out, in Spanish, "Frankie, the fake! The fake! Right here, man!" The defensive players frantically looked around them, totally confused.

Frank knew what to do. As his arm came forward he circled to his right, lobbing the ball to Luciano, now about eight yards from the goal line. Thrusting forward, he got to about the three and a half yard line. Three of Plant's largest defensive linemen, now having read the fake, were  upon him. Luciano dug in his cleats. With his head down, the ball clutched firmly against his chest, he thrust forward with all his strength, dragging the three linemen with him. About a foot from the goal line, he knew his knees were about to hit the turf. Closing his eyes, he took the ball and plunged it forward with as much strength as he could muster. He hit the turf, rolling over on his back. Glancing to his left, he saw the referee raising both arms, signaling a touchdown. Hillsborough won the game, thirteen to six. 

Neither an explanation nor a translation was needed for Luciano's and Rafael's parents to understand what had just happened. Most of the fans, including them and Rafael, raced onto the field. In a scene reminiscent of the Roman legions having returned home after defeating Carthage, Luciano's teammates had lifted him onto their shoulders and were parading around the field. He may as well have been a victorious Roman general. 

The celebration was marred as disappointed Plant High fans began throwing wadded up paper wrappers and anything else they could find at the celebrants. Several policemen dispersed the crowd. The coaches wisely began to hurry their teams away. Luciano called out to his parents.

"Mama, papa. Les quiero muchísimo. Les veo en una hora, en casa, y vamos a comer pavo!"

The game hero told his parents than he loved them very much and would see them in an hour, at home, and that they would eat turkey.

Little did Luciano realize that he had just given Giuseppina and Fernando a gift far more valuable than his having won a game that would go down in school history. In the midst of a celebration with his peers, he remembered who he is and from where he came. 

Rafael told his parents that he was going to meet the guys in the locker room to share in the celebration. He would meet them at the Suárez home with Luciano and Frank. As the parents neared the parking lot, they became aware of a man ranting in a loud voice. Apparently, the father of one of the Plant High players had enjoyed too much bourbon during the game. His anger and disappointment over the outcome of the game had gotten the better of him. 

"Get me the hell back to the white part of town! I hate these damned spics and talleys and all these low-class cracker Latin-lovers that put up with them! This country should throw them out and make us clean again!"

Only Fernando was able to understand the gist of what was being said. After being asked by the others, he reluctantly translated the man's opinions. Ignacio, always a bit more confrontational than Fernando, raced toward the man. Fernando unsuccessfully tried to stop him. Ignacio, stopping a few feet from the man, yelled out. 

"Somos americanos tanto como tú! Eres una desgracia para este gran país!"

"We are as American as you! You are a disgrace to this great country!"

The drunk man clenched his fist, pulled back, and swung directly at Ignacio. The intended target, always quick on his feet, averted the punch. Ignacio immediately swung back, landing his fist squarely on the aggressor's nose. Blood gushed out. Women screamed. Within seconds, two policemen appeared. Luckily, one of the policemen had been close enough to witness the confrontation, acknowledging that Ignacio had responded in self-defense. Fernando approached the policeman, explaining that Ignacio did not speak English. The officer agreed to have him translate. After asking for identification from both men, the officer asked if Ignacio wanted to press charges. He declined, wishing to put the entire affair to rest. After Fernando and Ignacio managed to calm Sofia and Giuseppina, the two couples returned to their cars. No one spoke during the ride back to El Barrio Candamo.

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This is a work of fiction. With the exception of references to known and publicly documented historical entities, the following apply:

Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. ©Tony Carreño 2020