Fernando’s Footsteps

by Tony Carreño

 

Fernando commented on how hilly the terrain was. They were only about 35 miles north of Tampa, but it seemed as if they had been transported to Georgia or Alabama. Gainesville was another 100 miles down the road, and Fernando was enjoying the trip. Luciano had made the same trip by train in June, so he had offered to drive. This would permit his parents the chance to relax and take in the scenery. Giuseppina, already missing her son, sat silently in the back seat. Mile after mile of orange groves occasionally gave way to pastureland dotted with grazing cows. Fernando realized how different and culturally distinct Tampa was from anything else for many miles surrounding it. Almost hypnotized by the calm beauty of the scenery, his thoughts drifted to Spain and his relatives there.

It was Friday, August 31st, 1939 and the war in Spain had ended five months prior. It was starting to become a distant memory, the only reminder being the occasional letter from the Red Cross informing him that they still had no definitive word on his family. Luciano's voice startled him.

"Papa, creo que quiero estudiar para ser ingeniero. Me gustaría construir cosas como carreteras o puentes. Que piensas?"

Luciano, recognizing the now too familiar melancholy look on his dad's face, tried to distract him. He told Fernando that he was thinking of majoring in engineering. He relished the idea of building highways or bridges. He asked his father what he thought of the idea.

"Hijo, lo que quiero para todos mis hijos es que sean feliz y saludable. Eso es lo más importante en la vida. Estudias lo que te trae felicidad."

Fernando replied that what he wants for all his children are health and happiness. He told Luciano that he should study whatever would bring him satisfaction.

Luciano rubbed his father's knee affectionately. They didn't notice it, but Giuseppina was silently shedding tears. She was overcome with emotion. The pride of having a son that was going away to college, the sadness of not having him close by, and the knowledge of how deeply he loved his family had overcome her. 

After stopping for a light lunch, the Tampeños arrived in Gainesville just before noon. They dropped Luciano off at his dormitory and then checked into a motel they had reserved. They would meet their son for dinner and spend the next two days attending orientation activities organized by the university. Fernando, always the explorer, suggested to Giuseppina that they drive around Gainesville for a while. This was their first experience with "mid-America". Other than New York City, or Sundays at Clearwater Beach, Tampa was the only place in the U.S.A. with which they were familiar. 

The university campus was impressive. The red brick buildings and tree-lined streets had the look of a classic "university town" as portrayed in the movies. Pines and other hardwood trees far outnumbered palms and other tropical foliage. Some areas of the city had somewhat hilly streets. Though only 140 miles away from Tampa, the contrast was staggering. As Giuseppina and Fernando were soon to learn, this stark contrast was not limited to just the foliage and the terrain.

After driving around the small city, Fernando and Giuseppina decided to stop for ice cream in the charming downtown area of Gainesville. The ice cream shop was rather full, but they were able to sit at a small table near the entrance. Soon after they were seated, Giuseppina happened to notice that several people at a nearby table kept glancing at her. Not able to speak or read English, Giuseppina asked Fernando to translate the small menu. She spoke in a somewhat loud voice, due to the amount of noise in the room. This seemed to attract even more attention from several nearby tables. Soon after placing their order, a woman at another table stood up and approached Fernando and Giuseppina. She addressed Giuseppina, smiling and speaking with a heavy Southern accent.

"Excuse me. I do apologize for disturbing you. I'm afraid my friends and I were being rude, and that was certainly not the intention. We couldn't help but notice your beautiful earrings and the fact that your ears are pierced. They look lovely, and it's something we simply don't see around here. You're a beautiful woman, and those earrings enhance your beauty. I'm tempted to have my own ears pierced."

Fernando, in his limited but sufficient English, explained that his wife did not speak or understand English, and asked the woman if he could translate what she said. The woman, smiling, agreed. Giuseppina nodded her head, thanking the woman and smiling. The woman, in perfect Spanish, responded.

"Yo pensaba que ustedes estaban hablando castellano, pero con tanto ruido, no podía entenderles bien. Y ahora que oigo mejor, yo sé, por el acento, que ustedes son españoles, verdad?"

Fernando and Giuseppina were taken by surprise. She told them that she thought they were speaking Spanish, but because of all the noise, she couldn't understand them well. Now that she could clearly hear them, because of their accent, she recognized them as Spaniards. She continued, explaining that she is a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Florida, and spent two years studying Spanish at the University of Salamanca in Spain. 

Continuing the conversation in Spanish, Fernando and Giuseppina complimented her on her perfect Spanish. They then spent several minutes getting acquainted. She was fascinated that Giuseppina, though Sicilian, could speak Spanish so well. Having an interest in Latin-based languages, she asked Giuseppina to say a few words in Sicilian. Knowing some Italian, the woman was fascinated at how different the two languages are. She had heard of Tampa's diverse immigrant community but had not met anyone from there. She further commented that this was the first time she had encountered native Spanish speakers in Gainesville. Having researched Hispanic immigration to the U.S.A., she also told the Tampeños that as far as she knew, the only two cities in Florida where Spanish was widely spoken were Key West and Tampa. She congratulated them on Luciano's achievements, and introduced herself as she handed them a business card. Her name was Dr. Rachel Young. She then handed them a second card and said that if Luciano needed help with anything at all, he could contact her. She returned to her friends. 

Fernando and Giuseppina finished their ice cream treats. As they were leaving, they smiled and waved to Dr. Young and her friends. As they were driving back to the motel, Giuseppina commented on how a seemingly trivial act of kindness can make such a difference. She confessed that she had been harboring many concerns about Luciano being in an unfamiliar place, particularly one so culturally distinct from Tampa. She felt much better after encountering Dr. Young. She was particularly grateful for the professor's offer to assist Luciano if necessary. Fernando commented that he really hadn't realized just how different their lives in Tampa were, compared to many other American cities and towns, especially those in Florida. In New York, it was almost impossible to feel "different", in that almost every nationality and culture on earth existed within the city, but that was the exception. Gainesville was a new experience for them, and they realized that assimilation into mainstream American life would not be in their future.

Early risers, Fernando and Giuseppina were the first customers in the motel coffee shop. As they glanced over the menu, Fernando smiled and looked over at his wife.

"Pina, quizás si comemos un desayuno típico americano, seríamos un poco menos extraños! Tenemos que pedir huevos fritos, harina de maíz, y tocino. Vamos a probar el café americano, lo que llamamos 'agua sucia'!"

Gaitero was in a jocular mood. He suggested to Giuseppina that if they were to eat a typical American breakfast, perhaps they would appear a bit less strange. He suggested ordering fried eggs, grits, and bacon, using the term "cornmeal" for grits. He even suggested that they try American coffee, which is referred to as "dirty water" by many Tampeños!

Pina laughed, reminding him that she actually enjoyed "typical American" food, even the coffee. She confessed that she and her sisters frequented Morrison's Cafeteria whenever they went shopping in downtown Tampa. They chuckled and ordered their food.

Giuseppina excused herself to go to the ladies' room and Fernando got in line at the cash register to pay their bill. A radio was on the windowsill next to the register, barely audible to anyone except the cashier. As Fernando stepped to the front of the line, the cashier, apologizing, turned away and raised the volume on the radio. The musical program had been interrupted by a news bulletin. Early in the morning, European time, Germany had invaded Poland with a massive air and ground assault. Several other employees and customers gathered near the radio. Giuseppina, now standing next to Fernando, asked what was happening. Fernando explained the seriousness of the situation. Fernando could hear comments like "this is Europe's business, not ours", and "I fought in the Great War and I want no part of this".

England and France issued an ultimatum to Germany. If they did not withdraw their forces from Poland by Monday, September 3rd, they would declare war on Germany. This was two days away.

As Fernando and Giuseppina drove to Luciano's dormitory, he silently contemplated what the future might hold. He couldn't help but think that this was not unrelated to Germany's and Italy's military successes in supporting the Spanish fascists during the Spanish civil war. 

Saturday and Sunday were spent touring the campus and attending several orientation functions. Luciano anxiously spoke of the current international crisis, even suggesting he would leave the university and enter the military should the U.S.A. enter a future conflict. Giuseppina, normally soft spoken, vehemently chastised him for such thoughts. On Sunday evening, Fernando and Giuseppina treated Luciano to a farewell dinner at Gainesville's best steakhouse.   Luciano had his first class early the next morning, and they probably wouldn't see him again until Thanksgiving. As Fernando drove away from the dormitory, Giuseppina quietly wept.

"EUROPE AT WAR!!"

The headline in the Monday morning edition of "The Gainesville Sun" newspaper was clear, even to someone whose ability to read English was limited. As Fernando dropped a nickel into the slot to complete his purchase of the newspaper, his mind was racing. Several hours ago, England and France had declared war on Germany. The U.S.A. had formally declared its neutrality, but Fernando knew that this would inevitably change, unless the conflict was quickly resolved. He was not optimistic that this would occur. For the first time ever, he found himself wishing that he and Giuseppina had had only daughters. 

He walked back to the motel room and retrieved Giuseppina and their luggage. The Tampeños began their quiet drive to Tampa and the familiarity of Ybor City, West Tampa, and their "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