Fernando’s Footsteps

by Tony Carreño

 

"Los Helados", named for their delicious homemade ice cream, was known for serving some of the best food in Ybor City and West Tampa. Fernando and Giuseppina didn't mind waiting for a table. Though it was a Tuesday afternoon, the dining room was filled to capacity. It was two days before Thanksgiving, 1941, and Fernando relished this yearly tradition. He would work half the day on Tuesday, and not return to work until the following Monday. He and Giuseppina would meet at "Los Helados" for lunch, and then they would shop for the food for their yearly Thanksgiving celebration, which had now become legendary. The last three years had been especially festive since Luciano would come down from Gainesville. At Giuseppina's insistence, since Luciano had been away at school, the holiday was now combined with celebrating Fernando's birthday. She cherished the special bond between her husband and her son, and this was an opportunity for Luciano to participate in honoring his father. 

After eating more than they had intended, Fernando and Giuseppina walked two blocks over to La Séptima. Their first stop was "La Montañesa", arguably the best butcher shop in all of Tampa. Within the Spanish community they were legendary for their traditional Spanish sausages such as chorizo, morcilla, and butifarra. Giuseppina had mastered the art of "fusion" cuisine for Thanksgiving, combining the traditional American foods with a few Spanish and Sicilian side dishes. After several more stops along La Séptima, they drove north along 15th Street. The choosing of the turkeys marked the traditional end of the food shopping. Their favorite poultry store actually had no official name. It was a combination hardware store, animal feed store, and poultry store, known among the locals as "La Pollería" ("The Poultry"). Located near El Barrio Candamo, the owner was a Spaniard known simply as "El Marqués" ("The Marquis"). No one seemed to know his actual name, nor did it matter. A man of few words, El Marqués exuded an air of superiority, almost to the point of arrogance. He was, however, indisputably the "Marquis of Poultry". Giuseppina wouldn't dream of buying her poultry anywhere else, especially the Thanksgiving turkeys. Within 35 minutes of choosing two of the best-looking live birds, Fernando and Giuseppina placed them, now plucked and dressed, in their new Frigidaire refrigerator. Fernando's next assignment was to stay as far away from the kitchen as possible as Giuseppina began the almost incessant cooking for the next 48 hours.

Luciano would be arriving at 7:30 p.m. that evening by train. Fernando was to pick him up at Tampa's Union Station. The afternoon was cool enough that Fernando decided to build a fire in the fireplace, the first of this Florida winter. As he gathered some logs and kindling wood from the storage shed in the backyard, his thoughts wandered back to San Roman and his childhood. One of his favorite tasks was to gather "leña" (kindling wood) for the almost continuous fire that burned in the kitchen of his childhood home. Walking through the large kitchen, Fernando was sure that Pina was oblivious to his presence. Noticing that there was no available counter space remaining in the kitchen, Fernando remembered another yearly tradition. On the way home from the train station, Luciano and he were to stop at "Cafetería Mercedes" and bring home dinner. He smiled to himself, amazed and pleased at the passion with which Giuseppina expressed her love for her friends and family through food. 

Fernando's planning had paid off. The previous spring, Fernando helped Ignacio and his sons remove several large oaks in order to expand their barn. His reward was enough firewood to last more Florida winters than he had left in his life. Wary of the summer rains and humidity, Fernando had meticulously stored the oak logs well off the ground and protected from rain. Within minutes the dry wood had produced a beautiful fire. Fernando laid on the couch, hoping to take a brief nap. His thoughts again drifted back to San Roman as an occasional downdraft filled the room with the smell of burning wood. As he began to drift off to sleep, he thought of his older brother, Pelayo. Eventually, the International Red Cross had succeeded in obtaining information about his family in Spain. Pelayo had been killed during the Asturias Offensive of the Spanish Civil War in the fall of 1937. It was Pelayo who had shown Fernando how to build a good fire. The smell of burning wood would always remind Fernando of Pelayo, and the pain and suffering that wars inflict. Beneath the veneer of the good life he was enjoying lay the fear that the foolishness of men would soon engulf the entire world in turmoil. The war in Europe had been raging for two years, with no end in sight. He thought of Luciano, Rafael and so many other young men whose lives might soon be in danger. His mind racing, Fernando decided that sleep was not possible at the moment. He turned on the radio to listen to the NBC evening news at 5:00 p.m. The signature three gongs, "N...B...C", helped divert his thoughts away from Spain and Pelayo. Reality came back to haunt him as the first news item was read. Tensions between Japan and the United States were quickly escalating. In an attempt to halt Japanese expansionism in Asia, the U.S.A. had imposed a trade embargo against Japan, pushing that island nation to the point of desperation. Fernando switched stations. Raising the volume, "Big Band" music filled the air as he rushed into the kitchen. Pulling Giuseppina away from the large wooden worktable, Fernando began coaxing her into their version of the jitterbug. They began to laugh as Fernando pulled her close to him, hugging and kissing her. Their laughter increased as they saw that Fernando's shirt and pants were white with flour. Fernando gave Pina another hug, then showered and changed his clothes.

"Papa, aquí!"

"Dad, here!"

Luciano's voice could easily be heard above the din of the busy train station. As he ran toward Fernando, the proud father, for the first time, realized his son was no longer a boy, but an impressive young man. Now twenty years old, Luciano bore a striking resemblance to Pelayo, his uncle that died while defending the Spanish Republic. Father and son embraced. 

"Lou! Que tal, hombre! How are you doing?"

Rafael, speaking in that combination of Spanish and English so typical of his generation, warmly greeted Luciano. It was the day after Thanksgiving, and the Prendes family was hosting their friends and family with a "left-overs" party. As the women were organizing the food onto large buffet tables, the men gathered on the porch and around an outdoor fire. The conversations were largely centered around the increasingly tense international geopolitical situation. Much to Giuseppina's dismay, Luciano was obsessed with the possibility of the U.S.A. entering the ongoing war. As a student at the University of Florida, he was required to participate in the Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC) program for a minimum of his first two years. He had elected to join the Army Air Corp program and voluntarily extended his participation to his current third year. He found himself drawn to the military culture. 

Luciano and Rafael were sitting next to each other as they ate their lunch. Giuseppina and Sofia were seated nearby. Luciano continued rambling on, telling Rafael that it was inevitable that the U.S.A. would enter the war and that they should be prepared to volunteer to fight for their country. His recruitment effort was suddenly loudly interrupted by his mother.

"Luciano! Basta! Nun parra chiù de guerra!"

Giuseppina, normally reserved, yelled at her son in Sicilian. She told him that this was enough talk about war. After a few seconds of silence, Fernando went over to Giuseppina and hugged her. They went into the kitchen, followed by Sofia.

"Es que no quiero oír nada más sobre guerra. Ya perdimos a tu hermano, y no quiero perder otro hijo por las tonterías de hombres!"

Giuseppina, still upset, reiterated that she didn't want to hear anything else about war. They had already lost Fernando's brother, and she didn't want to lose another son because of the foolishness of men. The pain of losing her baby son, Gaetano, would always be with Giuseppina.

Luciano had come into the kitchen. He hugged his mother and promised her there would be no more talk about war. 

Giuseppina regained her composure and returned to the dining area. Several other mothers approached her, sharing their mutual concerns. The festivities continued with no further discussions about war or the international political situation. 

Luciano kept his promise to his mother for the rest of the holiday weekend. On Sunday, Luciano returned to Gainesville. 

As usual, Fernando was concerned about being late. 

"Pina, por favor. Ya son las once y cuarto y la comida empieza a las doce. Tenemos que reunir con Ignacio y Sofía a las doce menos cuarto."

Fernando reminded his wife that the lunch started at noon, and it was already 11:15 a.m. He also reminded her that they were to meet the Prendeses at 11:45 a.m.

It was Sunday, exactly one week after Luciano had returned to Gainesville after his Thanksgiving break. The Centro Español de Tampa was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding, which was on December 21, 1891. In order to avoid conflicting with Christmas festivities, the society scheduled the celebration two weeks early. The Centro Español had two clubhouses, one in Ybor City and one in West Tampa. A banquet and dance were scheduled today at both clubhouses. Fernando and Giuseppina agreed to join Ignacio and Sofía at the celebration in West Tampa. 

The Centro Español clubhouse in West Tampa was on the corner of Howard Avenue and Cherry Street. Designed in the Spanish Moorish architectural style, it was an imposing three story brick structure, and considered one of the most beautiful buildings in Tampa. Fernando and Giuseppina arrived at the clubhouse a few minutes before Sofia and Ignacio. Surprised at the large turnout, Fernando suggested that Pina enter and hold four seats together. Within minutes, the Prendeses arrived. The banquet was being held in the casino area on the main floor. Tables had been placed end on end to form half a dozen very long rows. Locating Giuseppina, they took their seats next to her.

For the next two hours they feasted on seemingly endless Spanish delicacies. The meal was catered by Las Novedades restaurant. Fernando and Ignacio reminisced about Fernando's first meal, which was also his first Cuban sandwich, at the now famous restaurant. This was two days after Fernando arrived from Havana, 41 years ago. They agreed that it really did seem like yesterday.

After a few more swigs of Anis del Mono, the Spanish anise seed liqueur, the two couples rose to their feet and began following the crowd. Ascending the beautiful marble staircase which led upstairs to the ballroom, Fernando could hear the strains of the popular Spanish paso doble ("two step"), "Que Viva España" ("May Spain Live"). This popular song had become the unofficial "anthem" for Spanish fiestas in Tampa, usually played at the start and end of festivities. Not wanting to miss the traditional first dance, the crowd hurried up the stairs into the large ballroom.

As couples two-stepped in the traditional large moving circle, the music suddenly stopped. Celestino Torrens, a member of the board of directors of Centro Español, was on the small stage. He held a microphone in one hand. He raised and lowered his other hand, signaling for silence. He began to speak.

"Estimados damas y caballeros. Tengo un anuncio de gran y grave importancia. Hace como veinte minutos que anunciaron por la radio que las fuerzas armadas de Japón han atacado la base naval de Los Estados Unidos en Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. En este momento sigue el ataque, y los reportajes dicen que hay una gran pérdida de vida."

 Mr. Torrens said that he had to make an announcement of great and grave importance. Twenty minutes earlier, a radio announcement said that the armed forces of Japan had attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. At this very moment, the attack was continuing, and reports indicate a heavy loss of life. Shouts and cries of anguish, confusion, outrage and disbelief filled the ballroom, then quickly subsided.

Giuseppina, grasping her face with both hands, yelled "Luciano! No!" Most of the guests simply froze in place, blank faces staring at each other. Others scrambled down the stairs and began gathering their belongings. Marina Ramirez, one of Sofia's friends, was screaming hysterically. As Marina's husband and Sofia tried to comfort her, she explained that her younger brother had written her two weeks prior from Hawaii. He was a midshipman assigned to the "USS Arizona", and currently based at Pearl Harbor.

Fernando and Ignacio did their best to comfort their wives. Though no one spoke the words, it was clear that this meant war for the United States. The two couples slowly descended that beautiful marble staircase. The casino area was now almost empty. They gathered their personal items and drove home in stunned silence. 

--

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