Fernando’s Footsteps

by Tony Carreño

 

"Pina, Rosa ha oído algo de Aaron? Ya sabe cuando regresa a Tampa?"

Fernando stood, hugging and kissing Pina. He then asked her if Rosa had heard anything about Aaron. He wondered if she knew when he was returning to Tampa. 

It was early February 1942. Fernando, exhausted, was sitting at the kitchen table, sipping café con leche, when Pina arose and came downstairs. Fernando had been up all night, helping out at the Licata farm. A severe freeze and frost the night before had threatened the crops. Temperatures had fallen to the high 20s. To minimize damage, the staff had lighted smudge pots all through the night, salvaging what they could. Even Rosario and Turiddu, normally removed from the operations of the farm, assisted. The Licata financial security was now quite independent of the produce business. However, it remained a source of pride for Gaetano, and the family had decided to keep it going as long as possible.

"Hablé con ella anoche. Recibió un telegrama ayer desde Panamá, y parece que llegará en tres días." 

Giuseppina told Fernando that she talked with her sister the night before. Rosa received a telegram from Aaron sent from Panama. He would be arriving in Tampa in three days. Special security measures were in place for ships transiting the Panama Canal, and Aaron had been delayed there for two days. Fernando was relieved to hear the news, but secretly remained concerned. The waters of the Gulf of Mexico had become the most dangerous waters in the world. German U-boats now regularly prowled the Gulf, seeking to sink ships carrying cargo into or out of U.S. ports. He did not share this news with Rosa or Pina, who preferred not hearing war news. 

"Hola, amigos! Como están?"

Captain Winchester's voice was easily audible above the din of the heavy machinery unloading the guano from "The Phoenix". As he greeted Rosa, Pina, and Fernando, his pace quickened as he stepped from the gangplank onto the wharf. He immediately embraced Rosa, kissing her gently on her forehead. As Fernando was complimenting him on his Spanish, Aaron turned to Pina and him, quickly embracing them. 

"Let's go to the Seabreeze Restaurant. I want devil crabs and more!"

At Aaron's suggestion, they were soon headed toward the Seabreeze for an early dinner. The timing was good, as it was a Saturday and the restaurant would be very busy that night. The captain devoured his food, while repeatedly saying how much he had missed Tampa. He also began to comment on the increased military presence at and near the Panama Canal. Fernando discretely kicked his foot underneath the table, signaling him to change the subject. Fernando was able to quickly redirect the conversation. After dinner, the two couples returned to the Licata home for dessert and coffee. Gaetano and Sebastiana had insisted on seeing Aaron.

As the women were clearing the dining room table, Aaron explained that his new sailing routine appealed to him, but safety was a big concern within the maritime community. The Germans had already sunk several cargo ships sailing from Mobile and Galveston, and the risk was increasing almost daily. Aaron would be in port for three weeks before returning to Valparaiso. He confessed to Fernando that after this next run, he was considering retiring. Meeting Rosa and the start of the war had given him a new perspective on his future, as well as on life in general. Fernando understood, saying that the world is now forever changed due to the war.

Aaron's three weeks in port passed much too quickly. The relationship between Rosa and him had evolved into a wonderful combination of romance and friendship. His last evening prior to leaving was spent at the Suárez home. Pina and Rosa had prepared his favorite meal of lasagna and roast beef, along with devil crabs as an appetizer. That same afternoon, Luciano had arrived from Gainesville for a mid-semester break. The mood was split between happiness that Luciano was home and sadness at having to say goodbye to Aaron.

As the two women were in the kitchen finalizing dinner, the three men sat in the living room, listening to soft music playing on the radio. Aaron explained to Luciano that, as he had already shared with Fernando, this might be his last sea voyage. He would be making his final decision on this next voyage. He added that he had shared this with no one other than Fernando. Luciano, somewhat surprised, understood and agreed not to divulge the information to anyone else. Continuing, Luciano confessed that his disappointment over Aaron's no longer piloting a ship was far exceeded by the happiness of perhaps having him in Tampa on a permanent basis. Aaron stood up, walked over to Luciano, and gave him a hug. As he was returning to his chair, Luciano suddenly spoke, his voice unusually soft.

"I've signed up to join the Army Air Corp. I took the exams and have been accepted into pilot training as a lieutenant. I leave for San Antonio, Texas in June, after the school year ends. I don't want to tell Mama or Tía Rosa yet."

Fernando and Aaron had been expecting this news. Since Christmas they had been well aware of Luciano's thoughts. However, the manner in which he blurted it out took them by surprise. Clearly, Luciano hadn't relished the thought of telling them. Fernando walked over to his son and hugged him tightly for several minutes. Aaron then did the same. 

"A comer!"

Rosa had announced "Let's eat!". This was the standard way of calling everyone to the dinner table in the Suárez home. Fernando, Luciano, and Aaron were able to divert their thoughts away from their previous discussion, focusing on the feast before them. During dinner, Pina couldn't help but think how Rosa had changed since meeting Aaron. Once extremely shy, she now often initiated conversations at the table. She had even agreed to allow the Licatas to hire a live-in assistant to help care for Sebastiana and Gaetano. She had blossomed later in life.

Luciano, his parents, and his Aunt Rosa stood on the wharf and watched as "The Phoenix" disappeared from view. Knowing that Aaron would return in a few weeks made the departure less sad. After lunch at Los Helados restaurant, Rosa was taken home and the Suarezes went home. Luciano and Fernando planned to tell Giuseppina about Luciano's joining the military. They would do it that evening, after dinner. 

As Pina was preparing dinner, Fernando was reading the newspaper in the living room. Luciano was studying upstairs in his bedroom. Fernando could hear music coming from Luciano's radio. The music suddenly stopped, and Fernando became aware of an announcement being made in English. Fernando was not able to quite understand what was being said. Luciano came running down the stairs. He was crying.

"Papa, los alemanes han hundido el barco de Aaron!"

Luciano, stifling his sobs, said that the Germans had sunk Aaron's ship.

Luciano raced back up the stairs, Fernando behind him. As they entered Luciano's bedroom, Fernando closed the door behind him, so that Pina couldn't hear the radio, despite her limited English abilities. Fernando asked his son to translate since the announcer was speaking rapidly.

As the broadcast continued, Luciano would periodically relay, in Spanish, a synopsis of what was being said. Apparently, some residents of Pinellas Point, a neighborhood in the southern part of St. Petersburg, heard an explosion and could see a ship on fire not far from the entrance to Tampa Bay. They alerted the police who called civil defense authorities. The coast guard was able to verify that the ship was, in fact, "The Phoenix", and had been torpedoed by a German U- boat approximately one mile out into the gulf.  A search for survivors and bodies was underway, and survivors were being transported to Bay Pines Veterans Hospital in St. Petersburg. As Fernando heard the news, his face, along with Luciano's, turned ashen in color. 

This would not be the night to tell Pina about Luciano's decision.

 

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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