Fernando’s Footsteps

by Tony Carreño

 

With a knot in his throat, Fernando rushed downstairs to deliver this devastating news to Pina.

"Bedda Matri!"

Pina screamed out as she clasped her hands over her face. She had called out to The Virgin Mary in agony. Literally translated to "Beautiful Mother!", it is the quintessential Sicilian cry of agony and pleading for divine mercy. Fernando comforted her, fulling realizing that, in just several months, Aaron had become a beloved member of the family.

"Tenemos que decir a Rosa, pero no por el teléfono! Vamos a la casa."

Pina said they had to tell Rosa, but suggested they drive to the Licata home rather than telling her over the phone.

Fernando agreed. Luciano insisted on going as well. Within minutes they were in the car and headed toward Gary, where the Licata compound is located. Luciano sat in the front passenger seat, constantly monitoring the car radio for any updates on the tragedy. There were now conformed reports of survivors, but there were many fatalities.

"Che c'è!"

As soon as Rosa saw her sister's face, she knew something was amiss. Her face turned suddenly pale, and she nervously blurted out the Sicilian phrase for "what's wrong!". As Pina broke the news to her, she let out a muffled cry, perhaps not wanting to alarm her parents. Her sister helped her to the couch in the living room. Fernando went upstairs to advise the caregiver what was going on and to check on Gaetano and Sebastiana. 

Luciano had remained in the car, monitoring the news. He was now standing with Fernando a short distance away from Pina and Rosa. He suggested to his father that they drive to the hospital in St. Petersburg to see if they could get more information. Fernando agreed, but suggested they call the civil defense authorities first. Perhaps someone could assist them. Luciano went into the kitchen to use the phone there, preferring to speak with them in private.

After a few minutes, Luciano returned to the living room. Understandably, the civil defense officials were not able to discuss details over the phone. Their advice was to go to Bay Pines   Veterans Hospital and speak with personnel there. Fernando reported this to the women, suggesting that they remain behind, fearing that the news at the hospital would be grim. Rosa vehemently objected. If the news was bad, she would rather hear sooner than later. She couldn't stand the thought of waiting.

Within minutes Luciano, Fernando, Pina, and Rosa were enroute to St. Petersburg. As they crossed Tampa Bay on the Gandy Bridge, Fernando's thoughts drifted back twenty years prior, to the drive to the hospital after Luciano's birth. Luckily, this time there was no hurricane to drive through.

About 45 minutes later they entered St. Petersburg. Luciano, who was driving, stopped at a gas station to ask directions to the hospital. After a few more minutes they approached the vicinity of the hospital complex. Several blocks from the hospital a roadblock had been put in place. A police officer advised Luciano to turn around, as access to the hospital was being restricted. Luciano advised the officer that a "relative" was the captain of the ship and they, of course, were quite concerned. The policeman asked for the name. As he rustled through some papers on a clipboard, Luciano realized his heart was racing with anxiety. The officer looked up from the papers, addressing Luciano.

"Could I have his name and hometown please?"

Luciano, somewhat puzzled, answered.

"Aaron Winchester, Amarillo, Texas."

The officer thanked Luciano and waved him through. Apparently, the authorities had obtained basic information on the crew from the shipping line. Only those relatives who could identify specific information about a crew member were being allowed access to the hospital. Luciano, while uncomfortable lying to the police, really did consider Aaron to be a relative.

The hospital lobby was overflowing with people, a combination of military authorities, the press, and anxious relatives. A temporary information desk had been set up at the far end of the lobby. Luciano suggested that Pina and Rosa take seats while he and Fernando check with the desk. 

"The Phoenix" had been carrying a crew of approximately 50. Many of those were assigned from the local seafarers' union in Tampa. Because of this, numerous local relatives were in line, hoping for more information concerning their loved ones. Luciano noticed that some people were asked to return to the seating area, while others were being escorted away. Occasionally, a nurse would page some of those seated, and lead them away. He found this ominous, fearing that those led away would be told that their relative was not one of the survivors. As they got closer to the front of the line the procedure became more clear. 

"Good afternoon sir. May I have your name and the name of your relative please?"

Luciano anxiously gave the woman the information she requested. His heart was racing as she leafed through several sets of papers. As she out the papers down, she began speaking quite rapidly. 

"Mr. Suarez. At this time, we have no information concerning Captain Winchester. As rescue operations continue, information continues to come in quite frequently. Please have a seat and we will call you when we know more."

Fernando, quite anxious, turned to Luciano.

"Que dice ella, que dice?"

Fernando desperately asked Luciano to clarify what the nurse had said.

Luciano thanked her and led his father away by his arm. As he guided him back toward Rosa and Pina, he explained what he had been told. This increased Fernando's anxiety, rather than easing it. 

Pina and Rosa anxiously walked toward Luciano and Fernando, begging for information. As Luciano started to explain, Rosa began crying uncontrollably. After helping her back to her seat, the Tampeños began what seemed like an interminable wait. Rosa and Pina had their rosary beads and were quietly praying as they held them in their hands. 

"The family of Captain Winchester! The family of Captain Winchester!"

After approximately 30 minutes, a nurse called for them. She asked the Tampeños to follow her a short distance down a hallway into a private room. She held the door open as they filed in, closing the door behind her. At this point, Luciano feared the worst. He could see the look of despair on his father's face. Rosa and Pina wept.

"Please. I have some relatively good news for you."

At this point, Luciano, somewhat relieved, asked if he could translate her words for his parents and aunt. She said that would be fine, and she would speak slowly, pausing to allow him to do so. He then explained to his family what had just been said. Rosa clasped her hands to her face in anticipation of positive news. The nurse continued.

"We're happy to report that Captain Winchester is alive. He has sustained injuries, including serious burns, but should survive. He will be here at Bay Pines Hospital for several weeks of treatment. Afterward, he will need a lengthy recovery period."

Luciano, breaking into a smile, translated this good news to his family. Rosa broke into sobs and hugged Pina. He turned to the nurse.

"When will we be able to see Captain Winchester?"

The nurse elaborated that Aaron was still being attended to in the emergency ward. She assured them that he was conscious and lucid, though in pain. He would be heavily sedated after a complete assessment of his injuries. She suggested they leave a contact telephone number. She would personally see to it that someone contact them early the next morning for an update. She assured them that he would ultimately make a full recovery. After translating this for the others, he gave the nurse the Suárez phone number and thanked her for her assistance. 

The nurse smiled, telling them they were welcome to remain in the room in order to regain their composure. As the nurse closed the door behind her, the Tampeños hugged each other tightly. After a few minutes they left the room, grateful beyond words that Aaron was alive. On the drive back to Tampa, Fernando realized that today had been the first of what would be many bad days during this war. He knew it was inevitable many families, including possibly his own, would be receiving the news that everyone dreaded. On this day in March 1942, World War II became very personal. 

 

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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