Fernando’s Footsteps

by Tony Carreño

 

Aaron remained in Bay Pines Hospital for about two weeks. His main injuries were burns on his arms and legs. Of the approximately 50 crew members on "The Phoenix", 22 had been killed in the attack. Survivors testified that Captain Winchester stayed on board until all of the survivors had abandoned ship, some in lifeboats. Aaron was regarded as a hero, having stayed with his ship until the end.

The Licatas invited Aaron to recuperate in their home. The shipping company provided nurses to attend to the captain during his long recovery. The grim reality of the war was now close at hand, and the spirit of cooperation was evident. 

Rosa and Giuseppina decided they would dedicate this year's Feast of St. Joseph celebration to thanking Sicily's patron saint for sparing Aaron's life. St. Joseph's Day is celebrated on March 19. Many Sicilian families prepare a "St. Joseph's Table", or "Tavola di San Giuseppe". Resembling a shrine, a statue of St. Joseph is surrounded by flowers and mounds of many types of food. Two constants are no meat other than fish, and numerous loaves of bread ladened with copious amounts of sesame seeds. The breads are in various shapes relevant to the celebration, such as a cross or a shepherd's staff. The celebration is, in essence, an "open house" where no one is ever turned away. Some celebrations are dedicated to healing the sick, or giving thanks for sparing one's life. Charitable donations are accepted, but not obligatory. The Licatas would be forwarding donations to a relief fund established by the local seafarers' union to assist the families of those who perished in the sinking of "The Phoenix". The Licata celebration was held on the Sunday closest to March 19. Hundreds of guests attended and thousands of dollars were donated to the relief fund. 

The war news continued to be grim. The U.S. and its allies were sustaining heavy casualties. By April, many of the young men throughout the country had been drafted. Ybor City and West Tampa were no exception. Several businesses in the Latin neighborhoods had posters with photographs of the local "boys" who had been called away. Fernando knew that he would soon have to tell Giuseppina that Luciano had enlisted in the military. 

By late May, Aaron was almost back to normal. His burns were healing well, aided by several skin grafts. His convalescence in the Licata home had further strengthened his relationship with Rosa. The traditional Sunday afternoon lunches, which normally alternated between the Suarezes and the Licatas, were being held every week at the Licata farm. This was due to Aaron's limited mobility. This particular spring Sunday afternoon was sunny and beautiful. Fernando and Pina took their places at one of the two large tables in the Licata garden. Fernando was a bit on edge since he had decided to tell Pina about Luciano on the drive home from the lunch. He turned to his wife.

"Pina, algo parece un poco diferente. Ellos están muy ilusionados de algo. Que podría ser?"

Fernando, nodding discretely toward Rosa and Aaron, told Pina that something seemed a bit different. He found Aaron and Rosa to be very excited, almost manic, about something and wondered what it could be. As they were beginning to eat, the sound of a spoon tapping on a glass drew the diners' attention toward Aaron. The captain, now standing and holding up a glass of wine, began to speak. 

"Ladies and gentlemen. I have an announcement to make. I asked Mr. Gaetano Licata for his permission to ask his beautiful daughter Rosa to marry me. He did so, and I am honored and humbled to say that Rosa has accepted my offer. I want to thank all of you for your love and for accepting me into your family. I would now ask those who understand English to please make the appropriate translations for those around you!"

After a brief period of frenzied translations, everyone began clapping and shouting out with joy. Fernando and Pina rushed over to Aaron and Rosa. Hugs and kisses made the rounds of the whole family. Pina hugged Fernando, who now feared that telling her about Luciano would dampen her euphoria over this news. 

The Sunday lunch ended later than usual. On the drive home Pina was excitedly talking about the wedding plans. Though an exact date had not been chosen, she suspected it would be soon. Aaron was resigning from his career and relished the idea of a permanent home in Tampa. Pina was still talking as they entered their house. Fernando took Pina by the arm, guiding her toward the sofa, where she sat down.

"Pina, tenemos que hablar de algo."

Fernando told Pina that they needed to talk about something. He then simply blurted out what he had to say, explaining that Luciano had enlisted in the Army Air Corp and would be training to be a pilot. He added that their son would be home from school the following week, and would report to San Antonio, Texas on July 1st. They would have him home for about one month before he left for training. 

Pina looked away from Fernando, tears filling her eyes as she began crying softly. Regaining her composure, she admitted to Fernando that she had assumed this was imminent. She then surprised Fernando by saying she had come to terms with Luciano having to serve in the military. The episode with Aaron made her realize the extreme danger the entire world was facing. She had put her faith in God, knowing that everyone needed to sacrifice for the greater good. 

Fernando hugged Pina, reassuring her that all would be fine. She looked at Fernando.

"Quizás, quizás no. Solo Dios sabe."

Pina replied: "Maybe, maybe not. Only God knows." 

Luciano embraced Fernando, thanking him for having told his mother about his joining the military. Luciano asked to drive home from Union Station. As he drove, he pretended he was at the controls of an airplane, tooting the horn as they proceeded up 15th St. Fernando managed to share in the frivolity, despite his hesitancy at celebrating what he viewed as a serious situation. Fernando reminded himself of the feelings of invincibility that accompanies being young. 

Giuseppina rushed onto the front porch, hugging and kissing Luciano until they both broke up laughing. Fernando, while relieved at her composure, wondered if it was an exaggerated way of masking her deepest fears. 

After a hearty dinner, Luciano asked to see Aaron. Fernando had called Luciano several times per week to update him on Aaron's situation, but Luciano wanted to see him with his own eyes. Aaron was barely conscious when he last saw him, two days after the attack. Luciano was anxious to erase this image from his mind.

"Luciano! How about a big hug for your new uncle!"

Aaron, his voice back to normal, walked over and hugged Luciano tightly. Luciano pulled away, smiling.

"UNCLE? Does this mean what I think it does?"

Aaron had asked that they not tell Luciano about the marriage, wanting to tell him in person. Aaron nodded his head in the affirmative. Luciano hugged and kissed Rosa, who was standing next to Aaron. 

"Luciano, we don't want to rush things. However, since you will be leaving us on July 1st, we are getting married the Sunday prior, which will be June 28th. We couldn't bear the thought of a wedding without you being present. Please translate to the others."

Fernando, Pina, and the rest of the family celebrated this news. Rather than a large affair, the family and a few other guests would gather at O.L.P.H. church for a religious ceremony. Afterward, they would retreat to the Licata home for an expanded version of the usual family Sunday lunch. Rosa had insisted that the celebration also serve as a farewell dinner for Luciano.

The next several weeks passed much too quickly. Pina and Rosa focused on the wedding preparations, which also served as a distraction from Luciano's imminent departure. Luciano visited friends, spending most of his days with Rafael, Ignacio's son. Rafael had received his draft notice and was to depart soon for basic training in Ft. Benning, Georgia as an infantryman. A week before the wedding, the Prendes family hosted a farewell party for Rafael and Luciano at the dairy. The Prendes' house and barn were festooned with small U.S. and Spanish Republican flags. Many within the Spanish community of Tampa saw World War II as a continuation of the fight against Franco and the fascists in Spain. Though Spain had formally remained neutral, there was outrage that German U-boats were given access to Spanish ports for refueling and repairs. In essence, Spain was a "silent" ally of Germany and Italy.

Several days after the party at the Prendeses, Rafael left for Ft. Benning. The Suarezes joined the Prendes family at Tampa's Union Station. Two additional train cars had been added to accommodate the large number of recruits. Sofia managed to remain stoic until the last train car disappeared from view. As she began to openly sob, Giuseppina attempted to comfort her. As the two women embraced, Pina soon joined Sofia in her outpouring of grief. 

Ignacio and Sofia, along with Giuseppina, Fernando, and Luciano walked silently out of Union Station. The grim reality of this war continued to draw closer and closer to the Tampeños. 

 

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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