Fernando’s Footsteps

by Tony Carreño

 

Father Amorelli and Father Braun agreed to be co-celebrants in Rosa's Nuptial Mass. Both priests had served for many years at Ybor City's O.L.P.H. Catholic Church. Father Braun, unlike Father Amorelli, was fluent in English. Though the Mass was primarily in Latin, Father Braun was to translate the homily into English. Rosa had requested this out of repsect for Aaron, though the captain was not a religious man.

The Licata family and invited friends were enough to fill almost half of the relatively small church. The ceremony lasted somewhat more than an hour. The wedding party was small, with only Giuseppina as matron of honor and Fernando as best man.

The buffet lunch afterward at the Licata farm consisted of about 150 people, a small reception by Sicilian standards. Tradition mandated that if a woman married at an "older" age, the festivities should appropriately be scaled down. As the festivities were drawing to a close, Fernando and Aaron were seated together, enjoying coffee and traditional Sicilian desserts. Aaron turned toward Fernando.

"Fernando, I want to thank you for all you've done for me. When I first met you at the hotel in Vigo, never did I dream that I would one day be part of your beautiful family. I didn't plan on retiring under these circumstances, but something good has come out of a bad situation. I'm not a religious man, but I pray, in my own way, that Luciano and Ignacio get through this war OK. They're both like nephews to me."

Fernando, understanding the gist of what Aaron said, reached over and gave Aaron a strong hug.

Aaron went on to explain that Gaetano and Sebastiana had invited Giuseppina and him to continue living with them. After discussing it, they decided to take them up on their offer. Aaron confessed he had been somewhat hesitant, concerned that Rosa would prefer asserting more independence. Rosa, likewise, was concerned that Aaron would feel obligated to help care for her aging parents. Assisted by Turiddu's translations, their frank discussion was fruitful. They learned that they both preferred being part of the extended family. Assisted by hired help, as well as other family members, they looked forward to being the primary care givers for the elderly Licatas in the coming years. Fernando assured him that he and Pina would always be willing to assist as well. 

Fernando, Giuseppina, and Luciano were the last to leave the wedding reception. On the drive home, Giuseppina's thoughts were focused on Luciano's departure, now only three days away. She had managed to distract herself preparing for Rosa's wedding, but now the harsh reality was close at hand. She found herself in the "bargaining" process so traditionally embedded in Sicilian Catholicism. In exchange for the future safe return of her son from the war, she was willing to sacrifice some of her favorite pleasures in life. Almost obsessively, her mind was spinning as she tried to decide which sacrifices might most ensure Luciano's safe return. Her thoughts returned to the moment as Fernando turned into their driveway in El Barrio Candamo. 

Wednesday, July 1st, 1942 was a rainy and stormy day in Tampa. The summer tropical weather pattern was clearly in place. As Luciano drove over the Brorein St. bridge and turned left onto Bayshore Blvd. it began raining heavily. Fernando, sitting next to his son, attempted to clear the windshield of the condensation moisture created by their breath. As the accompanying thunder and lightning increased, Giuseppina, sitting in the back seat with Rosa and Aaron, nervously wondered out loud why Luciano was being flown to San Antonio, as opposed to going by train. Her son tried to reassure her, saying that they would never allow the aircraft to take off if it wasn't safe. His attempt failed. She continued to nervously finger her rosary beads. As they drove past the turnoff for Davis Islands, she reminisced about their adventure six years prior. She desperately wished they were headed for Peter O. Knight airport for a flight to Havana. Instead, their destination was MacDill Field, now a U.S. Army Air Forces base. As they proceeded down Bayshore Blvd., a streetcar of the Ballast Point line was to their left, running parallel with them. The tracks were in the middle of the raised median which was attractively landscaped. Pina placed her hand on Fernando's shoulder.

"Fernando, recuerda cuando íbamos a bailar allí en Ballast Point? Tomamos ese mismo tranvía desde Ybor. Eso fue cuando empezamos a salir como una pareja. La pobre Rosa, siempre tenía que estar con nosotros, como chaperona."

Giuseppina reminded Fernando how, when they first started dating, they would take this same streetcar to attend dances. She chuckled as she remembered how poor Rosa would be required to accompany them as a chaperone. Rosa assured her that it had been fun. At the end of Bayshore Blvd, Ballast Point Park was a popular destination for people in Tampa. A large pavilion built over the water had been a popular dancehall for many years. Fernando squeezed Pina's hand, turning to her and smiling. 

As they approached the entrance to MacDill Field, Luciano gathered the documents he had been given, along with his passport as identification. As they had been previously instructed, Fernando, Giuseppina, and Aaron had brought their passports along as well. Rosa had her alien registration card with her, which now included a photograph. Security precautions had become especially strict since the German U-boat attack on Aaron's ship, only four months prior. MacDill field was situated on the "Interbay Peninsula" of South Tampa. The waters of Tampa Bay surrounded the airfield on three sides. The threat of an attack launched from a submarine was always a possibility.

After examining the Suarez' documents, the guard gave Luciano a map, directing him to the correct administrative building. The excited recruit chuckled to himself, wondering if perhaps this was his first examination, testing his map reading abilities! Within ten minutes they had arrived at the designated building.

Entering the facility, Luciano handed his documents to a receptionist. Soon a recruiting officer appeared, welcoming them. He explained that there would be a brief induction ceremony for the six recruits, then refreshments and time for goodbyes. An aircraft had been dispatched to several points in Florida to collect other pilot trainees, including Tallahassee, Jacksonville, and Miami. Tampa was the last stop, and the flight would be non-stop from here to San Antonio. The other trainees, like Luciano, were college students who had demonstrated academic excellence and passed the pilot training written exam.

As Luciano was translating what was being explained to him, an officer who had been standing nearby approached the group of Tampeños. He asked what languages they were speaking. Luciano explained the background of his family. The officer, smiling, responded.

"I would like your family to understand what we'll be saying. I know who can help you out. One of the civilian women that works here in our payroll department speaks fluent Spanish and Sicilian. I think she's from Tampa. Her name is Mamie. I'll go get her!"

Luciano was explaining what the officer had said when a beautiful young woman approached them, talking excitedly. In classic Tampa Sicilian she introduced herself as Mamie Mortellaro from Ybor City. As is typical in Tampa, within minutes the group had "connected the dots". Her mother was Rosalia Mortellaro, and Giuseppina had worked with her for a few years at the Sanchez y Haya cigar factory. The women hugged and kissed, as they continued to further connect the dots and introduce everyone. Aaron, smiling, shook his head in disbelief as the officer excused himself to prepare for the ceremony. Aaron turned to Luciano, who was also smiling.

"Son, Tampa never ceases to amaze me! It's not a small city by any means. Yet, everyone seems to know each other, or they know each other's parents. Tampa is the smallest big city I've ever seen. It's not the place to be if you value your privacy, but I sure do love it!"

The officer in charge announced that the ceremony was about to begin. He asked that everyone take their seats. Mamie gestured to Luciano's group to sit with her in the back row, away from the others. She would, in a loud whisper, explain what was happening in both Spanish and Sicilian.

After a brief welcome, the six young men were asked to stand at the front of the room. With their right hands raised, they swore allegiance to the U.S.A., promising to defend their nation against all enemies. As this was translated by Mamie, Pina and Rosa began to cry softly. Mamie did her best to comfort them. As the ceremony came to a conclusion, each recruit was introduced to the audience. The Tampeños clapped loudly as 2nd Lieutenant Luciano Suarez stepped forward and saluted his superior officer.

The attendees were led into an adjoining room for refreshments. Mamie was allowed to accompany them. As a Tampa native, Mamie had become the unofficial ambassador from MacDill Field to its host community. It was Mamie who everyone at the airfield depended upon for any advice concerning Tampa.

Less than an hour later, an announcement was made. The guests were asked to accompany their recruit onto an adjacent tarmac for a final farewell. Luciano, with his duffel bag slung over his shoulder, began hugging and kissing his family, including Aaron. He thanked Mamie for her help, giving her a hug as well. Lastly, he again hugged Giuseppina for what seemed an eternity. Rosa, overcome with emotion, had turned her face and stepped away, accompanied by Aaron, who was embracing her. Fernando gently drew Pina away from her son and put his arms around her. 

As Luciano got to the door of the DC-3 aircraft, he turned and gave a final wave and a "thumbs up" gesture. Within minutes the two engines revved up and the aircraft began taxiing toward the departure runway. The rain and dark clouds had cleared from the skies. As the silver airplane rose from the ground, it seemed to glisten in the sunshine as it turned westward toward Texas. 

 

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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