Fernando’s Footsteps

by Tony Carreño

 

The months following the departure of Rafael and Luciano seemed to pass mercifully fast. Their families agreed that the faster the days passed the better, putting the end of the war that much closer. Fernando and Ignacio had volunteered to assist in the sale of war bonds in Ybor City and West Tampa. The food distribution and dairy businesses provided a convenient and efficient method of reaching out to the greater community. The commercial customers of both companies, such as grocery stores and restaurants, were happy to serve as vendors for the bonds so critical to funding the war effort. Fernando would accompany the salesmen on their routes, dispersing bonds and collecting the funds to be forwarded to the federal authorities. His experience as an accountant served him well. Ignacio would hold periodic rallies at the dairy farm, providing food and entertainment while promoting the sale of bonds. The men were motivated by love of country as well as wanting to end this war as soon as possible, hastening the return of their sons. The immigrant community in Tampa had proudly earned the reputation of staunchly supporting the war effort. 

"Prens!"

Rafael had learned to easily recognize the anglicized pronunciation of his surname. He stepped forward and collected his weekly mail. Today there were several letters and a sealed shoe box wrapped in brown paper. Sofia wrote a letter to her son every day and would occasionally send a box containing Spanish cookies or dried chorizo. His legal name was Rafael Gonzalez Prendes. In Tampa, the Spanish tradition of two surnames had caused confusion in properly identifying one's legal name. Therefore, the children of Spanish immigrants were legally named with their mother's maiden name as a middle name, followed by the paternal surname as their legal "American" surname. Rafael had excelled during basic training as an infantryman. His athletic prowess had earned him a position in the elite U.S. Army Rangers. While in training as a Ranger, Rafael's superiors recommended him for Officer Training School. Upon graduation he would be a lieutenant and an instructor in the Ranger school at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Not only were Ignacio and Sofia proud of his accomplishments, but grateful that, at least for now, Rafael would be kept stateside and away from active combat.

Luciano had taken to flying as a fish would to water. Eleven weeks after beginning his training, he completed his first solo flight. The most coveted positions among the eager and confident young men were fighter positions. These were awarded to the top students. Though Luciano had finished his training in the top five percent of his class, he could not qualify for a fighter position due to his large size. The height limit for fighter pilots was set at 5'11", several inches shorter than Luciano's height. This was due to the limited amount of space in a fighter's cockpit. While disappointed, the Tampeño was grateful for the opportunity to fly and to serve his country.

"Compras tus bonos de guerra aquí! Apoya tu país!"

"Compra qui i tuoi titoli di guerra! Sostiete il vostro paese!"

"Buy your War Bonds here! Support your country!"

Above the din of the heavy streetcar and automobile traffic, the voices of the Suarezes and the Prendeses attracted the attention of those around them. In Spanish, Italian, and English they proudly and enthusiastically pleaded with their fellow Tampeños to support the war effort by purchasing U.S. war bonds. The corner of 7th Ave. and 22nd St. had always been a busy intersection. Although located toward the end of the most densely populated part of Ybor City, the very popular Columbia Restaurant was located here. Additionally, this was where several major streetcar lines intersected. Thus it was a major transfer point for passengers. Most importantly, the busy 7th Ave. streetcar line turned south on 22nd St. to serve a major portion of Palmetto Beach and the Port of Tampa. Because of the war, the various industries located in this area, such as the large McCloskey Ship Builders, were operating twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week. The result was that workers from all parts of Tampa would transfer here. The cafe at the Columbia Restaurant was open 24 hours a day and was always busy. 

Every Friday evening Giuseppina and Fernando, along with Ignacio and Sofia, would sell war bonds near the entrance of the Columbia. The Hernandez family, owners of the restaurant, generously supported their efforts by allowing them to use the restaurant as a makeshift "office". Sales were usually brisk, as Fridays were the days most of the workers got paid. As funds were collected, they would be transferred to the safe in the Columbia's office. Without exception, the businesses along La Septima were doing their part in the war effort.

At 7 p.m. the volunteers would stop selling bonds and retreat to "L'Unione Italiana", the Italian Club for coffee and sandwiches. On Friday evenings, the club's "casino" area, normally off-limits to women, was converted to a cafe, available to all. The proceeds collected would be used to purchase war bonds. The Tampeños looked forward to this Friday ritual.

"Oye, como hay gente hoy. Que bueno que la comunidad apoya tanto el esfuerzo para la guerra. Cada peso ganado quizás puede cortar el tiempo de la guerra por unos minutos, quien sabe?"

Ignacio commented on how many people were at the club tonight and how good it was that the community was supporting the war effort. He went on to say that perhaps every dollar raised would shorten the war by a few minutes. It was clear that the war and what it would mean for their sons was constantly on the minds of the two families. 

 As the waiter was clearing the table, he asked if they wanted desserts. Fernando and Ignacio ordered flan and cannoli, while Sofia and Pina declined. Fernando, glancing at Ignacio, raised his eyebrows. It was an affirmation of what they had suspected for some time. Pina and Sofia were notorious for their love of flan and cannoli, two popular desserts in Spanish and Sicilian cuisines. Since Luciano and Rafael had joined the military, neither of them had eaten these two foods. Their husbands were certain that they had promised God they would sacrifice this indulgence in exchange for the safe return of their sons. The concept of "bargaining" in the Spanish and Sicilian Catholic faith ran deep within the culture, especially among women. This was true even for those who did not regularly participate in Catholic ritual nor strictly adhered to Catholic doctrine. The practice had become engrained in the secular aspects of the cultures as well.

As the Tampeños were sipping their espresso coffees, a disturbance broke out several tables away from them. Two men, dressed in suits, approached a group of six people. Talking specifically to one of the men seated, they displayed what appeared to be badges. After a few minutes, they escorted the confused and elderly man out of the Italian Club. The remainder of the party immediately got up from their seats and quickly left the building as well. The room became almost silent, the only sound being that of whispers of curiosity. 

"Hombre, que pasó allí? Esos hombres parecían como oficiales, verdad?"

Fernando wondered out loud about what might have just happened. He commented that the two well-dressed men appeared to be officers of some type. 

Pina had noticed that the woman who had helped them at MacDill Field, Mamie Mortellaro, was seated on the far side of the room with her family. She thought if anyone would know about the episode, Mamie would. Pina excused herself and walked over to the Mortellaro table. After approximately ten minutes, Pina returned and sat down. She explained that the elderly man who was removed from the building is Giuseppe Sardegna, known as "Peppino". He was a bit eccentric, now living alone east of Ybor City on a small prickly pear farm. He frequently visited the Italian Club casino to play cards and dominoes with his friends. Apparently, several days earlier he had been heard commenting that, in his opinion, Benito Mussolini had brought some good changes to Italy. Being in his mid-80s, Peppino is of an age where he remembers Italy as a chaotic collection of independent kingdoms, prior to its unification in 1867. During a casual political discussion among friends he had commented that the current Fascist dictator was the kind of leader that Italians needed, someone strong and ruthless. Apparently, someone who had overheard his comments had contacted the F.B.I. and reported him. 

Fernando, Pina, Ignacio, and Sofia quietly finished their espressos. Still silent, they paid their dinner bill and left L'Unione Italiana. The war continued to affect them and their community in ways they had never imagined.

 

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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