Fernando’s Footsteps

by Tony Carreño

 

"Pina, mira que salió en 'La Gaceta'! Este artículo habla del señor que fue arrestado en el Centro Italiano. Bueno, ahora que leo más, no lo arrestaron pero le dieron una advertencia escrita, y quitaron su radio y sus escopetas hasta que termina la guerra. Parece que querían usarlo como un ejemplo de que están vigilándonos." 

Fernando, reading "La Gaceta" newspaper, told Giuseppina there was an article about Giusseppe "Peppino" Sardegna, the elderly man who was escorted out of the Italian Club a week prior. The F.B.I. had received a report that he had been making positive comments about the Italian Fascist leader, Benito Mussolini. While he had been detained, he was not arrested, but was given a written warning. Additionally, his shotguns and radio were confiscated for the duration of the war. Apparently, he had been used as an example to send a message to the community that the government was actively monitoring the populace for possible espionage.

"Es bueno que hacen eso. Todos tenemos que hacer todo posible para proteger nuestro país, y nuestros hijos. Somos Americanos."

Pina responded it was a good thing that the government was doing. She explained that, as Americans, we all needed to do what was necessary to protect our country and our sons. Fernando agreed, leaning over and kissing her forehead. They both felt that nothing before had made them feel so "American" as this war. Many of their friends and family members had expressed the same sentiments. The distance between Tampa and their native countries had never seemed longer. Europe was fast becoming a distant memory for many immigrants in Tampa and across the U.S.A.

It was now almost six months since Luciano and Rafael left Tampa for the military.Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day were celebrated relatively quietly. The absence of many family members, along with food rationing, resulted in a rather somber holiday season for many families across the country. The Suarez, Licata, and Prendes families had bonded more tightly than ever, forming a network of mutual support during these harrowing times.

In early March 1943, a letter arrived from Luciano to his parents. Luciano, though very busy, managed to write to his parents at least twice per week, sometimes more often. Several months earlier he had been assigned to fly the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft and was now based at Maxwell Army Air Forces Base near Montgomery, Alabama. The aircraft was a four-engine heavy bomber designed for saturation bombing from high altitudes. As part of his training, he would, in two weeks, be flying into Tampa's Drew Field, located immediately adjacent to the Prendes dairy farm, in the far northwest part of West Tampa. 

Luciano would be spending approximately one week at Drew Field for additional specialized training. Fernando and Pina cried as Fernando read the letter out loud. They had not seen their son for more than eight months, the longest period of separation between them. Luciano would be arriving in one week and would have some free time during the evenings of his stay. After hearing the news, Pina literally ran to the phone and called Rosa. Fernando understood enough Sicilian to know that the two sisters were excitedly discussing the dinner arrangements for each day of Luciano's visit. 

Giuseppina, always apprehensive about flying, was grateful that the sky was sunny and cloudless. She and Fernando were told that Luciano would be landing at approximately 6:00 p.m. As Pina had anticipated, Fernando was ready to leave for Drew Field at 4:20p.m., even though it was only a 20-minute drive to the base. Luciano had that evening free, having to return to the base by midnight. Rosa had arranged for a large family dinner at the Licata home. Pina and Fernando felt somewhat conflicted about inviting the Prendeses, concerned that seeing Luciano would be a harsh reminder of their own son's absence. To their relief, their dearest friends resolved the dilemma for them.

Ignacio and Sofia had asked if they could go along to see Luciano land the aircraft, wanting to share in the excitement and welcome him home. Fernando told Ignacio that he didn't think that would be possible since Luciano had been told that each airman was allowed only two on- base visitors. Ignacio, with a chuckle, told Fernando that Anselmo, their eldest son, would contact the base commander and try to arrange it. Fernando, thinking that Ignacio was joking, was surprised when Ignacio called him back and said they had gotten permission to join them. 

Apparently, Ignacio had gotten to know the base commander due to a serious, yet somewhat comical, situation. The Prendes dairy's pastures abutted the perimeter of the eastern border of the air base. The flight path was such that aircraft taking off and landing passed directly over the pastures. The result was that the loud sound of the aircraft engines startled the cows and milk production had decreased substantially. Wanting to maintain good relations with the surrounding community, the commander had arranged for the government to compensate Ignacio for his loss. As a result of the process, the commander, who had been raised on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, became well acquainted with Ignacio and his family. The commander had become a frequent visitor and dinner guest at the Prendes home. 

Although the base entrance was an easy walking distance from the Prendes home, the Base Operations Center was located on the far side of the complex. They would meet Ignacio and Sofia at their home and then drive into the base and to the Operations Center. Afterward, they would all drive to the Licata farm for dinner. After dinner, they would drive the Prendes home and drop Luciano off at the base. As Fernando drove across the Columbus Dr. bridge, Pina reminisced about how frequently they've crossed the bridge enroute to visit the Prendeses and how close their families were, particularly Luciano and Rafael. She reminded herself to never again eat flan or cannoli. 

By shortly after 5:00 p.m. the four Tampeños were at the main entrance to Drew Field. The base entrance was at the northern end of Dale Mabry Highway. This newly constructed major highway replaced the much smaller Vera Ave. and was built to connect MacDill Field with Drew Field. After showing the proper photo identification, the guard gave Fernando directions to the operations center. The visitors were surprised at how busy the base was. The operations center resembled a small airport terminal, with aircraft arriving or departing every few minutes. Fernando approached an airman seated at a desk. In broken English, he explained why they were there, showing him a copy of their gate pass, which had Luciano's name on it. Checking a clip board hanging on the wall behind him, the man politely explained that Luciano would be landing shortly. He then led them outside and to a tarmac a short distance away. Fernando thanked him and the man returned to the office. 

Across a low chain-link fence, aircraft were arriving. After the crew and any passengers deplaned, a ground crew would then tow the aircraft away. After approximately 20 minutes, a large aircraft stopped directly in front of, and fairly close to, the Tampeños. As the engines came to a stop, a small window in the cockpit was opened, and a man's face emerged through the window. The man, looking directly at the Tampeños, yelled out.

"Tengo hambre!! Que hay para comer??"

A collective cry of joy from the Tampeños startled those standing near them. The man was Luciano who had, in his usual booming voice, declared his hunger, and asked what was for dinner! Within a few minutes, Luciano had exited the airplane, run across the short tarmac, jumped over the fence, and was hugging and kissing Pina. This was followed by hugs and kisses for the others as well. After managing to calm his family down, Luciano explained he needed to report to the operations office for routine paperwork and would rejoin them in a few minutes. They followed him into the waiting area of the operations office. As they were taking their seats, Luciano turned toward them.

"Mama, Papa. Tengo un buen amigo que es parte de la tripulación mía. Puedo invitarlo a comer con nosotros?"

Luciano had asked his parents if he could invite a good friend and fellow crew member to eat with them. Pina enthusiastically told him that of course he could! She explained that they were eating at Aunt Rosa's and she always made more than enough food. 

Luciano went into the office to complete his paperwork. After a few minutes, he returned, carrying his duffel bag. As the Tampeños rose from their seats, Fernando asked where his friend was. Luciano yelled out toward the office.

"Ralphie, let's go!"

A man raced out of the office and, approaching the Prendeses from behind, placed his hands over Sofia's and Ignacio's eyes. At the same time, Pina let out a scream that startled everyone in the office. 

"Hay suficiente comida para otro Tampeño?"

When the Prendeses turned around, the screams of joy became even louder. Luciano's friend "Ralphie" was none other than Rafael Prendes, and he asked if there was enough food for another Tampeño. Sofia and Ignacio threw themselves into their son's arms. Sofia and Pina were sobbing uncontrollably. Luciano, laughing uncontrollably, herded the group of celebrants outside, wanting to spare the others in the operations office from this joyous chaos.

Anxious to leave the base and make the most of his leave time, Luciano continued his herding all the way to the car, promising a detailed explanation once they were on the road. With Luciano driving, his parents seated next to him, and the three Prendeses seated in the back, the car headed east on Tampa Bay Blvd., toward Gary and a warm Tampeño welcome.

 

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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