Fernando’s Footsteps

by Tony Carreño

 

Immediately after returning home, Giuseppina asked Fernando to telephone Luciano in Gainesville. Fernando tried to assure her that their son hadn't enlisted in the military. Giuseppina insisted, already having called Carmela and Pilar. Her maternal instincts told her to check on her brood. Rumors of an imminent Japanese invasion of California were causing near hysteria across the country. Fernando, secretly concerned as well, relented.

Luciano assured his parents that he was fine and had no plans to join the military, at least not at the moment. He reminded them that the U.S. was still a neutral country and perhaps negotiations could avert a war, though both he and Fernando knew this was not a possibility. 

By Wednesday, December 10, 1941, the U.S.A. was formally at war with Japan, Germany and Italy. Life in Tampa and the entire country was changing by the hour. The war became more personal a few days later. Sofia called Giuseppina and told her that Marina Ramirez' younger brother, Francisco, had been killed during the Pearl Harbor attack. 

"Apaguen las luces! Lights out! Apaguen las luces!"

Five days into the war, Tampa was having its first blackout drill. Cities along the Pacific, Gulf, and Atlantic coasts would soon be required to extinguish lights or drape blackout curtains on windows after sunset. Rumors abounded of German U-boats in the Gulf of Mexico. It was becoming difficult to distinguish among truth, fact, and rumor. What was certain was that change was coming, and coming fast. 

It was clear that one of the few benefits of the war was a rapidly improving economy. While the cigar industry remained a major part of Tampa's economy, the city had begun to diversify in the late 1930s. Tampa had benefited from the industrial base established by the cigar industry. MacDill Air Force base had been established in 1939, in anticipation of the European war eventually involving the U.S.A. Similarly, Drew Field, an Army Air Corp base, had been established in Northwest Tampa, adjacent to Ignacio's dairy farm. The Port of Tampa had been expanded with the addition of the McCloskey Shipyard which was building concrete boats for the United States Department of War. Tampa, like many other U.S. cities, was becoming a beehive of activity because of the war. 

As the initial shock of Pearl Harbor subsided, a strange sense of a new normalcy took root. The rationing of certain items, such as gasoline, sugar, and meat, also served to unite the citizenry. People were bonding through a sense of a common purpose. Unfortunately, trying times also provide opportunities for the unscrupulous. Within days of mandated rationing, a black market emerged. Rationed items obtained through theft and other means could be purchased for hugely inflated prices. Fernando was reminded of the bribe they paid in Spain to obtain their transit papers. He avoided cynicism by focusing on fact that the vast majority of people were doing the right thing. 

Santa Lucia, December 13, fell on the Saturday after the Pearl Harbor attack. Giuseppina and her family decided to have a more subdued celebration as a sign of repsect toward the fallen Americans. Because Gaetano and Sebastiana were in their early 80s, the yearly celebration was now hosted by the Suárez family. Carmela and Pilar, Giuseppina's daughters, along with Rosa, her older sister, spent the day helping Giuseppina prepare the simple menu. Rosa had never married and lived with her parents, helping to care for them. Luciano would be arriving for the Christmas holiday break that afternoon. Fernando, sitting in the living room, was reading"La Gaceta" and listening to the radio. He could hear the women speaking as they worked in the kitchen. He had become familiar enough with Sicilian to understand the gist of what was being said. Rosa asked Giuseppina if it would be possible to send Luciano to live in Cuba. Pilar said something about Gaetano's brother who was living in Argentina. Lowering the volume on the radio, Fernando put the newspaper down and focused on the continuing conversation. It was clear that the women were discussing ways that Luciano might avoid being drafted into the armed forces. Fernando considered going into the kitchen and confronting the women but decided against it. He admitted to himself that he had been having similar thoughts throughout the past week. On the other hand, he viewed the war as essentially a continuation of the Spanish Civil War, and an opportunity to finally rid Europe of the evils of Fascism. As patriotic Americans, they would do their part to assist their country.

Luciano's train was due to arrive at 4:30p.m. Though gasoline rationing was not yet mandatory, the authorities were strongly recommending voluntarily curtailing the consumption of the fuel, until the logistical details could be implemented. Fernando decided that rather than drive to the train station, he would take the streetcar. It would be good to "practice" for the inevitable. He said goodbye to the women and walked five blocks south to Columbus Dr., formerly known as Michigan Ave. There he caught a streetcar to Nebraska Ave, where he transferred to another line which took him to Union Station.

By 5:30 p.m. Luciano was in the kitchen kissing and hugging his mother, sisters, and aunt. Fernando had forewarned his son about the conversation he had heard, and urged him to dodge any questions about his future plans concerning the military. As Luciano climbed the stairs to take his luggage to his bedroom, Fernando followed him. As Luciano was unpacking, Fernando closed the bedroom door behind him.

"Hijo, ya sabes lo que vas a hacer? Te han dicho algo?"

Fernando asked his son if he knew what he was going to do, and had they told him anything.

Luciano understood exactly what his father was asking. He replied that nothing was certain, but the War Department was apparently talking to the Air Corp ROTC about developing a special program for promising students. Those selected would be offered a direct commission as an officer. This would include the opportunity to compete for coveted pilot training positions. Luciano emphasized that this was only speculation, and nothing was certain, or imminent. He told Fernando that he was almost certain he would finish his third year of college. Luciano promised he would not share any of this with anyone else. Fernando gave him a hug. 

The Santa Lucia celebration went well. Giuseppina, now active in her neighborhood church, Our Lady of Perpetual Help (OLPH), invited Father Amorelli, one of the priests assigned to OLPH, to join them. A native Sicilian, he related well to the Ybor City community. He offered a special prayer for peace, while urging all present to remain loyal to their adopted country. Initially, Fernando was a bit puzzled by this, but then it dawned on him that Italy and Spain were two of the three major Fascist countries in Europe. He also wondered if Spain would be entering the war as an ally of Germany and Italy. In the last several days there had been numerous reports of anti-Japanese violence against many Japanese-Americans on the Pacific coast of the U.S., many of whom were American citizens. He wondered if this prejudice might eventually extend to Americans of German or Italian ancestry. Clearly, his family considered themselves to be Americans first, but perhaps there were those who felt conflicting loyalties. The myriad complications and implications of this war were only just beginning to present themselves.

Above the din of the Santa Lucia celebration, Luciano, talking with Rafael, heard the phone ringing. He raced over to answer.

"Hola. Quien hablo? Fernando?"

The caller, obviously speaking American-accented and incorrect Spanish, asked if he were speaking to Fernando. Luciano replied.

"Hi. I speak English. Would you like to speak with Fernando?"

The caller replied back.

"Is this Luciano? Luciano, this is Aaron Winchester! Do you remember me?"

Luciano, hardly believing his ears, could not contain his excitement.

"Captain Winchester, is that you? I can't believe this! Where are you, sir? Rafael, get over here!"

Rafael, now standing next to Luciano, shared in the conversation, as Luciano positioned the telephone receiver between them. 

"'Phoenix' is in Tampa for some needed repairs. As I promised you all five years ago, I'm calling with the hope that we can see each other while I'm here. Would that be possible? Wow, you must have a party going on. I know it's the holidays and all, but....."

Luciano, interrupting Captain Winchester, explained that there was a pre-Christmas celebration going on. He apologized for the noise, assuring the captain that they would insist on seeing him. The captain was staying at the Hotel Hillsboro in downtown Tampa. Luciano explained that he would call him back shortly after speaking to his father. Hanging up the phone, Luciano raced across the living room to Fernando. Fernando, sharing in his son's excitement, found Giuseppina and explained. She suggested that they invite him for a traditional Sicilian Sunday afternoon dinner the next day. 

Luciano quickly telephoned Captain Winchester and extended the invitation. Asking for assurance that it was not an inconvenience, he confessed that a home-cooked Sicilian meal sounded perfect. They agreed that Fernando and Luciano would pick him up at noon the next day.

 

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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