(This is another special posting by Suzy. I hope you enjoy it.)
My Dad was career Navy. Uprooting the entire household and moving some distance was not all that unusual. By the time I was completing seventh grade I was attending my thirteenth school. We had been in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, since October of that school year. Dad was stationed at Quonset Point NAS, which has since been decommissioned, and he was due for orders. The military allows its people to register a number of preferences before a transfer, which, depending on availability and national need may or may not be honored. The joke was that whatever you listed would be the last place they would send you. Dad had been debating getting out of the Service. The Civilian economy was booming. Moma was getting tired of moving. My brother and I were growing into the years when our parents desired some stability for the purpose of extra curricular activities in high school. Dad had been offered a job with a growing nascent airline in Texas that would have made household finances much easier to manage. Then the orders came through.
When I got home from school, Dad was already there. The air was charged with a palpable, but undefined, excitement. My parents liked happy surprises, so we had to tease information from them when a big event was in the offing. I grew to detest the game Twenty Questions. Finally, Moma said that we would be moving. Military people have a saying: The last duty station was the best ever (doesn’t matter where it was), this is the worst duty station possible (doesn’t matter where it is), so the next will be better (still doesn’t matter where it is). It’s a rationalization for making moves easier to take, but it left a cloud of trepidation in the air as I waited to see where fortune and Uncle Sam’s Canoe Club would take us next. Eventually, Dad handed his orders to me and said I could read for myself.
Much of my education came this way. Math, Science, History, Reading would just stick their heads into events and while I was trying very hard to understand what was happening Dad would insist I learn the academic lesson that that understanding was wrapped in. Orders, like all government paperwork, are full of a lot of extraneous information all written in fine print which makes scanning almost impossible. All I wanted to know was where we were going. After what seemed forever, I calmed myself enough to find the boxes on the paper into which had been typed: NSA Capodichino, Naples, Italy. OKay. So where was this Capodichino place and why was Moma so excited and Dad looking like a Cheshire Cat. NSA is NavySpeak for Naval Support Activity, meaning it could be anywhere so long as it could assist in getting Naval Personnel from one place to another or supplies to them.
I was urged to understand the distance. All the way to Italy. A foreign country. A place, I now learned, Moma had wanted to go for forever. All I knew about Italy was that someplace, way back in history, it had spawned the Roman Empire. Eventually, the evening settled down and we began the interminable, from a child’s point of view, waiting between the time the orders arrived and you closed one house to leave for the next. In most moves, we children had nothing to do but choose one or two toys and a favorite piece of clothing or two with which to make the trip. Education was so important to our parents that we were never taken from the current school until the day the moving van was loaded and ready to leave. At the other end, we were put into school as soon as we had an address so we would know which school to attend. It was obvious from the first evening that this move was going to be a different kettle of fish altogether.
Moma always said that every move was the ending of one chapter in our book of life and the start of a new one. She infused every move with a sense of excitement and adventure. This move ratcheted the entire process up several levels. One of Moma’s prized possessions was always her record player. During our stay in Rhode Island ours had been upgraded to a Motorola Hi Fi, which has its own stories. Our first step in preparation for our latest move was to go to the record department at the Exchange on Board so that we could get language lesson records. There was a small red box decorated with line drawings that contained 45 rpms and flash cards having stick drawings for children to learn Italian and a larger, blue box for Living Language Italian. As Jim was five he only had to learn the red box.
Che cosa è questo? (What is this?) Questo è un ragazzo. (This is a boy.)
Che cosa è questa? Questa è una ragazza. (This is a girl.)
Questa è una palla. (This is a ball.)
Since I was neither child nor adult, I got to do all the lessons in both boxes. While Jim was learning I sat with him next to the hi-fi, carefully holding the correct flash card and repeating after the recorded voice. While Moma was learning, I sat with her.
Buon giorno, signore.
As with all of these types of products, the first chapter is relatively simple. As the chapters progress there is more and more that isn’t on the record. As the smaller italicized print, which represented what we were to learn on our own, began to be greater than the bold straight print that was repeated on the record, the going got slower and slower. It seemed to me that we kept repeating the same parts and not really progressing. I began to fret about how we would ever get along “over there.”
Other than knowing I wouldn’t be able to speak to anyone, so school was going to be an utter disaster, I still didn’t know anything about Italy. The neighbors for whom I babysat had four children and a two sets of encyclopedia. On different evenings, in the time between putting the kids to bed and the return of the parents, I had read through the one for children and was working my way through the adult one. I read the entry on Italy. It didn’t make me feel any more comfortable about going to this place on the other side of the ocean where I would have to live and go to school for the next three years. For anyone who may have forgotten, three years when you are twelve years old is an eternity. And I had all summer out of school to work myself into a tizzy about it.
Because we were going overseas Moma and Dad had more than the usual preparations to make. Very few of these things could be delegated to children. With every move we had been trained to go through our toys and treasures and toss that which was no longer necessary. Anything to lessen what was to be shipped so we could make the weight Dad was authorized to ship without additional charge. Dad was the champ. If he thought we could obtain it on the other end or learn to live without it, it went out in the trash. On one move he threw out all of Moma’s spices, which it turned out we couldn’t live without in Moma’s world. It cost him, when, on Moma’s first grocery trip for the new house, she replaced all he had thrown out and more. Most of the time she was ruthless as well, going as far as considering the weight of any new purchase and how it might effect the next move. This exercise works differently on different people. My brother learned the admirable trait of getting rid of the excess detritus of life. I became a pack-rat. In this case, because of the difference in electricity and the fact that we didn’t speak Italian, the TV wasn’t going with us. No electric clocks, only the wind up sort would be taken. On and on the decisions went.
Books were treasures in our house. One well thumbed tome was a Random House Dictionary that had appendices for all sorts of marvelous tidbits of information. One of them showed the proper way to address letters, and the salutations to use. Reading through it one early summer afternoon I found, after the entry for Presidents, Senators, and one for Ambassadors. I decided to take a chance and composed a letter to the Italian Ambassador to the UN in NYC. I explained why we were going to Italy and that we would be there for three years and asked for suggestions for things to do, places to see, and any other information he thought I might use.
An exciting part of the preparation for this move was obtaining our passports. For that we had to go to the courthouse in the city of Providence. We dressed as if for church and piled into the grey Buick station wagon that was the family car. The one I had learned to start so that it could warm in the drive-way before Dad would go work on cold, winter mornings. Moma’s sense of direction was never very good, but we got there and found our way to the appropriate office. We filled out the paperwork after Moma, Dad, and the clerk discussed whether I should be on Moma’s passport as they thought Jim should be. Moma decided that, because of the expiration date, I would have my own. That being agreed to, the clerk brought out a Bible and we swore our oaths of allegiance. I felt so very important and grown up. I’m not sure why, as Dad always kept all the passports in his possession when we were traveling.
The summer continued with lots of play and studying Italian: Dov’è la stazione ferroviaria? Though this is fun to say we didn’t need it as we never took a train the entire time we were in Italy. We had all our inoculations up dated and collected our passports.
Then one day the mailman brought a very large manila envelope with my name on it. The Italian delegation at the UN had gathered all sorts of papers for me and were very encouraging about our living in their country. They sent maps, a newspaper, a pamphlet on Italian children and their school system, some suggestions for places in and around Naples to visit. I was truly impressed. These people were so very kind to a child whose world was about to change in a very large way. It was also intimidating. The newspaper was impossible to read even after all the hours Moma and I had spent sitting next to the hi-fi trying to learn to speak Italian.
We closed the house around Labor Day, and drove to the Philadelphia area to visit grandparents. After all, we were to be away for three years. Plane travel was still a rare and very expensive event, so it was never to be considered. When we left, we were leaving for three years. While in Philly, Dad sold the Buick. We would buy a smaller, European style car for the time we were overseas. The day before we were to sail we took the train to NYC. The hotel we stayed in had a central courtyard that never saw the sun. The room we were in was small, dark and my brother was a very energetic five year old. Dad decided we would go for a walk: down through the lobby onto the streets. We walked down Broadway, over to Avenue of the Americas, past Radio City Music Hall until Jim seemed to run down. Then Dad and Mom found a place near the Empire State Building where we could all have dinner and watch New York go by as we ate.
The next morning found us at the pier and boarding the USNS Upshur and beginning our new adventure. The Upshur was an MSTS (Military Sea Transportation Service) vessel. Below decks was for troops, above for dependent families. Photos of her I have seen more recently make her seem an ugly vessel, especially in comparison to cruise liners then and now. She was a work horse, meant to get military personnel and their dependents across the oceans. I don’t know what I expected, but I stared as hard as I could as New York slipped by. We waved to the Statue of Liberty and entered the Atlantic. The North Atlantic in October isn’t the smoothest pond. Dad’s cure for the motion of the ocean was to get outside and walk the decks. Except during the worst of the blow and rain we walked, and walked. Once we got to the Azores we spent a lot of time at the rail looking for flying fish. The Upshur, which we fondly referred to as a round bottomed boat because of the rough ride, had a lounge, a movie theater, and there were lots of kids. Some were going to Spain, North Africa, Greece, Turkey and we were going to Naples. Those going to Tunis and Ankara had workbooks to learn the script and basic vocabulary which they worked on daily. I was glad that Italian and English at least used the same script. Again I worried about how much I didn’t know. Our first stop was at Rota, Spain, a place I will remember because of the green color of its water. Rota shares the bay with Cadiz which we spent the day visiting while those staying in Spain disembarked permanently. I saw a bull ring and a Baroque cathedral. Then through the Strait of Gilbralter and on to Barcelona. Of course we saw the Sagrada Familia which was designed by Gaudi. His buildings are very distinctive. The cathedral looks like a sand castle being washed away by the tide. It was then on to Livorno where we visited the Leaning Tower of Pisa. One could still go up the steps inside the tower. The marble steps spiraled around the tower and had curves worn into them from centuries of use. That and the tilt gave one a very insecure feeling, especially coming down. Next stop, Naples. Tying up at the dock we had our first views of Capri, Ischia, Sorrento, the Castel Nuovo, Castel dell Ovo and Mt. Vesuvius. Our new adventure was about to begin and I would finally begin to learn about Naples, and Bella Italia.
The last word:
I’m glad Suzy’s parents decided to move to Italy. I would never have met her had they moved to Texas.
Keep your sense of humor.