Title Page and Licensing
The Catania Paper Bag Caper
By Thomas M. McDade
Copyright 2017 Thomas M. McDade
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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This story was previously published under the title “Dolphins and Kite” by O-Dark-Thirty, the literary journal of the Veterans Writing Project. The VWP is a 501 © (3) non-profit based in Washington, DC that provides no-cost writing seminars and workshops for veterans, service members, and military family members. Jerri Bell is the Managing Editor.
I had a bit of a scare. The Leadership Exam was much more difficult than I expected, hadn’t studied worth a shit. I thought I might have failed but lucked out with a seventy-six. I worked steadily after, caught up with commissary ledger postings. I wanted to get off the ship but didn’t want to take a taxi or bus trip up to the Naval Air Station at Sigonella. Around one I showered and threw on civilian clothes. Wore for the first time a madras shirt I’d bought at the Norfolk Naval Base Exchange. Close examination revealed no irregularities that were common in threads purchased there. Morgan, the uptight Jack of the Dust, caught me as I was leaving the Supply Department berthing area. “Hey, Bill Dean, there’s a #10 can of peanut butter gone missing.” I returned to the office to make a note of it. Was it mischief, tossed over the side, or love of the stuff? Morgan would be pounding on the Commissary Officer’s stateroom door next.
I went through the quarterdeck ritual, requested permission to leave the USS Ramply, DD-810. The Officer of the Deck forced a list of out of bounds barrooms and lounges on me. As I walked along the lye-covered pier, I thought of Mt. Etna spewing but instead the sky started spitting. I didn’t care; bad weather better on land than underway. The Mediterranean often tossing us around with deep-six in mind. Gotta admit there’d been some pleasant moments, sea as calm as a guppy tank, dolphins racing alongside the ship, terns and flying fish putting on a show.
Outside the gate I walked under the stone arches supporting railroad tracks, imagining I was in New York beneath the Bronx El. I followed the “Centro” signs through littered streets by motley buildings. Dogs ripped open trash bags for lunch. One was feasting on a clump of spaghetti. Would make a hell of a pasta TV commercial, I thought, chuckling to myself. Skinned horse carcasses hung outside of shops. I wondered if any I’d bet on at the Naples track would suffer the same barbarism. There was graffiti around that I could decipher enough to know Communism was involved.
Somewhere I took a wrong turn. Neighborhood conditions slowly deteriorated. One fantastic aspect of Catania was that you could always get a lift by finding a view of its majestic volcano and I did just that, almost walking into a baby carriage. The ship was going to spring for a bus trip up there. I hoped the hell I didn’t have duty that day. A woman shook a rug off a small balcony on an age-pocked building. The shutter paint peeling, slats missing; a mop popped an impressive cloud of dust, scattering a couple of pigeons, one of them an odd shade of brown.
Too early an hour for ladies shilling sex but the oldest in a gang of kids that appeared out of nowhere offered his cousin for twenty American. He wore a shirt fit for Hawaii and looked plenty tough in daylight. I wouldn’t want to test the night. In Naples it was usually a sister. The smallest ones yelled, “Hey Joe,” holding out hands. I threw a bunch of change at their feet. I was ready to give up my extra pack of Marlboros lodged in a sock if need be. They were like gold. Hell, Shore Patrol or Carabinieri would probably appear just as I turned over the cigs, get me for black-marketing.
Soon after that encounter I saw a Seaman Apprentice named Fortin kissing a woman before backing out a bright blue door. I could report whether or not she was pretty, but she was buck naked which took all my focus, beautiful that way. I ducked into a line at a gelato stand. Fortin had on a University of Kansas windbreaker I’d seen him in before. He carried an AWOL bag. Well, gym bag is what it was in my civilian life, but a Master-at-Arms on the ship gave me a bunch of shit when I reverted. Fortin claimed he had to carry brown paper bags to breathe into when hyperventilation took hold of him. I heard he had several different sizes to cover any seizure. It was as if they were Navy issue, no one hassled him. But he’d become a joke among the crew. Consensus was he was plotting to get a medical discharge; more creative than the signalman pissing his bunk or the gunner’s mate faking seasickness. He was assigned to the mess decks, scullery duty. Once I saw him feasting on half a strawberry rhubarb pie.
“Think the rain will hurt the rhubarb, Fortin?” I asked.
He responded, “Not if it’s jarred or canned.”
Every time I dropped off my tray at the scullery we went through that routine. A very quiet guy other than that; a yeoman told me he grew up on a farm near Wichita. Fortin wore glasses and was close to six-foot and on the chubby side.
Watching him inch away from the blue door, I said What a hot shit to myself. I never would have connected him with backstreet Catania. I wondered how much she charged. I felt like running over to shake his hand, slap him on the back. “Welcome to the real Navy, brother.” Could she have been the cousin offered to me earlier?
It was a welcome relief when I strolled into a more prosperous section of the city. The largest open air market I’d ever seen greeted me, some fruits and vegetables I couldn’t even begin to name. There were several beautiful flower stands, varieties of tulips and roses every color and size. The sun broke through to make the scene more striking. Awe and charm quickly diminished as I hit a wall of fruit flies accompanied by a stench that might have been sewage. I quickened my pace and shortly found an exquisitely landscaped park, lush grass, well clipped shrubs, substantial holly trees, benches I would have guessed were freshly painted without the sign I couldn’t read.
From there I found “Del Centro.” I stopped at an amazing sculpture of an elephant across from a The Cathedral of St. Agatha, a stone post sticking out of its back, globe, palm and cross on top. Not far away was a wondrous park where swans graced a fountain. On a hill a name was spelled out with sawed off hedges: Giardino Bellini. There were monuments celebrating him. I had no idea who he was until I overheard a thirtyish, tall, blonde, very attractive American woman, cowboy hat hanging on her back off a wind strap, telling her long-braided, brace-mouthed, teen daughter that they would see his opera Norma someday in New York. I thought of Marilyn Monroe’s real first name. Mom got very dramatic about a scene where Norma considers killing her two children. When she spotted me staring she switched to French, then Italian. I wondered what the locals made of her, Levis tucked into turquoise boots complementing the hat.
A portion of a Roman amphitheater was fenced off, antiquity galore in these parts. A suntanned, middle-aged man with a short, shaggy beard and a British accent sitting on a director’s chair chanted, “Postcard memories; don’t be shut out.” I thought of a racetrack announcer when post time was approaching. When I walked over, he introduced himself as Arthur Richards. He sported a paisley ascot. We talked some. He guessed I was in the Navy, said he’d been a sailor himself a long time ago. He displayed his wares on a small card table. I picked out one of the smelly market, located at the Piazza Carlo Alberto, he informed me. Of course I got one of the elephant sculpture that Arthur said was the symbol of Catania. He motioned me closer with a fan of cards, whispered he knew something about the statue that few others do. “When it was constructed the pachyderm had no gender. The men of Catania protested, took it as an affront to their masculinity. The tall obelisk sticking up from its back was no consolation. In the name of peace, testicles were added.” I recalled shady looking “guides” at Pompeii offering ancient pornography tours. I bought several more cards from Arthur’s stock when he didn’t ask extra for trivia info, views of the Cathedral and Etna, of course. “Come back later,” he added. “I’ll take you to the house where St. Agatha was born.” I wondered if it were behind Fortin’s blue door. Arthur shook my hand and added that he’d provide an encyclopedic account of her life and martyrdom also.
I bought a Grande Lotteria ticket that lacked the usual colorful images from a shrunken fellow in a wheelchair. I’d be long gone when the drawing took place. What the hell, he was a veteran, judging from the ribbons that lined his pinstriped suit breast, so God bless.
I found a Daily American at a bright red kiosk. I was hungry, stopped at a restaurant called La Pigna Verde. I sat under a ceiling fan at a table covered with a blue checkered tablecloth, started with mineral water, caught up on baseball scores after ordering. I started the crossword puzzle. The waiter eyed me curiously, probably because I didn’t ask for wine. I planned to take it easy on the alcohol this port call. The soup, Straciatella, that I’d picked out
without questioning, was delicious. The antipasto was gourmet, plenty of artichokes included. I’d become addicted to them. The bread was fresh out of an oven. As I was finishing the last piece, the lost peanut butter came to mind. I wondered how it would be on authentic Italian bread. Jeez, that size can weighed in at six pounds or more. Why would a sailor steal it when it was always available at chow? Then I did the 2 + 2 math. Fortin worked in the galley; chiefs and officers were so used to him carrying the AWOL bag that they never checked it at the quarterdeck, a #10 a perfect fit. Forget the peanut butter angle; he could be making beaucoup money on cartons of cigarettes. Ah, a method to the farm boy’s odd ways! I’d never turn him in. Hell, I only got a seventy-six in the leadership test, ain’t qualified. What the hell, in Messina, the Supply Officer did some wheeling and dealing with a couple of turkeys to get fancy food for the wardroom. Enlisted men had rights too. I’d just warn Fortin to be damned careful. The blue door had to be his connection. On the other hand, maybe brig time and Bad Conduct Discharge was another strategy to get out of the canoe club. I paid the check, noticed the “supplemento” for plate and silverware. I stopped at a tobacco shop to pick up some hard candy filled with liqueurs.
Fortin’s “rhubarb” responses weren’t as lively after Catania. On the way to Izmir, I was in the aft lounge watching closed circuit TV, tape of the Kentucky Derby when he walked in. “Did you know that Catania was saved from an Etna eruption by a red veil that belonged to St. Agatha? Someone waved it at the oncoming lava, stopped it dead?” He was gone before I had a shot to answer. Our scullery exchange took on its old tone. He asked if a horse named Rhubarb won the race!
One night when working late finishing monthly commissary reports, I took a break, went out on deck. There was an emperor’s ransom of stars, nearly a full canopy plus phosphorus flashing in the ship’s wake that would have brought fireflies to a country boy’s mind. I inhaled two airplane bottles of vodka I’d picked up at the Hotel Bellini lobby gift shop. A couple of bourbons were well hidden in a filing cabinet behind the menu files. Feeling chatty, I walked over to the after lookout.
“Want a toke?” asked Bill Watson.
“Just had my magic, don’t like to mix ’em.”
Actually no way not to. Contact highs on Ramply were as sure as Taps and Reveille.
“Hey Dean, did you get behind the blue door in Catania?”
“No, did you?”
“Sure did. Weirdest shit I’ve ever hit over here, like a church, candles, statues with jewels for eyes. I dropped my twenty into what looked like a poor box. It was all I could do to keep my mind on business. Other than that she was gorgeous and an acrobat.” Watson pulled a chain out of the neck of his shirt, dangled a medal. “St. Agatha,” he said. “I had to call her that without the saint part. I’m afraid if I take it off I’ll get hit by lightning, same if I leave it on.”
“I’m half sorry I missed that attraction,” I said.
“Did you hear about Fortin?”
“That he was going to take the third class cook test?”
“Nah, he gave his paper bags to Johnston, the electrician’s mate, going to make a kite out of them, heavy wire for braces; launch is set for tomorrow off the fantail.”
“How many knots you think it will handle?” I asked.
“Don’t know but I do know all is changed with Fortin. No shit, I’m pretty sure he’s wearing the Agatha medal.”
“Give me a toke,” I said. I wasn’t about to rat Rhubarb out.
“That was pretty funny about that new boot in second division bringing in a can of peanut butter from the paint locker for the boatswain mates laying tile thinking it was glue.”
“Would have been funnier if they’d used it,” I answered, recalling my silly Fortin suspicions. “Yesterday three Cornish hens got legs,” I added.
“That’s officer food. Who gives two shits? One more toke for the road, Dean? Have any wild Catania stories you wouldn’t tell your mom?”
I sucked on the doobie. “Tall American blonde I met at the Ionian Discothèque did me in three lingos; sang too, ripped two buttons off my new shirt, chunks of cloth with them. Coincidence, she wanted some name calling, ‘Norma.’” Watson put up his hand for a high five and I followed through. Walking back to the office, I couldn’t imagine ever swapping Catania tales with Fortin. I wondered if he’d ever try to shock me with his blue door visit.
There’d be another time to tell Watson about the beanstalk keeping one of the buttons for a souvenir. I guess it would depend on the strength of what he was smoking. And its twin that’s my charm for rubbing worries away. I gave up the shirt to the Mediterranean, a conversation piece for our sleek dolphin escorts.
Fortin showed me a photo of a gal from high school he was writing. She reminded me of Calamity Norma’s daughter. We watched the kite survive 20 knots before giving up. Fortin clapped until his hands must have hurt.