Candy Apple Red, black canvas top convertible, a two-liter engine with dual overhead cams, two Weber side pack carburetors, five-speed, everything you could want in a 1976 Alfa Romeo Spider. She was pretty, and she was fast.
An alluring package but unfaithful to the core, on more occasions than I dare count, I found myself broke down and stranded. This time on a sparsely traveled farm road in rural Sicily.
Naval Air Station (NAS) Sigonella, Sicily was My first permanent duty station.
Landing March 31, 1982, at the crack of dawn. I stepped foot on the soil that Homer wrote about around the 800 BC. In my sight was Mount Etna the mythical home of the Cyclops. For the next three years and eight months, Sicily was home. Every day, I watched that massive mountain continually spew dark soot into the heavens.
NAS Sigonella was two bases 15 kilometers apart. Many who lived on NAS 1 rode a bus between NAS 1 and NAS 2.
NAS 1 provided housing, commissary, recreation, and creature comforts.
NAS 2 was the operational base where squadrons, support commands, and the planes flew in and out.
Barely off the plane, some of my fellow servicemembers informed me about how badly they hated Signolella. To them, Sicily and the Sicilians sucked. These seasoned veterans couldn’t wait to get off the island.
Of course, this attitude came mostly from people who lived in the barracks. These cultural experts rode a bus between the bases to work every day. They rarely left the base to go out on the local economy to experience the people, food, or culture.
In hindsight, I wish I could say that their prejudices did not affect my initial attitude toward Sicily and the people.
After a year in the barracks, I moved off base. Venturing out and meeting the people endeared the Sicilians to me. By living on the local economy, I learned Italian well enough to communicate, made friends, shopped, and experienced the culture. After over thirty years away. I can barely say hello.
Other than meeting my wife, having children, and grandchildren, it was one of the most memorable times of my life.
I worked at a remote HF Transmitter site with about sixteen other Electronics Technicians and several Radiomen. The facility was located several miles from each of the bases.
The U.S. Navy’s contractual obligation permitted the shepherds to allow their sheep to graze in the Antenna Fields.
Apart from passing their grazing sheep, being chased by their “Sheep” dogs or giving a friendly wave, I had little to no interaction with the shepherds. I might run into them at Iannarella Cafe bar down the road.
Most of the shepherds spoke a Sicilian dialect that was difficult to understand. As I mentioned, my Italian was functional.
My last year stationed at Sigonella, a friend showed me this time-saving backroad to work. If I didn’t need to swing by the base, I shaved several kilometers and ten minutes off the commute.
I bought my Alfa Romeo Spider around my last year before transferring stateside. I planned to take the car back with me to the States.
That deal fell through. The American sailor who sold me the car never gave me the proper paperwork. My friend Tommaso went with me to Catania to help straighten the paperwork mess out. We were unsuccessful.
Every time it rained hard the thing would stall. Water would blow up through the grill and get the spark plugs soaked.
A bone-chilling, damp, cold, rainy winter day on the back road, in the most remote place, old faithless stalled. The wind was blowing steady enough that it rained sideways. Between that and the standing water splashing up under the grill, the plugs got wet, and she died.
I had just got off of a twelve-hour watch from 0730 pm to 0730 am that morning. So, I was tired.
Remember this is 1984. Cell phones were still science fiction. Even if we had been in the cell phone age, this back road would not likely have a signal.
I propped up the hood; As suspected the spark plugs were wet. Remember four cylinders, in-line with dual overhead cams. The plugs stood straight up like little towers. With the hood up, the rain was blowing in faster than I could dry the spark plugs with the old oily rag I pulled out of the trunk.
I am standing there soaked, freezing my butt off, my head under the hood, and up drives a lizard.
Never found out the proper name for the vehicle. A lizard is a utility cart with three wheels and a cab on the front. In the tiny cab, it looked like a three-headed monster with three Sicilian gentlemen tightly crammed in like sardines.
Two older gentlemen and one younger. When they stepped out of the vehicle, immediately, I suspected they were shepherds.
Of course, they did not speak a word of English. The older gentlemen spoke a Sicilian dialect that might as well have been Mandarin Chinese to me.
The young man spoke Italian.
With patience on the part of my listeners, I stumbled through my unique Italian dialect; the young man would shake his head as if he understood then convey in the Sicilian dialect to the older gentlemen. In unison, we all smiled and shook our heads.
Fortunately, Where I broke down was not far from a small shelter just off the road. The four of us pushed the car far enough to get the front end into the shed.
They realized that I was cold with occasional shivering. While the young man pulled the plugs, dried the plugs and wires, the older gentlemen gestured for me to stand in front of a propane space heater. I warmed myself while they brewed espresso in a pot over a small propane burner. They offered me some espresso which I happily obliged.
While drinking the coffee, we communicated with lots of hand gestures and smiles and my poorly constructed Italian.
A few minutes later, the young man finally said okay and motioned for me to start the car. The sound of that engine was sweet music to my ears.
I offered to pay them for helping me, thrice. These men of simple means would not take my money.
That day, the kindness of these three men reinforced what I had already known intuitively. Cut through race, ethnicity, religion, creed, worldview, down to the heart, in general, people are the same under all the labels. They are searching for connection, meaning, and purpose for their existence.
At that moment, through their kindness, the purpose of three shepherds was to be three guardian angels to a cold, soaked, American sailor.