Going to Rome on a Mission From God -- Be back Sunday By Mike Bailey
Going to Rome on a Mission From God -- Be Back Sunday
Going to Rome on a Mission From God -- Be back Sunday Library Rules: All works/images are Copyright (C) 2016 by Michael T. Bailey Sr., Marietta, Georgia. All rights reserved. Reproduction, adaptation, or translation without prior written permission is prohibited, except as allowed under copyright laws. Contact information:
With the help of several small tugboats, my submarine finally was able to dock along the quay wall there in the harbor of Naples, Italy. Even though this took place 50 years ago this month, it seems like it was just yesterday.
We had been at sea for weeks on patrol and also conducting training exercises with various other naval units -- some U.S. and some with other countries like France and Great Britain. Being able to tie up in Naples for a few days was a welcomed relief and many of us had plans to make the most of the time we would be allowed to go ashore.
After much hassling and negotiating with our Captain and Communications Officer, I and three other crew members were given permission to leave the boat and travel as a group and be allowed to take advantage of the special 3-day passes being given to select individuals and/or groups.
While we were officially members of the crew stationed aboard the submarine, the four of us were actually part of a unique Communications Special Ops 4-man team utilizing the Navy’s latest new super-secret Crypto equipment -- both in transmission use and equipment repair and as such, also had access to and control over the individual Crypto codes that were changed every 24 hours. The codes used were kept in a special safe on board that only the five of us had access to. We used this equipment to communicate in total secrecy with others subs we operated with and when we had certain specialized antennae deployed, we could even communicate with Naval and NSA operation centers back in the states.
Because of this, we were under direct control of NSA as they provided for and gave us all our real “marching orders” while we were on board and/or ashore from the sub. As such, our (us five) activities off sub were always questioned, subject to approval, and I might also offer, monitored. By the way, it was only because one of our team members agreeing to stay aboard the entire time the rest of us would be gone, were the rest of us allowed to go ashore as a group.
Anyway, on this beautiful, bright blue-sky sunny morning, our goal was simple – make a bee line for Rome and see as much as we possibly could in the time allotted to us. Don’t get me wrong … Naples is a beautiful city (especially from a distance) but bottom line, it was a typical Navy seaport town where you were constantly hassled while ashore (see this, buy this, go here, fend off thieves, pickpockets, the works).
Naples was in short, a “been there, done that, got the tee-shirt” kind of port … just saying.
Other than having a goal to make it to Rome and back in three days, we had no idea how we were going to get there. However, right after we went out the security gate at the head of the pier area where we were tied up, our problem was solved for us. Dozens of cars, cabs, etc., and all their drivers hung around here almost 24 and 7 when a ship was in (like ours) and you were bombarded with offers of free this, tours here, etc.
As we were standing there trying to figure out what to do or who to listen too, we saw this huge, beautiful old shiny black 4-door touring car (was a 1939 Packard Touring Limo) come barreling into the parking lot and slamming on brakes right in front of us. Out popped this grayed-haired older gentleman in a black suit with a black driver’s cap who stood by his opened driver’s door and shouted out, “Whose ah wanta go see ah Roma with ah Papa?”
Without hesitation, we all piled into the car and yelled, “We do!”
We immediately asked what would be his charge to take us to Rome, stay with us, and then bring us back on Sunday. Since this was Friday, the trip would totally use up our 3-day pass.
“Here’s what I’ma going do for you … $100 US for you.”
We sat there in silence thinking about it a second or two when he blurted out, “I’m ah sorry you no understand ah Papa… that’s ah for all you!”
We were stunned -- $25 each for a guided ride to Rome for three days! Finally after we looked at each other, smiled, and shook our heads in agreement, we managed to blurt out, “Hell yeah, let’s go!”
We piled into the back of the limo and after giving Papa the $100 we owed him, the old Packard roared to life and we were out the naval base and headed for Roma in a heartbeat!
The car was gorgeous inside and huge … felt like we were in a hotel room. It was obvious from just looking at the rear seat arrangement that this car had been modified for special limo service. There was a huge car-wide leather seat facing forward that could easily sit four people and then there were two rear-facing seats, one on each side, mounted directly behind the front seat. All of us were 6-foot or taller and all had plenty of leg room. Mounted between the two rear-facing seats was some sort of ice chest that contained a surprise for us when we opened it at Papa’s insistence.
Champagne – two bottles of the bubbly stuff already chilled – awaited us. Within seconds, the first bottle had been popped and four happy sailors were enjoying the wild ride along the superhighway (Autostrada del Sole) to Rome. Papa, we soon learned, had a lead foot and we were literally speeding well above the posted limit. By the time the second bottle had disappeared, we could have cared less how fast we were traveling.
Two and a half hours later, we pulled up to beautiful old hotel on the Via Veneto – one of the most beautiful streets in all of Rome. Papa had worked here at this hotel as a doorman for over 20 years and knew everybody and thought we would like the hotel, especially since it was located on a prime spot on the Via Veneto.
By the way, as the weekend progressed, we realized that not only did Papa know a lot of things and people, but that a lot of people knew him. No matter where we were or where we went, someone was always waving at him and greeting him in Italian. We came to believe that not only was Papa a great limo driver, but that he was a member of the local mafia. More than once he told us, “No one is gonna bother you as long as you with ah Papa.” By Saturday night, we were totally convinced.
While we knew this to be true (from Papa’s viewpoint), we also knew we had an ace up our sleeves also for we knew from the git-go that we had our own shadows with us and were always around us. We had spotted them within minutes after leaving Naples and just laughed about it for we knew they were going to be in for a wild and crazy weekend trying to keep us in sight.
Meanwhile, back in Rome … when we walked into the hotel and up to the front desk, I could already see the look of distain on one of the clerk’s face, like, “Oh lord, American sailors!” When I asked him how much a room was, he sort of smiled and said, “That’ll be $150 US per night for the one room we have left.” I’m sure he thought the price he quoted was going to scare us away.
“Fine,” I quickly answered, “we’ll take it for two nights!”
The look of disbelief on his face was priceless. I’m sure that Papa had brought many sailors to the hotel in the past so us showing up was not new. My guess is that previous Navy visitors had in some small way acted a bit too rambunctious while staying there and having a good time. Anyway, we finished signing in and then we were off to see our room. Located on the second floor, our room faced Via Veneto and was huge.
When I say huge, I mean it was the size of about three rooms made into one. Not only did we have a huge balcony that we could walk out on and look at all the people on the street down below, the room had four single beds spread out with tables and chairs in between that made it look like we each had a separate room. The bathroom was equally large in that it had two toilets, two bedays, four sinks, and a tub large enough to take swimming lessons in.
Looking down to the street below, we saw Papa standing down there by his car and we hollered down to him. He looked up at us and hollered back, “You guys want ah go tour with me or whats?” “Be right there,” someone hollered and 5 minutes later, we were all back in the Packard and touring around Rome like a bunch of celebrities.
Papa’s plan was to just drive us all around Rome this afternoon and save all the big ticket items for tomorrow when we would have all day to explore places like the ancient ruins of the Roman Forum, the Coliseum, and of course, a visit to the Vatican. We spent several hours of just doing drive-by sightseeing with a couple of stops like stopping at the famous Trevi Fountain where we threw coins in and made wishes, or stopping at local sidewalk café places where we could grab a beer and just sit there and people watch. Finally after a long and fun-filled day, we called it quits and headed back to the hotel to get some needed rest because we knew that tomorrow was going to be another long and exciting day.
The balcony on our room provided for all sorts of free and enlightening entertainment as the evening wore on. Just being out there and watching the buzz of people and traffic on the street down below was entertaining enough but there was another activity that provided the most fun to watch and listen to.
Right around dusk, some of Rome’s famous Via Vento streetwalkers showed up for work. Beautiful young ladies were staking out their “corners of the street,” so to speak and within minutes, business was booming with guys lining up to approach one of the ladies and trying to negotiate a price for their services.
What was fascinating to us up on the balcony watching all this down below was how the negotiated price changed as the night went on. Around six that evening, the going price usually ended up at around 60,000 Italian lire (approximately $95 US). As the evening wore on, the price continued to fall hour by hour. By midnight, the going rate was down to about 9,000 lire ($15). This event was to me an eye-opening and practical demonstration of how the laws of “Supply and Demand” work in the real world.
When we got up Saturday morning, we halfway suspected that Papa would have left us stranded there in Rome and moved on to find other suckers for his famous touring of Rome enterprise. However, we were greatly surprised (and immediately thankful) that when we looked out our window and down to the street below us we saw Papa down there in his all black uniform as he lovingly wiped down and polished his beautiful old Packard touring limo.
After a quick breakfast there in the hotel, we loaded up in the Packard and headed for the Coliseum. This site, like the ancient Roman Forum area we visited next is mind blowing in that in reality, it is so out of place, I mean like this really can’t be.
Let me explain. For all my life (up to that point) all I had ever seen or read about the Coliseum or the Forum, were pictures in books and magazines. In these, all you saw were the structures themselves -- beautiful as they were -- but just them. Here we were now at the Coliseum and instead of seeing this singular historical structure as captured in a photograph, here was this gigantic old stone structure sitting in the middle of a bustling multi-lane traffic roundabout with cars and buses racing around it like bees circling a pot of sugar water.
This just didn’t seem right. Traffic noise, car horns honking, cab drivers hollering at local pedestrians (and tourist like us) crossing their path as they tried to make it to the Coliseum to visit and explore inside – all contributed to diminish in a way, the structure before us that had been there for almost 2,000 years.
Long story short -- it was impressive and eye opening at the same time. You can read many articles about it later on your own so I will not try to show and tell all about it (same as for the Forum that we explored next).
Again, as we approached this famous and historical place in Rome, we were thrown off guard by the fact that here was this fantastic place we had all read about in school that was just sitting here in the middle of town beside a busy thoroughfare like it was some sort of old dilapidated, and rundown park. Making this seem even worst was that it just looked like that it had (at one time), lots of beautiful tall stone structures/buildings that were now just piles or stones scattered through the grounds filled with tall grass and weeds.
After a pleasant lunch at a local sidewalk café Papa liked to visit, we headed for the Vatican. I could probably spend hours talking about this place but I will forgo that and just say that this place was another one of those eye-opening moments in life when you realize something for the first time and it shocks you.
Vatican City is a totally enclosed place (walled-off city of only about 100 acres) within the city of Rome. It is its own sovereign place/country and with that comes its own laws, government, and police (actually, the Swiss Guard that provides security and protection for the Pope). After we passed through security and entered the enclave, we were mesmerized by the place -- as if we had walked back in time.
There is no way I can capture what we saw and experienced on our visit all though the Vatican -- especially when we toured all through Saint Peter’s Basilica. I will say this though -- I could immediately see why for hundreds of years, Catholic people in lots places around the world were poor. Why is this, you might ask … because the Vatican had all their money?
There is absolutely nothing cheap about the way the Vatican is built, decorated, furnished, and maintained.
Gold and jewels beyond belief were present everywhere you looked. I was blow away how over the top, you might say, how ornate (to the highest cost possible) everything was. The walls, floors, doors, furniture, paintings (like Michelangelo's frescos on the Sistine Chapel ceiling), gold plated this, that, and those -- it was overwhelming to this poor sailor from South Carolina.
After hours of walking around and being stunned beyond belief at all we saw, we finally called it quits and went back outside to try and find Papa. We went to a place where he had dropped us off and after a while, we saw (heard first) the old Packard making its way towards our location. We piled in and away we went -- with lots of people staring at us when the Packard roared to life as Papa gunned it with us laughing like hell at what our scene must have looked like to the curious bystanders.
Back at the hotel, we decided to eat at a sidewalk café nearby and after a wonderful and relaxing meal there on the Via Veneto, we headed for our room to call it a night. Papa had told us in his broken Italian-English that he had a surprise for us on our return trip and that we needed to get going early so be ready to go.
By 9 am on Sunday, we were up, packed, had a quick breakfast, checked out of the hotel, and loaded all up in Papa’s limo and ready to head back to Naples. As we roared out of Rome, Papa told us we were not going back the way we came -- on the boring Autostrada -- but back along the western coast of Italy and down through Anzio, Terracina, Gaeta, and finally back to Naples. He said it would take a little bit longer but he thought maybe if traffic was light, it would still only take about 3 hours.
We asked him why the change and he said quite clearly and with a smile, “Autostrada ah boring as ah bad pasta -- I’m ah going to ah show you most beautiful drive in all of Italia!”
With that, the old Packard roared back to life once more and soon we were headed for the coast and the long, ocean-side ride back to Naples.
Papa was right -- the road back was breathtaking as compared to the same ole crap you see mile after mile from the Autostrada -- sorta like driving down I-75 through Georgia -- boring!
As usual, Papa was up to his old tricks, that is, pushing the Packard to ever higher speeds as we made our way back to Naples. He had refilled the ice chest device between the two rear facing seats and the chilled bottles of champagne were being thoroughly enjoyed as we looked out at the coastal views along the highway. Papa was right -- this was a beautiful drive and we were thankful that he had taken the initiate to take us back this way.
Blasts on the horn followed by choice words we could only guess at what the true meaning was filled the air as we sped along. Papa had no reservations whatsoever about telling other drivers exactly what he thought about their driving skills. Usually, his verbal rants were accompanied by very visual and graphic questers using his hands, fingers, and arms -- sometimes both at once that made us winch as he was no longer holding on to the steering wheel.
About halfway between Terracina and Gaeta, a large limo went flying pass us like we were sitting still.
“Some ah bitch!” shouted Papa as the limo pulled back in front of us and with the driver holding out his left arm high in the air and giving us the finger.
Our peaceful ride back to Naples just went sour as Papa floored the old Packard and we took off after the limo ahead of us. Traffic was fairly heavy and the chances to safely pass another vehicle were slim to none. We were running now very fast with Papa holding onto the steering wheel with a death grip. We could sense and see his fierce determination to get back at the driver and to pass him back at all cost.
We were holding on to our seats with both hands and were filled with amazement and excitement at what was going on and also how dangerous our return trip had become. The road along here had become very curvy with lots of traffic as people were looking at the beautiful coastal scenery and were just poking along. The limo ahead of us was driving at a very high rate of speed and seemed to sense that our limo was chasing it. We assumed that the driver of the other limo realized that maybe he had made a mistake by harassing Papa when he roared past us and gave us all sorts of hand gestures.
Mile after mile both limos weaved in and out of traffic as we raced along the coast highway. Papa seemed to be hell bent on passing the other limo back and was not going to let anything stop him in his efforts.
Suddenly, we felt the old Packard lurch forwards as Papa floored the gas pedal and we started racing at an even higher rate of speed towards the limo ahead. We realized that Papa was finally going to pass the other limo and we held our breath as the engine revved up higher and higher.
I looked over the seat back at the dashboard trying to see how fast we were going but I could not read the numbers. What I did see though was that the needle on the speedometer was pegged tight to the right side so I figured that we must have been doing way over 100 miles per hour.
Finally, Papa swerved out into the left lane and floored it even harder as we started racing past the other vehicle. Then we saw other cars coming towards us and we were certain that we were getting ready to have a huge head-on wreck. Just as we were about to tell Papa to stop, the lights went out -- that is -- it became pitch black dark inside our limo.
Did we all just die in a terrible wreck or what? My mind was screaming in fear to find an answer.
All of a sudden, the light was back on -- daylight, that is -- and we could see again. Then I realized that what had happened was that Papa had passed the other limo as we sped through one of the many tunnels cut through the mountainsides here. Once we were out of the tunnel, we had completed our passing of the other limo.
Then, as we continued to speed along the roadway, Papa leaned back in his seat and said with a huge smile on his face, “Nobody pass ah Papa.”
To this day, every time I pass a car out on the highway, especially if we are on the Interstate, I recall that phrase from all those years ago that Papa uttered as a statement of truth as far as he was concerned.
Within an hour or so, the old Packard came to a sliding halt there at the gate to the pier area in the port where our sub was tied up. We piled out of the old limo and each one of us gave Papa a handshake and a bear hug while thanking him profusely for a great time. We stood there together in silence and watched him jump back into his limo and speed out of the gate area. In a few seconds, he was gone but not forgotten.
Thank you, Papa, for taking care of us and showing us your beautiful Roma.