”Dad, we want you to come home.” Even through the poor Skype connection I could see the tightness of Karin’s face, hear the stress in her voice.
“I can’t do it, sweetheart. Everything’s closed. Flights are canceled. The whole country is shut down. Don’t worry. I’m fine.”
“But we’re anxious and wish you were back in the States, at least in the same time zone.”
I had planned to sit out the crisis right where I was—in southern Italy, near Calabria, where I lived and worked as a yacht captain for half the year. But if my family needed me, I had to get back to Connecticut. My work here had dried up anyway.
“I’ll do my best,” I promised Karin.
I tried to find a flight online but had no luck, then called a travel agent friend, Sue. “Don’t get your hopes up,” she said.
Meanwhile I managed to cobble together a pair of flights that would get me to New York in mid-April, almost a month away. It would cost a fortune—more than $1,000—and could be canceled at any minute, but what choice did I have? I entered my credit card information. The website didn’t accept it. I tried another. Same problem. What on earth? I thought. None of my cards work!
I held for the online help desk and gave up when Sue called back. “Can you leave on Saturday?” she asked. It was Thursday.
“Yes!” I replied quickly. Sue had found a Saturday flight on Alitalia from Lamezia Terme International Airport, in Calabria, to Rome.
“You’ll have a one-hour layover in Rome,” Sue said, “and then take a KLM flight from Rome to JFK in New York—all for only $400.”
It sounded too good to be true—and it was. Why had I given up on the online help desk? “Lamezia Terme is closed,” I said. “They just announced it.”
“Closed except for a flight for medical personnel and equipment. I pulled strings and got you a seat. The flight leaves Saturday at 11 A.M.”
I had one day to figure out how to get to the airport in Calabria. That wouldn’t be easy. Under Italy’s nationwide lockdown, a form had to be completed every time you left the house, even for the grocery or the pharmacy. Driving out of town entailed a whole new layer of regulations, including stamped and certified permission from police headquarters, which was manned only two days a week, neither of them Thursday or Friday.
It was time to call Pina.
Pina was my go-to person for anything I needed in Italy. She made photocopies, laminated documents, helped with taxes and generally assisted in navigating the labyrinth of Italian bureaucracy. “It’s impossible,” she said when I explained my situation. That eased my mind. Whenever Pina said something was impossible, she was determined to figure out a way. “Call me back in two hours.” I considered it a done deal.
Two hours later I arranged to meet Pina at her office by 9:30 Saturday morning. From there she would drive me to the airport.
Angels #3 and #4
We arrived early Saturday morning at Lamezia Terme airport. The place was deserted but for two policemen blocking the main entrance. One of them, judging from his gold insignia, was in charge. “Where are you going?” he said, as I struggled up the entrance ramp with my heavy backpack, wheeling my suitcase behind me.
“I have a flight,” I replied, waving my reservation printout.
“The airport is closed. All flights have been canceled.”
“Not this one.” I handed over the reservation to the policeman in charge. He looked perplexed and conferred in whispers with his partner.
“Are you a doctor?” he said finally.
“No, but I’m on the medical flight.”
The policemen didn’t seem happy about it, but they let me in. I wandered through the empty airport and sat down in the departures lounge, my flight still two long hours away. After a while, I was directed to a booth where my passport was checked, my flight confirmed, my hold luggage collected. I went through security, which was represented by a couple of bemused policemen. I was the only passenger in sight. Where are all the medical personnel? I wondered.
Looking out the windows of the gate lounge, I could see one jet, not at the gate, but on the tarmac 100 yards away. As I watched, a luggage cart approached the plane with a suitcase—mine. Cool, I thought. I’ve never watched my luggage loaded before.
An hour and a half to go, I opened my book.
“What are you doing here?” It was my policeman friend, looming over me.
“Do we have to go through this again? I’m waiting for my flight.”
“Is that it?”
I looked up. There was another airplane outside—a twin-engine turboprop parked a few yards from the jet. The last of a line of whitegowned, masked, obviously medical personnel was marching from the small plane into the larger one. Before my eyes, the jet door closed and the mobile boarding platform slowly backed away. “But it’s still an hour to boarding!” I said.
The policeman grabbed my arm, I grabbed my backpack. I was frogmarched through a door and down a flight of steps to a desk that guarded the door opening to the tarmac. No one was at the desk. The door was locked. “Ferma l’aereo!” the policeman barked into his radio. The jet engines began winding up. A woman in an airline uniform appeared. She and the policeman engaged in a rapid-fire conversation, most of which went over my head. The little I could understand wasn’t good. A tow cart approached the airplane.
“My luggage is aboard that airplane,” I hollered. “And it’s early! That plane cannot leave without me!”
The policeman and the uniformed woman looked at me in surprise. I’d surprised myself. I’d spoken perfect Italian! The woman picked up the phone. After a few moments the mobile boarding ramp nuzzled the airplane again, the front door opened and I was beckoned ahead. I lurched across the tarmac, looking back to say, “Grazie mille, i miei angeli. Thank you so much, my angels.”
You could roll balls of pasta dough through the gargantuan main arrival lounge of Rome’s Fiumicino Airport and not hit anyone—it was that empty. Massive flight announcement boards pulsated overhead with red FLIGHT CANCELED announcements. Hidden among the garish roseate bursts was the rare line of green text. I found my flight to JFK. As planned, I had an hour to clear customs, and then I would be home free.
I hurried through the maze of crowd-control aisles—the crowd was me—and approached the customs kiosk. The officer swiped my passport and looked closely at his screen.
“May I see your soggiorno, please?” he asked through his face mask.
The soggiorno is the residency permit that foreigners who work in Italy must have. I had one—packed in my luggage on the airplane. “I’ve only ever had to show a passport in order to fly.”
The officer looked down at the screen again, then back at me. “You were asked for it on another occasion and failed to show it. And now you do not have it again. Have you been working without a soggiorno?”
Then I remembered. Last month my boat had been boarded by the Italian Coast Guard—a routine boarding. The officer scanned my passport, which I always carried, but I had left the soggiorno behind. I faxed a copy as soon as I made port, but that information didn’t seem to have made it into the system.
“Listen, my flight is boarding in just a few minutes. If I miss it, I don’t know when I’ll be able to get home. I have the soggiorno. I swear it. I’ll mail you a copy as soon as I get to the States.”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry. We’ll have to wait for my supervisor.” My path home to Karin and the kids was fast disappearing, and I was so close.
“I see that you fly into Milan often,” the customs officer said, looking at his screen. “Do you have relatives living there?”
“No,” I said distractedly. “I take the train from Milan to Bologna, where I lived for a few years and still visit good friends.”
His head lifted. “Bologna? My mother lives in Bologna.”
Poor guy, I thought. Bologna had been hit hard by Covid-19. He must be worried. “Is she well?”
His eyes watered above his mask. “Yes, so far. But she’s alone. Her neighbors, her friends—they all look in on her.”
I thought of all the people sick and dying, the anxiety we all felt being separated from our loved ones, even if we were healthy. Everyone I’d come across in my odyssey to get home was in the same boat. It really wasn’t all about me. “I hope your mother stays well and that God looks out for her,” I said, thinking for a moment only of his situation.
The customs officer gave me a long look. “From your lips to God’s ear,” he said as he stamped my passport and sent me on my way.
I got back to the U.S., back to my family, quarantining together. It was still hard to believe that I’d made it. And I knew I never would have without many angels clearing my path along the way.
Did you enjoy this story? Subscribe to Angels on Earth magazine.