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Ischia and Two Lovers I Knew

In the heat of August one often dreams of beautiful islands like Capri where the warm sun is tempered by a constant cool breeze off the Bay of Naples. The same can be said of the nearby island of Ischia, long considered the poor man’s Capri or the anti-Capri. Today, Ischia is still a place mainly for Italians from nearby Naples. Unlike Capri, Italian not English is the language you will hear on Ischia. And like Capri, Ischia I’m told can be a captivating place.

It was a recent article by Nathan Lump in Departures Magazine that rekindled memories of Ischia and my only trip there early in 1958.

My invitation for the trip was from Leslie “Les” Smallwood from Rockland, Maine, a fellow Second Class Petty Officer in the Naples office of the Naval Security Group. Les was infatuated with Maria Varella, a beautiful young Neapolitan, who worked in the Hotel Tricarico, where we resided. Les desperately wanted to date Maria, but in those days the Italian customs were far more stringent than they are today. A single woman could only date a man, whether or not he was Italian, in the presence of a chaperone, most of whom were close relatives dedicated to keeping the couple at arms-length. Holding hands was permissible at times depending on the chaperone, but kissing was out of the question. Courting was a long, tedious, draconian, and frustrating process for the couple.

Les and I had recently returned from temporary duty with the Royal Navy in Scarborough, England, monitoring the communications of some 200 NATO nation warships in Operation Strike Back, an exercise simulating a mock Soviet invasion of Norway. Les was a quiet and introspective person. While he had a light side, he was extremely dedicated, serious, and considerate in how he went about his job and things in general. When he approached me and asked me to do him a personal favor that weekend, I knew it had to be something important. Much to my surprise the favor was to act as one of the chaperones on his first officially sanctioned date with Maria. The flip side of being a chaperone is that my accompanying chaperone would be a female who I would meet when Les and I arrived at the ferry pier at Molo Beverello in the port area.

On the trolley from the Hotel Tricarico in the Bagnoli section of Naples, I asked Les what my fellow chaperone looked like. He didn’t have a clue. All he knew was that she was one of Maria’s many cousins. His only hope was that she was friendly. My only hope was that she was as attractive as Maria.

Les and I were on different watch sections. We monitored the Sixth Fleet’s radio communications in rotating eight hour shifts in a 40-hour period beginning with an eve watch from 4 to 12, a day watch the following morning from 8 to 4, and that night the mid watch from 12 to 8 the following morning. At the end of the mid watch you were off for 56 hours. I had just come off the mid watch and had yet to sleep. Les was on his full day off and was well rested and ready for our boat ride to Ischia and a hike through its hills down to its ancient fortification, Castello Aragonese. In contrast, I was ready for some sack time. But anything to help a friend, particularly Les and a beautiful young woman like Maria.

On the trolley that cold sunny morning, I plotted our strategy. Since I was tired, I would sack out on the ferry and once we arrived at Ischia, I would feign illness, sore feet, or find some other reason to delay leaving the boat and the harbor long enough to give Les and Maria a good head start so that they could wander off on their own and do whatever they were so inclined to do. When we arrived at the pier there was the beautiful Maria smiling as if she had won the lottery, and standing next to her was a young woman who resembled Danny DeVito’s mother in the movie, “Throw Mamma from the Train.” For the rest of the story I’ll refer to her as the cousin.

After we exchanged greetings, Les explained that I had worked all night. Maria smiled warmly and thanked me for coming. I told them that I would probably sleep on the boat and not to be concerned during the two-hour ferry ride. In due time, I was shaken awake by the cousin when we arrived at Ischia. I had stretched out in a fetal position on the padded bench seat. She stood looking down at me with her arms akimbo. As I slowly roused myself she impatiently moved her arms up and down. “Andiamo! Andiamo! Subito!” (Let’s go! Let’s go! Immediately!) I shook my head and winced to clear it and to get my bearings. “Aspetti,” (wait) I said. I stood up and walked a few groggy steps and pointed to a sign, “Per favore, devo andare al bagno,” (Please, I have to go to the bathroom) which I honestly did. I took my time and rinsed the sleep from my face and found myself to be the last person on the boat. As I left the ferry I spied Les and Maria far up the hill ahead of the crowd, while the cousin was having a fit as she watched the young lovers fade from view. As I approached her, my smile was met by her shrill bark. Over and over she exclaimed. “Finiscilla con queste sciocchezze,” (Stop this nonsense) and “Le stai facendo scappare,” (You’re letting them get away).

I smiled and nodded, “Si, si” (Yes, yes.) I responded and hunched my shoulders as an Italian would. Her eyes narrowed and she shook her head, “Cattiva persona,” (bad person) she said a few times as I stood my ground. The Italians lingering near the ferry landing turned their heads away to hide their laughter. I hunched my shoulders again and opened my hands and said, “Nessun problema” (no problem).

She grabbed my hand and pulled me along up the hill. In an attempt to slow her down, I dragged my feet like a reluctant two-year old as my fellow ferry riders looked on in amusement. As I reluctantly climbed the hill she continually lashed out at me with invectives that went well beyond my limited knowledge of Italian, and in the process she entertained the curious bystanders.

One of my hopes was that the onlookers did not assume that the cousin and I were an item, while the other was that Les and Maria had found a place to be alone. After about a half hour with the cousin, I’d had enough. When we came upon a bench I sat down and refused to move. “Sono innamorati. Lasciarli soli,” (They’re in love. Let them alone) I said in protest. Her head shaking back and forth, she stamped her feet, “Questo è il problema,” (That’s the problem) she said before she shook her fist at me and ran up the path looking for her charges. I fell asleep on the bench and was awakened a few hours later when Maria and Les returned with a smiling cousin.

While it was a quiet ferry ride back to Naples that afternoon, Maria smiled at me warmly in appreciation for my efforts. A few months later, I left Naples for my discharge at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Les and Maria were married later that year and remained so for 56 years before her passing. They had lived a wonderful life through his career in the Navy and at Northrop Grumman. Along the way they nutured and raised a beautiful extended family of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Whenever I read about or hear someone mention Ischia I only remember Maria’s warm smile and lucky Les’ big grin.  Read More 
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