My daily commutes to college were on the Broad Street subway whose southern-most station was a four block walk from my home in South Philadelphia. My route took me to the subway’s northern end, about ten miles away. There I’d take a bus to Temple University’s freshman campus that in 1947 consisted of several hastily re-assembled World War II military barracks. The buildings were connected by lattice-board walkways traversing the mud and the puddles. I wasn’t able to read on this long, boring ride because it made me queasy to do so. Boredom spawned day-dreaming. In a sense I was never bored again.
I dreamed my way through four years of college. I dreamed through two years of service in the Air Force, at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington. I was a clerk-typist in the Headquarters squadron, a clerk-typist who couldn’t type very well. My first sergeant, a genial man, made me a messenger. I delivered special orders and other documents on my bicycle to distant locations on our vast airfield. Built for heavy bombers, the runways were three miles long. I could see forested mountains in the distance. Sleek jet planes from the adjacent fighter base came roaring overhead, low enough occasionally to rattle windows and to freeze me in awe.
I was discharged on a Tuesday, I got home on Thursday and I entered law school on Monday. I hated it, and day dreaming didn’t quite hack it there. I flunked out. The dean invited me to repeat the year but I said no thanks. At mid-semester I had seen a flyer posted on the school’s bulletin board. It advertised a language school, L’Universita per Stranieri, in Perugia, Italy. My approach to higher education may seem to have been cavalier; after all my family was poor. However I had attended undergraduate school on a four-year academic scholarship. Then the GI Bill, the law by which the United States government rewarded its military veterans, paid for the year at law school. Now Europe beckoned. I booked passage to Italy on the MS Roma:
We departed in a snowy springtime blow
And were battered by heavy angry seas.
Casualties were light: a broken arm, not mine,
Glassware, china, some ill-digested meals
All forgotten when the Azores hove in view
Glistening, a floating forest wrapped in rain
Accessible only to lighters
Which danced out to meet our swaying ship
And madly bobbing, collected cargo.
Ragged seamen performed routinely
Miracles arcane to us who lined the rail
Hand and eye evoking skills inherent
To heroes on Homer’s wine-dark sea.
In Genoa I bought a train ticket to Perugia which required a change of trains in Florence. A tall attractive woman joined our cluster of passengers waiting on the platform for the Perugia train. She carried three or four small bags. I offered to help and we sat in the same compartment on the train. She was German but she spoke excellent English. She worked for a German export company which was sending her to Perugia to learn Italian. Her name was Saskia.
Saskia and I met every morning before class in the University coffee bar. One evening we went to a movie in the University’s little theater. She was about forty-five years old, with hazel eyes, delicate fair skin and Titian hair. Below her lower eyelids the skin was mottled by faint blue veins. She had been a dancer, a showgirl in Berlin nightclubs before and during World War II. When I had led her to our seats in the movie theater I briefly held her upper arm. Her flesh was firm. Two weeks into my European dream, I had already met an interesting older woman.
I had to leave Perugia temporarily in order to meet the ship in Palermo that was bringing my parents back to Sicily after forty-four years. Then I accompanied them to the natal village where they would remain for a two months visit. To their chagrin, I left Sicily after two weeks to return to Perugia. In my absence twenty Somali students had arrived there.
They had come to the university for a month’s orientation before fanning out to other universities in Italy to attain professional degrees. They held Italian government scholarships, granted to them in reparation for Italy’s having invaded and occupied Somalia. They were tall and slender, lively youths who spoke excellent Italian. Italian had been the native language within colonial Somalia’s nascent middle class. They had discovered Saskia. They pre-empted her, frolicking around her like a pack of playful greyhounds. And she reveled amid their youthful exuberance: total immersion. It was a uniquely exotic Italian experience that she could savor forever.
I rejoined the real world which included my desire to learn Italian. It was a nice world, I might add: 1950s Italy on the GI Bill.