Monday, September 22, 2014

Plus Ca Change

Punta Tragara and The Faraglioni

Though I will not access -- and hope never to see -- the videos, I remain constant of the horrors their images contain. And sadly aware that in the 21st century, if shocked, we are experiencing nothing that mankind hasn't seen (and too often relished) in the past. Today it's the internet, but in recent centuries of our Western World beheadings were public events in town and city squares -- the executioners and victims on the stagings of Great Britain, the towering guillotines of revolutionary France. No need to frequent the streets if today curiosity compels you to look -- simply sit at the computer and click.

Not privy to U.S. Intelligence nor expecting transparency from the current Administration, personal knowledge of Islamic ISIS is limited to what one can garner from the media. Finding there the usual debates between Hawks and Doves, the hesitations and indecisions on confrontation of terrorism.  Reluctance to wage war but fear of attack on the homefront. Though long an adherent to Roosevelt's "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," I question whether fear could, or should, negate concern for and constructive action against whatever threatens us. Joseph Kennedy, Charles Lindberg and other isolationists of the 1930s argued that the Nazis and Fascists posed no threat to the US, as did one of the history teachers in my high school class -- while practically every boy in that class was aware of the atrocities spreading throughout Europe, resigned to the fact that he'd inevitably have to fight it.

As often in my travels abroad, I'd wandered away from the civic center and found myself lost in a neighborhood of Capri little-frequented by tourists. A beautiful, narrow street -- more like a lane -- bordered by blooming vine-covered walls and hand-crafted gates which but partially concealed the fine villas and extensive gardens beyond them.  Stopping to admire a spectacular spill of bougainvillea, I saw a half-hidden sign in the rocks behind the fiery bloom. Via Tragara. Though it merited a street name, this lovely walkway was undoubtedly dead-ended, as I could see its not-distant terminus at a small piazza high above the sea.
My loneness was suddenly broken by a signora who emerged from a splendidly carved wooden gate fronting one of the villas. Warmly garbed in a white, ankle-length cape, sheathed in a wimple of the same color, she walked with regal bearing ahead of me. Luxury and privilege was in her proud gait, something of a vision, really, like the fine structures and exquisite foliage surrounding us.  It was hard to concede that the residents of Via Tragara had ever known want or care, shielded from worldly slings and arrows by their flowered barricades. When we reached the piazza with its overlook down to Capri's famed Faraglioni dramatically piercing the sea, the signora settled on one of the few benches in the intimate area, lifted her face to winter's sun and closed her eyes.

At the edge of the belvedere, hugging the steep cliff, was a salmon-colored villa of extraordinary architecture which was not walled. I could not resist mounting its steps, studying the fine forms and sensitive details of a labor of love. It was obvious that the building needed no protective wall, as the public façade was but a fraction of an extensive dwelling concealed behind it. I encountered no inhabitant during my inspection, but did discover an embedded plaque discretely placed to face the piazza.  It revealed that the villa had been designed in the 1920s by Le Corbusier for Count Goffredo Manfredi and that Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower had met and convened there during World War II. I did not know that day if the villa was occupied, but learned later that it had been renovated and is today Hotel Punta Tragara.

When I re-entered the piazza, a casual exchange of Buona Seras with the signora prompted the invitation to sit beside her. We spoke of and awaited together the brilliant sunset on the sea's horizon. My accent betrayed American origin, and she commented at having seen me studying the plaque on Villa Tragara, presuming I'd been much interested in the Allied meeting there. She said she'd been a child at that time, and wistfully added "Such an unhappy little girl." Her home here on the Via had been a place of quarrel, father, brothers and uncles in dispute at the dinner table, those for and against alliance with Germany, pro and anti Fascist, supporting or damning Mussolini's dream of the New Roman Empire. It was a time in her family, she explained, when nobody seemed to know what was right or wrong, what actions to take or not take. The heated debates among those loved by the child had haunted her for years. I was silent during the brief monologue, but recognized the quote (though she spoke in Italian, not the translation offered here) with which she ended it: "And I -- my head oppressed by horror -- said Who are these people so defeated by their pain." Dante's Inferno.

Pain, perhaps, but mostly anger is what I see and hear in the media concerning US indecisive reaction to the Islamic State being forged by ISIS. The signora of Via Tragara never forgot childhood exposure to  the invectives of radicals and pacifists; I these days think on teenage witness of foreign totalitarianism and the cries for US involvement or isolationism. With so much political posture and falsehood presented us by print and airwaves, one is tempted to lay aside the newspapers and magazines, silence the TV, turn instead to the bookshelf and one of the classics.  But no, our world cannot be ignored.                                                                 



Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Too Short a Summer.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milano

August not yet over, but the night abed meant getting up to fetch an extra blanket.  Approaching the car for early-morning errands, I'm surprised to see a few fallen leaves from the Green Ash towering above the driveway. The sedan's dashboard indicates 53 degrees outside temperature, and the vehicle's interior is chilly enough to warrant changing the gauge from Cool to Hot.  Can this actually -- cruelly -- mean that despite the official end of the season being nearly a calendar month away, one is being asked to surrender Summer.

A good, even memorably crowded summer, but to be ending so soon! Wasn't that Honor Flight to Washington DC, which seems like yesterday, in late spring even before summer actually began? Mid-season highlights were the visits from out-of-state family, delighting in seeing again after more than a year the 23-month old granddaughter, and meeting for the first time the 6-month old great-grandson. Attendances at performances of the Aspen/Santa Fe Ballet and the Entreflamenco. Major maintenance with restoration reconstruction of historic adobe patio wall, and numerous hours among gardens heavily abloom after generous monsoon rains.  Still, much to be seen and done while it is still warm, before the cold of Northern New Mexico drives shawled elders to their corner kiva fireplaces, resenting energies needed to keep warm.

I've not tolerated well cold weather since the Ardennes Winter of 1944-45. Yet on this late-August morning, I'm not alone in complaint as I go about morning errands. Sweatered and hooded fellow-shoppers discuss other years when early chills preceded non-existent autumns, Labor Day snowfalls which plunged Santa Feans into unwelcome, too-soon winter. I overhear a few part-time residents -- our snowbirds -- anticipating early exodus to their fair-weather abodes in Arizona and Mexico.  And an utterance long forgotten is echoing in my head: Odio l'inverno! Where did that come from?

Two decades ago, traveling alone in Italy, I indulged one of my favorite past-times: wandering city streets, discovering areas -- and sometimes artistic treasures -- little, if ever, frequented by organized tours; observing the locals at work and play; periodic stops at bars for an invigorating espresso. This was Milano, autumn yet officially a month away, but the day was grey and intermittent rain fell. I had no umbrella, and decided to return to a familiar haunt, Piazza Duomo where I knew the Cathedral or nearby Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II would provide shelter from downpours if needed.
The Galleria's splendid monumental architecture, its vast marble interior with richly embellished facades of boutiques featuring the best of  stile italiano , top-drawer restaurants and bars, bookshops of beautiful leather-bound volumes has long attracted me. Even if one cannot afford the luxuries offered, they are wondrous to behold. Among them, the procession of privileged, elegant Milanese who promenade their bella figuras across the inlaid marbles. I have never visited Milano without a stop at the Galleria. This day I entered anticipating the long stroll to its outlook on Piazza della Scala and a glimpse of the opera house across the way.

But something was different. Perhaps the weather had driven them in, but neighborhood workers and employees replaced the society elite  and business men usually on display. Advancing toward the center of the Galleria, I saw where most were headed -- to a newly-opened McDonalds smack in the middle of the famed edifice. One doesn't like to think, or admit to oneself, that he/she could possibly be a snob, but a wave of distaste rushed over me. Had a place I'd long loved suffered befoulment?
Never a fast-food afficionado, I'd seldom frequented McDonalds in the US but curiosity about a few abroad had tempted entrance. And I found them more interesting than offensive, often located in beautiful old buildings and with menus featuring a few regional favorites along with the burgers and fries. At McDonalds in the Arabat District of Moscow, borscht and blini offered at a side bar; the franchise in Athens displayed dolmas and moussaka; one near the Spanish Steps in Rome promoted lasagna and pizza, although at all the US menu -- Big Macs, etc -- seemed favored by the locals crowds.

The Milan Galleria's McDonalds was not so easily acceptable as others of those abroad which I'd visited. Its interior lacked any overlay of Italian decor, seemed a replica of its countless cousins in our own country. I did not check the menu. If it featured pasta or other regional fare, that was not evident by most of the diners, gnawing away at hamburgers. All seemed to be drinking American coffee, not espresso, and I followed suit. Have a quick warm draught and get out of here!
I'd been aware of a strange sound -- mumbling? -- for minutes before realizing it came from an elder seated across the table. Lined and bearded, uncombed, shabbily dressed, he hunched shivering over the steaming coffee, repeating the same words over and over again. Oblivious to any or all who heard him. "Odio l'inverno. Odio l'inverno. Aspetto la primavera."  A mournful mantra: I hate winter, await spring.
At that time, so much younger than he, certainly not feeling the day's chill as he did, I considered it a bit pazzo to be awaiting spring before summer ended.

Later that day, clouds dispersed, the sun came out. I remained in the neighborhood, as always circling the huge Piazza, viewing that awesome facade and spires of the Duomo, eventually climbing the outdoor stairs to her spectacular rooftop. Had done this on many occasions, often lingering for hours high in the sky among students and scholars squatting with books in hand. With us this day was the chanting elder from McDonalds. He was seated in a wide patch of bright sunlight, eyes to the heavens, frown gone. As was the mantra. I did not know then, or know today, much about Milan's social structure, what its homeless inhabitants might number, services provided the elderly, etc. But observing that beatific expression on the weathered, sun-bathed face of the recent table-mate, I, too, like him, spoke aloud for all to hear. Wished him Eternal Summers.

(In 2012 the city of Milan evicted McDonalds from Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II after its 20 year-plus occupancy there. Announcement was made that Prada would take its place. McDonalds reportedly has sued the city).


Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Mountains and the Sea

Marina Grande, Sorrento

As July 2014 ends here in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, my thoughts are on the Mediterranean.  Love of New Mexico, its dramatic landscapes, traditions and culture remains strong, but the lifelong attraction to oceans sounds a call for return to the sea.  Boyhood on the beaches of Chesapeake Bay and the Jersey Shore; six trans-Atlantic crossings on troop ships as well as the great Italian passenger liners; ferries in Puget Sound, the Aegean Sea, the Sea of Cortez, Golfo di Napoli, the Strait of Messina, and the crossing from Gibraltar to Tangier; jaunts along Liguria's Golfo di Tigullio, the coasts of California and Baja Mexico, the sands of Oahu and the Bay of Biscay, the shore of Cascais in the Estoril -- these plus countless other inlets, coves, marinas have fostered a love of the waters which decades in the mountains have never depleted.  Santa Fe's monsoon season with its thundering rainstorms, usually followed with bright turquoise skies frequently ribboned by colorful rainbows, its magnificent fiery sunsets and cool, brilliantly sun-splashed dawns is hard to beat as a place to spend one's summer. Yet, this year I yearn to look on and hear the sea.

Of the many Julys enjoyed on the water or at its edge, it is Sorrento for which I most feel nostalgia in this mid-summer month.  July in Sorrento is a time of warm bright sunshine and cool breezes from the Bay of Naples, colorful fiestas, street stalls overflowing with fresh vegetables and fruits of the sea, cheerful crowds at sidewalk cafes and ristorante, crowded beaches, everywhere the acknowledgment that this is the best of times, to be grasped to the full, savored. Many concerts and exhibits are available, presented in historic venues of great beauty. And always that sparkling sea, dotted with fishermen's boats and the ferries transporting commuters, vacationers and revelers to Capri, Ischia and Procida. Across the water, the stunning panorama of distant Vesuvius, at its base Pompeii and Napoli. In July, too, is celebrated on the 16th the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel with a water procession of boats laden with the Virgin's statue and banners, flowers, musicians -- instrumentalists and choruses -- accompanied and saluted by larger craft shooting huge streams of water into the skies.  On the 29th, the feast of Sant' Anna begins at her church in Marina Grande, her statue carried aloft in a large procession which climbs the heights to the main streets of Sorrento. On return to Marina Grande, the statue is held facing the sea, devotions imploring the Virgin's safety for the many fishermen who sail from here for long working weeks in far reaches of the Mediterranean. Out in the sea, remotely-controlled fireworks from a barge illuminate the dusk and the gathering night with huge bursts of colorful patterns reflected in the darkening water. Frequent cannon shots are fired, audible evidence for miles around of the honor being bestowed on Marina Grande's patron saint. Well beyond midnight when abed, the wonders of Sorrento in July are difficult to forfeit. Celebratory cannon is still being fired. pedestrians cajole in the streets, many of them singing the traditional beloved Neapolitan songs of the area. One young man's rendering of Core N'grato as dawn approaches can break the heart. One listens and marvels. Sleep can wait.

On one of my last visits to Sorrento in July, I noticed an elderly man seated on a bench at the belvedere where I went each morning to greet the sea. And became aware that if I returned late in the day to view the sunset, he was still there. Younger than he, not yet acquainted with the eccentricities of advanced age, I grew bold enough to draw him into conversation, wondering if during long days at the belvedere he had need or want of anything. No, he answered, he brought along bread, a flask of vino, there was a gelato bar with restroom nearby, and the spectacle of gorgeous vistas and water traffic was never-ending. I learned that he was from Spoleto, born and raised in Umbria which he dearly loved, but service in the Italian Navy had fostered a passion for the sea to which he now made a yearly visit. "You say you know my area," he said, "have been to Assisi, Perugia, toured the countryside. You've seen our hill-towns, vineyards and mountains, the artistic splendors. I assume you've some concept of how I've loved Umbria all my life." He then fell silent, and I did not pursue more conversation. We watched lights on prows of small boats of fishermen no doubt hopeful of evening calamari catches. A masted sailboat, silhouetted against the red sky, was rounding the far point of Penisola Sorrentina. After a while, I heard the Umbrian speak again, more to himself than to me: "I love my mountains and I love the sea. Not living in a region which has both, I make -- despite many obstacles -- this essential annual pilgrimage." 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Hope Reawakened: Honor Flight 0614

Northern New Mexico Honor Flight 0614

Not one for social reunions, I'd never attended a high school or college class reunion, never gone to the annual gatherings of World War II comrades from my outfit while there were still enough of us alive to justify them. But during the past year, I'd heard about plans for the Northern New Mexico Honor Flight to take regional veterans to the WWII Memorial on the mall in Washington, D.C. I completed an application, cognizant of the fact that I'd cancel if subsequent itinerary details suggested inability to meet physical needs. At 91, aches and pains are no strangers, mobility is limited, and one must meet the daily innumerable challenges of advanced age.

Too, I'd had in recent years serious concerns about the country I've fought for:  bitter disappointment over the partisan deadlocks in its administration, disturbed by its societal ills, disgusted by rampant profanity and pornography, anguished by media rants of Washington betrayals, drugged youth serial killers, the nation in decline. Too often feeling alien in my own land, considering living abroad, seeking a culture, if possibly existent, yet not fractured by the ills of a new millennium begun with the terrorism of 9/11. Flag-wavers and anthem-singers on national holidays struck me as being delusional rather than patriotic, in denial of how very far our country had fallen from grace.

Not free of such conclusions and/or convictions, I attended the orientation meeting for the Honor Flight. And immediately was in the midst of Americans of whom I've seen too little -- or read/seen of via the media -- in late life. Not only military and reservist volunteers, but civilian members of Honor Flight totally committed, giving time and energies to recognizing war veterans and honoring the country for which they fought. On all sides, I was surrounded by individuals and families dedicated to fostering the very best of American ideals, accomplishments and its future. From this group, I was assigned my guardian, a young ex-Navy man who was to accompany me throughout the trip and whom I securely felt could meet any personal need or emergency which might arise.

Like most World War II veterans, I came home to no victory parade. Instead, a post-war United States meant adjusting to a civilian population which had not experienced invasion, bombing of its towns and cities, the obscenities of a ravaged country. Time to move beyond the war in which the absence of computers, emails or cellphones had spared the Homefront knowledgeable contact with what was happening to sons, brothers, husbands and fathers on foreign fields. The veterans fell silent, fully aware that words could never breach the chasm with loved ones and friends who'd not looked on atrocities they'd seen. Convinced that what we'd done was right, Nazism and Fascism defeated, our country yet free, we nevertheless accepted the fact that few comrades were honored. Life moves on with new challenges. In the decades which followed, opportunity to speak of service and combat was limited to the infrequent encounters with one of our Band of Brothers. And with their inevitable aging and passing came the acceptance of being alone with indelible memories and images which never leave the warrior.

The Honor Flight shattered that loneness. From the first moments of departure in a mile-long motorcade to the airport -- the city's principal interstate highway closed to all other traffic, a fleet of motorcycles and police cars leading the way, military personnel from nearby bases lining the road, saluting our vehicles as we passed -- I knew I was with a community nourished by service to others. On the bus I rode were other veterans and their guardians, members of the medical team accompanying us, a television crew which would be with us for the entire trip. In the seat ahead of me was a young marine in full-dress uniform, a folded American flag held close to his chest, beside him the large framed photograph of the veteran who had registered for this Honor Flight but died two months before it launched. That marine with triangular folded flag and framed photograph was beside us for the next three days, participating in every event, his presence a constant tribute to and reminder of the fallen comrade who was in our midst.

Few, indeed, must be Americans who can look on the memorials in Washington DC and not be moved. Our day among them -- Arlington, the Lincoln, Iwo Jima, Korea and Vietnam -- was unforgettable. At the World War II Memorial, my guardian wheeled me to the Atlantic Pavilion where the names of towns and campaigns I'd known in the European Theater are inscribed in stone. I noted other veterans from our group gathered at the Pacific Pavilion. Many stood with bowed heads at the Wall of Stars, each of the 4,048 stars representing 100 American casualties. The Memorial was crowded on this bright June day, swarmed with groups of students on school tours from across the country. I was surprised by the boy who left his fellows, approached, took my hand and thanked me for serving the nation. Though the first, he was but one of scores -- most in their early teens -- who came to my side, embraced this elder in wheelchair, and expressed thanks. A few of them asked to have their pictures taken with me, and promised to share photos (which they did!). Truly a blessing to look on youthful faces, eyes aglow, some misty, voicing gratitude for the freedom you'd bestowed on them. Adults as well came to our sides, extending hands, hugs and kisses of respect and honor. But it was that never-ending stream of teenagers, throughout the day and at all the memorials, whose every word to me with obvious love of country restored my hope for sustenance of American ideals.

At our hotel banquet that evening, veterans and guardians were invited to publicly speak of what the Honor Flight meant to them. It came as no surprise that, as impressive as the memorials and all events had been, the most significant moments had come from the youths who so warmly paid tribute. One of the guardians spoke of the national media and political negative reports and of how little we read or hear of Americans encountered this day. He concluded with the assumption we all shared: that if the future of our country is dependent on members of the new generation comparable to those we'd met, it is in good hands. A lady beside me leaned close and whispered A Child Shall Lead Them.

(Northern New Mexico Honor Flights will be sponsoring more trips to the WWII memorial for veterans, The superb organization merits support. Website:

Thursday, May 8, 2014

MAY 2014

ceramic clay figure, glazed

MAY 2014

The month of the year in which I turn 91. Hard to believe despite the daily physical challenges which confirm it. But what young person could possibly look ahead -- speculate -- that he or she would be around so long? When reading Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) as a veteran of the European Campaign, World War II, I was convinced that much of what he foresaw in that novel might prove true. Certainly boyhood and youth during a maddening twentieth century left me with few illusions concerning the frailty of humans, our capacity to self-destruct in tyrannous societies. But at that time, it was easy to dismiss concern for 1984, distant, a year I'd likely not live to see. Not to worry.

Clichés:  time flies; faster than you can bat an eye; long row to hoe; all in due time; Rome wasn't built in a day; at the eleventh hour; no time like the present. If once inclined to smile at the old bromides, one now recognizes their established validity. And can't help pondering the quote arguably attributed to Francois Guisot and/or Winston Churchill: "Show me a young Conservative and I'll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I'll show you someone with no brain."

Among the indignities of old age, one of the worst for we who most of our lives have been exceedingly active, busy, self-reliant and fiercely independent is the surrender of accompaniment to Sinatra's I Did It My Way. We may persist in yet pushing that envelope, but often are approached by store clerks, friends, even strangers on the street solicitously asking the white-haired, slowed man on a cane "Do you need help?" Though appreciative of their concern, the answer is usually No. And the same response, if any, goes to well-intentioned suggestions that we abandon home maintenance, household and property chores, move into a Retirement Home. Ole Rockin' Chair may beckon, but look aside.

A poor life this if full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
W. H. Davies penned those lines which I've long tried to honor, seek to do so even more today. Every stage of man has its blessings, and a few of late life are freedoms from unjustified commitments, futile pursuits, pettiness and pointless quarrels; the stripping away of most vanities, effort to affect other than who and what one truly is.

I want to live before I die. No poet this time, but words spoken by a rough comrade whom I was trying to persuade to not desert his sentry duty of walking guard. I'd brought a canteen of hot coffee to his cold post, but he gruffly refused it, saying he wanted stronger stuff -- why didn't we just take off for The Three Horseshoes, a country pub a few miles down the road, have some black-and-tans. Stationed at an army camp of Quonset huts in mid-England awaiting transport to the Continent, we'd seen little action in recent weeks, our antiaircraft guns and searchlights idle against the Luftwaffe planes headed west and the Allied ones headed east in skies above us. Rationale for the strict sentry guidelines was that though free of bombings, German parachutists/snipers might infiltrate our area, as it was rumored they'd done elsewhere. Days of training, orientations regarding the Channel Crossing, hikes across the moors, radar vigilance. Considerable leisure and too much boredom. Which is what had led my friend to an infraction of a trivial regulation, cost him his corporal stripes and earned him indefinite assignment of walking guard. I reminded him that deserting post now could result in at least days in the brig if not actual court martial.

One long look into his tired eyes of that haggard face convinced me he wasn't casually repeating the ubiquitous excusable anthem of the day -- wine, women and song for tomorrow we die. He was mouthing the universal silent despair of all soldiers, rarely uttered but at that moment demanding expression from one much wearied and unmindful of exposure. I emptied the canteen of its coffee and tramped beside my comrade to The Three Horseshoes.
There in that lovely ancient room of regional stone, we sat before a blazing fireplace, hound-dogs dozing at our feet, older country gentlemen (not another young face but ours to be seen) nodding salutes to Americans come in their hour of need. Tall mugs of black-and-tans, soldier talk of happy times shared, a few passes at the dartboard. One of the elders cranked up a phonograph and nostalgically listened to recorded tunes of his war -- Roses are Flowering in Picardy, It's a Long Way to Tipperary. Our amble back to camp in the cold came only after the pub closed.

No retribution on our arrival. One of our buddies had discovered my friend's absence, took his place as sentry. Nothing to report, no one else aware of the switch, no alarms or alerts. The substitute was happy to share the bottle of wine we'd brought from the pub. We were still awake at reveille and greeted officers and enlisted men with broad smiles.
Neither my errant comrade or I were casualties of war. If not so long as I, he reached a good advanced age. We'd meet occasionally in later years when travels brought one to the other's vicinity, and I observed he'd had a rich, full, rewarding life -- had lived before he died. His words that night at the sentry post echo on the recurring occasions when apprehension whispers Don't do this, don't do that, play it safe, act your age. Then I remember The Three Horseshoes, its restorative embrace. Admittedly with careful deliberation, I more often than not do it. I do it my way.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Marie and John Paul II

 courtesy Fotografia Felici, Roma

I had hoped to be in St Peter's Square for the canonization to sainthood of Pope John Paul II. Advanced age with inevitable setbacks dictate No. However, was fortunate in years past to have attended many of his audiences and honored to receive two personal blessings from him; was in Rome for his beatification ceremonies in 2011. But perhaps the most memorable encounter was on 17 September 1986 while traveling abroad with a sibling who'd recently suffered a stroke.

The trip had been planned a year earlier, but following Marie's stroke I adamantly favored the cancellation which her doctors urged. Marie's persistent argument that we go eventually won my sympathy for the elder sister who'd traveled little, was eager to share my familiarity with Italy, and was looking forward to a papal audience for which I'd obtained tickets in advance. I did not cancel, but began the journey with much apprehension. Marie was ghastly pale, walked airports and train platforms with much difficulty, breathing heavily. Though ingrained resilience of our Depression-era childhood and World War II generation prohibited expressing complaint and we shared many laughs, I silently wondered if we hadn't seriously blundered and if I'd have to face a medical crisis in a country where I had little experience with hospitals.

Concern induced me to contact the American Bishops in Rome regarding the tickets for the general audience. I'd attended enough audiences in the past to know that long hours under the sun (or rain!) in St Peter's Square could reduce pilgrims, hardy as well as frail, to fainting or more serious seizures. I also knew that a first-aid station, a medical vehicle staffed by a doctor, was at hand in the piazza during audiences, and asked if our general tickets could be changed to ones closer to that station. The Bishops Office graciously reserved seating for us in a section for the handicapped and sick.

Always an early arriver at audiences, I was pleased that Marie and I obtained chairs in the first row of the special section, very near the platform and chair from which His Holiness John Paul II would address the crowd. Marie was ecstatic. But as the section filled, new arrivals were not seated behind us but in front, our own row of chairs moved progressively to the rear. Until our row was eventually last. The first shall be last was my characteristic reaction.

I looked frequently at my sister's face during the hours of waiting for the Pope's appearance and throughout the audience. Drawn, drained of color, she was no longer the buoyant retiree from a successful business career I'd visited a year earlier. Unmarried, childless, I'd sometimes envied her the freedom from domestic stress which occasionally torments most of us -- thought her countenance free of those scars earned in marriage and parenthood. But now the visage, if wreathed with a smile in the presence of her Pope, was etched by pain and suffering.

At the end of the audience, John Paul II rose and walked toward the section reserved for the sick. He approached the first row, began to greet and bless individually the sick and the lame, some so severely damaged that my instinct was to look away. I watched him embrace, hold to his chest children and adults, stricken souls some of whom seemed unaware of where they were -- whom our secular world would label madmen, lunatics, blathering and slobbering idiots. Whom we hide away, refuse to gaze on. John Paul II cradled them in his arms.
     "He's going to come to each of us, bless us all," Marie said.
     "No way," I answered. "The first few rows, maybe. But then he'll stop, never get back here to where we are."
     "He's going to bless us all," Marie insisted.
I watched the white-robed figure move resolutely through the ranks, touched by his compassion for maimed brothers and sisters in Christ. And felt I shouldn't be in their midst, hale and fit, a fraud among those meriting presence. I confided this to Marie. "But you have to be here, or I couldn't be," she said. It had been explained at the American Bishops Office that anyone admitted to the section for the sick had to be accompanied by a caretaker.

The Pope was in the row ahead of us, near enough to reach out and touch. I watched with awe his ministering caresses and heard the gentle words -- in many languages -- lovingly bestowed on the crippled, the blinded, those brain-damaged or physically deformed. Awed that he somehow broke through their fierce isolation, effected a positive change in their faces.
And then he was before us.
I took his extended hand, realized I was foolishly speaking imperfect Italian rather than English to acknowledge his blessing. He moved to Marie, who sat very still, her eyes locked to his. John Paul II placed his hand atop her head, whispered a prayer. The sustained moment seemed an eternity. Marie to me looked bathed in radiant light. She was to swear ever after that the encounter with her Pope, no matter the second stroke and heart surgery which came much later, was what gave her victory over affliction and granted an auxiliary 16 years of pleasure in life.

If lucky, one has looked on a person or two whom he knows as sainted, even though Rome will never hear of him or her. I hold a few such, never celebrated or canonized, close to my heart. But even if unable to attend the ceremonies in Rome this April, or unable that September twenty-eight years ago to foresee his official elevation to sainthood in my lifetime, Marie and I knew a saint when we saw one. Once we'd left St Peter's Square and returned to the convent-pensione where we lodged, a nun said she'd seen us receive the blessing and asked how it made me feel.
     "His Holiness looked at me as if I were the only person on the face of the earth. The world fell away," I answered.
     "He makes everyone feel that way," she replied.