Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Real-Life Love Story

Since today is my 23rd wedding anniversary, I thought I share a little story about how I met my husband.

We were both naval officers stationed in Naples, Italy. I had recently graduated from the Naval Academy, so I was a newly minted ensign and this was my first duty station. It's difficult to describe what one experiences when first arriving in Bella Napoli. It's a beautiful city on the lovely Bay of Naples, situated across the bay from the active volcano, Vesuvius. One cannot help but notice the steam that constantly vents from the top of Vesuvius. When I first arrived in Naples, it was only four years after they experienced a devastating earthquake, and many of the buildings and homes were severely damaged by the quake. Some people took to living in make-shift tents in the city of Pozzuoli, where much of the damage occurred. The U.S. Navy didn't escape damage to its WWII-era buildings, which were conveniently unfortunately located in and around the edge of another active volcano: Sulfatara.

Sulfatara was just as the name implies: a sulfur volcano. If you've ever been to Yellowstone and seen (or smelled) the sulfur pots, you have an idea of what Sulfatara is like.

Evidently, the Italians decided to lease space along the outer rim of Sulfatara to the U.S. Navy sometime during WWII. The Navy quickly erected buildings and Quonset huts, (more about that shortly). I was staying in the American Hotel, which was perched on the outer rim of Sulfatara. I only remember being bothered by the rotten-egg stench the first morning I woke at the hotel. I suppose I got used to it like everyone else.

Anyway, back to my love story. I had recently arrived in Naples and was waiting for the shuttle bus after work one day, which would take me from the NATO base where I worked, to the US Navy base on the other side of Sulfatara, which was near my hotel. I was wearing my summer whites, with skirt and pumps, and probably looked very young and awkward and naive (at least that's how I felt). I was carrying a package which I had mailed to myself that contained some personal belongings I couldn't fit into my suitcase.

As I waited for the shuttle inside the NATO compound, I heard the sound of harmonica music. Not a recognizable tune, but more like someone just playing notes up and down the harmonica. I soon spotted the musician, who happened to be a young man, in bleach-stained jeans and flannel shirt with a knapsack slung over his shoulder. He proceeded to get on the shuttle and sit in the back of it, so I made sure to sit near the front, holding my package on my lap. He continued to play his random notes as we rode the short distance to the navy base.

I got off at the base and started walking up the steep dirt path to my hotel. (Yes, it was steep and it was a dirt path...and I was wearing white pumps). I heard the sound of running feet getting closer behind me and a voice called, "Miss! Excuse me Miss! Is your name Debbie Miller from the Naval Academy class of '85?" I froze in my spot and turned to see who could possibly know me. My fears intensified when I realized it was the harmonica man!

I cleared my throat and said nervously, "Yes?" (I thought to myself, he must've read my name on my package.)

He introduced himself as Joe and put me at ease when he said he'd been told of my arrival by a mutual friend whom I trusted. We chatted a bit and I thought maybe he wasn't so strange after all, but I didn't see him again for another month or so.

The next time I saw Joe was around Christmastime. He was working long shifts and barely had any time off. We worked on different bases, so I didn't see him much.

It wasn't until Valentine's Day, when our mutual friend made a rather strong-armed suggestion to Joe that he ask me out, that we had our first date. I won't bore you with the details of that first date, but let me just tell you that we sat at the table of that Italian restaurant (in Italy, of course!) until they pretty much had to throw us out because the staff wanted to go home. They were very nice about it, fortunately, and I think they felt bad about it because you could tell by the look in the head waiter's eyes that he was a romantic and could spot a blossoming romance a mile away.

The clincher for me occurred many months later when we were invited to the wedding of some American friends. The wedding and reception took place in a real palace in Naples, that happened to be owned by a real prince who needed money so he rented out his palace. Talk about romantic! And of course, any couple in love who goes to a wedding together is just asking for it.

At the reception, there was a wonderful jazz combo that was made up of some very talented musicians whose day jobs were being in the Sixth Fleet Band and who regularly played for heads of state throughout the Mediterranean. When they weren't playing for big shots, they would play private gigs. When the lovely bride and groom were leaving to go on their honeymoon and everyone went outside to throw rice, my beloved and I stayed inside the palace and he requested the band play a favorite song of his. They complied and we had the entire dance floor all to ourselves, with an incredible singer and jazz band to boot. It truly was like something out of a romantic movie. I had never heard the song before, but I knew as soon as I heard it that it was "our song."

Here it is, sung by the Manhattan Transfer. Their outfits are dated, but their version is still the best one out there (except, of course, the one we heard that night).

We were married in a Quonset hut on March 27, 1987. The Navy chapel was in a WWII-era Quonset hut that was supposed to be a temporary building, but it was still there in 1987. I heard they've since torn it down. It wasn't as romantic as a palace, but it makes for a good story, nonetheless. The day before our "church" wedding, we had to get married in a civil ceremony by the Italian mayor of Bagnoli because that's what the Italian law required. The mayor's office was situated across the street from an old steel mill and above an auto mechanics shop. We had to climb over piles of garbage on the street to get inside the building. Yep, that's the Naples I know and love.

At least our reception was in a nice place. We had it at the Allied Officer's club on the NATO base. We were fortunate to have another Sixth Fleet combo play at our reception. The guy who sang for us that starry night in the palace was unable to come. He was singing for the king of Saudi Arabia that night.

After our honeymoon in Ireland, we flew back to Italy via London and made a visit to Berkeley Square. No nightingales were heard, but we made sure the square was still there.


Mary G said...

This is a lovely story ... and one I'd never heard! I can just see Joe in the flannel shirt and jeans (and somehow, they probably looked like they didn't match!).

Thank you for loving my dear brother all these years ... we love you!

Mary and the Virginia contingent!

Anna said...

That is about the most romantic and beautiful story I've ever read! Ta love for sharing, and belated but most heartfelt anniversary wishes to you both!

Anonymous said...

Wow. Great story. I love reading this and knowing I was right there in the thick of it.
Way to go Joe!
Bob Burr
ComSubGru8 Naples IT 3/86-3/88