As “Coke” boarded the train at Troy's Union Station, his beautiful sister Michelina – Mike, to all who knew her – was the only one who stayed at home. She and her brother were as close as siblings can be, and all the time he was driving his jeep during the war, Mike prayed longer and harder and visited St. Anthony's more often than anyone, beseeching Mary and the saints to spare her brother.
He was spared, and then, three years after the war was over, the Berlin airlift took him away again. What, you might ask, was the importance of a jeep driver in America's and Britain's concerted effort to fly supplies in to Berlin, a former enemy city that was being blockaded by Russia, a former ally?
Richard Reeves describes it beautifully in his recent book, “Those Daring Young Men,” in which he recounts the amazing accomplishments of the British and American flyboys who, at the peak of the airlift, were bringing in more supplies for their former enemies than had been transported by rail. That was a very big deal, and deemed impossible by many experts, until American ingenuity proved them wrong.
The landing and take-off strips were composed of metal grid work, similar to the kind I remember driving over on “singing bridges” in the past. The landing lights were spaced evenly along three metal runways. With planes landing on the two outside runways, and taking off from the center one at an unheard of rate of every minute or so, precision was key.
The jeep drivers played a key role in helping the pilots and navigators know just how much space they had, and how much time it would take for their patched and weary planes to come to a stop. The jeep driver would floor the pedal, driving as fast as he could down the runway in question, then slam on the brakes and count the number of lights he would skid past until the jeep screeched to a halt.
That information would be radioed to the incoming plane, so everyone would know precisely where the plane, loaded with tons of essential food and materiel, would stop. The ground crews would be nearby, unloading the plane, refueling it and sending it back for another run as fast as humanly possible.
It was the kind of excitement “Coke” had been missing since he delivered the mail to the front lines of Patton's army three years before, but without the same level of danger. In fact, now that GI's were feeding the Germans rather than killing them, attitudes were different. The Berlin frauleins whose men were gone – and there were many missing – had new heroes. And the heroes had money, food, and time to spare. Even a five foot nothing soldier like “Coke” attracted his share of blond beauties.
Back home in Troy, Coke's beautiful sister Mike wasn't aware of the lack of danger “over there.” To her, Uncle Sam had sent her brother back into the thick of it, and so she resumed what had been her wartime habit of stopping in at St. Anthony's shrine church every morning before going to work at Tiny Town Togs, and every evening when the final whistle blew.
When Mike went into the confessional at the end of every week, her sins were no more serious than jealousy of a co-worker, swearing at her mother, and anger at God for sending her brother back into harm's way.
It was all pretty routine for the priests at St. Anthony's who heard her Friday confessions, and they usually prescribed a couple of Hail Marys and sent Mike on her way. Until J.B showed up, that is. Father John Bosco Pantera, OFM, had just been assigned to St. Anthony's after a few hard years at a Franciscan mission church in Central America. The head of the order knew J.B. was in need of rest and relaxation, but could never have known just what that “r and r” would entail.
The first time Mike spoke with Father J.B. was in the darkened confessional. She hadn't see this tall, muscular 35-year-old with skin burnished from years in the tropical sun and a face that could lead you to believe he was related to both Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney. Handsome and pretty, at the same time.
Father J.B didn't just accept Mike's sins – he asked questions – personal questions about the reasons for her jealousy, anger and frustration. He made her think. It was like the intimate one-on-one conversations she would have with her brother, before he was shipped to Europe, twice.
Mike opened up to this soft voice in the darkness, and soon she was revealing secret wishes, hopes and desires she didn't even tell her family. He gave her some kind words of advice, told her to say an entire rosary. She thanked him and left the church, stepping into a world that was brighter than she remembered it.
That was Friday. On Sunday, she saw the man with that comforting, understanding voice for the first time, in his gleaming white vestments, on the altar and in the pulpit. And the second time she saw him was later that same day, playing bocce in his undershirt in the backyard of 13 Liberty Street.
Michelena's uncles had invited Father John Bosco Pantera to the family gathering. And she didn't mind at all.
Next: People talk.