Grace Kelly's Pajamas

... and why can you never get a movie star when you really need one?

by Joe Sullivan

I’m making my bed when I stop to watch a TV story on the CBS morning news. Alan Pizzi, the reporter, is relating a story about the Leaning Tower of Pisa, one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

He’s telling why it leans, why it doesn’t fall down, how old it is, who built it and a bunch of other stuff that makes it worthy of early morning coverage. There must be a reason why it’s earning this attention but I miss it because I’ve bailed out on listening to the story and am instead entertaining the memories that it has provoked.

I’ve been to Pisa twice but have seen the tower, close up, only once. On my second visit I’m with my late wife on a two-week tour of Italy which has turned out to be absolutely terrific. Things change for me, unfortunately, when we are in Florence. After dinner, when we get back to our hotel room, my wife is thrown into a panic because she cannot find her pajamas.

We look into all the dresser drawers and anyplace else they could possibly be hiding but come up zero. She’s really fretful when in a demonstration that I’m really looking I pull over a chair so that I can stand up on it to look into the very back of the top shelf of our clothes closet. Bad move. The chair has a little wheel on the bottom of each of its legs. One of the wheels is missing and when I stand up on the chair it slips out from under me and I come crashing down landing on my right foot.

It really hurts like hell but for some reason the stinging pain provokes a memory and I say to my wife, “Look under your pillow.” She gives me a blank are-you-nuts stare but turns over her pillow anyway, and there are her pajamas all neatly folded, right where our room maid had tucked them.

“How did you know that?”, she says with a demanding bewildered look. She doesn’t even chuckle when I say. “I think I saw it in a Grace Kelly movie.”

Doing a deal

My keen memory does nothing for my foot which, even after a night’s sleep, still hurts like hell when I walk on it. The tour guide picks up on it and tells me I should stay at the hotel when the group goes to tour Pisa. There will be much walking, he tells me, and it will be very difficult for me if I am in pain. I suspect the real reason is that he doesn’t want the group to be delayed because of the walking wounded. We compromise. I will ride out with the group to Pisa but will stay on the bus with Aldo the driver when we get there.

We get to Pisa, the group disembarks and I stay in my seat while Aldo checks the tire pressure and goes through his menial maintenance. We are in a car park which borders on the desolate. I can see what I’m missing because the top of the Leaning Tower is just visible over the tops the buildings. What the hell, you can’t win them all.

I keep my mouth shut about my foot for the remainder of the tour because I do not want to miss out on anything else. When I get home I admit the Irish medicine is not working. Irish medicine is when, whatever malady you’ve got, you say it will go away. I relent and go to a bone guy to find out that I’ve got a stress fracture on my right foot and, to keep from wearing one of those goofy-looking plastic boots, I promise him that I will do NO WALKING.

I don’t feel terribly deprived about not seeing the Leaning Tower because, as I’ve said, I had seen it before. There was an unusual connector between the two visits. My late wife, Jean, was from South Boston. She was a Southie girl, born and bred and who, for such a gentle person, carried a fierce pride about her home town.

Back to the neighborhood.

The first time I get to Pisa I’m with another Southie person, Tony Maeleo, an Italian kid who grew up in this sea of Irish that was South Boston. His old man had an oil truck and would fill the 50-gallon tanks that were located in the basements of the three deckers that dominated South Boston neighborhoods. Most of the apartments were heated by coal furnaces but their kitchen ranges used oil. The tenants would fill the two-gallon jugs from the tanks in the cellar and haul them up the stairs to the kitchen oil burner. Not exactly a volume business for Tony’s father.

The occasion of my friendship with Tony was the General Leroy Eltinge, a troopship that was bringing us home from Korea. We would be on it for more than 40 days. Our hammocks were side by side so we had time to develop our friendship. The reason for the god-awful, long trip was that the Eltinge was delivering home the Greek, Turk and Belgian troops who were part of the United Nations force that had fought in Korea.

The ship wouldn’t have sailed full if only those troops were on board so about another 900 American GI’s were added to the compliment. Tony had it dead right when he said, “We’re ballast, for Cry sake.”  We would sail around the world from Pusan, Korea to New York in order to get home. But we we're okay with that because it meant that in December 1953 we would be home just in time for Christmas.

Welcome to sunny Italy.

Levorno, the port which accesses Pisa, is important because it will be the last stop before we get to New York harbor and, when we’re there, we’re home. We’ve been on the troopship for almost a month. To give us a break we are unloaded from the Eltinge directly onto 18-wheeler trucks and driven to Pisa. When we get there the trucks park on side streets . “Be back here at five.” they tell us as we hop down from the trucks and start to fan out into the city of Pisa.

I’m with Tony and he is worth his weight in gold to our little group. He knows just enough Italian to keep us from being wanderers. “Trattoria, means restaurant,” he says when we look up at a sign over a store front with heavy gray drapes covering the windows.

With a lot of rolling hand gesturing he makes it clear to the proprietor that even though it’s only 11 o’clock in the morning we want a full meal. After we finish every morsel it takes Tony a little more time to make the guy realize we want another one. With an incredulous look, “Duo?” he says holding up two fingers to Tony.  We all pick up on his question and respond almost together, “Duo!”

After our double-header meal we decide to take a look at the Leaning Tower We can see the top of it over the other buildings. To find it we keep looking up at it and then walking down the  streets that seem to lead to it. We have to zig and zag but finally turn a corner that leads into a square and there it is precariously leaning as advertised.

We go into the cathedral that’s right next to it and are surprised that there are no pews or even chairs. There’s nobody there to tells us anything so we wander back out to the street.

There is a guard standing in front of what appears to be the entrance to the Tower and Tony asks him if we can go in. The guard shakes his head in a violent no gesture. “The guy says it’s being repaired," Tony tells us. Somebody in our group complains, “We come all the way out here and now they won’t let us in?”

Another guy responds with a piece of common sense that evokes a bellowing, explosive laughter. “After a year in Korea ya wanna get wasted fallin’ offa’ goddam building?

Memories of a lucky man.

It’s over forty years later. October 1999, when I’m sitting in the bus with Aldo and chuckling to myself at those wonderful memories. I have another little laugh when I remember the reason I’m in the bus and not touring with my wife is because I couldn’t remember where Grace Kelly’s pajamas were until it was too late.

And now, it's over 60 years later when I’m standing in front of my TV while Alan Pizzi ruminates about the Leaning Tower on the CBS Morning news. I think of my late wife and how much I loved her and all the wonderful times we enjoyed on our trips and tours.

I think of Tony Maeleo, too, and wonder if he is still hanging around like I am and, if so, how much I hope he’s doing okay.

December 6, 2013

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