Monday, April 02, 2018

Remembering SFC Danny "Fergusi" Ferguson; Soldier, Hero, Father, Fiance and Friend.

SFC Danny Ferguson started working in my office in Heidelberg, Germany sometime in late 2006 or early 2007. He was very quiet and reserved when he first arrived but one day I started talking to him and to my surprise, he mentioned that he liked to watch soccer. At the time we lived on the Hauptstrasse in the heart of Heidelberg's historic downtown area and my favorite pastime was watching soccer and rugby at the Dubliner, our local Irish pub. I told Danny that he was welcome to join us anytime and he came down that weekend. Back then, the X Man (Xavier) was our only kid and he would always accompany me to the pub and would spend the time playing with the people who worked at the pub. Well, he and Danny hit it off from the first minute they met. Xavier had trouble saying "Ferguson" so he called him "Fergusi". I didn't realize it at the time but a special friendship was started that day.

Fergusi came down again the next weekend and I told him he was welcome to come over later for dinner if he wanted to, as my wife is an amazing cook and she loves having people over to try her cooking. He did and we learned one of his little peccadilloes that night - he hated vegetables. I mean, he hated vegetables. The only vegetable he would eat were potatoes and only if they were sliced and deep fried. Every time we were at the Dubliner, he would order a burger but he would get the lettuce, tomato and pickle on the side and Virginia would eat them (Xavier was and is a pickle fiend). 

In the following weeks Fergusi became a regular with us at the Dubliner and became a fixture in our home. He and the X Man became instant buddies and he would often spend the whole day playing with him. He loved Virginia's cooking (who doesn't?); he loved to buy fresh salmon filets and shrimp from the Nordsee across the street and have Virginia cook it for him. He quickly became a part of our family. 
The X Man and Fergusi, best buddies.

At work, me, Fergusi and our friend Ramsey were the Three Musketeers. Every day we would eat lunch together at the dining facility and then spend the rest of the lunch hour walking around base talking about every and anything you could imagine. Looking back, those walks were so special but at the time, it was just three good friends hanging out. 

Fergusi was a gym rat. A HUGE gym rat. His arms were massive. I had a blood pressure scare and was forced to buy a home blood pressure machine to keep track of it and one time he was at the house and said "Yo, let's see what my blood pressure is". I put the strap on him but his arm was so freaking big that the velcro kept coming apart. His arms were actually too big for the machine! At work we used to make fun of him constantly because he was hopelessly addicted to junk food. He had one entire drawer at his desk that was nothing but junk food and candy and he drank Mountain Dew and Yoo Hoo like he owned stock in them. I asked him one time how he can be a gym rat and yet eat and drink so much junk and he said "Why do you think I work out so much? So I CAN eat and drink all this junk!"  

In May of 2008, Luca was born. Fergusi took to him immediately. Whenever he was at the house he insisted on bottle feeding him. We did a hail and farewell for work one time on a boat tour of the Neckar River; Fergusi spent the entire time holding Luca, feeding him, burping him, etc. Fergusi had a young daughter in the US from a previous marriage who he always talked about and Virginia and I could tell that he loved holding and feeding Luca and playing with Xavier so much because it reminded him of his daughter Ashley. You could see the love on his face whenever he talked about her. He was so good with my kids too, just a natural with them. We always had trouble getting Xavier to eat his food but Fergusi did this thing where he'd say "Xavier, it's a race between you and me to see who finishes first" and Xavier would always respond by eating as fast as he could. He just always knew which buttons to press with the X Man. 
Xavier, Fergusi and Luca.

Fergusi could always get Xavier to eat fast by challenging him to a race

In the fall of 2008 we moved back to Italy. We had a huge going away party at the Dubliner with all our friends and coworkers. It was such a fun night but what I remember most was that Fergusi held six month old Luca all night so Virginia and I could enjoy the festivities. 

Our going away bash at the Dubliner: Fergusi assigned himself baby duty.

A year or so after we moved back to Italy, Fergusi and Monty, another one of our best friends, came down to visit for a few days. Xavier was as excited as I've ever seen him. We all had so much fun that weekend - Monty and I enjoyed exploring the local food while Fergusi spent the entire weekend playing with Xavier, like we had never left. It was just like old times. When the weekend was over and it came time for Monty and Fergusi to leave, Xavier grabbed onto Fergusi's leg and refused to let go. It was such a sweet moment and I'm glad I was to capture a photo of it. Eventually Fergusi picked him up, hugged him tight and said he'd see him again soon. Little did we know it would never happen. 

Just like old times: enjoying Virginia's cooking

The boys (minus Ramsey), back together again

Xavier and Fergusi goofing around on the piazza, just like always. 

The last time we saw Fergusi alive; Xavier refused to let him go. It was almost as if he knew he'd never see him again. 

Eventually Fergusi PCS'd to Fort Hood, Texas. There, he deployed to Afghanistan for another tour and he met the love of his life, a beautiful girl (from Massachusetts! Go Sox!) named Kristen who he ended up proposing to. He was scheduled to PCS to Hawaii where he and Kristen would be married. He was happier than I'd ever seen him. His life was practically perfect. 

And then, in a moment of madness it was taken from him. From all of us:

That day will forever be ingrained in my memory. The Ft Hood shooting was all over the news so I called Kristen to see if her and Fergusi were ok and then all I remember is dropping the phone, wrapping my arms around Virginia and crying like I've never cried before. I had to pick up Xavier at his bus stop and I couldn't hold back the tears. He kept asking me why I was crying and I told him I'd explain it when we got home. When we did, I tried to explain what had happened - how do you explain such a thing to a 10 year old? My heart broke as the tears started rolling down Xavier's little cheeks. I told him Fergusi will always live in his heart. When he finally stopped crying, he told me he would never forget his best friend Fergusi. And he never has. 

A couple years ago we were finally blessed to be able to meet Kristen in person when she was visiting her aunt Jean in Columbia. It was easy to see why Fergusi fell in love with her, she is such a beautiful person inside and out. I cannot even imagine how hard everything has been on her but she has handled the tragedy with such strength, just as Fergusi would have wanted. She will always be part of our family, just as Fergusi was. 

Meeting Kristen was an emotional day for us. 

There are so many things that I want to tell him but I'll never get the chance. I hate that Xavier and Luca will never get to see him again and I hate that he never had the chance to meet Max, who he would have loved. I hate that I'll never get to tease him about his junk food addiction again. If I close my eyes and listen, I can almost hear him saying "What up, Yo!" like he always used to do. He was one of our best friends. We'll never forget him.

We miss you so much Fergusi. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Some Kind of Hero?

It had been a stressful day today so I stopped at Caffe Terzi downstairs when I got home to have a glass of vino before going upstairs for dinner. This is sort of my usual ritual as I enjoy the peace and quiet and the soothing comfort of a nice glass or two of vino to relax me after work. Tonight, however, was anything but peaceful or quiet. 

A couple entered the bar at one point and although I'm not sure about the woman, the man was an American soldier, large and well built. He was immediately loud and boisterous and it was immediately obvious to everyone in the place that he was not just drunk but extremely drunk. He was talking very loudly - borderline yelling - about nonsense stuff and eventually announced that he wanted a chardonnay. They don't have chardonnay at Caffe Terzi which made him angry as he kept demanding "I don't care, I want a f*cking chardonnay...get me a F*CKING CHARDONNAY!". 

Now, Caffe Terzo has three owners and/or employees; Davide, Elena and Maria. Davide and Elena are co-owners, one works the mornings and one works the afternoons/evenings. Maria, a lovely young girl of 19, sort of floats between both. Unfortunately for her, she was working alone on this evening and was not prepared for this sudden dramatic episode. I sat at my usual table in the back observing the situation in case it got out of control. And it did...very quickly. 

The couple decided to sit at one of the high tables in the front of the bar and the girl went to the bathroom. The drunk guy went to sit at the high table but was so incredibly drunk that he lost his balance getting on the stool, fell into the table and sent the entire thing crashing to the floor as the whole place looked on in horror. People rushed to help him up and he started cursing the bar, saying that they had defective stools and it was their fault that he fell. At this point, Maria rushed over to me and asked me what to do. She had a look of fear on her face and I felt horrible that a fellow American was doing this in my local place. I told her to tell him that she would NOT serve him anymore alcohol as he had obviously had too much already - that is the bar's right to refuse alcohol to drunk patrons here in Italy as it is in the US. She tried calling Davide to no avail. Not knowing what else to do, she took my suggestion, went over and informed the couple that she would not serve the guy any more alcohol. Unsurprisingly, he did not take it well. He started screaming at Maria about how him falling was the bar's fault because of the defective stools and saying things like "You didn't even ask me if I was ok when I fell, bitch!".  Poor Maria was terrified. I had been sizing up the situation since they arrived and I kept thinking that this guy was pretty big, pretty drunk and pretty out of control and if worst came to worst - if it got physical - he would absolutely destroy me. But at that moment, everything went out the window. I had to try and diffuse the situation. 

I got up and walked over, phone in hand and said "Hey...HEY! Do I need to call someone from the base to take you out of here?" Well, he did not like hearing this at all and he got right up in my face yelling "Oh, big man! You gonna call someone from the base?! You gonna tell on me and call the base?! Go ahead motherf*cker, call someone! I ain't scared of you motherf*cker!" I honestly thought he was going to take a swing at me but I didn't back down. I told him that yes, I would call someone or do whatever I had to do if he would not calm down and knock it off which only made him more belligerent. I'm not going to lie, I was terrified at that moment but this was Caffe Terzi and I could not allow this to happen in "my" place. I could not and I would not. But I stood my ground and to my great relief, the guy's girl grabbed him by the arm and forced him out of the place. Honestly, I don't remember ever feeling so relieved. I'm 46 years old and completely out of shape, that guy would likely have destroyed me with one punch. But all I could think of was Maria, cripes, that poor girl was not prepared to deal with such a situation. Thank God I was there to help, in whatever way I could. Fortunately they have a camera behind the bar that captured the whole episode. I told them that we need to get the video to the proper authorities on base so that asshole can get punished. More to follow on that.

Sometimes you just gotta step up and do the right thing. Frigging Americans...

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Tales From Italy: The Great Snowstorm of 2001

Vicenza is just south of the Dolomites (Italian section of the Alps) and as such, occasionally receives snow however, it rarely is subjected to major snowstorms. I think in all my years I've witnessed only two or three of what I would call major snowstorms. The worst one I can remember just happened to hit while I was on guard duty in an austere little shack on the outskirts of town. I will recount the events of that fateful night for you now...

It was the winter of 2000/2001. I was a lowly buck sergeant working for SETAF in Vicenza, Italy. In those days, enlisted soldiers were responsible for providing security for various buildings and locations in the area. On this day, my name just happened to be on the list and so I gathered my cold weather gear, drew my weapon and dutifully reported to the garrison staff duty at 0600 to receive my assignment for the day; sitting guard at the transportation motor pool (TMP) in nearby Torri di Quartesolo. The TMP was basically a big lot where they kept civilian vehicles used by the base, mostly big white passenger vans and the like. As terrorist targets go it was probably way down near the bottom of the list, somewhere around a horse stable or a medium sized vegetable garden. The way the guard duty worked was that each location would have an NCO (usually an E5) and a lower enlisted (E1-E4) who would sit in a shack by the front gate and if, by chance, someone would pull up, you checked their ID and then opened the gate for them. You had your trusty M-16 rifle but you were not issued any ammo so on the off chance that you were attacked by someone who meant you bodily harm - or maybe just wanted to steal a van - you were apparently supposed to point your weapon at them and yell "Stop! Or I'll say stop again!" Ironically, there was a law in Italy that anytime weapons were being transported, you needed an escort from the Italian Carabinieri (sort of Italy's elite military/police force) and so, all the soldiers on guard duty piled into a huge passenger van (yes, the kind I would defending with my life that day) and we were delivered out to our respective assigned duty locations. 

The lower enlisted soldier assigned to me that day was named Private Votion, a short, scrawny Mexican soldier who weighed barely more than his M-16. Guard duty back in those days was sort of a blow off duty and you pretty much sat in the shack and read a book or something. You checked a few IDs during the day but for the most part it was boring. Many soldiers would actually bring a laptop and play games most of the time. There was electricity in the shack with an old space heater for warmth and luckily the shack was tiny so the little space heater was able to keep it just warm enough. For lunch we had an MRE (meal, ready to eat). You were supposed to sit at your post from 0800 until they closed at 1700 (5pm) after which time the escorted van would come retrieve and bring you back to the main base. As expected, it was a boring, uneventful day. 

Uneventful, that is, until it started snowing.

It started snowing shortly after noon that day. And then it started snowing harder. And harder. Somewhere around 1400 (2pm), the manager of the TMP lot stopped by the shack to tell us that the bases were all closing due to the weather and he was locking up so we could leave if we wanted to. Of course this was not possible as we had weapons and could not leave without an armed escort. I got on the radio and called back to the Sergeant of the Guard (SOG) to report this and asked if it was possible to get picked up early. The SOG responded "Negative TMP, stay at your post and await further instructions." And so we sat and busied ourselves with whatever we had available, fully expecting that we'd be picked up in a couple hours at the most.

But it was not to be.  

An hour passed. By now, accompanying the snow was a frigid wind that was whipping so hard that every so often it would violently rip open the door to our little shack. The diminutive space heater was doing everything it could to keep our small haven warm but was steadily losing the fight as the storm got more and more violent. 5pm approached and still no van. I called the SOG to inquire about our relief and was told "Stay calm and in place, we are trying to get chow out to you now". 

Ok, something is amiss here, I thought to myself. And indeed there was something amiss. Italy is full of crazy drivers. They drive like maniacs. Traffic signs to Italians are mere suggestions. And when it snows and the roads are icy and slippery...they do not amend their driving habits one bit. And so, the streets in and around Vicenza were awash with accidents. The Carabinieri, along with local police had more accidents to attend to than they had officers which meant that there were no Carabinieri available to escort the van in retrieving us. We were stuck there until God knows when. 

Two more hours passed. Around 7pm the van pulled up and for a moment we thought we were saved. Once again, it was not to be. With no Carabinieri escort in sight it seemed to the SOG that the next best thing they could do would be to deliver chow to us so we wouldn't go hungry at least. Of course, due to the condition of the roads along with the plethora of accidents and traffic, it had taken them over two hours to get to us which meant that chow consisted of ice cold "chicken a la king" and green beans. The driver told us to sit tight and they would get someone out to pick us up as soon as they could. 

Another hour passed. It was now 8pm. Votion was complaining about, well, pretty much everything. I told him to just be thankful that we still had electricity for his laptop and the space heater and less than ten seconds after the words came out of my mouth, the power went out. I got on the radio and told the SOG that we had no power and no heat and he responded "Roger, just keep the door closed and bundle up, there are still no Carbs available". I'm no mathematician but in my head I started going over various algebraic equation trying to figure out exactly how long it would take for the remaining heat we had to dissipate. After a few minutes Votion announced that he had to go to the bathroom. I reminded him that we have no heat and that opening the door would let the cold in but he would not be deterred. Desperately clinging to what little heat we had left, I told him to pee in the corner but the shack was only about 5 feet by 5 feet and apparent stage fright would not allow his little peen-ween to function properly. We reached a compromise where he quickly opened and shut the door as fast as he could but the cold that got in made things worse. I silently prayed for the electricity to come back on but to no avail. We had cold weather gear but no extreme cold weather gear. We could not remain in this shack all night with no electricity and no heat, we would surely suffer frostbite or hypothermia. 

As the NCOIC, I began to go over our options which were admittedly few. Perhaps we could grab our gear and try to hike back to the base on foot? No, it was not possible in that weather, we would never make it. Would we be stuck there for days? Would we even survive the night with no heat? Would I end up having to eat Votion to stay alive?

Thankfully, the answer to all these questions was a resounding NO. Sometime around 11pm, the sweet sound of vehicles pulling up outside shook me out of my shivering horror. It took nearly an hour to get back to the base due to the horrendous road conditions. I asked the driver to crank up the heat and he said "Sorry man, the heater is broken". Sigh. We got back to the base, turned in our weapons and I finally arrived at home sometime after 1am. I fell asleep straight away. 

I had survived the great snowstorm of 2001. 


Wednesday, February 21, 2018

We're Not In Caldogno Anymore, Toto...

It's been one full year now since we arrived back in bella l'Italia. So much has happened in the past year, it's hard to believe it hasn't been longer. We're now on our third tour here in this fairytale country (2000-2006, 2008-2014, and now 2017-?) and everything seems different this time around - so far the biggest differences are that I'm working for a different unit this time and also that we are living in a different city.

I'm fond of saying that before we went back to the US in 2014, "we lived in Italy for 14 years with a 2 year vacation to Germany in the middle". The town we lived in the entire time was called Caldogno and it was the perfect little town. We had everything we needed within a 10 minute walk; restaurants, bars, grocery stores, parks, pastry shops, wine shops, cheese name it, we had it. We were there so many years that we made close friends all over town, all of whom remain close to this day. With this in mind, we decided to try and find a place in our old town when we got back but alas, our old house was already occupied and we had trouble finding a place big enough for our needs. Eventually Virginia announced that she wanted to live in 'centro' - the historic center of Vicenza. Last time we were here, she was constantly going downtown to visit the markets, do some shopping, etc., and she always took the bus so it made sense for her to just live there this time around. It didn't take much to convince me. I absolutely adore centro, Vicenza's center is amazing with the city's celebrated history on display everywhere. However, large apartments in the centro district are few and far between so it took a long time to find a place to our liking which meant almost FOUR full months in a hotel. With three young kids who do nothing but whine and fight. It was not a pleasant time, I can assure you. Ironically we almost ended up in a massive villa in the city of Torri, close to the base, but once again fate intervened and it fell through which resulted in us finding a great apartment right smack dab in the Piazza di San Lorenzo in centro. The San Lorenzo church is magnificent; historic and beautifully rustic, it is the oldest Franciscan church in the world, built between 1280 to 1300.  

The magnificent San Lorenzo church. Our apartment is to the right of the church.

Perhaps the best thing about our place is that right at the bottom of our building can be found Café Terzi 1863. Café Terzi is basically a typical Italian café that serves coffee (espresso, cappuccino), pastries, brioche and such in the morning and throughout the day. But, they also serve lunch and on Fridays/Saturdays they do dinner as well. And let me tell you, their food is FANTASTIC. The menu changes daily but just about everything we've tried there has been phenomenal. My favorite has probably been their tagliatelle al tartuffo (long pasta with truffles), it's like a flavor orgasm in your mouth. They also do pizza and it's possibly the best pizza I've had anywhere in centro. Most nights after work I can be found there unwinding with a glass of vino and reading my Gazzetta dello Sport. Usually the kids will join me for a snack while they play on their tablets. There are three people who work there - Davide, Elena and Maria - and all three of them are the nicest people you'd ever want to meet and we are in there so often that they almost feel like family by now. Café Terzi serves another purpose for me personally - a chance to get out. See, our apartment is almost perfect. Almost. But there's one major problem with it in that there is no balcony or terrace. Now this may seem trivial to some of you but not for me. I'm an outdoors person. I NEED to be able to sit and enjoy the fresh air. Our house in Caldogno had several balconies and a huge terrace where we would often eat our meals al fresco. Our house in South Carolina had a big yard and a huge front porch, as well as a nice sun room. So not having a balcony or terrace is a major thing for me. As well, we are on the top floor of the building and as such, our windows are smaller than average and have huge bars on them so we do not get a lot of sunlight. To solve these problems, I simply go downstairs to Café Terzi. In the warmer months from April to late October they have tables and chairs set up outside on the piazza and that's where I spend most of my time.  The colder months suck as there are no tables and chairs but Vicenza has a very aesthetically pleasing old town so sometimes I just go walk around. When we moved in last summer, there were actually three bars/cafes on our piazza; Terzi, Café San Lorenzo and Mod Café. After Terzi, Mod Café was our favorite spot. They had tables and chairs on the piazza as well but they were right in front of the church so I loved sitting there with a glass of vino just admiring the beautiful San Lorenzo church. The owners were a hardworking couple named Pierangelo and Katia and I quickly became friends with them. Funnily enough, I started going to the place back in the early 2000's when it was known as the Art Café and was a popular hangout of American soldiers. It actually took me several weeks before I realized that it was the same bar. Sadly, the Mod Café had problems with the city and I guess running it got to be too difficult and they closed up for good last month. Losing them completely sucked as I really enjoyed hanging out there and every time I walk by and see the sign I feel a twinge of sadness. It's just not the same without them...

A few of our favorite dishes from Cafe Terzi; Tagliatelle al Tartufo, Gnocchi alla Sorrentina and their delicious pizza!

Overall, we love living in centro. We have everything we need (and tons of stuff that we don't), it's a convenient, quick commute for me. It's perfect for Virginia as the big outdoor markets are literally right outside our door and she can go to her favorite stores (H&M, Kasanova and Coin) anytime she wants and if she needs to come to the base it's a quick, straight shot by bus whereas from Caldogno she had to transfer buses and the whole journey took about an hour. Though I've been here almost continuously since 2000, I'm quickly realizing that I barely know the city of Vicenza. Living in centro makes it easy to explore and I often walk around in areas I've never been and usually end up discovering buildings and churches and other sights that I never knew were there. For those who are unaware, Vicenza is the home of one of the most famous and influential architects in history, Andrea Palladio. Regardless of whether you have heard of him, you are doubtless familiar with his style as it has been copied ad nauseum by the founding fathers in many of the public and private buildings in and around Washington DC. Thomas Jefferson even used Palladio's most famous villa as his inspiration for Monticello (it is often said that "in Vicenza, entire streets look like the back of a nickel"). Everywhere you go in centro you see Palladio's influence and it's nothing short of magnificent.  

Some examples of Palladian architecture that Vicenza is known for along with the man himself, Andrea Palladio.

I also bought bikes for me and the kids last year and they love going on bike rides although it scares me to death honestly, the way the crazy Italians drive. Normally centro would be the perfect place for bikes as it's a limited traffic zone so there are very few cars but most of the streets in the center are cobblestone which are painful to ride on. The kids love to ride their bikes around our little piazza while I sit outside Cafe Terzi:

Still, I do miss Caldogno tremendously. I lived there a total of 12 years and it feels more like home to me than probably any place on Earth. Occasionally we go up there for various reasons and whenever I get close to the town line, it just feels like I'm coming home. It's strange to be back here but not be able to see our old friends and neighbors all the time like we used to. Between work schedules and family commitments, there's just never enough time these days it seems. Part of me wishes we still lived up there but living in centro certainly makes things easier. One great thing about Italy is that when you frequent the same places a couple times, everybody there becomes your friend. And although we've only lived in our place for about 8 months, I've already become a local at several places around centro which makes living here more enjoyable. 

We do miss having a yard though - this past weekend I was out in our piazza throwing a football around with the boys when a police car pulled up and we were told we are not allowed to do that on the piazza, only in the nearby parks. Little things like that really annoy me here but whenever I find myself getting annoyed these days I simply tell myself "You're not in Scumter anymore, you're back in Italy now" and like magic, all is right with the world again...

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Today is "National Drink Wine Day"

Pop those corks and drink up everybody!