There have been exciting moments on the job at APTN that I could use to surprise Italians who might have believed in my ‘Brava Mamma Italiana’ act. During the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, APTN frequently sent us onto aircraft carriers from which fighter jets were flying bombing missions. Getting flown onto an aircraft carrier is a harrowing experience. The military gives you a big helmet with goggles and headphones. You are put in a small plane facing backwards. The plane has what is known as a ‘tailhook’ on it and the pilot has to fly low over the flight deck and snag the tailhook into one of four wires stretched across the deck of the aircraft carrier. The wire will then jerk the plane to a sudden halt. The problem is that they don’t always hook the wire on the first try, or they somehow blow the whole operation and the plane drops into the sea. So, it’s a bit scary.
And the pilots and assistants who take journalists on the planes get a real thrill in scaring the heck out of us before departing. The plane is dark, and the passengers all have headphones and helmets on, so no conversation is possible. Before departure, two soldiers explained to us various gestures they would make when the plane was about to land, for example, arms straight up (meaning brace yourself for a sudden jerk) and if the plane has crashed in the water (brace yourself to die, more or less).
My first time I was terrified. I was sitting next to CBS cameraman Vito Monaco and we gave each other confident looks as we took off. We were told it would be roughly 45 minutes so, unable to speak, I tried to go over all the gestures in my head, and carefully watched the time.
Finally, the crucial moment came, and the two soldiers at the front made the ‘going down for the landing’ gesture. I braced myself. Then a frightening thing happened. The pilot missed the tailhook, we went flying past the end of the deck, and I didn’t know exactly what was going on, but we took a sudden dip (off the end of the carrier?), and the plane turned nearly upside down. Vito and I desperately hugged each other, thinking it was the end. Now, what was that they were gesturing? I couldn’t remember anything anymore, my heart was pounding so wildly. But then the plane straightened up again and circled around—they did the landing gesture again, and we came to a screeching, jerking halt on the deck.
When we got off the plane, everyone who wasn’t a journalist acted perfectly normal. The freelance soundman working with Vito was green and purple. A miserable wretch. I think he wanted to go home to his mamma. There is nothing like the happiness of the ‘just escaped death’ feeling: it gives you a high that lasts about three days. Just enough for me to run up and down the six flights of ladders in the aircraft carrier, carrying the tripod, and interviewing all those terribly good-looking, macho, top-gun fighter pilots.
Years later, I was at an elegant dinner party in Rome with a group of economists. Having an economist for a husband, I became an expert at attending dinner parties with economists. I understand zilch about economics but I usually just stuck to Gustavo’s Italian dinner party rule: talk about food.
But, at this particular dinner party, there was an economist who just happened to be the former Italian Minister of Defense. He dominated the dinner with tales of his glorious deeds as minister and we were all dutifully impressed. But, during the dessert, he launched into a tale that went more or less like this: “Once, when I was Defense Minister, I had to go visit one of those American aircraft-carriers, and they put me on this plane that had to land on the aircraft carrier, and there was this big black woman pilot — now I have nothing against black people and nothing against women pilots — but when I saw her, I was really scared…”
Well, that was it. No Italian man is going to rag on African-American woman US Navy pilot while I am at the dinner table. It was as if a starting gun had gone off and I was a racehorse that went verbally careening out of the gate, launching into my own dramatic tale of landing on an aircraft carrier—the fearless Mamma with three kids at home—and feeble Italian men turning green and purple. Mouths fell open around the table. Gustavo used all implements available to signal ‘cut’ from across the table, making a gentle scissoring ‘V’ with his fingers, and a little silent “basta” with his lips. But there was no stopping me. Finally, my tale came screeching to a halt, and there were general gasps around the table, at which point the hostess delicately suggested, “Why don’t we move to the living room for our coffee? ‘
As we left the dinner party, I was glowing with pride. I had let loose the Americana in me and it felt good. Gustavo opened the door to our Fiat, slid in behind the wheel, shook his head and looked over at me with a little smile on his face, “It’s just too hard for you to talk about food, isn’t it?”
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