I remember it like it was only yesterday, memories that came flooding back once again just a few days ago on July 17, 2003, my 71st birthday. That Thursday anniversary wasn't as bad a day I thought it would be, and that was a relief. I actually got through it OK, much better than I thought I would. It was on that day, fifty years ago, July 17th 1953, I saw her for the first time. She was dancing in an Asmara hotel with an Italian friend of her family. Fortunately for me, the man with whom she was dancing was one of the Italians who worked in the motor pool with the man who had taken me to that hotel to treat me to my twenty first birthday dinner.
She was beautiful, but that wasn't it. She danced beautifully, but that wasn't it either. There was an air about her, the way she tossed her blond hair as she danced to the samba music, the way she looked around the room as if she owned that place and everyone in it, taking in everything almost instantly as if wanting to remember it forever. And then, somehow, she looked at me. Our eyes locked for just an instant as she was twirled around by her partner. As she came back around toward me, our eyes locked again and stayed locked until other dancers on the floor blocked out our view of each other. Soon they completed a circle of the dance floor and she was back where we could see each other again. Same song, second verse, and then a third time and a fourth. After she passed by that time I moved to another table where there were some people I knew. I wondered if she would look for me the next time around. She did and there was a momentary look of surprise on her face when she saw I wasn't still where I had been. Her eyes swept the room. It only took a couple of seconds for her to find me and, when our eyes met again, she smiled at me. That's all it took for me to fall in love with the girl who would become the love of my life for the next 50 years. She fell in love with me also but I believe it took her a little longer. My friend who had taken me there knew her. He would later take me to her house to introduce me to her and her family.
Eventually, we wanted to marry, but in that time and place even applying for that would mean instant loss of security clearance and immediate banishment to some God-forsaken base which probably didn't accept dependents anyway. The military wouldn't provide any transportation for her to the states either, if you even enough time to get married before you were shipped out of there. Her travel became your own responsibility. That's just the way it was in 1954, rotten. We were only together a short time before her father sent her to Italy to get her away from the American soldier. Papa, one of the many Italian businessmen in Asmara, didn't like us. I didn't know for months where she was. On the day I was getting into a jeep to take me to the airport in Asmara to fly home after my tour, one of the men who worked for me gave me a letter from her younger sister. It gave me the girl's address in Rome. After I got home we corresponded and even discussed marrying by proxy, her in Rome, me in Florida. Then we ended up losing each other again. She was not getting my letters so she stopped writing me. I was not getting hers so I stopped writing her. It seems Mama was tearing up our letters coming in and going out.
About 5 years later I received a letter addressed to my parent's house. She was in Ethiopia, married and had at least one, perhaps both of her two daughters. I was married and had at least two of my three children. I didn't answer her letter then. I should have. I wish I had. I lost that letter, but I would remember her married name in the return address for several years before I started trying to find her, the first of many times over the following years. I don't think she ever knew until only recently that I had received her letter from Ethiopia. I only know that I looked for years for a person with the wrong last name. Her married name had a "d" in it. The problem was in the way she wrote her d's, and still does. She simply didn't connect the circle to the post, so the letter looked like "ol" instead of "d" which changed her married name and our lives completely.
I would eventually have Italians, Eritreans and Americans helping me to look for her, all of us looking for someone with the wrong last name. I searched through issues of "Mai Tacli," the Italian newsletter for the Asmarini, the people, mostly Italian, who had lived in Eritrea, for her name or indeed any name I might remember. The internet, when I searched it initially, was nowhere near its present state and there was no Rome telephone book on the net like there is now. I could find her now with that, but I couldn't back then.
I finally just gave her up for dead. I knew she might have been in Ethiopia during the famine, the revolution and all of that unspeakable horror, as indeed she had. I even tried forgetting about her. That was absolutely impossible. Then, on June 11 or June 12 of last year, 2002, I received the surprise of my life, an email which asked me the question in somewhat broken English, "Does the name xxxxx remember you anything?" Did it remember me anything? Hell, it remembered me everything. I just about went crazy trying to get an email back to the writer who, it turns out, was her oldest daughter. Only then, with the daughter's maiden name in the email, did I realize that the "o l" in her married name was actually a "d." I asked for her mother's address and telephone number. As soon as I received it I telephoned Rome. When she answered I immediately knew that voice. I simply asked, "Is this xxxxx xxxxxxx?" and heard the most delightful and longest scream of my name I've ever heard in my life.
Her daughter had found this site, the Kagnew Station pages. She knew her mother had lived in Asmara and had known a soldier of my name. The mother had told her daughters about me when they were growing up. The daughter read my email to this site advising of the deaths of three people I knew were gone, including the man who introduced me to her mother. So the daughter recognized my name, found me and sent the email. More emails, more phone calls and more letters followed until, finally, she was walking towards me in the Pensacola air terminal, somewhat the worse for 48 years of life and wear, but then so was I. I think we both realized in something less than ten seconds that we were each back in Asmara, still madly in love, had been for over 48 years, and that those years of separation had never really happened, had only been a bad dream. Thanks to this site we had fifteen wonderful days together that passed like fifteen seconds. We made a lot of plans for the future, knowing she had to return to Rome for a couple of weeks because of several things before she could return to Pensacola permanently.
I would love to write, and indeed I had made plans to write of her return, of the happy ending, of the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, thanks to the Kagnew Station pages and the work of many people. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. The problems were too great, she was concerned about her family, she thought she was too old to make the change, to leave her entire life, her culture, her priest, her friends, her home and so many other things, so for whatever reason the two weeks turned into two months, then to four and then to never. Thomas Wolfe may have been right in saying, "you can't go home again." You can't recapture your youth. You can't relive your life. You can only dream and remember the love of a lifetime you found in the best two years of your life in the paradise that was Asmara.
Robert E. Fields, Jr.
Cpl. US Army Security Agency Asmara 1953-54