Ciao Capitano


The other afternoon, as I was lolling on the embankment of our rowing club lightly toasting my skin and reflecting on how monotonous the sound of the surf was, surf caused by the incessant passing of every conceivable type of motorized boat, I noticed something unusual.

All I had was my cell phone, so the quality of this picture is regrettable. The wreath is evidently gifted with total protective coloration (they ordered a wreath the color of bricks and busted-up pilings?). It is sitting on the edge of the water at the point closest to the viewer, just to the left of the big chunk of concrete. What a place to run aground.

Just a few yards away is a mass of  rocks, sand, bricks and other detritus which over time have created a small sort of beach, and on it there was something alive. Well, it had been alive, in the sense that its flowers were only slowly fading.  But while it’s not all that strange to find a vaporetto route sign (the kind they hang on the side of the boat to list the stops) floating in the lagoon, I’d never seen a funeral wreath before.

Naturally, the vision of a floating funeral wreath inspired a backwash of mournful thoughts, loaded with other bits of detritus from all those somber poems and short stories they make you read in school. But then I became curious.

Why would a wreath be floating in the lagoon? It should have been removed from the casket and left at the cemetery.  Did it fly off the hearse (naturally, a motorboat) on its way to eternity?  Did a person or persons deliberately cast it upon the waves, in an uncharacteristically romantic gesture to the recently departed?  These wreaths cost real money.  Who would have spent all that for a wreath that was going to have a shorter life than the funeral leftovers?

I went to discuss all this with Lino, and when he came over to investigate, we saw that the waves had pulled the wreath away from its temporary resting-place and had drawn it seaward, right into the center of the straps attached to the crane which puts our boats into the water.

Seeing it there inspired a small, ancillary rush of half-baked melancholy thoughts. But curiosity won out.

We took the boathook and pulled the dedicatory ribbon around to where we could read it.  It said: “CIAO CAPITANO.”  Goodbye, Captain.

I’ll spare you my next batch of thoughts (gone down with the ship? Lost at sea?).  Lino had a better theory.

Just a few days ago, a man named Anacleto Marella died. His funeral was held on June 20 (Saturday) at the church of San Francesco della Vigna, roughly just around the corner from our club. So this must have been borne by the tide from there.

Marella had been employed for years as one of the many “captains” of the ACTV, the public transport company — a vaporetto driver, in other words.

But don’t imagine that they all get wreaths, floating or otherwise.

Some investigation has revealed that Capt. Marella was hugely famous, an extraordinary person who had been deeply involved for decades in the struggle to help the handicapped. Specfically, those suffering from muscular dystrophy. And he was one of the driving forces, along with Dr. Diego Fontanari and Mrs. Luciana Sullam, in the founding of the local chapter of the UILDM, the Unione Italiana lotta alla Distrofia Muscolare (Italian Union in the fight against Muscular Dystrophy).

According to the story published in the newsletter of the association, back in 1966 or so, Marella noticed that every day at a certain time, a young man with muscular dystrophy boarded, with tremendous effort, his vaporetto.  Struck by the man’s tenacity and courage, he began to urge the bus company (as I think of it) to improve its accessibility to the handicapped, particularly by creating specific spaces designed for wheelchairs. This was revolutionary work, especially when you consider the cost of retrofitting all those vehicles.  Did I mention that the transport company is public?  That means it was born to say “We can’t afford it.”  But Marella seems to have been born, as his grandson once remarked, with “Duracell batteries.”

He didn’t stop with the vaporettos.  He organized a medical conference on neuromuscular diseases.  He raised funds by participating in telethons.  He accompanied groups of tourists with MS in tours around the city, not to mention on trips out in the lagoon.

He even convinced the 66 other vaporetto drivers to donate part of every paycheck to the UILDM.  In fact, they still do. I want you to stop and think about that for a minute.  Yes, it is unbelievable.  But there it is.

I think roses are absolutely beautiful for a wreath, and not all that common, either. At least not for a man.

Small digression: When I first came here, and for years, the vaporettos all displayed several discreet but noticeable square stickers with a design of a person in a wheelchair, with a small note encouraging the public to remember the UILDM and its mission. I used to wonder, “Why MS? If the public transport company is publicizing one disease, why not all of them?” Now I know the answer.  Because Anacleto Marella asked them to, and it was nobody could say no to him.

“My father’s enthusiasm and tenacity overwhelmed everybody,” his son, Giovanni, remembered.  “He involved entire families in his initiatives. Nobody could stop him.”

Yes, he was left fatherless as a boy, and had to start working early to support his family.  Yes, he was a wounded veteran of World War II. But these experiences don’t inevitably make pioneers, much less heroes, nor do they guarantee any skill in navigating the immense sea of bureaucracy and lethargy. As far as I can tell, he had no relatives with any physical disabilities.  What he clearly had was a large heart, a clear mind, and a spectacularly hard head.

He would have been 94 on July 1.  Ciao, Capitano.  If you had ever wanted to round Cape Horn with your vaporetto, I’ll bet you could have gotten everybody to sign up.





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  1. Brooks
    Twitter: brooks.dougcomcast.net

    Ciao Erla,
    I typically read your blogs via my email subscription and now even on my phone while I’m commuting to work.
    I don’t think I’ve stopped by the blog site since signing up a few years ago.
    Hence, few comments. So I’ll make one big bold one.

    Each day I read one of your posts I visit Venice in a way a visitor in person can’t.

    The back streets and waterways, the Churches, events and the people.

    Grazi, Grazi, Grazi!

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      High praise indeed so THANKS THANKS THANKS! Note: Please don’t read my blog on your phone if you’re driving. I’ve got enough on my conscience without that.

  2. Yvonne says:

    Well, this post took my breath away, for many reasons. Imagine the fact of you being the one to be “sun baking” at just the right spot to notice that wreath. Then, imagine it being caught up in your boat sling, and then the discovery of the story behind this finding. You may well rest on your laurels for a few days, Erla.

    Thank you for you ever enquiring mind!
    Yvonne recently posted..Be it ever so humble

  3. Erla says:

    I thought it was kind of amazing too, actually. But since my mind seems incapable of stopping enquiring, I suppose it was sent to me. No laurel-resting, though — even if you were to write me a permission slip. (“Please excuse Erla from work today — she has to rest on her laurels.”)

  4. giovanni says:

    sono giovanni
    il figlio del capitano marella e dopo aver letto quanto avete scritto ed immaginato su mio padre, vi voglio ringraziare cordialmente.
    Quel mix di realtà ed immaginazione rappresentato dal vostro racconto sarà sicuramente gradito a mio padre; in effetti era un uomo dalla forza fuori dal comune e dall’amore verso il prossimo (soprattutto verso chi soffriva) che contagiava chi gli era accanto o che aveva anche solo l’occasione di incontrarlo.
    Spero che l’amore che lui ha seminato produca i suoi frutti anche dopo la sua dipartita dalla vita; noi di famiglia siamo stati fortunati ad aver goduto da vicino una tale persona,

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      This note is so wonderful that I’m translating it here (with the correspondent’s permission): “I am Giovanni, the son of Capitano Marella and after having read what you wrote and imagined about my father, I want to thank you cordially. That mix of reality and imagination which your account represented would surely have pleased my father; in effect he was a man of more than common strength and a love for his brother (above all, toward those who suffered) that infected anyone who was near to him, or who even met him only once. I hope that the love which he has sown produces fruit even after his departure from this life; we in the family were fortunate to have enjoyed such a person so closely.

  5. Cat says:

    Delightful. I am quite late to the party, but I stumbled upon your blog in the midst of my trip planning for Venice.
    This particular post has just the right amount of serendipity and whimsy–tempered with keen insight, and colored with heartache and wistfulness. And then you have this fairytale-like epilogue in the reply from the son of Capitano Marella.

    I am looking forward to exploring the rest of your blog!

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      One can’t hope to equal that little moment of serendipity every time, but I’ll continue to do my best. Thanks!