He stood looking up at the immense midnight blue hull of the Aquitania, staggered by its presence that appeared mammoth beyond imagination. Paco, now twenty-one, with mouth gaping, ran his fingers through deep auburn curls and devoured the scene with greedy artist eyes. “My God”, he whispered to himself, stunned by the scale of the monumental ocean liner. “It’s a grand masterpiece all right”, he thought, slowly scanning the vessel that was a worldwide sensation in 1931.
Within the last year so many complex issues had fallen on his shoulders. He gained a Father and a family history never imagined. A first love, Lillian, was painfully ravaged through his own inaction. The horrendous crash of the financial institutions forced the closure of Diehl’s market and the loss of his job. Even his home, the vast Quien Sabe Ranch had been put on the auction block along with many other great properties. Only the miraculous purchase by his Father, at the very last, saved the land that was put into his Mother’s name. At this moment, Paco thought his life was finally turning around with an adventure of a lifetime.
Now he was beyond good looking, with smiling eyes that crinkled at the outside corners and gave the impression he was always smiling, revealing a new, soft, intelligent light. Most thought of him as genuine and reliable, always generous, and a bit of a dreamer, fostering ambitions they thought were impossible, until he earned the chance to study in Florence. Paco was brainy, glib and funny with a leisurely California nature. His esthetics dominated him. Observing the details of all things was his real occupation. He had a curious way of squinting and moving his head to inspect a certain subject from many sides. Above all he was a sensual being, his slim muscular body had filled out, and overall, he had become a grown man, full blown and powerful. Paco suffered through many turns of fate, but instead of beating him down, it polished him
Walking ahead alongside the ocean liner he could see her four distinctive funnels, brick red with jet-black tops, centered in a row on the top deck, towering nearly one hundred feet in the air. Many lines decorated with red, blue and gold pennants billowed out from masts both fore and aft. The ship was almost a thousand feet long. Even the distance to the passenger’s boarding ramp looked blocks away. It was grey with a misty drizzle making the landing glossy and the parade of people, many with umbrellas, hurried along eager to climb aboard.
Paco made the trip from California to New York by train and then stayed several nights at the Waldorf in complete luxury, something he never experienced before. He was even able to taste the dishes of legendary Chef Oscar, who he recently met in Santa Barbara during the Medallion d’Oro culinary competition. It was clear that powerful forces had placed him on a lavish protected pathway toward Florence in Italy, his final destination, where he would enter the Academia del Arte to become an accomplished artist.
Just steps from the ship’s First Cabin access, he was met by a middle-aged man in grey livery with a serious looking black cap and impressive tall boots. His hair was silver and he wore a goatee. Large eyes were exaggerated by thick gold-rimmed glasses that made his dark pupils intense.
“Signore Oakley Sir, I am your Valet Joseph”, he said with a thick Italian accent. “Truthfully, mio Princepe, it is Giuseppe, but in your country I am Joseph, sent to you by the Onorevole Don Telchide Fazinatos, your Grandfather. Already I have taken your large trunk to the cabin and arranged for your seating in the dining room.”
Paco knew nothing of a valet or a trunk. All this just added to the astounding experience unfolding. He felt a little foggy as he presented his papers and signed into the ledger before following Joseph up the gangplank. He paused and turned midway to savor the landscape of New York looming majestically in the misty light, feeling sorry to be leaving it behind, barely explored. And then, changing the focus, he settled for a moment on the deep lavender eyes of a striking young woman, following so close behind their bodies touched for an instant.
To his delight his first class cabin was named “The Rembrandt Suite” and he bounced on one of the narrow twin beds in the main space that was both bedroom and sitting room combined. There was another bedroom for the valet and the bathroom that included a tub, considered as a shipboard miracle. He studied the book that described every room and service that the ship could provide. It stated the vessel weighed over eleven thousand tons and would be carrying up to four thousand passengers on the crossing to Southampton in England. He read about A deck, with the first class drawing room, designed in the style of Adams, displaying neo classical columns and embellishments taken from the Lansdowne House in London. The lounge and saloons with smoking room were inspired by the splendor of Greenwich Hospital with it’s rich dark wood paneled walls and distinctive brass marine hardware. On either side of the first class public space was a garden lounge with pale green trellis walls and cream-colored wicker furniture. Planters were interspersed with typical English garden flowers and the large windows provided a spectacular view of the water. Paco read with intense interest that a long gallery, connecting the first class lounge and smoking rooms would be presenting a special art exhibit from the Guildhall Gallery of London, just for this crossing. “That’s a bit of luck,” he said bounding up with new excitement. Just then the horns blared and a shipman called out the final warning as the gangplank was pulled in. Paco and Joseph went to the deck to watch the departure celebration that would take them across the Atlantic on a six-day journey.
The throng at the railing grew and magnums of champagne were brought around by the crew to refill glasses over and over. As confetti and serpentine exploded, the giant engines revved causing the water to churn and boil below. Then, while a vigorous jazz band played, very slowly, almost imperceptible at first, the landscape began to move. Really it was the great ship pulling away from the dock and into the mainstream of New York Harbor. The skyline looked like an immense construction of pastel building blocks with pillars of steam and dark eruptions from a multitude of stacks that arose from the industrial areas along the waterfront.
Paco’s heart throbbed as they passed the Statue of Liberty, looking from a distance smaller than expected and surprisingly turquoise in color. He thought about his Italian grandparents arriving, experiencing the same panorama only in reverse and now the circle will be made complete with his return to Florence. The party at the railing moved into the Garden level and then dispersed to many locations. The champagne still flowed like water and lavishly appointed carts filled with artful appetizers roamed. Perfectly groomed waiters in the sparkling white Aquitania uniforms with navy striped cuffs and many brass buttons presented a classic caviar service on silver trays. Only one step behind were charming little ladies with bottles of best quality Russian Vodka housed in thick flower and fern crusted coats of ice.
Paco explored all the levels and venues he read about in the brochure and when he came to the main dining room with it’s glass ceiling and giant murals he had to catch a breath, the effect was so thrilling. While he was looking everything over many eyes were looking at him. His magnetism had not escaped a bevy of fine-looking ladies who created numerous accidental meetings as he drank everything offered and toured the great ship.
During this Joseph was following him from a bit of a distance away, melting into the woodwork or potted palms as if on military maneuvers. He used his vast knowledge of elite combat tricks to become almost invisible. Joseph, once on Italian soil to be known as Giuseppe, was an Arditi, a very special man of enormous physical strength and ability. The name translates as “The daring ones”. Meticulously trained with an array of military talents, they were made unbeatable by endless hours of Renaissance style martial arts training, especially fencing. This intense discipline instilled an uncanny awareness and even more menacing, a deep understanding of how to kill. His kind was known best for vicious lightening-like attacks with a certain sizable dagger and an apparent blood chilling relish for combat.
The old soldier had distinguished himself, highly decorated, during the First World War and followed his comrades to form a hand-picked circle of guardsmen around King Victor Emmanuel III, wearing the “Black Shirts” that later became notorious. Only months before, with a heavy heart, Joseph had left the Arditi because he passionately believed the King was duped. The dangerous manipulations of a fearsome Mussolini had caused Italy to fall under a fascist government with the signing of the Lateran Accords.
It was serendipitous that circumstances came together after an ardent letter from the old Don Fazinatos, Paco’s Grandfather, requesting that the distinguished warrior become bodyguard to the young man while in Italy. Almost like an ancient fairytale, there were still those factions actively seeking out and destroying all pretenders to the Italian throne. Surprisingly, through a strange and convoluted series of connections, it was remotely possible that Don Fazinatos and his descendants were of royal blood, even though through illegitimate lines.
So as Joseph took on the job, he secretly believed he was protecting a Prince who was in constant danger. To aid him he carried his famous Arditi weaponry composed of a short handled customized "moschetto" rifle that fit in a holster under his arm and two signature blades, the powerful large Arditi daggers. One was always in a scabbard kept looped to his belt and the other in a leather sling strapped to his leg. There was a collapsible staff that lay across his chest. Once unfurled it became a ferocious fighting stick. He would also have ready access to hand grenades when ashore. Especially for this part of the journey, he secreted a draught of poison and a nasty folding stiletto in his inside pocket.
And so it was that Paco, satisfied with the spectacular ambiance of the mighty ocean liner, found his way back to the “Rembrandt Suite” and flopped down on his bed with his boots still on. Joseph, like a shadow, slipped in as the door was closing and promptly expelled the cabin butler who was assigned to the five star accommodations, grabbing a stack of fresh towels from the indignant man on his way out. Rapidly removing his charge’s boots Joseph firmly announced in dignified Italian, “fare il bagno”. Paco understood once he heard the water running for a bath and experienced the old soldier briskly removing his clothing. The tub was too small but it felt warm and full of bubbles. This along with the motion of the ship rocked him and he closed his eyes picturing a calm dreamscape.
Vigorously towel dried and wrapped in a robe, Paco was directed by Joseph to the main space where he ceremoniously opened the huge trunk that became something like a closet on one side and a chest of drawers on the other. In the small top drawer Paco found the gold Cartier watch that had been inscribed to his Father by the old Don and then passed to him at Mio Cuore, the family estate. The very one he left behind, thinking it was too extravagant. Now it filled him with gratitude and he put it right on. He found the studs and cuff links for his tuxedo that he guessed must be included.
There was also an inventory of the trunk written in pen on his Father’s stationery, leaving no question but that he had personally prepared the contents. It read, “1 Camel hair Polo coat, 1 dark grey flannel suit, single breasted, 1 evening suit, 1 charcoal tweed knickers, 1 dark green fedora, 1 brown/rust Scottish tweed jacket with leather elbow patches and belt, 6 straight, narrow legged trousers, 3 alpaca or Shetland cable style sweaters in cream, dark beige and grey-green, 3 geometric patterned Ferragamo ties and 2 striped regimental styles, 1 black with a tiny gold and red patterned ascot, bow ties including two kinds in black satin for formal wear, 1 dozen fine white Egyptian cotton handkerchiefs, several caps, one in a grey plaid, 6 shirts all in white or cream folded with tissue paper and cardboard inserts, assorted gloves, 2 pairs of shoes, one formal black velvet with crest, 1 dozen each, underwear and sox, 2 sleepwear and 1 cashmere robe.”
Paco could see without investigating that all the items on the list were there and more. He sat stunned before the collection so perfectly packed into the great piece of luggage with its white birch wood faced drawers and an ecru wallpaper lining patterned with two little “Gs” intertwined. ‘What has become of me’, he thought. ‘I have spent my life in jodhpurs and a leather jacket?’
Just as he was scratching his still damp curls, Joseph leaned over his shoulder and with one deft hand searched out and found the secret lever that released a hidden drawer. It was custom built to hold a shocking assembly of armaments. Carefully cushioned in forest green satin, Paco found a small Beretta pistol, two revolvers, a Bordeo, used by the Italian army in WWI and a new Colt 38, all three guns had holsters. There was an Italian military dagger with a scabbard and belt loop. Next, in a fine gold embossed leather case with purple silk inside, he found an exquisite retractable stiletto with what appeared to be a jewel encrusted handle. In another small case, he found a fountain pen that actually worked as a tiny single-shot firing gun with illustrated instruction booklet. Finally, Joseph pulled out and proudly unfolded a polished wooden staff that he skillfully brandished around the small cabin missing the light fixtures by millimeters.
Paco sat back on his heels in disbelief. It looked as if some dangerous criminal had opened up his personal arsenal? The most experience he had with guns included the use of Mr. Wright’s shotgun out on the Quien Sabe Ranch attempting to kill off some of the gophers and varmints that ravaged the gardens. ‘On the other hand’, he thought, ‘with all my experience assisting cooks and chefs, I am pretty good at cutting things up?’ After a deep breath he softly groaned out loud, “What am I saying? This looks like I’m preparing for battle? It’s ridiculous; I’m going to an art school. What would I want with all these weapons?” Joseph said nothing but inside he was thinking the work ahead to train the young man for survival in Florence would be rigorous.
After a long nap, Paco spent several hours at the small desk writing letters on the fine stationary decorated by the ship’s insignia. He wrote to Madonna, his Mother, who had been his whole world until very recently, then a letter to Lillian. Postcards went to Penny and Owen Star plus more for Oneda and Rosalita, all at the Quien Sabe Ranch. A letter for Chef Prentiss was enclosed in a long one to Wright Ludington who had mentored him. Then finally, one for his Father, Captain Oakley, which he labored over to write.
Pacomino Oakley was always called Paco. Born in 1908 into a family of noted stonemasons and artisans imported from Italy for their remarkable skills, as a young boy he grew up watching the creation of multi-million dollar estates, sitting like castles on the verdant soft summits in Montecito, near Santa Barbara, California in the 1920's.
The boy had an inauspicious birth secreted away in the beginning since his rolling stone of a father evaporated upon knowledge of his coming. Paco was the only thing that made his Mother’s beautiful mahogany-colored eyes sparkle with joy. She sang to him in Italian, fed him tenderly from her large perfect breasts and made him darling baby dresses of vintage lace with satin bows. She taught him to dance and to paint on a big white china platter in strawberry jam with his tiny fingers.
Given all this loving attention Paco’s eyes sparkled too, just like hers, with an adorable, little crinkle at the outside corners that gave the impression he was always smiling. His soft brown curls matched his eyes and sprang out in ringlets that his Mother made angelic by wrapping strands around her fingers.
The boy grew into a man, still painting, only now with fine sable brushes, with the same crinkly laughing eyes but the curls were carefully oiled to lay stark and flat with a part down the center according to the current fashion. He moved with a graceful agile gait, athletic and suntanned, a bearing unique to California.
While he worked he wore a handsome uniform of dark blue lightweight serge with small brass buttons and epaulets. Paco’s trousers were slim tan jodhpurs and he was finished with a pair of dutifully polished chestnut knee high boots. He put on a fresh white shirt each day and an Eaton tie peeked out of his collar.
A breed of super wealthy Americans, nicknamed “The Hill Barons”, were Paco’s patrons, the ones Diehl’s, the foremost gourmet market in the region, handled with kid gloves. Earnestly searching the globe for their requests, Paco supplied those fabulous kitchens where all was converted to luxurious dining, extravagant parties and exquisite events.
At 6:00am each morning Paco always stocked a fine highly polished black truck displaying the famous Diehl’s trademark in gold script on the side. The world's best fresh food and culinary delicacies were fulfilled, following the orders of a wild, eccentric and often hilarious assortment of Chefs and cooks.
He led an unbridled lifestyle among the rich and famous of Montecito. Soon, stumbling into a plot aboard the notorious gambling ship, The Portafortuna, he met his father, Captain Oakley, the powerful head of a syndicate that supplied the wine and liquor to every city and town west of the Mississippi making multimillions during prohibition.
Paco’s true linage, although still unclear, was thought by all to be directly descended from a notorious Italian patriot, the old Don, Signore Telchide Fazinatos, who fled to America as a young man for political reasons and founded the Aroncioni, selling alcohol throughout the western states.
With Captain Oakley, Paco’s father, and the Don, who he called Grandfather, in place as his newfound family, he along with his Mother, Madonna, were all reunited. At first on the uncounted acres of “Mio Cuore”, a grand estate with vineyards and secretly the supply center for the Aroncioni syndicate and the illicit liquor business, then on the impressive “Quien Sabe Ranch” in Montecito.
Legends were made of extraordinary tales of passionate Chefs as they competed in the Medallion d’oro, crowning the greatest cuisinier in America. Chef De Vielmond, called Velly, won this honor and his reward was to attend the world culinary completion held in Paris. Paco also participated as the assistant to Chef Prentiss and a third on the team, Penny Lavigne, winning the copper medal.
All along Paco was uncovering his artistic talents preparing to enter the Academia del Arte of Florence as a young man, and following a path to solve the puzzle of his mysterious first love Lillian, who was shockingly kidnapped drugged and repeatedly raped to the point where she lost sanity and reverted to an adolescent, seldom able to communicate. Paco believed this to be largely his fault because he knew she was very drunk in the Seville Club speakeasy on the night she was abducted, and he could have taken her home safely. It would come back to haunt both of them in his future.
With the crash of 1929 tumultuous times unraveled, as Diehl’s market was forced to close and many of the great Montecito estates, with their hapless staffs, were all but abandoned. With the help of notable art collector Wright Ludington, an heir to three fortunes, Paco composed a portfolio of work and after submission was accepted at the Academy in Florence and in 1931 made the decision to leave all he had ever loved behind in the United States to fulfill his dream to become an artist.
Read Montecito Trilogy, Book 1, "The Hill Barons' Kitchen at The Hill Barons' Kitchen