This month I think I wrote seven nonsense paragraphs about text messaging and fragmented conversation. Nothing made sense. Usually, I love language. I love finding the perfect word for my perfect sentence. I deal all day in words. And many, many days words fail me. So instead of insight, I offer my favorite miscommunication story:
When my car died in a parking lot near AciReale, Sicily, I did what seemed logical and called by husband. He drove thirty minutes from his office on the Navy base to pick me up. I left my car unattended despite the gas station attendant’s insistence that it was “molto pericoloso” next to the fuel tankers stacked three deep on the side of the road. I made Cody drive me to the mechanic in the city who spoke no English, but always bought me a café and called me “Bella.” Giuseppe offered to go get the car later in the day, but Cody and I were worried about my grandmother’s old Chevy Cavalier, so we drove back up the streets of AciReale with the shop’s long, gray tow rope.
AciReale is an ancient city famous for its wild Carnavale held every spring since the 1500s. The narrow, cobbled streets wind through 16th century churches and modern apartment complexes. Most corners are blind and in some places cars pull into driveways to let downhill traffic pass. Every road climbs up and away from the sparkling Ionian coast. It’s picturesque – and a traffic nightmare.
As we pulled into the Agip gas station, men in blue coveralls watched us stop Cody’s white Fiat next to my car. They shook their heads as we looped the tow rope between our two cars. I was grateful I couldn’t understand the dialect – they clearly thought we were crazy or stupid. Maybe both.
Cody and I didn’t speak. Instead we grunted and huffed at each other, the anger and frustration simmering to near boiling. This was a rushed, unfamiliar operation; one that we needed to be done with, now.
As I started the Fiat’s engine, I noted the tension building in Cody’s neck as he reached into the car for a bottle of water. His khaki uniform looked out of place in the dusty, hot parking lot. He was supposed to be behind his desk, not under my car.
Cody is at home almost anywhere, but a flight squadron suited him especially well. Military communication is systematic, predictable, and direct. You give orders. You follow orders. He was trained to work quickly and without question. Cody can size up a situation before I even recognize what is happening around me. His hyper-awareness served him well in the cockpit and in his work as an operations officer, but it sometimes made life with me frustrating.
I started down the road back to the city center pulling Cody and the old Cavalier by the gray rope. The road was just wide enough for passing cars and I hugged the concrete wall as passed the Tabbachi and the fish man. I could hear Cody shouting instructions. He pounded his fist on the steering wheel as I swerved to miss a cart of artichokes in front of the corner grocery. The rope between the vehicles swung low and drug against the stones of the street.
I ignored Cody’s shouts.
I could see Cody waving his arms, urging me to get down the hill. I stopped at a busy intersection and watched my mirror as the blue car rolled to a stop behind me. The traffic ran past us – bumper to bumper little clown cars weaving in and out of each other like a hungry school of piranha. I saw the break in traffic just as Cody threw his arm upward and yelled, “Go, Go!”
I hit the gas hard on to the floor of the Fiat, but the car didn’t move. I downshifted and tried again. Nothing. I looked in my mirror and saw Cody rushing to get out of his vehicle. The rope was stretched taut between the cars and the air smelled like burning rubber.
“Situational awareness!” he yelled.
My mouth gaped. I felt my head swivel on my neck. The rope between the cars was frayed and stretched, almost broken. The old cobbled road was marked with black. An old woman stood on the corner shaking her handbag at us and yelling in Sicilian. She backed up along the tiny sidewalk, desperate to get away from us.
“What is happening?” I yelled back.
The story spilled out: the old woman had walked between our cars. Cody watched her think it through: she looked at the rope. She looked at my car and then at Cody’s vehicle and then back at the rope. She stepped over just as I pulled into traffic. The rope went tight, caught a foot, and sent the woman flying, her shopping bags stretched out in front like paper wings.
I never even saw her.
Instead of the “Go, Go!” I heard, Cody was yelling “No, no!”
“How could you get that so wrong?” he said.
I’m not sure which words failed more that day in Sicily. Every time I think about the old woman on the corner, I gasp for air and then laugh – we were so lucky we didn’t hit her with our oversized American machine. But I also remember how clearly I heard Cody’s instructions – and how wrong I got them. The funniest part of the story though was Cody’s reaction, labeled so quickly and accurately: situational awareness. Somehow he found the perfect words.