Trieste (Part 3)

I was the water baby of the family, and by now a pretty good swimmer. It wasn’t long before I discovered that by walking five or six blocks from the tram terminus at Piazza Oberdan, I could catch a free Army bus out to Miramare castle. The main castle was off limits to unaccompanied kids, but tucked away in the expansive formal gardens was the Castelletta, or “Little Castle,” the last home of Carlota, widow of the slain Archduke Maximilian, who in the mid-1800s had built this wondrous complex as his private domain. The Little Castle now served as the Officers Club.

Below the club, a narrow path wound through the trees down to a narrow swimming beach reserved for officers and their families. A half dozen canvas-walled cabañas sat at the tree line, a lifeguard was always on duty, and youngsters didn’t have to be accompanied by their parents.

Sometimes other kids were there, but often I had the place to myself. Maximilian’s beach became my personal playground. I’d hurry through my chores in the morning, roll my bathing suit and a sandwich in a towel, ride the tram down to Piazza Oberdan, catch the next Army bus out to Miramare, and spend the afternoon frolicking in the sea. By catching the last bus back to town at 4:30, I could ride home with Daddy in time for dinner. Everything went well until one afternoon late in the swimming season.

The day was spectacular; windless, bright sunlight winking off the windows of the main headquarters castle and reflecting back from the calm surface of the sea. Sometimes a “No Swimming” sign got posted when vast schools of jellyfish filled the cove or a storm was blowing in off the gulf. But not that day. That day, conditions were perfect.

When I arrived, three young brothers, aged five to ten, were spending the afternoon at the beach while their mother played in a bridge tournament up at the Little Castle. Soon the four of us were splashing in the water, dunking and chasing one another, having such fun that I completely lost track of time. When finally I noticed how low the sun had dropped toward the horizon, I deserted my new playmates in a flash, threw on my clothes, and dashed for the bus stop located across the paved roundabout from the headquarters main entrance. It couldn’t have been more than two or three minutes after 4:30, but I was too late. I could just see the rear end of the bus, already a quarter mile down the road, on its way back into town.

There were no cell phones in those days, of course, and I knew I wasn’t allowed to set foot in the main castle. I looked around, wondering what to do. Maybe I should run back to the Officers Club and try to call Daddy from there. But calling Daddy at work wasn’t something I ever wanted to do, not unless it was a case of life or death.

Suddenly it came to me! The perfect solution! Three khaki-colored staff cars were parked beneath the portico at the front entrance of the headquarters, their uniformed drivers at the wheel, waiting to transport high-ranking officers to important meetings. I summoned all my courage, strutted up to the first one in line, and in my most authoritative eight-year-old voice, I said: “My name is Patricia Murphy. My father is Colonel Arthur P. Murphy. I need you to take me to his office at Piazza Unita. He’s expecting me.”

The bewildered driver’s jaw dropped, but he wasted no time in jumping out and opening the rear door so I could climb in. Halfway to town, we passed the 4:30 bus, and we reached Piazza Unita d’Italia a few minutes ahead of my normal arrival time. I thanked the driver politely; then sat on my usual bench to wait for Daddy. I felt smug, proud I had gotten myself out of a jam in such brilliant fashion, but I certainly wasn’t about to tell anyone about it, not even Eleanor. It would be my secret.

That, unfortunately, wasn’t the end of the story. Little did I know that staff-car drivers kept log books! A few days later Daddy was called on the carpet and given a royal dressing-down by his commanding officer. I, in turn, got a stern lecture and was “restricted to quarters” for a week. But decades later Daddy was still telling this story, not with sternness or anger but with laughter and no small amount of pride at the spunk and resourcefulness of his youngest daughter.