Ed Meets Orson Welles & the Pope
My father was a man you did not ask, “How are you?” He could not answer that question truthfully, and his attempts always left me frustrated. “Oh fine,” he would answer, with a distant and superficial gaze. Fuckin’ pissed me off, every single time.
Edward was a hard man to love. I have no idea how it was when my mother met him but by the time I was old enough to have opinions about love and attraction, I couldn’t see it. Oh — he was a very attractive man! Tall, dark, handsome…and successful. He was a career naval officer — a graduate of the US Naval Academy, an aviator who became a special weapons and intelligence officer during the Vietnam War. He had secrets. They all died with him. He hardly talked, and when he did it was with the infuriating calm authority of a military man used to others obeying. And Edward had no door to his feelings and therefore could share none of them with others.
My father was an atheist. A true atheist, he did not believe in anything more than what he himself could see, smell, hear, or touch. He was tolerant of religious people — thinking himself too kind to deny them the crutch they needed — but he had no use for religion.
But here’s the thing: My father had one deeply memorable experience with the Roman Catholic Church that stayed with him to the end of his days. It happened in post-war Rome.
It was 1948. Edward and his shipmate were young, fun-loving aviators assigned to the USS Columbus, a heavy cruiser with seaplane catapults. They took five days leave from the ship in Genoa, and went to Rome where they joined a big group of U.S. sailors on a sightseeing tour.
After seeing famous sites and antiquity in the postwar city for most of the first day, at dinnertime their guide took them back to the hotel and reminded them, “You will be free tomorrow morning. Meet here for lunch, then more sightseeing.” Soon Ed and his friend were on their way to check the restaurants and look for entertainment.
It was late — about 9 PM — when they found what must have been the finest hotel in the city. As they entered the lobby they saw a group of about twenty-five beautiful people lounging and looking very rich over near the bar. The men felt rather conspicuous in their uniforms, but the group’s leader approached and asked if they would like to join the party. Of course they said yes, and they happily joined in the fun. Their welcoming host then introduced himself as Orson Welles.
Those two reacted like opposite-pole magnets to the dozen beautiful women who were there at Orson’s party. They talked, drank the terrible post-war vintage wine, ate hors d’oeuvres, talked some more, and drank more bad wine. This went on for a long time. Ed said later, “What interesting intellectual conversationalists those starlets were! Oh, and Orson was interesting too.”
Around midnight they decided to call it a night, so they caught a fancy horse-drawn cart outside the lobby and the two of them were soon back in their hotel room. There was no need to set the alarm. After all, they had a whole morning free to sleep in.
But plans changed. At 8 AM the telephone rang, “This is your guide. The audience with the pope has been changed from tomorrow to today. I tried to call you last night, but no one answered your phone. You must be on the bus in 10 minutes.”
The two leaped out of bed, splashed water on their faces, and jumped into their uniforms. There was no time to brush teeth to remove the awful taste in their mouths. Combing their hair as best they could in the moving bus, they tied their shoelaces, and were in the Vatican by 8:30. Already the Roman sun was getting warm. As they stood in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, unshaven, no breakfast, and with horrible tastes in their mouths, they felt terrible. They didn’t know it then, but the worst was yet to come: an unexpected and extremely long wait. After more than two hours they were still standing in the sun, brutally hot by now, and they were drenched with sweat.
Finally, about 11:00, an usher led their group inside the basilica to a room about fifteen feet square. There were no chairs, only a podium, and they continued to stand. Two single lines formed a right angle facing the podium while those twenty men waited for the arrival of His Holiness. The “Friends of Orson” felt awful. They were paying dearly for his friendship.
The Pope was an imposing figure as he entered the room wearing his religious garments and symbolic adornments. While standing erect and speaking in English, he welcomed them all to the Vatican, and thanked them for their participation in the war. Unexpectedly, he then walked to the first line of ten and began to speak with each sailor individually. My father and his buddy were in the second line and dreaded his arrival.
Their breath must have been as bad as the taste in their mouths! Oh how Ed wished he were someplace else — — anyplace! He may not be a religious man, but he did respect authority and who has more authority than the Pope?!?! Finally, when the Pope stopped in front of my father, his face was less than a foot from away. Ed tried holding his breath until the Pope said, “What is your name?”
Speaking out of the far corner of his mouth Ed responded, “Lieutenant Kerr, sir.”
“I did not hear you,” he replied.
Opening his mouth a bit more, Ed repeated his name.
Then, with a twinkle in his eyes, vivid to my father for the rest of his life, the Pope smiled and said, “I will give you a special blessing, Lieutenant Kerr.” He put his hand on my father’s shoulder, spoke in Latin for a long ten seconds, and put a “Pius XII Pontifex Maximus” medallion over his head and around his neck. He then repeated the procedure for Ed’s shipmate.
Suddenly they felt at ease. They were glad to be there. He understood, and they were grateful.
My father was not then, nor was he ever, Roman Catholic. Nevertheless, this great man impressed him immensely. Rather than showing disdain the Pope seemed to say, “Life is for fun as well as work. Enjoy while you can.”
That little medallion was a treasure on my father’s desk, seen many times each day. For reasons not fully understood by Ed, it gave him a priceless sense of happiness and well-being.
I wish my father had been a man able to share his feelings of happiness and well-being. I found the medallion on his desk after he died. I can say this — my father did get a twinkle in his eye occasionally and I imagine he may have learned to share that much from Pope Pius XII in 1948.