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It’s Always Hot in Toledo (Tutte le Direzzione)
11 August 2022

The Maumee River runs fast when it rains in Indiana and so do the mouths of the tugboat captains who work its waters.  

‘Enough already! Said the captain as we listened from the wheelhouse to yet another minute of VHF banter between the tugboat and the CSX swing bridge in Toledo, Ohio.  

The tug captain sounded like tug captains tend to, grizzled, likely with a yellowing moustache or beard that has filtered 30 years’ worth of whisky and tobacco through its rough whiskers.  The bridge operator was a woman with a mid-western twang.  We were fixing to make a turn and reverse through the opening in the bridge with the assistance of the tug and we were waiting for her to request an open from railroad dispatch, but for the last five minutes she’d been tied up in idle chatter with the tug.

‘This morning had to move a salty (a salty is a deep-sea freighter) around upriver.  I warned them the current was too strong, but would they listen?  She got banged around pretty good before they finally listened to me…’  There followed a lengthy, yet humorous and expletive laden appraisal of his industry, the long hours and the difficulty they have finding new, qualified skippers to which her response was,

‘Holy Toledo Batman.’  

I chuckled from behind the wheel at hearing the use of this common expression of surprise in its namesake city.  

‘That’s pretty salty language,’ I said to the captain, ‘Is that allowed on the VHF?’  Knowing that such swearing would receive a rebuke from the Canadian coast guard.  

‘The Americans don’t care,’ was all he said.

It was a hot, still night just after midnight when we finally spun about and began the slow reverse through the bridge. Fitzy, who comes from just a stone’s throw across the Lake in Amherstburg, Ontario calls it the tropics of Canada as it is Canada’s most southerly point.

From the air-conditioned wheelhouse the captain gave me helm orders as we brought the ship alongside.  We landed the boys and it was a long pull on number two wire for the deck hands.  Each foot paid out increased the weight of the wire and they were struggling with all their weight to pull it out, their feet getting little traction on the scrabbly ground.

When we were secure, I went down to the galley to fill my water bottle and found Cam the deckhand red-faced and sweating, chugging water at the galley sink.

‘It’s hot out there,’ he said.

‘It’s always hot in Toledo,’ I told him.

I am in Sicily.  We are winding high above sea level into the Hyblean mountain range.  We are six, three generations of Tabone boys aged 14-82, sat three abreast in the front and back of a Fiat Multipla, a bizarre looking vehicle described by one reviewer as possessing elephant man-esque features.  The land is parched, and we witness firsthand what Giuseppe Tomasai de Lampedusa described as ‘the violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate’.  You can see it in the scorched earth and the blackened skeletons of trees that stand upright like lines of burnt up matches, the result of last year’s wildfires.  I have been reading the World War 2 memoir ‘And No Birds Sang’ by Canadian writer Farley Mowat who landed in the south of the island in 1943 and along with a British battalion made his way overland on foot through this inhospitable terrain.  From the relative comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle, it is almost impossible to imagine how difficult that trek would have been in the month of august.  Following poor maps and at times meeting heavy resistance from the retreating Germans, all the while battling the elevation and the precipitously steep roads while humping 60 pounds of gear on their back.  The hills are checkered with forest and fields, scarred with the remnant of dry-stone walls that once stepped them centuries ago.  We pass old farmhouses with falling down roofs and crumbling ‘tegoli’, the terracotta tiles, that clad them.  Soon enough we are entering the village of Palozzolo Accreide.  The road narrows and buildings close claustrophobically in on us.  We take a turn up for the town centre on a road that describes an arc through beautiful baroque houses that barely accommodate the lugubrious width of our vehicle.  Towards the end the road narrows further and we must pull in the wing mirrors and further on still narrower so that Patrick at the wheel panics and stalls.  With an inch on either side, he engages the clutch and stalls again.  And again, and the wheels slip on the slick cobblestones, and we lurch backwards violently.  We are mere feet from flat ground where the road merges with another. A concerned old man at the top stops and assesses our position before he beckons us upwards.  Again, we stall and the car fills with the burnt smell of a laboring clutch.  Finally, we jerk forwards and onto flat ground where the road opens up.

‘Do you think the clutch will recover?’  I ask no one in particular.

‘Oh yes, it will be fine’, says my 82-year-old father from the front.  ‘But I don’t know if I will.’

The previous afternoon in Chiaramonte, the small mountain top village near where my cousin’s farmhouse is, I chatted in the street with my uncle Maurice as we waited for the rest of our troupe who were dawdling behind us in the mid-afternoon’s hazy hot.   I noticed a road sign that says ‘tutte le direzzione’ and I commented on it.  

‘In a mountain top village’, I said, ‘I suppose all roads lead out eventually.’

We spend lazy days on my cousin’s land playing backgammon and epic games of table tennis and listening to the never ending chorus of cicadas and the counterpoint of the wood pigeon’s coo.  By day it is hot.  Endlessly hot.  Even in the shade the ground kicks up an elemental heat which even a passing thunderstorm cannot cool.  We eat pasta in the evening and play a fractious game of rummy that threatens to spoil our close familial bond.  As the sun goes down the temperature cools pleasantly at this elevation and we get respite from the relentless heat.

Last month in Toledo the ship’s captain told me it behooves one to see what was happening upriver in Indiana two days before one is navigating the Maumee.  And to be sure, it benefits us all to look over our shoulders and glimpse upriver from whence we came.  I am lucky enough to still be able to.  We six are a family and possess an easiness with each other.  It is in our shared blood and our common histories and our senses of humor, when even the oldest among us can be sent into stitches of uncontrollable laughter by a simple fart.

It is always hot in Toledo, but it is hotter still in Sicily.  

On Sunday evening we make our way back to Pozzolo and the ferry that will take us back to Malta.  We speak little, logy and replete, like diners from a sumptuous meal.  To the west of Etna new wildfires burn and we can see the smoke from them climbing still westward at the behest of that soft, hot breeze.