Many years ago, when I was still new to the world of gondolas and Venetian rowing, I heard about a guy in the Tampa area who had built and operated gondolas. The gentleman was Jack Fesenmeyer, he was old enough to be my father but always treated me as an equal. Really, as is often the case among gondola fanatics, we had very little in common other than the crescent-shaped boat, but we became fast friends and spent hours on the phone.
I never had the pleasure of meeting Jack face-to-face, but still counted him as a good friend who I always enjoyed talking with.
One day I received a call from Jack's wife, it was not a happy call.
In his seventies, Jack had passed away, and his wife Judy knew that I would be uniquely qualified to help disassemble his shop and sell the boats he had.
My wife and I flew out to Tampa, Florida and made our way to the small town of Bradenton where the Fesenmeyer home was. I met Judy, and discussed how she wanted to proceed with the property
(the home was for sale because of the circumstances).
Looking through Jack's shop was a humbling experience.
Jack was a boatbuilding expert.
The man had lived many decades longer than I had, and had spent much of his adult life designing and building boats of different types - and his shop drove the point home.
We weren't there to take things.
Judy was in a tough spot and she had bills to pay.
Boats on the property were sold to an up-and-coming servizio that was launching in Florida.
With Judy's permission, a few small hand tools went in my bag; they were quite useful, but really, they carried more sentimental value than practical value.
Everything else was either sold to local craftsmen or passed on to relatives, but there was one item in the corner that I knew would be of no value to anyone else but a gondolier - a forcola. A pristine, show condition Paolo Brandolisio forcola that Jack had acquired but never used.
I went to Judy to discuss her options with it, and told her roughly what the piece was worth. To my surprise, she told me to keep it -as a thank you for all my help.
It was an honor that I didn't take lightly.
We wrapped everything up and headed for the airport,
but we had a slight problem: the forcola wouldn't fit in any of our suitcases, and I was concerned that it might be damaged unless it was hand carried. Oh sure, a forcola is tough, but this one was in show condition.
We arrived at the airport just in time, got to the security checkpoint and received some curious and worried looks from the agents there.
They took one look at that large piece of hand-carved walnut and the red flags started flying.
"It's a club",
"It's a kind of Shillelagh" (Irish walking stick and club),
"You could knock down the cockpit door with that".
the speculations would have been much more amusing to us if we weren't already running late for our flight.
I tried to explain to the agents what it was, some of them were buying it, others thought I was just making something up to get through to my flight, and then my wife remembered something - the signature.
She mentioned that forcolas aren't just rowing gear for gondoliers, they are also sometimes displayed as pieces of art.
She explained that this was indeed a wood sculpture,
and I quickly pointed out that the artist himself had
signed the piece - pointing to Paolo Brandolisio's signature.
They let us through.
We ran to our gate and got on the plane just in time.
There were more concerned looks and hushed talking among the flight crew. Like the security agents, they were concerned about this giant "club" and insisted that it be kept inside the cockpit.
This amused us and we were more than happy at that point to let them keep the Brandolisio forcola with the pilots.
I wondered if the pilots knew what it was.
I wonder if they knew they had an extra "transmission" on board.
And I wonder if a forcola has ever ridden in the cockpit of a commercial jet before.
I still have that forcola, and from time to time I row on it.
I know that a show condition forcola might retain more value if kept perfect, but for me, it holds plenty of value already - when I row on it, I think of Jack and Judy Fesenmeyer. Not only do I enjoy the sentimental value and the memories associated - the forcola rows supremely.
Oh, and every time I look down at the base of that forcola while rowing,
I see the artist's signature, and I chuckle about that stressful day in the Tampa airport.
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