Good will and history sail aboard Amerigo Vespucci Vespucci carries cargo of good will and history

June 25, 2000|By Michael Olesker

HE TOOK the morning tugboat out from Thames Street at the foot of Fells Point and started looking when he got near the Key Bridge. He was searching for a great ship, but also for pieces of his history. The ship was the Amerigo Vespucci. His history includes a father who first boarded her nearly 70 years ago.

"And then," Tommy D'Alesandro III was saying at week's end, "somebody said, `She's coming,' but I couldn't see her. We were bouncing around in the water. They said she was hidden behind this pillar of the bridge. They said, `She's right behind this pillar, just wait.' And then, aw, it was just beautiful. Out of the haze and fog, I could see this magnificent vessel, and we went to meet her."

He met her the way his father, Tommy D'Alesandro Jr., first met her in the early 1930s, when he was a city councilman from the east side asked to greet the Italian ship as an emissary from the city. Then Tommy the Elder met her again in the 1950s, when he was mayor of Baltimore during the first of his three terms.

"Those days," said his son, who also became mayor of Baltimore and is now semiretired after years of practicing law, "there was no such thing as Tall Ships or OpSail. It was just a visit by a vessel, by itself. But then it kept coming back, and I kept going out to meet her."

Tommy the Younger was the city's emissary when the Tall Ships electrified the city in the mid-1970s, helping to generate the Inner Harbor's rebirth as a vibrant tourist center and downtown's first hopeful renaissance. In each of the following decades, D'Alesandro went back at the request of Mayors William Donald Schaefer and Kurt L. Schmoke.

And last week, at Mayor Martin O'Malley's behest, D'Alesandro caught the tugboat at Thames Street and met the Amerigo Vespucci as she sailed toward the Inner Harbor.

"Every time," D'Alesandro said, "it makes me take things into account, to review my life from the last time I saw the ship. It's like seeing an old friend you haven't seen, and you visualize all the things that have happened. I had to be there to see it.

"And then they said we'd board it. I thought it'd be, like, a gangplank. And they're saying, `No, you've got to climb this ladder, this rope ladder.' And I'm saying, `Hey, I'm 71 years old, what are you talking about?' But you do what you gotta do. We made the climb, and it was beautiful."

For the crowds expected to gather this week for OpSail, these vessels are a colorful sight to behold. About 1 million visitors are expected to visit the Inner Harbor, and perhaps even slip into nearby neighborhoods, and they're expected to spend about $55 million.

But, for many, the ships are also a tug at the heart. They're a reminder of those distant lands from which their ancestors arrived here. For D'Alesandro, they recall his father, the city's first Italian-American mayor and one of the first politicians who understood the need to cross the old, suspicious ethnic lines, to reach for common ground - while still celebrating the things that make each nationality unique.

"He met the ship in the Thirties, before the war, when he was a councilman," D'Alesandro said, "and that was an honor. And then, to meet it again after the war, when he had become mayor of a whole city, it really meant a lot to him. Oh, my God. I mean, he was one of the first Italian-Americans to be a big-city mayor.

"And the prestige of having this magnificent vessel, it just meant a lot to the Italian community and the whole city. That sense of pride in something so magnificent, and realizing where it came from, and thinking back to your own family's history.

"So, when I went out there this week, and saw this ship coming out of the fog - well, time went right back on me. I mean, you realize you're in the home stretch. Will I be here next time? If I'm here, I'll be there to meet it again."

On board the Amerigo Vespucci, D'Alesandro had lunch with the ship's captain, with a representative of the Italian Embassy, with Cardinal William H. Keeler, and with other Italian officials.

"The captain," D'Alesandro said, "told us they took the same route here that Christopher Columbus took. But Columbus made better time. Isn't that something?" He laughed aloud at the preposterous comparison.

And then D'Alesandro told them about his father and himself, two men whose history goes back to Italy and who rose to become mayor of Baltimore, and told them about all of the times they greeted the great ship. From such moments, good will is stretched across an ocean. And it is stretched across a history nearly 70 years long.

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