Don’t Take The Lights Down Yet
Thomas Calabrese –Gesperino Paconi was a three-year-old boy from Cassalieri, Italy, when he came to America. His father, Mario was hired by the owners of the Jameson Canyon Winery in Napa, California to become their head vintner. The pay was excellent and housing was included in their generous offer so the Italian packed up the family and relocated to the Golden State.
For the next 20 years, Gesperino learned everything about the wine industry from his father. When he got married, Mario said, “I’ve taught you everything I know and you’re ready to be on your own. Of course, you can stay and work here if you want, but there is another option. I found this area called Temecula Valley. The soil consists primarily of decomposing granitic material and is excellent for growing grapes. I’m willing to put up the money if you want to make the commitment. It will be a partnership…seventy –five per cent for you and twenty-five for me.”
“Sounds interesting and very generous on your part,” Gesperino said, “I hadn’t thought much about being on my own.”
Mario responded, “It’s time to think about it now. Go down to the Temecula Valley and carefully look around. Take your wife with you and see if it’s a place she would want to live. No matter how much you want to do it, if she’s not happy and won’t work with you, it won’t work. Give me your honest opinion when you get back and we’ll take it from there.”
During their time in Southern California, Gesperino went over the pros and cons of making such a big decision. They were both aware that they would be starting from scratch. Finally when there was nothing left to say, he asked, “What do you think?”
Valentina replied, “I have this feeling that as long as we’re together, we can do anything.”
“I feel the same way,” Gesperino passionately embraced his wife.
The Paconi family purchased five hundred acres in the Temecula Valley and began building a legend, not only in the Temecula Valley, but in the wine business. Four years later, their first son was born. The name on his birth certificate was Giuseppe, but they called him Joe. Even as a baby, there was something special about him. It was much more than his glistening emerald green eyes, the rarest of all eye colors or his playful smile or that he rarely cried and was never sick. His mere presence in the room made it brighter. Even people that had no special affection for babies were mesmerized when they saw Joe. He took his first steps when he was seven months old and could speak a dozen words by the time he was nine months old. When he wasn’t sleeping, he was always aware of what was going on around him. Gesperino and Valentina soon found out that it was very hard to surprise their son, Joe seemed to know whenever they were nearby.
At 14 months of age, Joe could walk without falling down and carry on a simple conversation. When he saw his mother crying while watching an emotional scene in the move, Terms of Endearment, Joe walked over and placed his tiny hand on her forearm and whispered, “Don’t cry, mommy…it’s only a movie.”
Another time, Gesperino was going over the monthly budget and cursing to himself at some unexpected expenses. Joe walked up, climbed up on the chair next to his father and said, “Things have a way of working out.”
The next day, Gesperino received good news. A supplier called and said the winery had been getting overcharged for several months and would be getting a significant refund check.
Giovanni or Johnny, their second son was born four years later. Gesperino and Valentina quickly realized they had to lower their expectations. Johnny was normal or average which wasn’t a bad thing. He required considerably more attention and patience than his older brother. He was slower to talk and walk and was more concerned about his own needs than those around him, which was common for a baby. Joe was one in a billion and Johnny was one of a billion if that makes sense.
Sometimes when Johnny would cry in the middle of the night, Gesperino or Valentina would get up to check on him and would find Joe next to the crib. He would smile and say, “You can go back to sleep, I got this.”
The presence of his older brother was enough to soothe and quiet Johnny. Three years after Johnny’s birth came Rosemary and she quickly became her oldest brother’s biggest fan. There was no jealousy between the siblings. Everybody in the family knew that Joe was special. He was charismatic, humble and empathetic and seemed to know what others were feeling and naturally said or did the right thing at the right time. Joe acted like he was a small part of other people lives when in reality he was the center of their universe. He had that unique gift of exposing his vulnerabilities without seeming weak or frail. To build up his brother and sister’s confidence, he would deliberately lose to them or ask for their help on projects that he was completely capable of doing on his own. Joe was that kind of big brother.
Mario Paconi left the Jameson Canyon Winery after a distinguished 25-year career and moved to the Temecula Valley to be closer to his son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren. By this time the Paconi Winery was finally starting to show a show a profit. Mario and Rosa had a two bedroom stone cottage built next to Gesperino and Valentina’s larger house. Even though he had had worked most of his life and had earned the right to relax, that wasn’t Mario’s style. He was keenly aware of the hierarchy of the vineyard and knew that Gesperino was the Godfather and he was the Consigliere (advisor).
With three generations of Paconis on the property, an additional burst of energy was infused into the vineyard. A tasting room and banquet facility were added to the property to cater to large parties and gatherings. Valentina and her mother-in-law were in charge of catering for the events. Two years later, a honeymoon cottage was built on a hill with a panoramic view of the entire valley. When the Paconi Winery won awards for its Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, business kicked into high gear. They were shipping thousands of cases of wine to distributors and the banquet facilities were booked months in advance. The family decided to purchase 200 more acres of land and expand operations.
Joe’s natural gifts were not limited to his good looks and charisma, he also had a shrewd mind when it came to the family business. Standing shoulder to shoulder with his father and grandfather, they never made a major decision without his input, despite the fact that he was still a student in high school. That was how much they respected his opinion.
Mario was an early riser, often getting up around 5AM every morning. He loved to watch the sunrise over the vineyards. It reminded him of being a young boy back in the old country. Joe would often get up about the same time, walk over to his grandparents’ place and have breakfast with them. He had an uncanny ability to talk to older people with a maturity that was far beyond his years. After spending an hour with his grandparents he would go back home about the same time as his younger brother and sister were just getting up. He would take them to their school before going to class.
Johnny was bullied by a local gang with boys that were several years older than him. He came home with a split lip and black eye and confided in Joe about the situation. His brother responded with a reassuring smile. “I’ll meet you after school tomorrow and we’ll get things straightened out.”
Joe and Johnny were sitting outside the school when Johnny pointed to a group of six boys coming their way. “That’s them.”
The group stopped in front of the two brothers. The leader spoke to Johnny, “You got my money?”
Joe stood up and walked over to the leader, “He gave it to me. How bad do you want it?”
The boy looked at Joe and tried to act tough. “I don’t have a problem with you…just give me the money and I’ll let you walk away without getting hurt.”
Joe responded defiantly, “I’m your elderberry…you might not have a problem with me, but I got one with you.”
The boy took a swing at Joe, who ducked under the roundhouse punch. Joe smashed a right and a left to the boy’s ribcage then kicked his legs out from under him. Another boy interceded and a crashing right hand sent him to the ground. One more boy interjected himself into the fray and paid the price when Joe hit him in the face and broke his nose. The others quickly retreated. Joe lifted the leader off the ground by his shirt and looked him in the eyes. “Is this over or do you want to go on?”
The leader grimaced in pain. “It’s over.”
Joe gave the boy a stern warning, “This is my brother, if you should change your mind and come after him again…I’ll be back and there’s no rock you can crawl under to get away from me.”
The boy nodded weakly and Joe let him crumple to the ground to recover. Joe walked over to his brother, put his arm around his shoulder and said “Let’s go home.”
Johnny was bursting with pride. “Thanks Joe.”
“I’ll always be there for you…you know that,” Joe said and flashed his trademark smile.
Rosemary loved her big brother with all her heart. He was also her hero and protector. All of her friends had crushes on Joe. His matinee good looks, brown wavy hair, chiseled facial features, dimples and those green eyes were a young girl’s catnip. The girls would come over to the house and find any excuse to interact with Joe .He would joke and laugh with them because they were his sister’s friends and he knew it meant something to her. He was that kind of big brother.
There was no doubt, no discussions and no disagreements. Joe was the heir apparent to Paconi Vineyards and Winery. That was a given fact. Everybody in the family knew he was not only the most qualified and deserving, but wanted him to have as much as they could give him. Deep in their hearts, they knew that nothing would ever equal the joy and happiness that Joe had given them just by being a part of their lives.
In a way, it was no big surprise to the family, but nonetheless it was a shock and immense disappointment when Joe said, “I want to be a Navy Seal.”
It took the collective strength of every family member to not scream out, “Don’t go!” They knew they were around the presence of greatness and did not feel they had the right to ask Joe to change his mind. Everybody respected his judgement too much for that.
There was a going away party and Joe pulled his brother and sister aside and told them, “You’re going to pick up the slack while I’m away, but I have full confidence that you can do it. Remember, just do your best and it will be more than good enough.” Johnny and Rosemary broke down in tears and embraced their older brother.
After Joe left for training, Johnny and Rosemary completely changed their outlook about their responsibilities. They both started getting up much earlier in the mornings. Johnny started doing all of his older brother’s chores and became obsessed with trying to measure up to the high standards that came naturally to Joe. Rosemary began working with her mother and grandmother in the catering business. Several months passed, Johnny and Rosemary put everything aside and just focused on work. It got to the point that Gesperino and Valentina became worried.
Gesperino said, “All Johnny wants to do is work. I appreciate his help, but he’s exhausted. He’s trying to be like Joe and when he thinks he doesn’t measure up, he gets angry at himself and tries even harder and gets even more frustrated. It’s a vicious circle.”
“Rosemary is doing the same thing,” Valentina said. “All our children are different and special in their own way. We need to emphasize that to them.”
“You’re right as always. We’re all trying to fill that space in our hearts with Joe being gone and none of us are doing very good at accomplishing that. My dad is really depressed, I haven’t seen him smile since Joe left.”
Valentina wiped a tear from her eye. “Nobody misses our son more than me, but somehow we’ve got to find a way to hold this family together.”
The months passed and Joe finished his training and was assigned to Seal Team 5 at Naval Amphibious Base, Coronado, California. This was great news for the Paconi family because when Joe had some time off, he would drive the 64 miles from Coronado to his family’s winery. As soon as he arrived, the mood immediately lightened up, in fact it became festive. The most unusual part of Joe’s visits was the way that he effortlessly slipped back into his routine as if he had never been gone. It even amazed the rest of the family who thought they were through being surprised by Joe’s abilities.
It was Christmas Day, 2020 and Joe had a week’s leave from his team. When it came time to return to duty, Joe informed the family, “I’ll be deploying and I don’t know when I’ll be back. I can’t tell you where I’m going either. I’ll be in touch first chance I get.”
Joe and his team deployed to the Kingdom of Bahrain, an island country in the Persian Gulf, situated east of Saudi Arabia and north of Qatar on January 10, 2021
Two weeks earlier, a mob of 3,000 individuals associated with the militant organization Ansar-al- Sharia attacked and attempted to destroy the U.S. Embassy and the American Cooperative School in Tunis, Tunisia. They caused extensive damage to both facilities.
The mission of Joe’s Seal team, supported by elements of D.E.L.T.A. Force was to inflict as much damage on Ansar-al –Sharia in retribution for their attack on the embassy. Aerial surveillance detected terrorist activities at an isolated farmhouse. The American Special Forces rendezvoused in Palermo, Sicily. It was 196 miles by air and four helicopters lifted off. They touched down three hours before sunrise, but still had to hike four miles over rough terrain to reach their destination. It was pitch black so the Americans put on their night vision goggles and double-timed to the terrorist hideout.
D.E.L.T.A. force came in from the west and the Seals assaulted from the east. The terrorists were heavily armed and dedicated to the last man not be taken alive so they fought with everything they had. Two Seals were wounded in the heated battle and Joe ran into deadly gunfire to pull them out of the line of fire. When he saw the terrorists approaching, Joe knew he had to engage them to give his wounded teammates time to get behind a small hill. Disregarding his own safety, Joe laid down suppressive fire to protect his teammates, but knew that he could not hold the terrorists off indefinitely. He noticed a vent pipe protruding from the ground, ran over to it and dropped two high explosive grenades down the tube, not knowing what was below. Tons of explosives and ammunition were stored in an underground bunker. When the grenades exploded they caused a chain reaction of epic proportions. The earth shook and a fireball rose high into the sky. The sound was deafening and smoke obscured all visibility. The concussion of the explosion blew Joe ten feet into a ditch, knocked him unconscious and he was completely covered with debris and dirt.
The Americans did a quick search of the area in their efforts to find Joe, but reluctantly gave up when the helicopters arrived for the extraction.
After the Americans left, poor villagers arrived to scavenge among the ruins for anything of value. They picked up weapons, clothing and food. Two young women were searching through the debris and heard a noise. They listened more closely and followed sounds and found Joe and uncovered him. One of the women went to get their horse drawn cart and brought it over. They loaded the unconscious American into it and covered him with a tarp. One of the women took off Joe’s dogtags and threw them into the blast zone.
An American search team, led by Navy Seals arrived the next day for a more extensive search. They spent two days in the area and only found the dogtags. They reluctantly came to the conclusion that Joe had been killed in the massive explosion and his remains would never be found.
Joe’s team was airlifted back to the United States. Valentina was in the kitchen and looking out over the entry road to the Winery when she saw a dozen cars enter the property. She knew that no events were scheduled so she was momentarily confused. When she saw a group of uniformed Navy personnel exit the vehicles, she instinctively knew why they were there. She screamed out in anguish and fell to her knees.
Two wounded Seals explained to the family how Joe had sacrificed his life to save theirs. The Commanding Officer of the unit added, “For his bravery and valor, Joe has been recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor.”
The Paconi family was in total shock, unable to and unwilling to accept the devastating news. Their lives were thrown into total disarray. For the next few days, it was as if the family was in a catatonic state. Joe’s grandmother and mother had to be prescribed medication to deal with their grief. Rosemary isolated herself and cried most of the day. The men of the family did their best to fulfill their duties, but even the slightest chore required maximum effort because grief was consuming most of their energy.
Back in Tunisia, Joe eventually awakened, but he had had suffered traumatic induced amnesia and could not remember who he was. The Tunisia women told Joe that he had come over from America to help fight against Ansar-al –Sharia. He had no reason to doubt them. Because of his Italian heritage and olive skin, he could pass for Tunisian. For the next six months, Joe fought valiantly with the Rebels against the terrorists. He began having flashbacks of his past and knew that something wasn’t right.
Back at the Paconi Winery the family had lost all motivation to continue with the business. It got so bad that just being around each other brought back memories of Joe and they could not stand that. The land even also held painful memories of their lost family member. They decided after the holidays of 2021, they would consult with a realtor about selling out. After that, they didn’t know what would happen and they didn’t care.
It was December 15th when Joe suddenly remembered everything. It was as if a switch had been turned on in his brain to illuminate hidden memories. He held no grudges or hard feelings against the women for deceiving him. In fact, he thanked them for saving his life.
After living in the village and fighting against the terrorists he knew how desperate their situation had become. It was an emotional farewell because Joe had grown to care about the people. “I’ve got to go home, but I will return someday. I promise you that.”
The Paconi family decided to book as many events as they could during the Christmas season, since this would be their last year on the property. There was a large banquet planned for Christmas Day. It was a joint family gathering between the Fahins of Vista and the Moresters of Carlsbad.
John Fahin and Bob Morester were avid pickeball players so Gesperino and Johnny decorated the court in preparation for their arrival. Bob Morester and his wife Julie traveled extensively through Italy so Valentina contacted the couple to get a list of their favorite Italian foods and promised they would be available.
The people began arriving at the winery by 11AM and began sampling the delicious appetizers and by 3PM, one hundred people were seated in the banquet hall. It was 10 pm when the last guests departed. Bob Morester approached Gesperino and Valentina with lofty praise, “First class, top of line, great, exceptional. Everybody loved the food and the excellent service. I’d like to give you a tip with my deepest appreciation.” Bob held ten one–hundred dollar bills.
“It was our pleasure. I’m glad that everything met with your approval. Rather than give us the money, we’d prefer that you donate it to the Navy Seal Foundation under Joseph Paconi’s name.”
Bob smiled. “I definitely will do that.”
On December 26, 2021, the Paconi family began taking down the decorations and lights. It was a somber time for obvious reasons and everybody was lost in their own thoughts. Suddenly they heard a familiar voice. “I know it’s the day after Christmas, but don’t take the lights down yet.”
Each member of the family thought that they were dreaming. It couldn’t be! When they turned around and saw Joe standing in the doorway with a big smile and his green eyes sparkling, their hearts almost burst out of their chests in jubilation.
Joe commented, as his family engulfed him, “I’m sorry I missed Christmas, had some trouble with my flight connection,” then promised, “I won’t miss another.”
All was right in the world on this day because God gave the Paconi family its belated…and best Christmas gift ever!