April 21, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

The Japanese pope

By Christopher P. Winner
Published: 2013-03-09

Still disheveled, I hopped a cab, assuring the driver I had the 20,000 lire for the 20-mile trip to Castel Gandolfo. The main square was empty when I arrived in early afternoon. No one knew the pope was on his deathbed (he died later that night following a massive heart attack).

The local bar had the town's only public phone. Calling Rome meant a handfuls of gettone, phone tokens that cost 50 lire each. I dialed the UPI desk, fumbling with the coins.

"It's quiet here," I told Payton.

"It won't stay that way," he replied. "Call me back with the scene."

I hung up and walked to the quiet papal palace 50 meters away. Two veteran journalists from the Italian agency ANSA had arrived, along with Paolo Frajese of Italian channel RAI Uno. They laughed fraternally and shared summer stories.

I redialed Payton on the hour and into the night. "Pretty slow here," I repeated.

"He's dead," he barked suddenly. "Get quotes. From the townsfolk, from religious, from anyone; get quotes and figure it out."

Pope Paul VI on the cover of Time in 1963.

But no one had information, let alone reaction. When I told the bar owner of the death he was about to close up shop. He said only "Povero..."

The sedateness made sense: Paul had picked a death day suited to his diffidence, a Sunday in high summer.

The hyperbolic engine that was UPI's New York City desk ignored that detail. Copying the feral grief that had followed the 1958 death of Pius XII, also at Castel Gandolfo, it colored the scene with imagined gobs of grief. Early reports spoke of sobbing nuns and droves of grieving townsfolk locked in passionate mourning (I saw only a few curious German tourists). For New York, all Castel Gandolfo loudly grieved the loss of the "Pilgrim Pope," Paul's media moniker.

But the only wailing I heard came from the Vatican correspondent of Rome's Il Tempo newspaper who ordered me to hang up the precious pay telephone or face the consequences. It was Frajese who pulled me from harm's way. He would handle the coming days with grace, broadcasting extemporaneously and loquaciously.

When ABC anchor Peter Jennings arrived the next day by limousine, Frajese snickered understandable since Jennings preened before going live and had assistants combing and caressing his hair to prevent its ruffling by the subversive hilltop breeze.

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