© 2022 Robert Sickles
Back to my family's European trip of 1963!
Our tour bus arrived in the center of the known world, Rome! I couldn’t wait to get going to the city’s great sites—the Forum & Colosseum, the Pantheon, Trevi fountain and the Catacombs. I enjoyed all of it, but I really made the most of a day at the Colosseum!
I believe, at that time, the enormous structure was more in ruin than it is today. Only a portion of the lower level was open to tourists, and there were areas that needed to be made safe or cleared of rubble. Following our guide, we were led safely past the impassable remains of great stairways to the upper levels. The stairs were in such a dilapidated state they had to be blocked off. I really wanted to go beyond the barricades. As soon as I could get away from the tour group, I found one stairway with a drooping cordon rope and a smudged and tipped over “No Entry” sign, so naturally I took that as an invitation. I ducked into the shadowy archway and scrambled up the steep and broken steps, sometimes on all fours. I was so excited to be touching the steps that were used by ancient Roman spectators!
Bricks seemed to crumble under my hands and feet, but I made it to the first tier. My heart was racing! I continued climbing until I was as high as possible in that end of the massive ruin. It wasn’t safe in this forbidden place but it was so amazing to be atop a million tons of ancient brick and stone, beholding the vast space below and the open sky above. When I peered down into the lower level, the arena, there were my tiny parents in a group, still listening to the guide. I guessed they hadn’t missed me yet, but I restrained myself from calling “Hey, Mom, Dad—up here!”
However, I did draw the attention of a pair of observant guards who began waving their hands vigorously and shouting at me in Italian. I thought "This is getting interesting." “Hello!” I happily waved back. They looked angry. More guards gathered. I shrugged and pretended I didn’t know what they were upset about. After all I was just a kid, a dumb American tourist, how was I supposed to understand all those agitated Italians? Even from way up there I could now read Mom’s horrified face; Dad’s sunburn looked even redder than normal. “Oh nuts, fun time is over,” and I reluctantly headed back down the steps.
“Greeted” is too happy a word for how the guards met me at the bottom. With pursed lips and glaring eyes, they had firm control of my arms and shirt collar. I wish I could say it was all forgiven and forgotten when I was returned to the arena level. Maybe it’s just the Italians’ love of comic opera, but in every crisis situation, it’s like they handle it with tutti cantano (everyone singing). What a moment! My imagination took off!
[Hectic orchestra music, tempo is prestissimo.]
[Guards argue with each other and gesture melodramatically, docents point accusations at the guards, parents fume and scold, tour guide’s hands and eyes are raised to heaven imploring “O, Dio mio!”, spectators gather around as if a chorus of extras. All are awaiting a thumbs up or down from the Capitano, the imperious Captain of the Guard.]
[I float above the crowd as though in a dream to view the incident from on high. I see my sorrowful mother kneeling before the brilliantly uniformed Capitano—she sings, “O Signore, please spare him… can’t you see he is just a boy?” Within the chaos, I am in a cloister of perfect stillness. A shaft of sunlight beams through a high arch to illuminate the center of the arena. A single lion emerges from a cage and limps toward me. I can see he is crying, and I put my hands out to welcome him closer. He lies down and rolls on his side, showing me his injury—a big thorn is lodged in his paw and I am able to pull it out for him. The lion and I are now inseparable friends! Everyone present and I are in triumphant song.]
OK… how it really ended: The Captain of the Guard rolled his eyes, waved us away with a flick of his hand, and turned abruptly to walk away.
[Lights dim. Final curtain.]