On a rainy, bleak day near a dock of the Sicilian port of Messina a few years ago, Federico Alba looked out to the sea below and recognized something extraordinary — another man, dressed in a different uniform. They were two people walking slowly toward each other from opposite sides of the pier.
The man wore a suit, a top hat and brocade garments, as if he was familiar with the customs of the international seafarers who, for years, have stopped here to sleep and get dinner and a drink before heading out on the sea again.
The man, Alba told a reporter later, was Antonio Gianni Piragna.
The man was 75 and had suffered from a bad back. He had lost his license to work as a sailboat captain and was now in wheelchairs that had special sturdiness specially designed to transport a 90-pound man. He had worked as a physician for 30 years in hospitals in Sicily. But in recent years, he had decided that what he really wanted to do was to coach tour groups to golf and teach them the secrets of winning.
“He was playing golf because he needed something to do,” Alba told me.
Alba, 73, has been coaching public and private schools for the past 20 years. Along the way, he has won awards for excellence in teaching and excels at helping young people find their talent. When he sees these young men, he knows that he is helping them discover what they want to be when they grow up.
In Sicily, he’s known as “Mr. Alba,” the man everyone turns to when they have trouble with their homework or as they’re learning how to play a guitar or tell a good joke. Everyone in the school system — teachers, parents, school administrators, counselors — turns to him.
“He is like a father to us all,” Mary Serebriakov, the founder of the Band Camps high school rock camp in Sicily, told me one day. “He is an exceptional teacher and for this reason we trust him completely with our students.”
In his spare time, Alba has been searching out the legends of the sea. He recently read “The Gallop” and “The Blind Man of Malta” by Vasilios Melis and studied ancient maps to see how the ancient mariners lived and passed the time. Most of the things he’s found about these sailors — if they had ever met each other — probably hadn’t been written down.
Golf is a game that often pairs people up in groups, in strange ways. It is a game played to show respect for the rules and relationships one person has with others. Alba believes that one of the things that is so special about golf is that it can be played by anybody — whoever is ready.
His retired, injured friend Angelo Presti gets around in a wheelchair, which adds to his own difficulty at teaching golf to beginners. And, Alba told me with pride, from what he’s learned about the ancient sailors, not everyone in these groups is a player. Some of the coaches can be a little bent and rough. And some who have some difficulty figuring out the course can be easy to fool.
“I think they are all playing in honor of their god — that’s why they do it,” Alba said.
I learned in Messina that it wasn’t easy to walk across the dock with friends after a day’s golf. The sea was still too rough and the skies too dark. But the coach’s guide thought he was headed to lunch, and it was impossible to resist. Alba and his friends saw him trying to cross the dock together and said, “Hello, you have no way in!” and “Show me where you’re going!”
The world is full of people with problems and, Alba said, “People don’t recognize it.”
— George Diaz and Marissa Conrad