Guadalcanal visit holds more than diplomacy for Sonoma teen
Published: Thursday, April 25, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 25, 2013 at 9:28 p.m.
On a tropical island six time zones away, surrounded by exotically unfamiliar faces, facing a divide of culture and language, 15-year-old Brendan Natuzzi fell back on what he knows best: the ping of aluminum bats and the slap of ball hitting mitt.
Call it baseball diplomacy.
Natuzzi and his cousin, Aaron Rothleder, embarked on an adventure last summer that was equal parts travelogue, cultural exchange, history lesson and family reunion. Natuzzi, who lives in Sonoma and plays JV baseball at Justin-Siena High in Napa, and Rothleder, who lives in El Dorado Hills, spent most of two weeks on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, east of Papua New Guinea.
They attended class with the students of Don Bosco Technical Institute and, after school, taught them the fundamentals of baseball.
Most of the Don Bosco students, who range in age from 12 to 25, had never seen the game before.
“It seemed they had some idea of cricket,” Natuzzi, now 16, said just after pitching a complete-game shutout against Drake on April 16. “They didn't play baseball. They were really athletic, though. They'd play soccer, and they're out running all the time. After like the first couple of innings, people started hitting shots.”
Natuzzi and Rothleder acquired all the baseball equipment they would donate to the school, soliciting local Little Leagues and businesses for bats, balls, mitts and caps. They wound up with a couple of stuffed duffel bags, enough for a full game.
The American teens' destination was far from random. Their aunt, San Diego-based surgeon and public health worker Eileen Natuzzi, has been visiting the Solomon Islands twice a year since 2005. Their great-uncle, William Moore Stack, died off Guadalcanal as a 17-year-old seaman in World War II when the Japanese navy sank his ship, the U.S.S. Quincy, during the savage combat of the First Battle of Savo Island on Aug. 9, 1942. Brendan and Aaron were there for the 70th anniversary of the start of the Guadalcanal campaign.
Stack's remains still lie on the bottom of the sound that separates Guadalcanal and tiny Savo, along with thousands of sailors from both sides.
Ann Stack Natuzzi, Willy's sister and Brendan's paternal grandmother, remembers coming home from grade school the day the family got the news of Willy's death in a telegram from the U.S. military.
“My younger brother was home first,” Ann said. “And all I could hear as I opened the front door was my mother saying, 'Aussie, oh Aussie, what will we do?' Austin was the brother that came home, and he was nicknamed Aussie. And I thought, 'Wow, he's in trouble. I never heard her talk like that.'”
Ann and her siblings never let Willy out of their minds. But like a lot of young casualties from that war, his legacy started to fade over time.
Eileen Natuzzi wasn't OK with that. So several years ago, she funded a traveling baseball club in Sonoma and named it for her great-uncle. The team is commonly known as Stack Baseball. The family also started the William Moore Stack Foundation to raise money for education in the Solomon Islands.
Brendan Natuzzi has been part of the baseball club since its inception, so he was well aware of Billy Stack's story. But his trip to the Solomon Islands gave him a greater sense of what his great-uncle had faced in World War II.
Military vehicles and equipment still litter Guadalcanal, and many of the old Navy offices and Quonset huts remain in use.
On the Natuzzis' final night in Honiara, the capital city of the Solomons and site of the Don Bosco school, the woman who had been doing the family's laundry invited them to her home.
“It had the most amazing view of the sound,” Brendan said. “The ship that came for the 70th anniversary, that was right in the middle. I was thinking there were a lot of ships sinking, and on the bottom of the ocean there.”
About 50 U.S. and Japanese ships, in fact, which is why the channel has since acquired a new name: Iron Bottom Sound.
Eileen Natuzzi first visited the Solomon Islands in 2005, at the tail end of a stint teaching vascular surgery in Fiji. She brought letters written by Billy Stack's siblings, put them into a capsule and ceremonially dropped it into the waters above the Quincy.
She didn't expect to make the Solomons a regular stop, but became engrossed by their people, their history and, most of all, their dire need. The last time the unemployment rate was calculated there, in 1999, it was 45 percent. Per-capita income is roughly $1,030 per year. There is one doctor for every 18,000 people, and three surgeons in the entire nation, which includes 992 islands.
Brendan and Aaron were shielded from much of the poverty on their trip — Don Bosco is a relatively well-funded private school — but they saw enough of the island to gain some perspective on their lives.
“For a 15-year-old boy to travel to a third-world country — and Solomon Islands is one of the poorest in the world — it was a chance for me to see the country through a different set of eyes,” Eileen Natuzzi said.
“They're gonna see things they didn't see at home. These kids lead hard lives, with 10 people to a room. They're responsible for getting home and helping their parents prepare a meal or helping with younger siblings. They're not rushing home to baseball practice.”
Brendan Natuzzi wasn't surprised to see islanders bathing in the streams — but he was a little taken aback to see them washing their cars in the same water. Not that all of the locals had cars. Many used small motor boats or even canoes for transportation.
And yet what struck Natuzzi most forcefully was the Solomon Islanders' warmth toward outsiders, and their overall sense of well-being.
“That whole topic of not noticing what you have until you see what other people are living with,” Natuzzi said. “It seemed they were happier without the iPhones and WiFi and whatnot.”
Natuzzi, who starts at shortstop for Justin-Siena when he isn't pitching, made some sacrifices to visit Guadalcanal. His Sonoma Babe Ruth all-star team made it to the Pacific Southwest regional tournament last summer; Brendan helped get the team there, then left the country on the eve of its first game in the regional.
He doesn't regret the decision. In fact, Natuzzi would like to return to the Solomon Islands if he can raise the money. He knows there is a lot of work to be done there — and a lot of baseball yet to impart.
“Teaching the game is different,” Natuzzi said. “That was the first time I was like running the show. ... It's nice to show like once you get stable, and once you get your essentials together, then what fun you could have with baseball.”
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.