This wasn’t the first time Canyon Country resident Krissy Ball welcomed a stranger into her home. Over the years, she and her family have hosted foreign exchange students from the Netherlands and Japan through the Rotary Club of Santa Clarita.
On Friday, Sept. 23, she offered Andrea Franzoni from Brescia, Italy, a place to stay the night during a remembrance bike ride he’s doing from Seattle to Phoenix in honor of his grandfather who was an Italian POW during World War II.
“His grandfather,” Ball said, “was a World War II vet, and my father was, too. My father was in the Navy, in the Pacific Islands — the Marshall Islands — and he was a radar operator. He’s been gone 20 years but, you know, I cherish the stories that he’d tell and so, this really intrigued me.”
Ball lives with her husband, daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend in their home in Canyon Country. Putting Franzoni up for the night wouldn’t be an issue because the family has an extra room with its own bathroom and shower.
Asked if she had any hesitation or concerns about having someone she’d never met in the house, Ball said no.
“It never even crossed my mind because, looking at his story and his Facebook page and all the people who have already hosted,” Ball said, “they say he was a wonderful person. They were very happy to host him and it was a very nice experience.”
She added that her family was fine with it, too — even her husband.
“Normally he’s a grumpy old man,” Ball said. “And I was really sure that he’d say, ‘Hell no.’ But he was like, ‘Yeah, sure, let’s do it.”
And Ball’s daughter?
“I just briefly mentioned it to her,” Ball answered. “And she’s like, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’”
Franzoni arrived by bicycle at Ball’s house just before 5 p.m. on the 23rd. Upon making his way up Ball’s long and winding driveway into the hills near College of the Canyons’ Canyon Country campus, overlooking Sierra Highway, Franzoni parked his bike inside the room Ball offered, pulled up a chair and shared some of his story with The Signal. He began with his grandfather’s involvement in the war, which started when he was drafted and sent to Northern Africa.
Franzoni said his grandfather, Aldo Arrighi, immediately went to the front line. But his fighting would end during a particular battle in Tunisia on May 13, 1943.
“The Italian general — Gen. Giovanni Messe — surrendered because there were no supplies coming through to the front,” Franzoni said. “They were captured by the British and handed over to the Americans, who then brought them to the United States.”
The Americans sent Arrighi to Newport News, Virgina, which Franzoni said was like Ellis Island for POWs, sorting more than 130,000 Italian and German POWs and transferring them to various camps around the country.
Authorities put Arrighi on a train to Camp Florence in Florence, Arizona. That was the first camp to host him. Next, he’d go to Camp Papago in Phoenix, where he stayed for about two months before boarding another train for Fort Lawson in Seattle. On Aug. 14, 1944, a riot broke out in the camp. Arrighi survived by hiding in a patch of nettle, herbaceous plants that have jagged leaves covered with stinging hairs.
Soon after, authorities put Arrighi on yet another train to Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Washington. The war ended on Sept. 2, 1945, and Franzoni’s grandfather remained at Fort Lewis for another month before authorities sent him to the East Coast and then finally back home to Italy, where he lived the rest of his days until his death on Nov. 26, 2019, at the age of 97.
Franzoni, who’s 32 years old, is riding the route his grandfather took, but in reverse — for reasons related to weather, he said. He added it’s the first time he’s ever been to America. Dubbing the ride “Project Train Long Gone,” Franzoni began with a flight from Italy to Seattle on Aug. 9. He hit the road right away and plans to finish the bike ride on Oct. 11 when he gets to Phoenix.
During his time in Washington, Franzoni met up with an individual linked to his grandfather’s past.
“I was there with the nephew of the girlfriend that my grandpa had during World War II,” he said. “I tracked him down in 2015 when I was looking on Google Earth — the places where my grandfather stayed, where he was captured.”
Franzoni didn’t have all his host homes set up before beginning his ride. He secured many places only days before. And he had help.
Long before he set out on this journey, he’d been sharing plans for “Project Train Long Gone” on social media. That’s where U.S. Army veteran Sue Miller from Newport News comes into the picture.
“About two and a half years ago,” Miller wrote in an email to The Signal, “during the beginning of the COVID pandemic, I was reading postings on my local Newport News, Virginia, Facebook page and found the Facebook page of Andrea Franzoni from Villanuova sul Clisi, Province of Brescia, Italy. Andrea was searching for information and historic documentation about Italian POWs who were held in the United States during (World War II) … During that same time, I was home with COVID and began reading and researching the plight of the Italian POWs, and became fascinated with this piece of history.”
Miller took it upon herself to assist Franzoni with his journey. Her email to The Signal was one of many she sent to people and organizations along Franzoni’s planned route, searching for anyone interested in providing host homes as shelter for each night during his trip.
“It was Aldo and Andrea’s dream to make this trip together,” Miller’s email continued. “But that journey never happened … Andrea, myself and others are spreading the word about the bike ride and requesting assistance from host families along the route.”
It was an email like the one Miller sent that found its way to the Rotary Club of Santa Clarita Valley, and eventually to Ball.
Franzoni, who’s a social worker in Italy, helping kids with disabilities, said his trip has been a special project to him for many reasons. While honoring his grandfather, he said he’s also experienced so much generosity from others. And while the bike he’s riding might preserve the memory of the experience, he said he wouldn’t be taking it back to Italy. He’ll be paying it forward.
“I’d love to put an auction for my bike to raise money for homeless people,” he said. “I stayed for two nights at homeless shelters just to feel their lifestyle and how they are treated. Being a social worker, I feel like I’m on the same vibration.”
Franzoni, a graduate of international relations who speaks Italian, Chinese and English, has always believed in helping others. His grandfather, according to an obituary in an Italian newspaper, was also known for his social work, volunteering regularly to assist the small community of Villanuova sul Clisi of Brescia, Italy.
As for Ball, she seems to have a similar generous spirit. No stranger to hosting strangers in her home, she welcomed Franzoni into hers as if he were family.
“On Friday nights,” she said, “I always get together with my girlfriends, and we meet up at a Mexican restaurant. We’re a bunch of old gals, but we still have a lot of fun. Well, I asked Andrea if he’d like to join us. He said yes.”
In a text message to The Signal a few days later, Ball said the dinner was a success.
“One of my friends’ aunts — Aunt Connie — was very smitten with Andrea,” her text read. “We had lots of fun.”