They were the eldest and youngest of seven children, separated by 12 years but bound by their father's trade, watchmaking. Both grew up in Muro Lucano, a village in southern Italy, and both left home as young men, crossing the Atlantic with thousands of their countrymen, the eldest to America, the youngest to Argentina.
Pio Pannuto, the eldest, departed in 1920. He was 19, with a pocketful of lire that came to $4 when he changed it at Ellis Island. His little brother Gerardo was 7 years old, a kid in short pants in an aging photograph. That was 66 years ago.
Yesterday, Pio and Gerardo Pannuto met again at National Airport. They embraced, surrounded by whirring cameras and scribbling reporters and four generations of kin. The embrace lasted more than a few seconds; it had been a long time.
"I didn't want to die before I met my oldest brother again," said Gerardo, speaking in Italian. "It was always on my mind to come here." A bubbly man who wears his graying hair combed straight back, Gerardo is given to jumping from his chair to act out a particular situation, darting this way and that as he describes how the metal detector at the Miami airport shrieked at his gold pen. He spent much of yesterday grinning.
"He was a kid when I saw him the last time," said Pio, 84, a tall man with a high forehead capped with wisps of white hair. "I'd drag him around all the time, teach him how to walk. He was a bambino, a baby."
Gerardo, listening blankly to his brother's raspy English, broke up laughing at the familiar word.
They told the old stories yesterday, introduced their wives, traded the vital information, mentioned the peaks and valleys of six decades. It was comfortable, warm, fraternal. There will be plenty of reminiscing in the month Gerardo is here. But these two men -- by their own account -- are almost strangers.
Gerardo, now 72, had kept the two in touch over the years. Not by telephone -- that was too strange, too new, a device for the next generation. But Gerardo wrote to Pio every year, never forgetting Easter or Christmas, relaying the important family news: his wedding, his children, his grandchildren, the jewelry store he owns in Buenos Aires.
Pio answered most of the letters, first from the Bronx and Yonkers, N.Y., where he lived for half a century while working as a watchmaker in Manhattan, later from the Mohave Desert in California, where he moved after retiring from Longines-Wittnauer Watch Co. in 1971, then from the town of Vienna in the Washington suburbs, where he and his wife Raffaela moved in with their oldest daughter seven years ago.
Perhaps the most important letter Pio wrote was in 1936 or 1937. Gerardo was still at home, having just completed a stint in the army. Mussolini, who had just conquered Ethiopia, was urging young Italians to journey to Africa to help build and defend the new colony.
"Don't go to Africa," Pio said he wrote. "Nothing doing. It's Africa -- you don't know what's going on there."
Instead, he asked Gerardo to join him in the United States.
It was, Gerardo agreed, an excellent plan. Unfortunately, it was impossible. Beginning in 1920, Congress had set increasingly sharp limits on Italian and other European immigrants.
His father, convinced that there was little opportunity in Italy, decreed that Gerardo would go to Argentina. Just as he had presented Pio with a one-way ticket to New York 17 years earlier, he put Gerardo aboard a French ship bound for Buenos Aires.
If the brothers' lives have diverged since then, there also have been similarities.
Both plied their trade as watchmakers and became comfortable. Both were formally introduced to, and subsequently married, women born near their home town of Muro Lucano. (Gerardo's wife Maria had left home for Argentina before her first birthday.) Each brother had three children -- three girls for Gerardo, a girl and two boys for Pio. Each had grandchildren. Pio had great-grandchildren; Gerardo hopes those will come soon.
"Thank God," said Pio, "we both did pretty good."