Cima Gallina: Gone But Not Forgotten: Part 3

My time in Italy could have been so much more than it was.  I have mentioned time and time again how I had missed so many golden opportunities.  Northern Italy is in such a centrally-located spot I could have gone to France, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Austria, Germany, Croatia, and so many other places!  I did have adventures though.

The great Pisa adventure, aka "The time I went to Pisa but forgot to see the leaning tower" was my greatest folly.  A couple of months into my tour there a management change took place.  Joe Woolfolk left, and Tommy Lawson replaced him.  Tommy was a good ol' boy "from the hills of north Georgia" as he liked to say.  He had enough stature within the Air Force to be able to have his own car shipped over from the states, and after he had been there for a month or so was notified that it was ready for pickup down south in the port city of Pisa.  At that time there was a middle-aged single guy named Andy working with us, there on loan from Aviano Air Base because we were low on personnel.  He offered to let us drive his brand new Triumph TR7 down to Pisa to get Tommy's car.  We switched back and forth a few times during the several-hour trip, and both of us were amazed at how much power it had and how crazy-quick the steering was.  When we stopped for gas we even had to pop the hood to satisfy our curiosity as to how many cylinders the engine had.  When we got to Pisa and went to get his car I was surprised to see what it was:  A red Plymouth Scamp.  Although it was a plain-jane, ordinary car, it was apparently just sleeping.  When he got behind the wheel he became Tommy Lawson: moonshine runner.  The race was on.  It was a cat & mouse chase right off the bat.  He was feeling so pumped to be behind the wheel of his car he was really pushing it.  It was all I could do to stay within range of him, and that's considering I'm also a pretty good driver and I was driving a sports car!  I remember at one point as I went flying into the middle of a small town the townspeople on the sidewalks were all craning their necks in the direction Tommy had gone.  The instant they heard me their heads all snapped my direction.  When we finally stopped for gas halfway home it occurred to us what we had--or hadn't--done.  We were having so much fun we forgot about one of the biggest tourist attractions in Italy.  We forgot to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa!

The people in our area were very, very friendly.  One time, Tommy, myself, and Elaine were all sitting in the bar at The Maier and talking with one of the locals.  (I'm going to spell his name like it was pronounced because I have no idea what it actually was.)  Ottie was a rotund little fellow that always wore a traditional green cap with a feather in it that you see at Oktoberfest events.  He was the epitome of the stereotypical Bavarian, from the belly to the rosy cheeks and mustache and  the way he always dressed.  His English was about 10% and our German was about the same.  We all conversed by pantomime, pictures, and anything else we could think of to get points across.  I don't know how it all transpired this one particular day, but somehow we all ended up being invited to Ottie's home partway up one of the surrounding mountains.  It was very, cozy and small.  The center of the place was where the hearth stood, and the beds, kitchen, and everything else were all built centered around it.  I'm sure his wife had no idea he was going to bring someone "home for dinner", but if she was annoyed she certainly didn't show it.  We sat there laughing and having a great time, drinking wine and eating homemade bread, homemade butter, and homemade cheese.  It was one of the best times I had during my year there.  They opened their home to us and shared their bounty.  The food, as simple as it was, remains one of my most cherished memories of Italy.

Near the end of my time there I learned of a special tourist event that was coming up.  I believe it was December.  I just know there was plenty of snow by that time, and snow played a very important part in this story.  When I first heard about it, I wasn't able to learn much about it other than the fact that it was a sledding adventure.  It was the kind of thing where they sold tickets beforehand, so there were limited spaces available.  Why not?  It was being pretty highly endorsed by those that knew anything about it.  It was apparently a pretty big thing with the tourist crowd.  For the life of me, I can't be 100% sure about who was with me, but I believe it was Tommy, the site commander.  He and I were together on many experiences.  This particular adventure was a two-person thing so we needed to sign two of us up.  Here's what went down.  A big, luxury charter bus picked us up and transported us to a gasthof somewhere.  I say somewhere because it was dark and we had no idea really where we were.  The bus was full though, so we had plenty of people, and when we stopped we all tumbled out and descended on the poor staff of the gasthof like a swarm of thirsty bees.  We all drank for a while--I'm thinking at least a couple of beers worth if not more--when they announced "back to the bus" and herded us back outside.  It was pitch dark out, and the bus drove us for a good half hour or so up a curvy mountain road that led up from the place we had stopped at.  At the end of our drive, what should be there but another gasthof!  Laughing and having a good time, everyone got off the bus and went into that establishment and we repeated what we had done down at the bottom of the mountain road at the previous
place.  After a while the call was given just like before.  The cry, "Okay, everyone out" was issued in multiple languages.  By this time most everyone was pretty well lit and feeling no pain.  We all put our winter gear on and went over to the bus.  The staff issued one sled for every two people.  I use the term sled loosely.  The Bavarian version of a sled we were going to be using was unlike anything I had ever seen.  It was tall in height, it was short in length, and it had no steering.  There are probably several varieties of sleds in that area of the world, but our adventure used the drunk tourist model.  After sleds were doled out, the bus left and went back to the bottom.  Now the fun began.  First of all, we had to learn how to fit ourselves onto the teeny sled.  Not that difficult... just hook your feet onto the runners.  Little by little people were launching down the dark mountain road amid whoops, hollering, cursing, and laughter--in multiple languages.  We got going down the road with no problem.  The sled worked pretty well!  That is, until we came to the first curve.  We went straight into the snow bank, as did most people.  Little by little, after multiple run-ins with snow banks, we learned that all we had to do was dip a toe here and there so it drug in the snow without even removing our foot from the runner.  It was very, very dark out there.  I know that because usually when you're outdoors at night you get used to it and start to be able to see by starlight or whatever.  There was no starlight.  You know how sometimes you can see better when you turn your head slightly and look out of the corner of your eye?  It was that dark.  We never saw the snow banks or turns until it was almost too late.  Luckily there was a bank of snow on both sides of the road, and the road was closed to vehicles for the event.  It was crazy.  I remember at one point hearing someone laughing and swearing in English.  I hollered at them and found out they were from Canada.  The road had to have been several miles long, so it took quite a while.  We did eventually make it to the bottom.  Lucky for us, there was our friendly gasthof with our tourist bus parked outside.  More drinks and the blazing fire in their giant fireplace was the perfect end to our adventure.

What prompted me to lapse into this blog trilogy?  I was surfing the web one morning and ran across the end of Cima Gallina. (There are a few pictures there to go with the story.) Yes, sadly, it is no more. In this day of internet and satellite communications shooting from dish antenna to dish antenna across the miles just wasn't feasible any longer.  If you'd like to see a nice assortment of pictures of various people's shots of Cima Gallina, click here for a Google image search.

It was, without fail, the most amazing place I was stationed during my short, 6-year career in the Air Force.  It was a place that people only dream of visiting, let alone actually being able to live there for a solid year.  It was a place with a lot of great memories, only a few of which I have shared.  It was while I was stationed there that my son Mark was conceived.  It was a special part of my past.

R.I.P. Cima Gallina.

Cima Gallina: Gone But Not Forgotten: Part 2

Welcome to part 2 as I related some of my fond memories of northern Italy to you.  The more I type, the more things unfold in my mind.  I guess I won't know how many parts this series has until I'm finally finished and sit back in my chair, exhausted.

A month or so after I arrived I found an a apartment in the next town south, called Vipiteno (or Sterzing if your preferred German).  Vipiteno was a little bigger than Colle Isarco, and wasn't as confined by the mountains.  I didn't have a car, so my transportation consisted of riding the train between the two towns most of the time.  Trains are the way to go when you live in Europe.  It seems like they join all the towns together no matter how small and insignificant they might seem.  They were cheap too.  I think I paid the equivalent of like $1.20 to ride the train between Vipiteno and Colle Isarco.  They were beautiful trains too--all polished wood inside.  I had a 10-speed bicycle that I had shipped with my possessions when I left Turkey, and I would ride that around town, and occasionally (weather permitting) ride that between home and Colle Isarco.

Not long after I arrived, another new guy, Kevin, showed up.  He was married at the time and not long after his arrival his wife, Elaine, showed up.  We were not "authorized" to have spouses with us there, which meant the Air Force wouldn't pay their way, so if you wanted your significant other with you it was on your dime.  Kevin and Elaine decided she was going to be there with him during his year (as most couples with no kids probably would).  After all, it was quite the opportunity... Kind of a "two for one" deal to have you and your wife live there.  Kevin and I ended up on opposite shifts, so Elaine was almost always with Tommy (our site commander) and I when we were out and about.

In a very short time I (we?) developed a favorite restaurant:  The Maier (now apparently called the Maier Moar).  It was owned by a young couple named Franz and Krista, and had a sharp-tongued barmaid/waitress named Waltroud (pronounced Valtrout).  What made The Maier my favorite place was the food.  Franz had interned several years of his adolescence under the tutelage of a chef somewhere in Europe   He knew what to do with food and how best to do it. He even made the most ordinary items like pommes frites or a sandwich taste amazing.  My favorite:  Steak Madagascar.  It was a cut of some sort of a beef medallion about an inch thick that you almost cut with the edge of your fork.  It had a strip of bacon around it and it was smothered in some sort of amazing sauce laden with capers and peppercorns.  The rest of the plate was a pile of pommes frites.  I think the whole platter was only about 5 bucks.   He also had--bar none--the best Weiner Schnitzel I had ever eaten.  He would start with a piece of veal that was probably 4 inches across and pound it so flat it was only 1/4" thick and hung out over the edge of the large plate.  And so tender!   It was under 5 bucks.  Mmmm...That was my favorite meal.

One night I was at the Maier all evening celebrating my birthday ("you must have Schnapps!" said Krista, over and over) and got on my bicycle for the ride home.  It was mostly downhill, it was all curvy roads, it was all dark, and I was going fast.  At one point I saw headlights coming from behind and I heard a quick 'beep, beep' as a car came around me.  I hugged the right side of the road and stole a quick glance over my left shoulder as the car went by me.  I turned my head back just in time to see a plastic road reflector post that was on the right edge of the road whiz by me on my left.  I was able to clamp hard on the brakes momentarily before I left the road and went airborne.  I came down hard.  I bent the frame, broke my glasses, and was seriously amazed I didn't break anything else (I did a "face plant" into the ground and I wore no helmet).  After quite a while of searching on my hands and knees I finally located what was left of my glasses.  I was able to ride the bicycle home after I wrenched the front wheel around backwards, but it was ruined.  When I got home and saw the damage to my face, I turned on the shower and sat down under it.  I awoke some time later when the water--still raining on me--had run out of warmth and had turned cool.  I had to go up the mountain to work the next morning, and I stopped by The Maier on the way to share my experience with Krista.  When she saw me the color drained from her face.  She blamed herself for goading me, but no--it was all my doing.  After all, what kind of an idiot rides a bicycle on dark mountain roads when they're drunk?  Apparently this idiot, that's who!

Our group tried to maintain radio communication with each other all the time.  In addition to the base station that was up on the mountain in the site commander's office, there were two "portable" radios that we had to carry around while we were down at the bottom.  One of them was always in the boss' possession and the other was whoever was off-duty and given the task of radio responsibility.  The reason I put the word portable in quotation marks was because by today's standards they were monsters.  I wasn't able to find a picture of one anywhere on the web, but I did find a glimpse of one in a picture I took inside my apartment.  They were heavy (probably mostly battery weight) and had a handle across the top to carry them like a suitcase.  They were a far cry from what we're used to nowadays!

Our small Detachment did have a vehicle issued to us.  It was for official business only, but we had determined that pretty much everything was official business.  It was a 1971 (I think) Dodge pickup.  It was traditional military olive drab in color, and stood out like a sore thumb.  We kept it parked at the far edge of the city park parking lot when we weren't using it.  Negotiating the narrow roads of Europe in a US-made full size truck was sometimes not so easy.  It was not unlike a full size HumVee on our roads.  They barely fit.  The nearest place we could shop for food and other goods at a US installation was Garmisch, Germany, but because Austria was a neutral country we couldn't traverse the small panhandle of their land with our military truck to get there.  Instead, our only option was Verona, Italy, the birthplace of Shakespeare.  It was an army base to the south of us, and it was still quite a drive even though it was much closer than the nearest Air Force base.  We made the 3-hour (each way) trip every couple of weeks for one shopping reason or another--usually food shopping. To enable us to make the round trip in one day we drove fast.  Our Dodge pickup routinely went the whole distance on the Autostrade at a nice, easy 100 miles an hour.  Seriously.  (Actually, after awhile it seems like you're only going about 50.)  The Autostrade is Italy's end of the German Autobahn highway.  It's basically like our freeways.  Although the truck seemed to love going 100 all day, its tires didn't.  We routinely had whole belts (the Air Force apparently only bought retreads then) of tread fly off the tires during our runs.  We carried two spares in the back because of that.  One time I was humming along at 100-105 in the slow lane and WHOOSH--a red Ferrari passed me like I was hardly moving.  I only barely identified it by it's taillights before it disappeared.  One time we had exhausted our supply of tires and I had to drive to Aviano for new ones.  On the way--wouldn't you know it--another one let go (they make a pretty loud BRAAPP noise when it happens at that speed!).  With no spare to change to, I had no choice but to slow down and drive somewhat normal.  I wasn't too worried about it because when it happened they never lost air--only the tread off the tire.  When I drove into the base motor pool, the guy asked, "Holy crap, how fast are you driving this thing anyway?"

Our mail didn't come directly to us because we had no actual address.  Instead, we had to drive about a half hour to the south to an Army post near the town of Bressanone to get it.  I don't remember how often mail came but I think it was pretty much up to us to decide how often we wanted to drive to there to get the all the mail for our group.  One time me and Tommy were sitting at the bar in the Maier (feeling no pain) when he suddenly exclaimed, "Let's go to Bressanone to get the mail."  Sounded good to me.  We both went across the street and into the city park where our truck was parked and hopped in.  Let me say this, he was no slouch at driving.  He had apparently had a lot of back roads driving experience in Georgia.  Several miles later as he was casually executing a perfect 4-wheel drift (a controlled slide) through a corner he looks over at me and says, "If I ever catch you driving like this I'll hang yer ass."  I laughed as I hung on.  He made it look effortless.  He was just leaning against the door, steering one-handed.

I found myself lusting after a camera not long after I arrived. A real camera. I was tired of the little Kodak 110 Instamatic camera I had been using.  One of my shopping trips to the Army base at Verona sent me home with a beautiful Nikon FM camera body (they were out of stock on the lens I wanted). A week later I was able to complete my purchase by adding a 50mm 1.4 lens to the mix. I loved taking pictures as I traveled up and down the mountain! It seemed like something was different every single time. It might be snowy, foggy, sunset, green of spring/summer--any number of differences. In retrospect, it was weird seeing shots from the same vantage point during so many different times of the year. I have pictures that are virtually identical to each other, taken in all seasons of the year! I took a lot of pictures for a film user (nowadays it's different with digital of course--no limits). I used Kodak mailers so I just sent my rolls of film in to be developed and got slides back. I still have the same slide projector I bought back then in 1977, and it still has the same bulb in it. It's projecting my images on the same portable screen too.

The army base at Verona was pretty big, and it had all the conveniences.  We carried an ice chest for our cold foods, and shopped for whatever we needed.  The Audio-Video Club at Verona was the store that sold everything stereo and photography.  I think I visited that store every time I went down there.  It became my new friend on shopping visits.  I bought my beloved Nikon FM camera, a ghetto blaster for my apartment, and some stereo gear.  I set my lofty sights on outfitting myself with top of the line stereo gear during that time.  I figured I'd start with the most expensive items:  The speakers.  Twice I bought a pair of Infinity Quantum 3 speakers and had them drop-shipped home.  They are 110 lbs apiece and showed up at my parents' house strapped to a pallet, leaving my dad to figure out how to move them or where to store them (I found that part out later).  With four speakers bought (to the tune of over $1700) I went next for a top of the line Thorens turntable.  The funny thing is, that was the end of the story. I never bought the preamp or amplifier or tuner that I had my sights on, or any other piece of my dream stereo system.  I ended up saving money for this or that but never bought another piece of stereo equipment.  Basically, I ended up with giant speakers and a beautiful turntable, but nothing to go between them.  What a dummy.

Stay tuned for more!

Thoughts of Ireland

Our trip to Ireland is over. Our version was an experience that is not for everyone. When you spend 10 days and nights in another country and every night is spent in a different place you have a recipe for turmoil or chaos.  Sometimes the chaotic events that happen during something like this are what help to shape it into an unforgettable ("Ha, remember that time when we...") experience.  I was glad to get home.  In retrospect, I found I didn't need to actually get home to feel that certain sense of relief--I just needed to jump the final hurdle. That meant sitting down on the plane in New York for that final leg home. All the rest of the potential problems were behind me at that point. I couldn't be denied anything or be late for anything any longer. I was coasting. Finally.

The whole trip was not stressful but there were several times that were stressful to me. One of them happened almost the instant we got there: The money exchange. It was somewhat surprising to all of us exactly how pitiful our once plentiful piles of money looked after they were changed into Euro's. After divvying it up among us, it was apparent to me that we should have brought more cash. Then came the rental car. I hate (strong word, but appropriate here) renting cars. They are extremely necessary to me because I don't like the lack of flexibility and freedom that come with tours or groups. I need freedom to stop and go whenever and wherever I want. I think we all need it.  Anyway, to me the process of renting a car is like buying anything with a contract. The unknowns cause me anguish and unease.  As soon as I got to the desk it started stressing me out. The car I had reserved for us was too small. I didn't think it would be, based on what was on the website when I first signed up several months earlier, but it was apparent when the guy at the desk showed me what I had reserved. Maybe it's a mild form of "bait & switch" where they don't give you quite all the information when you're making a choice online. Either way, I was faced with a necessary upgrade for us all to fit into it. After all, we and our luggage were going to be living in it. Then comes the part I hate the most. The insurance. The guilt, the worry, the potential for disaster--all the ingredients that make up insurance. Add to that: the unknown of operating in a foreign country. I opted to waive the insurance (as I usually do) and in doing so was informed that they would put a $2000 deposit on my card--refunded when I brought the car back in unscathed. What escaped me was the fact that what that actually meant was they had charged me an additional $2000. That meant the $3000 Visa card I planned on using for most of our purchases was suddenly full and unusable. I didn't find that out until later when I tried to use it for something. Fortunately, I had other cards. Learning to drive on the "wrong" side of the road? That wasn't so bad. My left arm isn't used to shifting a manual transmission, but it was fine. I'm very adept at driving a stick, but managed to kill it a lot during our time there. It was mostly do to the fact that I was so absorbed in reading signs and watching traffic patterns that I failed to put it back into 1st gear when I came to a stop. Tsk, tsk.  Oh, and did I like the Saab turbo diesel we rented.  You betcha--it was very powerful, and very quiet.

It took us some time to get our roaming and navigating in order, but when we did Ireland grew on us. I really liked driving into the villages. The rows of buildings and storefronts that were painted with bright, cheery colors became one of my favorite sights. I didn't have the pleasure of gazing at them too often though--I was working at not getting lost (which didn't always work as planned).  If I had to do it all over again, I would like to be able to take more pictures in the villages. There was so much to see that is different than we're used to.

The Irish people seemed every bit the same as we are. They didn't look any different or dress any different. (Yes, there were more people with red hair.) What was different about the Irish people became apparent when you talked to them. They gushed with information and passion. If you were asking directions you got it explained two or three times or even more. You got the impression that they'd actually drive you there if you wanted them to. When you asked someone about a particular area or attraction, the pride in what they had to offer visitors from distant places seemed evident.  It's like they were immediately transported into our shoes.  There were a couple of times when we "knew" of something and a local didn't, and they seemed puzzled or disturbed.  I don't know if it's because they had failed as a prideful guide to visitors from other lands, or because it was secret and we weren't supposed to know about that particular place.

The whole country seemed to be built of stone. The fences that lined all the roads and separated the fields, the ruined abbeys and castles, and all sorts of things all seemed to be made of rocks and stone. Maybe that is the reason the entire country seemed to made of beautiful rolling hills and checkerboard fields and pastures of varying shades of greens and yellows--because all the rocks had been picked up! I imagine that way back in the days of early history it was a very different place. All I know is, now it is probably one of the cleanest, greenest places I have ever seen. It's no wonder they call it The Emerald Isle.

Our drive into the country of North Ireland was different. Maybe it was because it was looming in my mind as an unknown where everything was different, or maybe because it was raining and dreary that particular day.  Whatever the reason, it made me a little less comfortable. The driving rain accompanied us all the way to our first stop at the Giant's Causeway, but it did stop at that point.  Some of the most incredible coastal scenery we've ever seen greeted us as we meandered the upper coast of North Ireland. The grassy pastures seemed to go right up to the edge of the sea. Some were cliffs, some were rolling hills that went to the water's edge. To me, there was just a different feel to Northern Ireland. When we left the coastal areas the weird feeling came back.  As I said to various people a few times since, it was as if we might have crossed the border from West Germany into old Communist East Germany. The buildings and architecture was different. Everything in the Republic had character and individuality. Even in a village where all the businesses were part of one long building, each one was painted its own bright color, lettered with its own unique sign style, or had different doors or windows. It was all bright, different, artsy, and unique. In North Ireland, everything was all monochromatic. Buildings were all built of brick or concrete, and had no colors. They were all unchanging from beginning to end. The towns and cities had a "dormitory" or "military" feel to them. At one point, Sarah commented that she missed the Republic of Ireland. I agreed. I think we all agreed. As beautiful as parts of the northern coastline were, we were all indeed very glad to cross back over the invisible border into our friendly Republic of Ireland. It was our friend. You could almost feel a collective sigh from us all.

Some of the things about Ireland I found interesting are probably the same across Europe. The buses
that we came to call "bug buses" because of their unique mirrors that looked like antennae for example. They were everywhere. Also, in all the places we stayed or visited only one time did I see a sink that had a single water faucet for hot and cold. All the others had a separate hot and cold tap. More often than not, something was substandard about one or the other too, be it pressure, flow, or temperature. One thing I never expected was "clean" diesel fuel. I hate diesel vehicles--mainly because of the smell. It's either the smell of the fuel itself, or it's the smell of the exhaust. Either way, I've always had a sour feeling toward diesels. In Ireland, however, diesels are different. I found out because the rental car guy "sold" me on one. I only took it because he assured me that diesel was cheaper in Ireland. You know what? He was right. Unlike in the US, it's a full 10¢ cheaper than unleaded. It's also completely different. There is little or no smell in the liquid itself and in the exhaust. I was very impressed. You'd think that a country as big as the US would have done the "clean" diesel thing long before now. Maybe it's the fact that our fuel is among the cheapest in the world. Many Americans don't know how good they've got it until they pay for fuel in another country.

All said and done, we logged over 1700 miles, took (collectively) over 2,000 pictures each, and spent way too much money.  But isn't that what a trip of this magnitude is all about?  It wasn't a vacation--it was a trip.  We ate fantastic food, stood in places that were rich in history, talked with great people--all the things that make a trip into a true experience.  While we had a few things go wrong, none were serious or out of the ordinary.

Okay, we've been to Iceland, Ireland, and Sarah's been to India.  What's next?  Italy?


Roku: It's not a salad dressing, nor is it some sort of Polynesian sun god. No, it's not a dance either. In reality, it's an great little device that lets you stream internet-based content through your TV.

In our case, a Roku was a catalyst. A catalyst for change. A force that pushed us in a direction we, until this point, refused to go.

I'm just being dramatic. Allow me explain.

A Roku is a great thing. Sue's parents have a Roku at their house, and we got to experience it when we were there last. You can get a lot of content from Internet sources, and a Roku puts that all through your TV. All you need is good Internet. Yesterday, Sue decided she was going to "bite the bullet" and plunk down the money for a Roku. We stopped by Best Buy and she selected the one she wanted (it worked on both wired and wireless) and we went to the check stand. The lady says we can knock $20 off the $99 if we open a Best Buy account on the spot. Sure, why not? Twenty bucks is twenty bucks. We would just pay it and cancel it anyway. We were feeling pretty good about it.

Until we got home.

We found that our aged 36" RCA analog (aka: behemoth) had no jack to which we could connect our new Roku. It needed an HDMI jack and the TV was just too old to have one. After sitting there and stewing about it for a while I did a little digging online and suggested we go to Costco and buy a new TV. It didn't take long for us to decide that it was time. After doing a little measuring to see what size we wanted, we blew the dust off the ol' truck and went into town.

We ended up buying a 47" Visio "smart" TV. That means essentially, that everything we wanted the Roku for in the first place is already built into the TV.

Funny, even though it didn't work out, the Roku gave us the reason we needed to join the 21st century. Now we can take it back.

Saturday: The Escalation of Strange

Saturday ended up with a high degree of strange activity taking place.  Unusual, strange, weird--whatever.  Any single event that unfolded in itself wouldn't have been a big deal or worth a mention.  Coupled all together, however, and it makes you write a blog about it.

It started out fairly ordinary.  Sue went with a few of her offspring to hit up the local Heather Highlands neighborhood garage sale.  I stayed home and tidied up the side of the garage where my Harley lives, expecting (hoping?) a guy would show up to look at it.  Well, true to Craigslist shoppers, he didn't show up or even call.  No biggie.  I got some stuff cleaned up at least.  Sue got back and showed me all the goodies she had bought and we had lunch.

We decided to take our cameras out for a shoot--to Auburn's annual Petpalooza event.  The place was way bigger than I recall it being (I hadn't been to it in a couple years at least), and there were vendor tents all over the place.  There were lots and lots of people out with their interesting pets all right, but not as much wackiness in the form of costumes and stuff.  It occurred to me later that it was probably because we were there after they have their noon parade.  Last time I was there it was more like 11am and the place was loaded with weirdness.  We did get a few good shots and had a good time.  On the way home I suggested we hit up an Auburn skate park.  After all, it was Saturday so there should be a bunch of kids out there having fun and presenting photographic opportunities to us.  Not so.  It was barren.  Not a person in sight.  Okay, let's go home.

We weren't home very long, and poof--the power went out.  What the hell?  There was no wind or bad weather.  It was less than a week prior that we lost power to bad weather, so we're both going, "Not again!"  Well, we dug out the voltage inverter, plugged both the cable modem and the wifi router into it and sat their all cocky doing our internet business as usual--only using our iPads.  We decided to watch an episode of The Walking Dead (our new favorite show on Netflix).  We just got it going and was getting into the show when the video just froze.  Hey, what's going on?  I looked at the modem and the top light was blinking and the rest were dark.  Yep, the cable was dead.  What the hell?  We sighed and just sat there and played games and passed the time.

When it got closer to dinnertime, the power came back on.  Yippee!  We got our stuff all set up to have grilled chicken patty sandwiches which included nuking something to warm it and putting my buns in the toaster.  We had the computers up, a few clocks reset, and the power went out again.  Arghh!  It wasn't out all that long this time.  We had our dinner taken care of and were passing the time.

The power came on.  We were both wondering, "Do we bother resetting anything?  How long will it stay this time?"  Well, we went ahead and reset everything and all was good.  We called up the episode we started watching to resume where we had left off--this time on Sue's computer.  We were watching it for a short time when her screen went black.  What?  Not again!  No, not again--this time her computer died!  Apparently, the voltage fluctuations wreaked havoc with her power supply because it just expired quietly.  It had seen enough and gave up the ghost.

No biggie to us--we're computer nerds.  We have extra stuff around.  I pulled a power supply out of a storage box and opened her computer up.  We had replaced it to begin with because she needed more power plugs than her old one had.  That meant this replacement wouldn't quite cover all the drives her computer had but would get us by until we could buy a new one.  After swapping it all in and hooking it all up it didn't work.  I opened mine up, and because our computers both had the identical power supply, I opted to put mine in hers (nice guy eh?).  That got hers up and running just fine.  Mine... not yet.  The power supply from the spare parts box never did work in mine either.  Fortunately, Keith had an extra one in his room and I installed that and got everything running smoothly.

We finally got to finish the episode of the Walking Dead.

By then it was bedtime.

Cima Gallina: Gone But Not Forgotten: Part 1

It's about time I told my (few) readers another story. Yes, another of the amazingly-interesting stories that have shaped me into the patchwork human you see before you. Are you intrigued yet? I'm going to tell you about the place I used to live in northern Italy.

I was single in the Air Force, so whenever I got orders to relocate I was excited. I had no family disruption to be concerned with. No kids leaving school or spouse that had to leave her job. Most of my belongings fit into a few boxes. When I got orders to move it was like tearing open a clue on The Amazing Race. What will I get? Where will I go? In the field of electronics that I was in, most assignments outside of the US were remote locations of some kind, like mountaintops. At this particular time I was kind of hoping for a stateside assignment. I had already been in exile in a remote part of Turkey (Malatya) for almost a year, and I was missing the freedoms of the US. There were 28 of us living and working there, and most of them hated every minute of it. Although I was fine with the place I was still ready to leave. A year is enough. When I got my assignment to Italy, I was kind of divided on it. I was disappointed to not go back to the states, but yet I was interested in going to such an strangely unknown assignment. Even though I was among people that had been in that same field of communications for many years, they hadn't even heard of this place I was headed. That just added to the interest. Especially when I read what my "sponsor" had written to me about the place.  The name of the site was Cima (pronounced cheema) Gallina.

[It's easy to look back on it and romance it in my mind. Oh, to relive that time and place and re-experience it with my current values and interests! I would do so many things different. But back to the story...]

After spending almost a month on leave at home, I flew commercial all the way to Aviano Air Base (near Venice). I was picked up by two of my new coworkers, Joe and Frank ("don't call me Francis!). One of the two was my appointed sponsor--the one that had written me the required "what to expect at your new assignment" letter. We did the back and forth Q&A all the way there, and because the drive to my new home was over three hours long, there was a lot we covered. Here are some of the more interesting facts--things that made it unique to any other place I had ever heard of:
  • There was a whopping total of 5 of us there.
  • We wore no uniforms of any kind. We wore all civilian clothing (to help blend in among locals and tourists), but we still had to maintain our military grooming and appearance standards.
  • The mountaintop site was only accessible by chairlift. It took 45 minutes total, and used two chairlifts.
  • The work schedule was 4 days on, 4 days off. During our "on" time, we actually lived up there.
  • There were no military facilities down below, so we lived in apartments or wherever we wanted. Uncle Sam paid us handsomely to do so.
  • We were about 10 miles from the border of Austria. Because Austria is a neutral country, US military installations were not permitted on it. Our site was the northernmost tip of Italy, and was a "repeater" link that shot over Austria to a site in Germany.
  • It was a dual-language area. While the people spoke both Italian and German, it was once part of Bavaria, so the architecture, culture, and the language was predominately German.
I believe it was January when I got there--the thick of winter. It was a European skiing paradise, and it was the peak of their tourism season. The town was bustling. The sights, the smells, and the feeling in the air was so different from anything I had ever experienced! The streets were narrow and snow was so high that you had to step down into many of the shops and restaurants. Every business had puddles and wet footprints leading from the entrance door. The bars and restaurants were my favorite places. The warmth of the wood fires in their fireplaces, the laughter, the happy voices speaking all sorts of different languages, the clinking of glassware, and the fantastic smells that wafted throughout the places just drew me in. There was a high level of human warmth in those places. Even though I was a stranger I felt welcome. There was just something about being in that environment that overwhelmed me. Looking out the window to the snowy views of tourist life--I kept thinking I can't believe where I am sitting!

It was an interesting thing being in a dual-language place. Everywhere I looked there were signs printed in Italian and German. All the towns themselves even had two names. That beautiful tourist-filled shangri-la town I found myself in there at the base of the mountains was called Colle Isarco if you were Italian, and Gossensass if you spoke German. The mountain that we called Cima Gallina was called Hubnerspiel in German.  There were no apartments available when I first arrived, and for a week I had a room at the Sport Hotel. It was on the second floor and the balcony opened out to the street I enjoyed going outside onto the snow-covered balcony where I loved to drink in the sights and sounds of the unique little town. After a week or so I got myself a more permanent abode. Believe it or not, it was an apartment-like room in the basement of a same hotel! I got the impression it was originally there for a cook or chef or something because my room door was right across from the kitchen. It was bigger than the regular hotel rooms, and it also had a bigger, more apartment-like bathroom in it. I remember sneaking into the closed kitchen late at night on occasion to scavenge leftover pommes frites.

After I arrived I had a couple days before I was scheduled to go up onto the mountain for my first shift. That was fantastic because I got to explore my new surroundings! Being somewhat unprepared, I needed some additional clothing. I took a good look at what everyone was wearing, and with some advice from one of my new coworkers, I went shopping. Naturally, clothing stores in small, tourist places are going to be expensive, but the good thing is, they had exactly what I needed. I bought a nice, lightweight (but extremely warm) ski jacket, and a pair of puffy moon boots. I had never seen moon boots before, and the US still hadn't "discovered" them, but around there everyone was wearing them. Some were even covered with long hair (which is probably where George Lucas got the Chewbacca look). When I first put my feet into them I could not believe how warm, cushy, and comfortable they were. I wore them probably half the year I was there. They proved to be an indispensable asset.

Looking down on Colle Isarco
There are no skiers in my family, so I had never ridden a chairlift before. When I was led up to the bottom of it for my first ride to my new job I didn't really know what to expect. After some quick instruction, I watched for a couple minutes as other people (skiers of course) went ahead. When I felt I was ready I stepped forward and was scooped up by an empty chair and bounced gently as it carried me upward. That ride was one of the most profound experiences of my life! I was mesmerized as the ground fell away from me and I slowly left the sounds of the small town behind. As I rose in the gray, snowy sky, I had an overwhelming feeling of solitude. When it's snowing everything seems quieter, and that just added to it. I sat, cocooned on my chair, and took it all in--occasionally craning my head around to watch the town receding from view behind me. Just above the town I sailed slowly over the Autostrade, the major highway between Italy and Austria that cuts through Brenner Pass. There was a platform above the highway so nothing could accidentally be dropped onto cars and trucks below. I remember having a strange feeling of being vulnerable when I went over that highway.  I couldn't resist waving at the traffic though, and was I greeted in return by horns honking from them as they passed below.
Getting higher
As I left that highway behind, I floated over someone's private property, then came to the lower part of the actual ski area. There I saw a rope-tow to the right that took the skiers back up to where the chair lift ended. I watched as skiers of all sizes enjoyed themselves below. In some areas my chair was only about 20 feet off the ground so I was right in the middle of it all. Shrieks, laughter, and all sorts of people sounds assailed me as I floated silently above them, taking it all in. When I got to the end of the lift there were skiers all around, so I was glad I was able to dismount without making an idiot of myself. The second half of my journey was still ahead of me. I looked up the mountain at the lonely ski lift that stood silent and unmoving. It's single chairs swayed gently in the wind, stretching up the barren mountain and disappearing into a grayish-white distance. The operator started up the lift and I got on. This one was different. It was more lonely. There were no trees, no other riders, and nothing much to look at but the naked, empty chairs coming down on my left. There was no sound but the occasional bumpety-bumpety-bump my chair made as it rolled over the towers that held me off the ground. Unlike the lower, public portion where all the skiers were, this one consisted of much higher towers.  It made the whole experience both scary and exciting. There was not much to see the rest of the trip, and after a fairly long, cold ride I was relieved to see my destination come into view.

Cold and quiet
Lonely at the top
There wasn't much up there at the top of Cima Gallina. Besides the open-ended enclosure that made up the end of the chairlift, there was one windowless building next to it, surrounded by an assortment of communication antennas and a small power structure of some kind. I waited for my coworker (who was on the chair behind me) to get there and he called the lift shack below to verify nobody else was on the lift behind us before turning it off from the top. They controlled power-up from the bottom when we needed to come down. After ringing the doorbell, we were let in and I met our site commander and the two guys that we would be relieving that day. The site consisted of the commander's office (desk, typewriter, phone, file cabinet), small kitchen/dining room/living room, one bedroom with a bunk bed, a bathroom, and the radio equipment room. I found out that even though we had a shower we didn't use it. Why? There was no water up there unless we provided it! There was an ingenious little device that someone had made when they built the place they called the snow melter (for obvious reasons). It consisted of a horizontal 4x8-foot sheet of corrugated aluminum built over some sort of a frame that had a couple of heating coils and a water collection system under it. Every now and then one of us had to go out and shovel some snow onto the snow melter, and that provided enough water to run the toilet and wash hands and dishes. It gave us the excuse to go outside every now and then. I found out that the site commander was the only one that rode up and down daily--the rest of us worked 4 on-4 off.  Air was very, very thin up there.  I don't know what the elevation was, but the air was thin and dry.  Nosebleeds were common, and you can imagine what your nose was like when you woke up in the morning.  Uncle Sam took care of the small sites the best they could, and there was a constant circuit of movies that made the rounds--all 16mm reels.  We got pretty good at threading and running movies.  When the weeks worth of new movies showed up it was hard to keep from having a movie marathon because there was little else to do.  One time I remember watching a movie called Joyride.  (A crappy "B" movie that featured children of famous actors.)  Anyway, the camera was up and outside the car looking through the windshield as they were talking and driving.  Something caught my eye.  "That looks familiar," I told my coworker.  "Yeah, right." he mumbled.  Just then, a small, green sign that said "Auburn" with an arrow on it went by.  "Hey!" I jumped up and rolled it back and replayed it.  Yep, it was obvious:  They were going north on West Valley Highway and had just went past the sign at the end of west Main Street.  "That's home!  That's my town!" I shouted.  Imagine--sitting on a remote mountaintop in Italy and seeing the sign from your home town go by in a movie.  Pretty weird.

In the clouds on a swinging chair
The ride up and down the mountain was made many, many times during the year I was there. My favorite direction, of course, was down. Partly because I was leaving the confines of work, but mostly because I was facing down. I got to drink in the world below me as it unfolded quietly in slow motion. I got to look across the valleys and the craggy mountains that were part of what was called the Dolomites of Sudtirol. It was a visual feast riding down that chairlift, and I was a captive audience.

Getting on the lift at the top

More to come!

Motel Max

At what point is a motel over the top when it comes to customer satisfaction and presentation? When does it become ridiculous? Are they really that competitive?  I'm sure a lot of people out there have much higher standards than we do when it comes to our expectations of a motel room. They are the ones that will pick up the phone to gripe about the tiniest little thing--too lazy to even go to the lobby in person.

We are not like that.

Because we are not lavish, money-spending people, we are a bit taken aback when we are experiencing something that is way, way over the top. Opulence is something we don't experience on a regular basis. Sometimes we shake our heads in wonder at how ridiculous certain things we see are. The Best Western motel we stayed at in Seaside, Oregon on Saturday night is one of those places.

We knew it wouldn't be cheap because we were buying a room that was right on the beach, but it's an extravagance that we will sometimes bestow upon ourselves for one reason or another. In other words, it's a rarity.  We knew we walked into another level of motel room this time though. The signs were all around us.  When it comes right down to it, it's just a motel room. Its not overly large. It has all the things your usual motel room has. It's clean, has clean towels, all the usual soap, shampoo, fridge, and microwave.  It's the other things that I'm talking about.

Let's start with the kitchenette. On the counter top sat a kitchen towel--fan-folded.  It was saying, "Welcome!  See how fancy we are?"  It had a dishwasher too. I guess we should have taken some dishes, silverware, and pots & pans with us. No wait--they were already there! Okay, there were no pots or pans, but everything else was there. Even a corkscrew.   But then, that goes without saying, right? After all, what good is a fireplace without wine?  And you need a corkscrew to open your wine.  Wait a minute--fireplace?! Yep. Not real of course... That would be a liability. No, this one was naught more than a light switch on the wall. It looks real though, doesn't it?

The stuff in the bathroom was a whole category of its own. Washcloths that were folded into fans and placed carefully in a visually-appealing way.  The toiletry products that were placed in a nice pattern were also very visually appealing.  There was even a Kleenex that was fan-folded and greeting us.  Both of us were afraid to disturb it when we needed to blow our nose, and reached for a fresh one in the box instead.   There was a fancy shower head that was bent upward in a graceful way, and finished with an above average shower head on it. That's not all folks. How about a wall phone right between the toilet and the shower? Yep. Apparently, that's so when you're sitting there on the toilet and you feel the need to complain about the quality of the toilet paper, or maybe the shower water is 2° too cool to be satisfactory. Crazy.  I was tempted to call them and tell them how disappointed I was that the light green soap box in the toiletry presentation was upside down but I refrained. Also, the light over the bathroom sink was a little overdone. Why do you need a 4-lamp fixture in a motel room anyway? I'll tell you why: Because it's extravagant!

Lots of other things that were 'above and beyond' were crammed into that motel room too.  Things like the ceiling fan over the bed, a reading chair with a footstool, a pull-down Murphy bed with a couch, and a 37" (What? Only 37?!) Visio flat screen TV and a DVD player. Speaking of TV's... This is also the first place I have ever stayed that has "clean" remotes. I guess it caters to those of of us that make sure to use an sanitary wipekin on our grocery carts before pushing them through a store.

Yeah, I make fun, but it was probably the nicest customer service and stuff I've ever gotten at a motel.  The bed was the nicest I've ever slept in at a motel.  As many of us know, a lot of the motels that have a 'lock' on a particular location will just give you the minimum standard, knowing you'll pay regardless because of its particular location.  Kudos to the staff and management at the Ocean View Resort.  They treat people pretty well.