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!

Welcome!
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!


2 comments:

Sue Z Q said...

Nice pictures!

Ed Terris said...

Great write up! I was the first AF person on Cima Gallina when we took it over from the Italians in 1964. We lived in a log cabin just below where the concrete building was later built and there was no Autostrada! I did 5 years as Det Co on three separate tours and still go back to this day! Raylon Rogers took over when I left for the last time in October 1972. (eddieterris@yahoo.co.uk)