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!