I quickly settled into my job and military life. Our unit was small so I got to know every member – probably more so than the others as I had access to all their military and personal histories.
Everybody in the platoon but Harold and I were from the Deep South. One of the guys was Ralph Spagnuolo of Italian heritage, but he too was from somewhere in the South – surprising as I always thought of Italians and New York City. Everyone called him Pappy and he invited me to go with him to a place on the Italian coast where his family was from. I was going to pass it up as I didn't have a whole lot of money. “Don't worry about it,” he told me, “We can do it on the cheap.” Through the on-base Special Services, we bought Third Class train tickets. A Donut Dolly also gave us tips on how to travel as cheaply as possible. We exchanged our entire month's paycheck in U.S. Dollars – getting special permission from our platoon leader to do so.
We carried backpacks with changes of clothing and ponchos for the daily European rain showers. With our GI haircuts, clothes and shoes, nobody was going to identify us as anything but American GIs. We caught the shuttle bus into Bordeaux and walked the mile or so to the big, gray, iron and glass train station. One of the tips we'd received was to buy snacks and stuff from the stands outside the station and definitely NOT on board the train. We also bought a bottle of cheap red wine to quench our thirsts. Our Post Exchange Swiss Army knives took care of the corkscrew need.
Only the very well-to-do French had cars in 1959. Most were either the Citroën “Gangster Wagon” as we liked to call the Avante [see picture below] that always caught my attention as the way the front doors opened or the little “upside-down-washboard” car whose name I can't remember.
Everyone else traveled by bus or train so the station was huge with endless tracks. Even back then, the Europeans provided pictures to help travelers – although I always got the impression the French did so begrudgingly. We had little trouble finding the right train. Aw c'mon now? You don't expect me to remember the route we took do you?
I do remember the Third Class seats were wood, but shaped so it wasn't too bad. I also quickly discovered that our backpacks made excellent cushions, not only to sit on but to use as a pillow. We left early in the afternoon and passed through miles of countryside with open fields or wooded areas, interspersed with towns and villages. It was certainly a far cry from the sprawl of houses I grew up with in Southern California. We seemed to stop at every single village along the way with lots of people getting on and off.
Oh yeah – there were express trains but were a bit too steep for our limited budgets.
As neither of us spoke more than a bit of “Bar room French” we got lots of dirty looks from everyone, especially the conductor who clearly showed his disgust every time he came by to once again check our tickets. I figured Ralph knew a little bit or that his Italian might help us. Oh yeah? He didn't speak a word of Italian.
“My parents came to the States to be Americans, not Italians. They never spoke Italian in front of me and made it a point that English was our language.”
Every once in a while, French Gendarmes would board to pass through the cars checking passports. We only carried our US Army ID Cards as all European nations accepted them as valid ID and we didn't even need visas to go from France to Italy.
Passing into Italy was truly like entering a new country!
The grayness of France disappeared in an instant. The people. Their clothes. Their attitude. The towns and villages. The Italian policemen who came on board, smiled at us and one even tried to speak English. He was curious at Ralph's name and beamed with delight to learn we were going to visit the village his family came from. He even took the time to write down some directions as to which train depot to change to what train and some other tips on getting to where we were going.
And the train passengers surprised us beyond belief. They welcomed us! Americans! Their friends. Their liberators. An Italian family moved into the seats around us and freely shared their food and wine. All eagerly tried to ask us about America using universal sign language. They also happily tried to teach us Italian. And several of the attractive young Italian lasses smiled as to warm our “souls.”
It took us almost two full days to reach a small fishing village on the western coast of Italy. In addition to our backpacks, we each now had a colorful blanket-poncho and cloth traveling bags for food and other little things. Almost everybody in our car rose to shake our hands and some of the ladies kissed us. One family was getting off at our station and took us in hand, insisting that they be our guides. They, of course, recognized the name Spagnolo and it turned out they were related to Ralph – as was almost every individual living in the village.
I don't remember Ralph's grandfather's name but we were greeted as the wandering sons returning from a far land. Even the village priest was a relative. There was no staying in a hotel or inn. We were led to probably the biggest house in the village where the Patron, another relative, made us welcome. He was something like the assistant mayor, had some impressive college degrees, and spoke pretty good English. We each had a huge bedroom with 18' ceilings and a big four-poster beds covered with feather comforters. A maid even came to take away our kinda ratty clothes, a manservant replacing them with a complete casual outfit – it seemed one of the Patron's boys had gone to Rome and those were his clothes.
We had only taken two week's leave and the train trip took two days each way. That meant we could only stay for 12 days. I don't think the party stopped from the time we arrived until the time we left. Ralph was family. And, because I was his friend and we served together, so was I.
We went out on a fishing boat a couple of times – I think it was a way to find out if Ralph had lost the instincts of his ancestors. At least neither of us got seasick and we worked as hard as we could, not exactly being sailors or fishermen.
The food? I won't even try to describe the amazing smells, aromas, tastes or just plain delight of the endless dishes placed before us.
“Mangiare! Bere!” The demands to eat and drink filled our ears. And everyone wanted to dance. Dances that Ralph and I had absolutely no idea how to do. But, that didn't matter. We were hauled into the village plaza or patios or porches to make total fools of ourselves.
The time came to leave. The conductor looked at us in amazement as we made our rounds of so many people there to send us off. Hugs and kisses and handshakes. It was truly a time of sadness at such a wonderful time coming to an end. We waved back as the train pulled away from the depot. Neither of us spoke during the long train ride back to Bordeaux. We were too busy remembering the wonderful time we'd had and the superb people we'd met.
And no! There's no way I'm going into details of just how wonderful some of our encounters had been. That's none of your business.
A Different Type of Tour
During two summers before my enlistment in the US Army, my Boy Scout Troop took tours of the United States. The differences in my country amazed me. From the shores of the Pacific Ocean, through great deserts, the swamps and bayous of the south and eastern shore, the tall pines and great trees of the northeast, the Great Plains, and the Rocky Mountains. We often traveled for several hours without seeing any towns or villages.
So, I found the French countryside far different from the USA. Los Angeles is not particularly a city as the center of a “landopolis” - a place where houses sat wherever one looked. There were never any clear lines between the towns. That was not the case in the countryside I now rode through. One did not go more than 5 or 6 kilometers without entering a small village.
Another note. My moped had a tank that held 1 liter of gasoline. Our gas stamps came in one, five, and ten liter denominations so I almost never used the monthly allocations. [We won't talk about how one bought the full allotment and “traded” them to one's buddies.] Being willing to peddle as much as using the engine often gave me well over 250 kilometers on a tank.
One of the guys in the battalion had a motorscooter and put it up for sale when he was ready to take The Freedom Train home. The price was right and I worked out a deal to make two payments on it.
The Lambretta was a bit different than the motor bike. It had a 5 liter tank with a range of about 100 kilometers per liter – more if one kicked it into neutral going downhill. I bought the 1 liter stamps as I never used up all the tank and didn't want to give away the amount I didn't need on a 5 liter stamp. I may not be right about this but seem to remember the Exchange Service had a deal with ESSO and that was where one had to buy gas. I'm also not certain what companies operated there but seem to remember Shell, British Petroleum and another – but not a French company.
Interior of the Cathedral in Bordeaux
There I was, a young, virile man in a far away country, free to fall into the depths of sin. [That's all you're gonna read about that part of my time there!]
But, one of the things I truly enjoyed was the architecture, the old buildings from historical times. I especially enjoyed visiting churches. The massive cathedrals with their towering ceilings and ornate facades and internal friezes always caught my attention. During my trips, I found a lot of smaller local churches just as beautiful.
I also broke from my Mormon upbringing by attending masses at the various area churches. Something about the Gregorian chants echoing from the vast ceilings calmed me. I even understood some of the Latin and the way the rite was conducted. I discovered little places here and there where one could see remnants of things constructed during the presence of the Romans.
In early summer of 1959, I took a 7 day leave to see the countryside. I had a Rand-McNally map from the Stars and Stripes store and figured I could make my way without getting lost. I had some American Express traveler's checks and French bills and coins.
At a top speed of about 45 mph, I wasn't going to be traveling on the major highways where drivers had no idea speed limits existed. The first leg from Bussac to Bordeaux gave me no choice and I rode the very edge of the highway, hanging on for dear life when a truck or bus roared by, the wind tossing me around.
No, I didn't wear a helmet. They weren't required and I couldn't wear my army helmet. I wore a knit cap with a pair of shop goggles over my eyeglasses. And gloves with my black GI boots.
I reached Bayonne a little after noon and found a boulangerie [bakery], boucher [butcher], and boutique de vins [wine shop] to buy my lunch. A bench in a nice park filled with beautiful flowers almost, but not quite, hid the sight of soot-covered buildings and people wearing drab clothes.
It did not take much longer until I reached the Bay of Biscay and rode down the highway to Biarritz. There was a long stretch of beach but not a big crowd of bathers. I also saw very few bikinis. The one thing that upset me was to see tufts of dark hair showing under arm pits, a furry coat on legs, and similar tufts in places I won't delineate here.
I quickly moved on and, as it was getting late, decided to find a place to spend the night in Saint Jean-de-Luz. The first thing I noticed about the landscape south of Bordeaux was the total lack of signs of destruction from the big war only 13 years earlier. To see bullet holes in walls was common north of Bordeaux although it had been in Vichy France. I found a small inn facing the waterfront, selecting it because it had an interior courtyard where I could park my motor scooter.
The one thing I had learned was to check for the price list posted by the door of every establishment. The prices were clear so, with my English/French dictionary in hand, I went inside. Very quaint. Highly polished wood floor, old pictures and paintings covering the walls, some furniture that appeared to come from the late 1800s and a small bell desk with a woman in her 50s or 60s. Unlike her countrywomen to the north, she smiled and appeared pleased to welcome an American soldier to her establishment. She even tried to speak some words of English to me! [I almost fell over in shock.]
I filled out the required card, showed her my military ID and leave papers [which she had no idea what to do with but understood I didn't need a passport or visa] and paid by converting one of my traveler checks. She even gave me a most reasonable conversion rate that was posted behind her desk. I put my motor scooter in a corner of the courtyard and ensured it was locked, then followed her upstairs to my room. It was small but very clean and the sanitary facilities were more than adequate to include an old fashioned bathtub on legs. Yeah, it had the required bidet. The best thing was the small balcony facing the ocean.
Two doors away was a small restaurant. Again, I checked the clearly posted menu and sat down at a table looking out over the beach. It was not yet the height of summer and not that many people walked or lolled on the beach or in the water. Parents enjoying the day with their children were the majority. A waiter came out and patiently waited while I translated the menu. At least I'd become fluent in the different types of wine and ordered a small bottle of Bordeaux – it was not until a few years later that I learned to savor different types of wine.
I ordered alaitue, tomate, oignon et la salade au fromage, un soupe de poisson, et veau et les pommes de terre la puree et haricots verts. The wine was excellent, the lettuce crisp with an excellent vinegar and oil dressing, and the veal with mashed potatoes and green beans nicely finished the presentation. Actual French cooking worth talking about. There was an assortment of pastry, so I tried something with pears in it and topped off the meal with strong café avec crème et le sucre. Like every eating establishment I entered, a large espresso machine stood behind the bar but I never had a taste for it.
The one thing I liked about eating was that nobody hurried. As long as I had a drink in front of me, I could spend hours. That's just what I did, watching the passing people to include a few young ladies who hid their faces and giggled as they passed the obvious American.
There was a rare television set in the bar area and, when it grew dark, I went in and found a table where I could watch some kind of variety show in black and white. I only stayed long enough to drink a glass of cognac before going upstairs to my room. I left the window wide open to hear the soothing sound of waves – and the honking of horns that appeared mandatory for any French driver. The mattress was firm but the feather comforter and pillow soon led me to the land of slumber.