Circular Letter the Last!
11 Bachstelzenweg, Dahlem, Berlin, Germany.
26 November 1946
Two weeks from to-day I am due to push off for the States. It may drag out for a few days more, I may get stuck in Bremerhaven for from five days to two weeks before I can get passage on an Army transport, the ship may be one of the slow ones (the speediest take ten days crossing) or I may run into a calamity such as the President Tyler had and spend 22 days on the briny deep. Nevertheless, I’m making a valiant effort to get home for Christmas and, with luck, I hope to make it. My hope is that the trip will be calm and uneventful and the weather clear and sunny, but come what will I’m on my way home, and that will provide all of the happiness and thrill I need, much as I enjoy Germany. However, the wrench of parting here will be considerable for I shall be leaving friends, scenes and experiences I can never forget. And the torch which lighted my way over a year ago is still burning brightly. There is still a huge job to be done and I should like to be in on the doing of it.
Sunday morning (the day before yesterday) I arrived home from my tour to our southern neighbors, Switzerland and Italy, tired, greatly disappointed by the weather and full of undigested impressions. But I am delighted that I went, even at this unfavorable time of year for, hasty and skimpy as the trip was, it has left me with clearly defined impressions of those countries which I could never have acquired otherwise. I feel that I know something of the heartbeat, not only of the two countries in general but also of a number of the principal cities which are a part of them. Each is clearly different and each interesting.
I can’t begin to give you a diary of the two weeks and you would probably rightfully resent it if I attempted such a thing, but I’ll try to sketch the highlights of the journey and then recapitulate a few of my impressions gained on the way. As already noted, the weather was uniformly bad, – rain fully half the days, poor visibility in the most scenic areas, heavy overcast in the mountains. We had a total of one and a half days of sunshine out of fourteen, a pretty poor average. Of the fourteen nights six were spent on trains, four of them on day coaches and one on a crowded Italian civilian train. Through Switzerland we travelled in 3rd class coaches with narrow wooden seats. Travel through Germany, France and Italy was over rights of way which had been bombed out, the replaced roadbed and the makeshift bridges everywhere requiring many waits and tediously slow progress. Hotel accomodations were very mediocre and at Mulhouse we slept in unheated barracks, with ablutions performed in a room where our breath was plainly visible. We got along with an irreduceable minimum of sleep (largely our own fault) and meals were completely irregular. But this was all part of the game, part of the fun most of the time, and the gripes were few and of short duration. It was a completely mixed party, – military and civilian, married couples and single folks, male and female, gathered from all parts of the U. S. occupied area from Paris to Munich, and of all ages from a four year old tyke to myself. In the main I didn’t find it a particular congenial group, but I quickly teamed up with a 30 year old 1st lieutenant from Berlin and a 24 year old warrant officer engaged in Counter Intelligence Corps work in Beyreuth, close up to the Russian Zone, Poland and Czechoslovakia, – respectively Bob Colman and Ted Poling. Without them I would have had a pretty dreary time but together we managed to get more out of the trip than did anyone else, with the possible exception of a little Italian-American civilian gal who revisited her childhood home and saw many of her family still remaining in Italy. Bob, Ted and I linked up part of the time with Ilsa Adler, Austrian Jewess with British citizenship and a fine girl, and Jan Porter, a Red Cross girl who has been over here for about three years. *** There’s the background into which I shall attempt to build the picture.
My departure from Berlin was a comedy of errors and misfortunes. I planned to take the Saturday night train for Frankfurt and was packed and ready to go an hour and a half before train time. But my efforts to get a taxi were so completely Snafu that we finally arrived at the station just in time for me to see the car doors close and the train slowly pull away from me as I stood fuming on the station platform. I say “we”, and you should have seen that taxi. It was one of the miniature German cars, a sedan, with my overstuffed Valpack occupying the full seat beside the German driver. My friend, Maja Purvis, was keeping Ahyaks for me during my absence, and she and I were in the back seat with Ahyaks’ bed, a carton of food for my child, a radio and my musette bag. And on top of everything cavorted Ahyaks, lurching back in our faces, breathing hotly down the collar of the half petrified driver, missing nothing outside of the rain streaked windows and highly excited by the whole performance. How we ever got to the station over the slippery pavement is still a mystery to me, but get there we did and then back for dinner at Truman Hall and a few dances at Harnackhaus before we parted, she with the dog and his belongings and I with my luggage.
I was up at six the next morning in hopes that I could catch the 8:00 A.M. plane and still make my connection, but a dreary wait at the Tempelhof Airport only resulted in an announcement at noon that no planes would leave that day on account of snow, rain and fog. Maja and Ahyaks walked over in the middle of the morning to make my wait more bearable, and we returned to Bachstelzenweg and whipped up lunch. I sent them home early and, having learned by experience, I took the bus to the station that evening and made my train comfortably, with a most amusing experience behind me and no harm done except for a day’s delay in my trip. The train trip and the following day in Frankfurt were spent in the company of my friend George Mayer, OMGUS Personnel, so the time passed quickly until the tour train left at 9:15 in the evening. That night was rough, with a “breakfast” stop of an hour and a half at Karlsruhe at one thirty in the morning, a change at Strassburg several hours later and arrival at the Rest Center at Mulhouse (or Mulhausen, have it your way) the middle of the next morning. Here the formal tour started, we were processed, briefed, fed and slept, and pulled out at 7:15 the following morning. At Basle (O.K., Basel – of Bale) we went through customs and had a brief tour of the city, via special street car, and an opportunity for some shopping, leaving for Lugano just after a delicious lunch. It was a strange feeling to be in a city which showed no evidence of war’s destruction and with plate glass shop windows stuffed with commodities we had not seen for many a month.
The ride across Switzerland was lovely, most of it across the fertile plain, finally striking the mountains at Lucerne, then climbing to the loop tunnels and the long straight tunnel under St. Gothard Pass, emerging on the south slope of the Alps in Italian Switzerland and sliding down into the lovely city of Lugano on the lake of the same name. The evening was largely spent in window shopping and more expensive pursuits (for many of the crowd went a bit berseck on Swiss watches), in viewing the lights over the lake and riding on several of the funicular railroads which unite the different levels of the city. The next morning Ted and I, despite the forbidding weather, took the funicular up San Salvatore and were well repaid, even though our view was limited by haze and the nearer aspect was pretty drab in the slight drizzle which accompanied us. Then lunch and the train for Chiasso, where we had an hour for customs and a stroll about the town before entraining again for Milan, whisking by Lake Como so fast that we hardly had a glimpse of it.
Late afternoon and evening in Milan were consumed in strolling, shopping (I got a lovely new collar and leash for my dependent) and eating dinner. Then for a 23 hour ride to Rome in a day coach, whisking in and out of tunnels so fast as we traveled down the Mediteranean coast that the view assumed the nature of a series of still pictures between the moments of darkness. But my first view of that water gave me a thrill compounded of beauty and romance which I shall not soon forget. The first evening in Rome was devoted to strolling and shopping and the next morning Bob, Ted and I went on our own. I had phoned my friend Cecil Hightower, stationed in Casserta, and arranged to meet in Naples the following afternoon. So we took the four hour trip in an Italian train to that filthy but highly scenic city, sightseeing until mid-afternoon and then meeting Cece – a wonderful reunion for the two of us. He looks in the pink, a bit heavier than I had known him in Alexandria and a year and a half older, but the same old companion of former days. We dined at the Seaview Officers’ Club, then taxied to another spot high on the hill overlooking the city, an Allied night club from which the view was entrancing. It must have been superb by daylight. In bed by 4:00 A.M., and this old man just couldn’t make the grade at seven the next morning to take in Pompeii, so my two companions made it alone. Lunch with Cece and back to Rome in the afternoon.
That evening Bob and I strolled through some of the picturesque but less formal byways of Rome, wandering into the Borgese Gardens and ending up in a little wine shop in the wall of the Gardens, where we got plenty of local color, made cordial friends with the jolly merchant, sipped our vermouth and warded off the various ladies of the evening who attempted to attract our attention. It was pure local color and we enjoyed every minute of the experience.
The next morning Ted and I took the general sightseeing tour provided free by the American Red Cross, returning to it after lunch at the hotel. Of course, one cannot see Rome in less than a month, but we got a fairly comprehensive glimpse of it that day. The trip included a visit to the better known catacombs, St. Peters, the Colleseum, the Basilica of St. Pauls Without the Walls, and views of many of the other famous buildings and relics of antiquity. I shall not go into descriptions or sing the praises of these – they are too well known by you all already, but the sight of them was inspiring and whetted my appetite for a return at some future time. That evening we three dined at Alfredo’s, which the maître d’hotel at our caravanserie assured us was the best place to get a first class Italian dinner. It was prima, and quite lived up to his recommendations.
The tour was scheduled to depart for Milan at 11:30 the next morning, but Bob and I took an Italian train at 8:40 for Florence, arriving after a six hour run. Ah, that is the city for my money, – clean, as are the cities of northern Italy, picturesque beyond the other cities we had glimpsed, historic, architecturally noted – with the marble Duomo, Giotto’s Tower, the Pitti Palace, Palazzo Vecchio, Uffizi Galleries, the little silver and leather shops, the shops on the Ponte Vecchio – and so on until you emerge in a daze of fascination (excuse the spelling above, I’m too lazy to look up the correct spelling). We spent quite a little time in the shops and made particular inroads on our pocket books in the leather shops. Dinner and the early night at the Excelsior Hotel, run by the U. S. Army, then down to the station for the 2:15 A.M. train for Milan. We waived our rights to seats in the first class coach after we had opened a few compartment doors and were nearly overcome by the hot odor of bodies, perfume and garlic which rolled out over us, adjusted our baggage in the unheated vestibule of the coach (which we shared with five Italians) and dozed until we reached Milan at 8:40, two hours after the rest of the group arrived from Rome. The detour was a bit rugged but I wouldn’t have missed it for the worlds. Shopping and sightseeing in the morning, then off on the noon train for Lucerne.
Again the weather was disappointing, and we saw little of the more distant peaks and aspects of the Swiss Alps. But the next morning, after a night at Lucerne, the sun shone brightly. Ted, Ilsa, Joan (a little Dutch girl we scraped acquaintance with at the hotel) and I strolled through the quaint city – and loved it, although neither then nor at any other time during our sojourn in Switzerland did we have any particular reason to develop any great fondness for the Swiss people. That thrifty group is out for every dollar of the tourist’s money they can get and they are not even subtle or gracious about the way they go about the job. None of us had any trouble with the Italians, bandits tho they may be, but we were at loggerheads with the Swiss everyway we turned. If I am going to be jipped I certainly want the operation to be artistically done. After lunch Ted, Ilsa and I took an hour’s ride across the lake and mounted the Rigi on the amazing little electric railway which climbs to its summit. That was the highlight of the whole tour, Switzerland with its lovely lakes spread out in essence at our feet and in the distance the towering, broken range of snow-clad peaks reaching to the French border. We could not distinguish the well known mountains nor did we care much, – the grandeur of the scene was quite enough for us. We strolled down the path along the top of the steep mountainside to the next station down and there took the train for the return trip. The boat ride back was largely in the dark, and the lights and their reflections made a faery land of the place.
Another night in Lucerne, a day and a night on the train, with stops at Basel and Mulhouse, Strassburg and Karlsruhe, and we were back in Frankfurt. Ted and I finished the night at the Carleton Hotel, then strolled most of the next day, seeing old parts of that devastated city which had previously escaped me. Then a night on the Berliner, our crack U. S. Army duty train between those two cities, probably the best rail accomodations in Europe to-day, and I was home for a second Sunday morning breakfast in my billet to supplement the excellent one on the train, – rather tired physically (tho nothing a few good nights sleep couldn’t cure) but wonderfully rested mentally and nervously after two whole weeks when I could completely forget the office and its maddening frustrations. The trip was entirely worthwhile and neither the bad weather nor the complete lack of photographic possibilities dimmed my enjoyment of it.
I was forceably struck by the recovery which Italy has made in the past year and a half, tho recognizing that at no time or place was it hit as badly as was Germany. The U. S. Army has gone overboard to help put it on its feet, building roads and bridges, railroads and buildings. The shops were full of all imaginable kinds of commodities, there seemed to be no shortage of any kinds of food and the people looked healthy and well fed. There are still many German POWs there doing recovery work and even they looked happy and contented under the minimum of oversight and guarding given to them. Naturally, the Italians want the occupying armies to leave, and that quickly, and resent not being considered full partners in the victory, a viewpoint which makes those of us from Germany raise an amused and inquiring eyebrow. We were able to note the startling difference between the northern and southern parts of the boot, – cleanliness and progress as opposed to filth and inertia; we sensed the completely different character of each of the four cities visited. Italy was having a late fall, – trees were in their autumn coloring and the farmers were tilling the fields and bringing in the late harvest, while to the north early winter has set in and nature is at its drabbest. I should love to see that country under smiling skies in more favorable times of the year and of the national economy.
And now for two weeks of frenzied closing up of my affairs here, shifting my office work to other shoulders, packing and disposing of my effects, not to mention good-byes and farewell parties. I’ll probably be ready to spend my full time while crossing the Atlantic in a completely soporific state.
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Well, this account seems to have come pretty close to being a diary after all. Excuse it please, it seems to have been the natural way to tell the story. Happy Thanksgiving and a Merry Christmas to you all. And the best of good wishes until we meet again.