Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Fifty-Five Years

Wandering, as I am wont to do from time to time, through the letters I wrote my parents while serving in the Navy so very many years ago, I came across the following, written within the week of fifty-five years ago. And, as always happens when I do this, I am transported back in time, and then is now. And I miss it.

18 December 1955
Naples, like—Conrad has his teeth out; how revolting can one person be?—almost every other city in Europe, is filled with contrasts and contradictions. It is not a particularly pretty city, and were it not for the bay and the looming hulk of Mt. Vesuvius in the distance, it would be completely non-distinguished. Its buildings run from the sturdy clean sweep of the post office to the Victorian pomp of the King’s Arcade; from the graceful lines of modern, American-occupied apartments to the scarred walls of tenements. The impression given is that the war has just ended, and the city has come out second best. Flies and lean cats inhabit most of the restaurants—the streets are filled and haunted by vendors, pushers, and pimps. Boys of seven and eight beg for cigarettes—and smoke them!

Via Roma, the “main drag” resembles a side street in an American business district. This illusion can be maintained until coming to a corner and look at one of their side streets! The buildings are old, heavy, solid—unbroken by doors and windows. Wherever there is a door, it appears to have been carved out of the thick walls as an afterthought. No signs or marquees—the occasional neons are close against the wall.

The clothing styles, both men’s and women’s, are nothing short of hideous. In the race for most outrageous costumes, men are far ahead; the women’s are just drab. The men wear ghastly tweed pants—huge sharkstooth zigzags. The jackets—I can’t in truth call them sport jackets—are generally of the same pattern, but different enough so that they grind, if not clash. Plaid thick shirts, similar to those worn by American lumberjacks, and screaming ties. All these fit like shrouds, only not as graceful. Women’s apparel is tending toward the American, but still frequently one finds the “typical Italian mamma”—black tie-shoes, black stockings, black dress, black shapeless overcoats, and black hair piled stiffly on the head, held with a black combs. If these mammas are accompanied by young girls, they invariably wear heavy brown velvet-like material, of the same texture of theater curtains; buttoned to the neck. No lipstick, no powder—just “blah.”

The uniforms seen frequently on the street are either policemen or soldiers—I never did learn which was which. They are of a thick, olive-drab material almost like burlap, shapeless and singularly unattractive, even to the smallest degree. Their only distinguishing marks are a single tarnished small metal star on each lapel; some of higher rank wear lapel insignias of red with gold flaming swords.

Latest flash—I’ve made arrangements to call home the 24th. Since I don’t speak Italian and the guy at the telephone office didn’t speak English, I had one heck of a time trying to make myself understood. For one thing, he obviously could not conceive the meaning of Rockford Illinois. Rockford, USA fine. I told him there were many Rockfords in America. He’d nod his head patiently, understandingly--and left it Rockford, USA.

So—I’ll be going to the phone company at 7:30 the night of the 24th. That will make it about 1:30 back in the States. I figured you’d probably be let off at noon, being as how it’s Xmas eve. Now, that doesn’t mean I’ll get a line at 7:30—and I can only wait until 11:00, since I’ve got to be back at the ship at 11:30. Therefore, if you don’t hear from me between 1:30 and 5:00, go ahead with whatever you had planned. And don’t be too disappointed if I can’t make it—as I said, with 10,000 guys wanting to call home, things will most likely be rather confused.

Just got back from my second night in Naples—it’s a dirty city with a few polished places, and looks as though the war had ended yesterday instead of ten years ago. I’ll go into greater detail in ye olde journal, but I want to get this sent off immediately. You’ll probably get it on the 27th.

Fifty-five years ago! Dear Lord!


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