Friday, December 09, 2011

The Ghosts of Vesuvius Past

After posting my last blog, about my return to Mt. Vesuvius after 56 years, I thought you might be interested in hearing of my first trip to the mountain, as a young sailor, on December 22, 1956. Following is the letter I wrote my folks from the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga anchored in the Bay of Naples.

22 December, 1956

Dear Folks:

After leaving Pompeii, during which the sun shone obligingly, we stopped at one of the little villages between there and Naples for dinner. While we ate, clouds drifted in from somewhere like sliding doors, completely hiding the mountain. As we started to leave the restaurant, Niagara Falls suddenly appeared overhead, and the street became a river, down which floated odds and ends of branches, celery stalks, and torn bits of paper.

Our guide insisted, with the fervor only Italians have (fortunately) that we couldn’t possibly go up Mt. Vesuvius—that we could see instead Little Vesuvius, an obscure mountain, or hill, that still had a little steaming lava in it. We took a vote, which came out 53 (the sailors) to 2 (the guides) in favor of Vesuvius. We tried pointing out that, if it were raining on big Vesuvius it would most likely be raining on little Vesuvius, too, and we would rather see nothing on the former than on the latter. So, amid a vivid splash of Italian from the guides, we ran to the busses—it was still raining a little—and away we went.

The rain gave way to fog, which turned into clouds as we got higher. We couldn’t see more than fifty feet in any direction, but could make out the road, which twisted and wound, and was directly above and directly below. At first, near the base, there were many farms, and a small village where the driver stopped for cigarettes. About ten people, mostly men and young boys, stood around in front of the “store” staring at us. One of the younger boys smiled and waved, and was immediately shushed and scolded by one of the older men. From then on till we pulled out they just stared at us and we stared back. I think they were a bunch of dirty Communists. (NOTE: Anyone who doesn’t like Americans is a “dirty Communist.”)

Higher up the farms grow more scarce, and the road becomes more torturous. Now the lava can be seen—great walls of it—fantastic shapes—looking like cake batter. Small caves appeared where the lava had apparently splashed over the rocks beneath, trapping a bubble of air or gas. Mounds, ridges, bubbles, swirls; all imaginable shapes. I saw a farmhouse, made of stone, with its roof and two walls gone, cut in half by a rivulet of lava.

Up and up—patches of snow appear; the fog closes in—the bus creeps along, its motor grinding.

At last the bus comes to a comparatively wide flat area and stops. Snow, or hail, is on the ground, looking like large grains of salt. Hugging the mountain is a yellowish-white building. Our guide tells us that this is as far as the road goes—from the building a chair lift rises to the summit—but of course we don’t want to go up today. We do. On the first floor of the building is a bar, where some of the Chiefs decide to stay. Some of the guys hadn’t brought coats, and now regret it—it’s cold. From the second story, the chair lift starts. It’s a damp cold room, open at one end, which faces a sheer lava wall.

The chairs seat two—look something like the kiddie swings in public parks. You sit in, and a man pushes the chair, suspended by a single rod to a wire overhead, to a point where it somehow grabs hold of the moving wire---you look like you’re heading straight for the wall. Then, just before you hit it, you’re whisked almost straight up (actually, about at a 45 degree angle). And there you are. The fog—or clouds—act as a huge, damp blanket. There is absolutely no sound, except for the occasional whir as a chair passes going down, or a click as your chair passes one of the supporting towers for the wires, which loom like ghosts out of the mists and disappear as silently as they’d come. Your left side is covered with a sugar-like mist, which clings to your clothes and looks very pretty. Below you, about ten or twenty feet, is the mountain—snow coated ever so lightly—stark, bare, a few parallel tracks that puzzle you—what can they be? No car can go so steep—no skis, certainly. And then the chair whips into a smaller version of the building below. You get out, walk up a flight of stairs, over a ramp that looks down to the mountain behind the building, and onto the mountain itself.

It’s a weird, eerie, and beautiful sight—a long, winding line of figures, moving in solid white. On the right, the mountain drops away not sharply, but at such an angle that you’d roll a good distance if you slipped. The wind becomes cold and very violent; the snow is granular like below, only larger. It is mixed with the red of the ash. And then the summit—the mouth of the crater—the only way you can tell is because now the mountain falls away on both sides.

Large chunks of lava lie scattered about as we weave our way down—as we get below the rim of the crater, the wind no longer blows—it is a misty, silent fantasy. Grey. We go down as far as we can, until the slope ends and all there is is a sheer drop into nothing; the grey above meets the grey below. And you feel oddly proud, awed, and very humble….

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please take a moment to check out his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs ( ).


Kage Alan said...

With that much detail, loving detail I might add, you'd think you were a writer. You know, all of your letters back then are worthy of a book just of themselves. Potential follow-up to the book of blog posts you released?

Dorien/Roger said...

My publisher has had my compiled Navy letters for at least two years now, intending to put them in book form. I plan to write her and ask her intentions. Thanks for the push for something I've been meaning to do.