Thursday, January 02, 2014

Once Upon a Volcano

Fairy tales often begin with the words “Once upon a time,” and in a way, this blog, which was originally a letter written by an achingly young sailor to his parents fifty-eight years ago today.
A World Ago: A Navy Man’s Letters Home, 1954-1956 is an e-book compilation of my letters while in the military and is available through any e-book retailer. An audiobook will be available shortly. 

2 January 1956

I hereby tender my humblest apologies for not having written yesterday, but it being a holiday and all, I hope you’ll excuse me―besides, from just reading one page after another, it is impossible (unless you put it down and come back to it later) to denote the passage of time.

Can you tender an apology?  Tendering a resignation is proper, but an apology?  And is that the proper way to spell tender―or should it be “tendre?”  A dictionary is only a few steps away, but I’ll let you figure it out.

Since yesterday was New Year’s and Sunday as well, holiday routine was observed by the entire ship―all but the Commissary department, that is―I sat at my little typewriter all day, botching up next week’s menus; a job I’m cultivating a beautiful distaste for.

Think I’ll use this as sort of a dustpan, picking up some little scraps I’d meant to include in other entries and forgotten.  For one thing, there was the public drinking fountain in Pompeii.  It looked something like a horse trough―a lion’s head was the main adornment, from which water spouted from its mouth.  The marble was worn down into a cup shape on one side of the fountain by countless generations of Pompeiians, as they put their hands there while bending over to drink―one side of the lion’s head was also worn smooth near the mouth, where people’s faces had pressed against it while drinking.

Also I think I neglected to mention the trip up Mt. Vesuvius, made the same day as the one to Pompeii.  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, & the street became a river, down which floated odds & 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 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 proud, awed, and very humble….

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday and Thursday. Please take a moment to visit his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (, which is also available as an audiobook (

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