The call came early on a morning in 1960. I was at the airstrip waiting to make my final jump with the famed 101st Airborne Division.
A Sergeant came running up, shouting “Lieutenant, get out of that parachute! Pack your bags, you’re heading for Italy.” I thought he was joking!
After a few days to visit family, we departed from McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey on the way to “La Patria dei miei Genitori,” the homeland of my parents.
The flight took hours with a brief stop in Iceland, then landed to refuel in the Azores–a group of islands in the Atlantic about 900 miles west of Portugal. After a few hours, we were on the way.
It was a first international military assignment, and I was headed for the Southern European Task Force, in Verona, Italy.
In a way, this trip may have been foretold, by taking Italian classes in high school and at the University of Pitt.
But there was a lifetime of speaking Basilicata, a southern regional Italian dialect, before that.
After landing at the Malpensa Airport in Milano, I went in search of a bathroom to freshen up. Here was an opportunity to test my Italian, and so I asked a passer-by, “Per piacere, doveul bachaus.”
He looked at me strange, then moved on! Well, after a couple more tries and getting the same reaction, I knew there was something amiss. Fortunately, a fellow American with a Brooklynese accent tapped me on the shoulder, “Lieutenant,” he says, “It’s called a gabinetto.”
The word bachaus isn’t Italian, not even the dialect! It’s a twisted, broken English idiom put together by the early Southern Italian immigrants to describe outhouses. Geez, so much for my Italian speaking debut!
As we left for the train station, the driver was kind enough to go by a few of Milan’s magnificent landmarks, namely, Il Duomo, Santa Maria Delle Grazie — home of Da Vinci’s stunning fresco of the Last Supper, and the historical Galleria, a chic, semi-covered shopping mall. I would later return to tour other sights, including a walk on the Duomo roof, with all its intricately constructed spirals.
Verona is a World Heritage city, famous for Shakespeare’s setting of Romeo and Juliet, and the acclaimed Juliet balcony, in Piazza delle Erbe.
Its history is captivating with extraordinary landmarks and sites such as the Piazza Bra anchored by the impressive, 2,000-year-old Roman Amphitheater, the Basilica di San Zeno, and the enchanting Lake Garda, just north of the city. The operas performed in the acoustically perfect Arenawere were a fantastic experience.
As a newly assigned Officer, both military and civilian co-workers had arranged a welcoming and initiation social in the bachelor’s quarters. The induction required a newbie to down a shot of Italy’s traditional 100 proof beverage, grappa, in a single gulp! Wow and “accidenti!”
It was a military assignment never to be forgotten. How lucky I was to have had the opportunity to explore this exciting town of Verona, and its surrounding, especially with a local girl, Monica, who later became my lovely wife.
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