Navy Chronicles Chapter Five

Even before I had bought my VW car, I had bought a Triumph Bonneville T-650cc motorcycle within a month of arriving in Bella Napoli. This was an English bike that was about twice the size of ANY motorcycle in existence in Italy at that time. It cost me right around $1500 if my memory serves me correctly. I didn’t have a clue how to ride the thing so a friend of mine let me keep it at his house right down the street from me. He also taught me how to ride the thing on the beach out in front of the house. I was getting pretty good at doing the, “up-shift” but not to swift at doing the “downshift”. Well, one day I’m out there on the beach going at a pretty good clip when I notice this big Boxer dog making a beeline for me. I was trying real hard to stop when he decided to take a big bite out of the front wheel! I was still doing about 15 mph when this obstruction glommed onto my trusty steed and we all crashed in a heap on the beach. Now the dog is howling to beat hell because his mouth hurts and me and a 600 pound motorcycle are lying on top of him. He keeps biting at anything he can reach and occasionally gets a piece of me. I’m smacking at him and trying to get the hot exhaust pipe off my leg when the dog owner arrives and commences to scream at me for running over his stupid assed dog. A huge fight is about to ensue when along comes another guy who saw what happened and calmed everyone down. I say everyone, cause about 15 people immediately showed up to participate in whatever was going on, as always happens in any situation in good old Napoli! The only down side of owning the bike, was that the Commanding Officer of the base would not let us bring one on the base. So we had to take our big time investment and chain them to a lamp post out side the main gate of the base. We used lots of chains and a couple of case hardened locks on each one of them. I am still amazed that the chains weren’t cut and the bikes stolen by the locals, but it never happened. I had the misconception that everyone in Italy was a member of the Mafia. Apparently, not so with the people of our local area. I was in fact, to become friendly and totally in love with an older Italian couple. They were to become my mentors and surrogate family for the last two years of my sojourn in Napoli. Their names were Maria and Roberto Guilio. He ran a small motorcycle repair shop, which we had gone to strictly by chance, to get some crash bars made for our bikes. They would correct my poor Italian, and endeavor to set me on the right word usage path. While I lived with them in their house for the last eight months I was there, I was treated to some of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life. It was simple stuff, and I really enjoyed living like, and eating like the local people. Every night just before dinner, Roberto would get a couple of mugs and go over to a fifty gallon wooden barrel in the corner of the kitchen and take off the lid. Inside was some of the best Chianti wine I’ve ever had. He’d bail out two mugs full and come back to the table. Whereupon, I would begin working on my nightly buzz. Man that stuff was powerful. At that time in my life, I still weighed in at a scrawny 145-150 lbs. It didn’t take too much alcohol to get me totally besotted. I asked Roberto one time how they got that big barrel of wine into the house when the last one had gone empty as it was on this particular night. He said to come home early, by five o’clock the next day and I would find out. Well I arrived by the appointed time the next day and up pulls a huge wooden barrel on a truck. This barrel was at least big enough to hold a thousand gallons of liquid. The guy driving it pulled right up on the sidewalk of Roberto’s house and passed a long hose in through the window and right to the wine barrel in the corner! Viola! Instant refill. The three of us would sit at that table and talk about everything under the sun for an hour or two after supper. They had a friend who lived in the same complex and who was a devote Communist. He would occasionally stop by and join in on the conversation. He was forever trying to engage me in conversations about how great communism was for the common man, and how decadent the US was. I told him that I was about as common a man as there was, and after watching what was going on in all the communist controlled countries that I knew about, I didn’t want a damn thing to do with his type of politics! I would love to talk to him now to find out his views on the total decline and fall of that “wonderful” doctrine of his!
Supper usually took an hour or more to eat as there were always four or five courses. Not a lot for each one, but it still had to be cooked and eaten one at a time! By the time dinner was over and my mug had been refilled two or three times I was ready for bed. There was no such thing as central heating in that apartment house either. Each tenant had to supply his own heat source. When in the kitchen, it was a kerosene fired cook stove. Also there was a big heavy tablecloth hung almost all the way to the floor and contained the heat right under the table, because there was a big charcoal burning brazier under there! I used to get the damnedest headaches while I lived there and finally figured out that it was from the fumes of the charcoal being burned and contained right in the room and under the table! I am amazed that we all didn’t die from carbon monoxide poisoning! We all sat around the table with your stocking feet propped up on the edge of the brazier. After a lot of wine, it was prudent to remove your feet from the rim and put them on the floor, where the danger of catching your socks on fire was a lot less! When you went to bed, you crawled under about three or four heavy quilts, and snuggled up in the middle of a big feather bed. I will have to say though, that I did bring quite a lot of the staple foods into the kitchen. Old Roberto just loved American peanut butter once I had introduced him to it. It was another of those idyllic times in my life, living out there with them. It was in the little town of Caserta, just a mile or so from the base. When it came time for me to leave to come back home, I left them my 24’ day-sailer and my motorcycle. He was the only Italian in the whole city of Naples, and probably all of Italy, that had a 650cc souped-up English bike! I also made sure to buy as much peanut butter as I could, so it would last him for a long time. It wasn’t something you could buy on the open market back then. It was strictly a US Navy Commissary item. The day before I was to leave was one of the saddest days of my life, as we knew that we’d never see each other again. There was a lot of crying and hugging and then it was time to go. I felt worse about leaving them then I had my own family, as I knew I would be seeing them again soon.
The biggest police motorcycle at that time, was a 350cc Gelera. The police had a little paddle that was colored red on one side and green on the other that they used to control traffic. They never could catch us on their bikes if they thought we were speeding, so they would wait till they found us stopped somewhere and come up and assess a fine for speeding. They said they knew we had been speeding at some time in the course of our trip, so they were collecting while they could! A bird in the hand don’t you know! Sometimes though they would stop you on the road by holding out the red side of the paddle if they saw us coming and we’d be obliged to stop and fork over a little more of the green stuff. You couldn’t just blow on by them, knowing they couldn’t catch you, because there was that big fat license plate advertising who you were. Beside that, they were empowered to stop you anyway they could, and that included shooting at you! Which did happen on one occasion to a friend and me. After having been stopped to have your pockets picked by the local constabulary a few times, we took to keeping most of our money wrapped around our ankles under the socks. You would keep about 2-3 mille, about $5 in your pockets in small bills and change, and when they demanded payment; we’d turn out our pockets with all the small stuff. They were usually happy with it, when they figured they had just taken all we had. Ha Ha on them!!
Almost every where we went for that first year was on the back of that bike. Even after getting the car, the bike was the preferred mode of transportation. It was the best for negotiating downtown Naples, as you could weave between cars, and even get right up on the sidewalk with all the other Vespa motorscooters, and the rest of the Neopolitian populace. Virtually every scooter was up on the sidewalk, because it was easier to make people move out of the way than it was to get a car to move over! Man what a madhouse that town was to drive in!
I was there when it snowed in Naples for the first time in about 80 years! They had no such thing as a snowplow, and after about a million accidents had happened because none of the locals knew how to drive in the snow; some “brain” had a storm in his head! They decided to have the fire brigade break out the hoses and wash all that nasty white stuff right down the sewers. It worked great for a little bit, but then all the water froze on the streets and they were worse off than with the snow! I have never seen so many wrecked cars in one place before or since! God what a mess.
These motorcycle trips were a regular occurrence on every weekend that was fairly warm. We’d put a bunch of money in our pockets, roll up a blanket and a poncho and strap them to the bike and off we’d go. We would leave as soon as we could on Friday afternoon and just pick out a direction and go. Usually we stayed off the main highways and went by way of the back roads. Some of the places we’d find were like stepping back three or four hundred years. Using our Neapolitan Italian, we could just barely communicate with the people out there in the sticks. There were a lot of nights that we slept on the floor of some small trattoria after having supper with the owners. Leaving un mille, 1000 Lira per person for the food and the use of the floor, was more cash than most of these people had seen in years if not their whole lives. That L1000 was worth about $1.60 back then. $6.40 (four guys) wasn’t much to we rich Americans but was an unimaginable windfall to these people.
Supper at these little, out of the way places covered the gamut of plain old country-food. Lots of pasta and veggies, various types of soups, minestrone turned out to be the kind I liked best, and occasionally some kind of meat. There always appeared on the table, lots of bread and copious amounts of Chianti type vino. Eating and staying the night with these people was a lot like being right back home. They were always unfailingly generous to a fault and polite as could be. They didn’t know about the Ugly Americans in the “outback”. They were for the most part still grateful to the US and others for being freed from Mussolini and his ilk, unlike their neighbors to the north in France! When we were on the road during the day, the drill was to find a small store and buy a stick of salami or some other kind of preserved meat, a loaf of bread and a bottle of the ubiquitous vino. That was lunch, taken on the seat of your bike or just sitting by the road watching the people go by. The military used to tell us not to eat any of the produce that was available at stores and roadside peddler carts unless they had been soaked in a mixture of one part bleach to ten parts water. This was to kill the hepatitis germs that abounded because of the use of human waste as a fertilizer. Well we didn’t give that to awful much thought while on our weekly excursions and after three years of eating “off the economy” I never contracted any sort of problems. Even the “gelati”, ice cream was supposed to be off limits.
There was a group of us sailors who owned these pretty high performance motorcycles, and of course we all thought that we had the fastest one. Naturally this led to competitions of a sort. There was an old unused WWII airport outside Naples that was the site that the local Italians used for the same thing. They graciously let us race our bikes there too. They never competed against us because as I said before, the biggest cubic inch displacement bike in Italy at that time was 350cc. We would line up on the start line and at a signal, take off for the finish line. After shifting into third gear, you would lie out flat on the seat and the rear fender in order to cut down the wind resistance. After crossing the finish line, you would pull yourself back up to a sitting position. At the end of one of my runs I did just that only to have the throttle assembly come off in my hand. This immediately yanked both carburetors wide open and left me hanging off the side of the bike and beginning to accelerate frighteningly. Well, it’s a good thing there was a pond right at the end of the runway, cause that is where I wound up going about 85 mph! The cold water and my hot engine did not like the close contact and immediately made the engine separate into a few pieces. It was no danger to me though because I had departed into the air and was tumbling ass over tincups well ahead of the machinery. It was fortuitous that the pond was only three or four feet deep or I most likely would have expired right then. Shortly after that incident I gave up racing motorcycles on the drag strip and took up scrambling around in the bushes with it instead. We used to have these things called Hare and Hound races too. One person would be designated as the “hare” and off he would go. With a five minute head start, it was then up to the rest of us “hounds” to go find him. We set limits of just how far into the hinterlands he could go, or we’d never catch him! This was great fun and kept us out of the barrooms for a while.
In Italy in the 50’s and 60’s the buses that were used, sat high off of the ground on huge wheels. You had to climb up three or four steps to get on board and that was a lucky thing for me on one other occasion. I had been out with a couple of my friends attending a function at one of the local bars. It was called drinking to excess. Well I lived up to my end of the bargain and was pretty well inebriated when we left to return to the base. There was a long stretch of straight road leading up the hill from downtown Naples to the airport. Then you came to two or three ninety-degree turns before the final leg of the trip to the front gate of the base. Of course it always became a race to see who could get to the first turn first. On this occasion I was winning until I hit a slick spot in the road and down I went doing about 45 mph. At the same time around the corner came one of those gigantic buses going the opposite way. Through some sort of fluke of perfect timing, I slid under the bus right behind the front wheels and came out the other side before the rear wheels had a chance to squish me. Right after emerging from under the bus, I had lots of thoughts of thanks to the Commanding Officer of the base for demanding that anyone owning and riding a bike under his command, would have a set of crash bars installed on the front and back of his bike, and had to wear a safety helmet to. It saved me from the worst case of road rash you can imagine. Not one piece of “me” touched the road throughout this escapade as I was hugging the bike pretty tightly! All the other guys behind me, saw me go under amid a shower of sparks, and assumed the worst. They were all standing there by their bikes, expecting to have to start crying and carrying on about my demise. Then imagine their surprise when I emerged unscathed from the jaws of death! Stupidity did reign supreme at times in my life!

1 comment:

Sam said...

Thanks once again for more pictures and the story.

I found the Twin Otter I was asking about (the hurricane planes) and wondered if you saw one. It was first made in 1965 as a slow-speed turbo-prop (meaning it could go 80 knots without falling out of the sky) with high fixed wings and two engines, seated 2 pilots and up to 6 passengers. DeHaviland DHC-6 is what they called them; before 1965 they made the DHC-3 in a similar version. Both were made in Canada but many were sold to Uncle Sam, especially to the Air Force. By 1980 there were over 800 of them! I wish I could post a picture here, as they are quite graceful looking.

And guess how much that Triumph 650 would be worth today! Man!