Thursday, March 06, 2008

Arrivederci, La Maddalena

That's me back in 1993, all of 21 years old, on a beach on the island of La Maddalena in the archipelago of northeastern Sardinia (just 12 miles from the French island of Corsica).

The map shows where La Maddalena is located on the Italian island of Sardinia, where I was stationed from September 1991 to October 1994. It truly was the Navy's best kept secret. When I joined the Navy, I had no idea that there was even an American military base on that island. When I was a teenager living in Fulda, Germany, I remember looking at maps of the Mediterranean and wondering what all those islands were like. I thought it was interesting that Corsica and Sardinia were so close to one another, but different countries claimed them.

Why am I writing about La Maddalena at this particular point in time? Well, a week or so ago, I got a letter from Gerald Bruce, who was a chaplain that I knew when I lived there. He told me the sad news that the U.S. Navy finally left La Maddalena for good due to the budget cuts as a result of our expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When I lived there, there were Italians who didn't want us there, but I'm sure that they missed the steady flow of income...especially in the off-season. La Maddalena is a town of 13,000 residents, on the largest of the island chain known as the Maddalena Archipelago. To get from mainland Sardinia to the town, one had to take a ferry across (about 30 minutes from boarding to disembarking). The island of La Maddalena was close enough to Sardinia to build a bridge (after all, the Golden Gate Bridge has a longer expanse than the distance between the two islands), but the richest person in town just happened to own the Saremar ferry system. Interesting how that works.
If you've ever seen the James Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me, when he receives his Lotus Esprit, the ferry you see is in the town of Palau, which is where you have to go to catch the ferry to La Maddalena. Now, despite what an HM Senior Chief thought, this Palau is not the same as the one Enya sings about in "Orinoco Flow" (that one is in the Pacific, as there is no "Orinoco Flow" in the Mediterranean). The island of Santo Stefano was off limits to civilians, tourists and residents. It was a military site, operated by the Italian Navy, but where the U.S. homeported a Submarine Tender (the USS Orion and the USS Simon Lake when I was there), which refurbished and resupplied fast attack submarines that made their Med runs.

During the summer, the population of La Maddalena supposedly swelled to 70,000 people. I never saw what the tourist appeal of the place was. The town of Porto Cervo down the coast was much more glamourous. But even during my years in La Madd, there were rumours of sightings in town of Rod Stewart and Bruce Springsteen. In 1994, I saw a Sting concert in the town of Sassari to the west. It was hilarious to hear Italians try to sing "I'm an Englishman in New York."

When I arrived on September 11, 1991 (yes, exactly ten years before that horrible event), the ship was away from homeport and in the Italian town of Gaeta (between Naples and Rome). I spent my first night in the run-down barracks on Santo Stefano, eating bad, greasy food at the on sight food place (I wouldn't call it a was more like an enlisted club, if you're familiar with that military term). I even cried myself to sleep that first night for being so far from home and thinking what a long 3 years it was going to be. The guy who arrived the same day as me tried to kill himself a few months later, so that wasn't a good sign. Fortunes changed for me, as I was flown to Naples the next day and driven to the ship. As I walked the pier, one of the most fortunate experiences of my life occured when a Command Master Chief walked our way, going away from the ship on liberty while we were walking towards it. He asked the new sailors what rate we were. When I said that I was a yeoman, that was like the magic word, because I learned the next day that even though I was assigned to ship's company, Submarine Squadron 22 needed a yeoman so that was where I'd work. Because of such fortunate luck, I immediately made enemies since Squadron 22 was considered to be the most "coveted assignment" you could get. Squadron was mostly made up of Chief Petty Officers and Officers. That is, khaki uniformed folks with just enough blue shirts to stand the watchbill and duty driver duties.

It didn't take long to learn just how awesome it was to work in Squadron versus ship's company, like on Valentine's Day 1992 when our ship pulled into Augusta Bay, Sicily for a two day port visit. All E-4 and below personnel (which I certainly was) had to participate in a working party to bring supplies aboard ship. Because I was Squadron, I walked with Albiar (the other yeoman who many considered my big brother as I was always in the shadow of his greatness and popular personality) and Lieutenant Hamilton to the Commodore's private liberty boat to check out the town of Augusta Bay for the evening. I remember feeling very uncomfortable with all the jealous stares of my fellow shipmates. I often felt guilty for my fortunate luck to be assigned to Squadron, but it was nothing I lobbied for. When I reported for duty, I was completely ignorant about the chain of command and unaware that one was considered more presitigious than the other. It was pure luck, or perhaps divine intervention on my behalf. I certainly didn't "earn" the right to have such a great assignment right off the bat, just months out of Basic Training. Part of the prestige included a room at the Paradiso Barracks on the island of La Maddalena, where I had my own room for the majority of my three years there. I often wondered what would happen to Paradiso Barracks when the Americans eventually left. Because it was one of the few buildings on the island that had central heating in the winter and central air conditioning in the summer, it would make an excellent 4 star hotel (even 4 star hotels in La Madd didn't have air conditioning in the summer!).

Yeah, it was the life. I was truly blessed. I never forgot it either. To this day, Squadron 22 remains as the best place I've ever worked (if I don't include my White House internship). One of the most difficult things for me was that I had more in common with officers than fellow enlisteds. Even when people saw me in town in my civilian clothes, they did a double take when they saw me in dungaree uniform on board ship. More than a few had mistaken me for an officer. Why? They said that it was the way I carried myself. Enlisteds and officers couldn't really be friends due to the fraternization policy, though people in Squadron tended to overlook that rule (since they were from the Submarine community, where it was less enforced than the regular Navy). LT DePrizio was like a big brother to me and we always joked around, until a First Class Petty Officer accused him of making racist comments and because I witnessed the conversation, I was part of the inquiry into what happened. I felt my honesty betrayed LT DePrizio, even though I emphasized that he was only joking and that I didn't believe he was racist at all. LT Jensen was another person I considered a big brother. He was the Squadron Doctor who was only doing a hitch in the Navy to pay for his medical school debt.

Chief Jordan was another favourite. He was the liaison officer between the U.S. Navy and the Italian community. His wife was from Italy and they never had any children, so they kind of took me on as their son, which I didn't mind. They gave me the best Easter I've ever experienced when we spent the day in 1992 attending Mass at the main Cathedral downtown and then walking around the square. Jordan also introduced me to the barber who cut the hair of the priest who gave Mussolini his last rites. We lost touch over the years, and the last memory I have of him was in 1994 when he was drunk on the ferry and angrily said to me that I needed "to be an officer, goddamnit!" and he'd help, but I kept telling him that I was getting out of the Navy when my enlistement was up. He was so insistent about it that his wife intervened, telling him, "he knows what he wants to do with his life, Ricky!" It's sad that my last memory of him is that way, but I still think he's an awesome guy.
The main piazza in downtown La Maddalena

My fondest memories of my time in La Maddalena include:

* The conversations with the gorgeous Italian ladies who worked at Paradiso Barracks. One of them, Cecilia, in particular was very intelligent and pretty. She'd often engage me in conversation, especially when she had overheard someone in town say to another that they saw a young American man go into a travel agency and bought a trip to South Africa. She heard that snippet and asked if it was me! That's how intelligent she was. I was surprised that I was "the talk of the town" and asked how she knew it was me, and she said that it had to be me because she hadn't met another sailor who was interested in travel like I was. That's certainly true. My first roommate left Italy after two years without even seeing Rome! And most guys I knew spent their annual 30 days vacation back in the U.S. while I went on several Eurail journeys alone. When I paid for my trip to South Africa, I was a "millionaire" for one moment in my life. I had over a million Italian lire in my pocket to pay for the vacation of my life ($1800 or so).

* The time I spent with Jeanine Easterday at a beach in Palau. She was engaged to another man, but I still had a thing for her. I enjoyed her company and felt comfortable enough around her to change on the beach and go swimming. Unfortunately, she had loose lips, as word got back to the guys on the ship about every detail about our day together. But that's the way it was there. I was kind of a "mini-celebrity" among the American community, in that people knew who I was and where I worked...and I'd hear details about what I did or who I was with. It drove me nuts! I could never be a celebrity in real life. What I experienced in La Madd was enough.

* Running around La Madd and Palau as part of the La Madd Hash House Harriers ("a drinking club with a running problem" as the logo goes). Chief Mason surprised me and won my respect when he intervened on my behalf. Newbies to the group had to take part in the ritual where you down a can of beer while they sing a song, and when the song finished, whatever you don't finish, you have to pour over your head. I didn't drink beer (and still don't) and the others insisted that I do it, which made me feel uncomfortable, so Chief Mason (whose personality I never cared for) intervened and said that I could drink a Sprite instead. Our personality and political differences continued after that, but he always had my respect from that moment on.

* I traveled alone to the capital of Sardinia (Cagliari on the south shore of the island) over Thanksgiving weekend 1991. I rode the train and the only seat left was in the smoking compartment. During the course of the trip, some teenagers lit up a cigarette (which they were within their rights to do), but an elderly lady and I didn't seem to like it much. The elderly lady spoke to them in Italian and they put out their cigarette. I remember being in shock when that happened. In the U.S., I'm sure the teenagers would back talk to an elderly lady with insults while continue smoking, maybe even going so far as to blow smoke in the lady's face. But these Italian teenagers respected their elders! Man, I was impressed.

* My first time on a submarine was a birthday gift I gave myself on my 20th birthday. It was the USS Atlanta. Because I worked with submariners, they kept pestering me to volunteer for sub duty and even offered me a chance to spend a few days on one to see if I like it. I kept turning them down because of my fear of being in "a tin can deep in the water" but then I realized that this was an experience that I would kick myself for someday if I didn't try it out. And sure enough, when I was in college, I was surprised how much my story of spending three days on a submarine really did interest people. Submarines is a great experience to have for a few days, but I never wanted to be stationed on one for a tour of duty. I was a carrier guy, the main reason I joined the Navy instead of the Air Force.

* I spent Pioneer Day on Caprera Island in July 1994 with a bunch of Mormon missionaries. Thus began my immersion in Mormon culture. It was cool that they invited me along, because I was a few months from leaving Sardinia and I had never gone to the island of Caprera (where Club Med is located), which is just east of the island of La Maddalena.

* Agriturismo is an awesome way to eat like an Italian. Even better was the shared Thanksgiving feast I had at an officer's house. He had invited his Italian neighbor over and we had some cross-cultural feasts going on. It doesn't get better than that.

* Master Chief John Ratka's cool house at the top of the hill. He had a great view of everything and he truly was the coolest Master Chief Petty Officer in the Navy. I thought he should've been promoted to the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (the highest enlisted person in the entire Navy), but he said that one had to be married to get such a coveted assignment (he was a long-time bachelor and only married in his forties...which is a path I seem to be following!). Parties at his house were always awesome. Yeoman Chief Todd Lowe should remember how fun those parties were. He and Ratka were a great pair to work for, and he had the best taste in music. He got me into the Pixies and more interested in Jimmy Buffett than my previous casual interest.

* The 1992 Submarine Birthday Ball when Squadron 22 invited a French submarine to celebrate. I had requested to sit at the French table and had one of the best nights of my life. Everyone else hated the French, but I lived it up as we talked about politics, the differences in our cultures, the similarities, and Anne Parillaud versus Sharon Stone. I made friends with one chief and he invited me to eat lunch aboard his submarine the next day. I was the only guy on the ship to get such an invite. At lunch, because I was on duty, I couldn't drink and almost caused an international incident by refusing to drink wine with my meal. The French didn't understand this and one witty guy said that I was obligated to drink wine with the meal on board their ship, just as they partake of the "American champagne" when they eat American food. When I asked what American champagne, they laughed and said "Coca-Cola, of course!" I've been to the French Chief Petty Officer's home in Plerin, Brittany a few times and we still keep in touch today.

So many stories, so many memories. I miss those days! But even when I lived there, I enjoyed it to the fullest. I remember being baffled whenever I heard sailors complain about how boring it was to be there and some even blamed the isolation there as a cause of their alcoholism. I kept telling people that it was the Navy's best kept secret. And now the Navy is gone.

I hope to return someday and see what's become of the place. And to see if the pizzeria I often ate at is still there. Italian pizza took some getting used to, but I miss it now. The Italians also introduced me to prosciutto, mozzarella, and caprese. Those were some formative years.

In 1992, one of the biggest hits on Italian radio was an upbeat song called "Benvenuti in Paradiso" by Antonello Venditti ("Welcome to Paradise"). I loved that song and now when I hear it (as well as Eros Ramazzotti's "In Ogni Senso" album), I'm transported back to those years. Welcome to Paradise indeed. It was paradise. Perhaps some of the best days of my life. Don't regret a single moment. Future sailors will never know what they've lost. It was the best thing the Navy had ever given me (besides an honorable discharge and the G.I. Bill).
The USS Orion with a couple submarines. The landscape in Sardinia is quite similar to the area of West Texas and New Mexico. One officer from Texas said that he felt like he never left home.


kimmy said...

I really enjoyed your article on La Maddalena Italy!! I was stationed there from 1999 to 2001 and had many mixed feelings at the time since I myself was one of those sailors who became an alcohol while stationed out there but now wish to relive those moments. I often tell people of my experience but no one can really grasp what I am saying. I guess it is something one has to experience in order to believe it. I miss La Maddalena and the Paradico Barracks, where I also lived, and am very saddened by the news of it closing down. It's refreshing to hear that others out there know how wonderful and special that place was. Thanks again!


Anonymous said...

I read some of your article on the La Maddalena. What I read was very good. My dad was staioned there in 1990 to 1993. My sister was born their in Napples Italy. My mom had me four years later. My dad was very good at what he did. My mom, dad, sister miss Italy so much they wish they could go back in a heart beat but the plane tickets are just so expensive and encluding the pass ports. We hope to go to Italy in 2010 when my sister graduates from high school. By what they say about Italy seems amazing and I would love to see their way of life. I'm alomost full Itlian and I'm learning to speak Itlain as well. Again I just loved the part of the article that I read. Iltay seems like a wonder place. Thanks again!!!!

Anonymous said...

The ship USS Orion was beautiful I wish they wouldn't have sunked it either. Arrivederci (goodbye. Buona giornata (saluto) (Have a nice day)...

Mo said...

Sans Ego; you really brought some old and wonderfull memories to me, i am a U.S Navy veteran, i was also stationed in LaMaddalena in August 1998, i met awsome people and had wonderful italian and American friends. As Kimmy said "One has to experience it in order to believe it" I really missed it and missed the smile of Cecilia and Tiziana when you step in to the Paradiso Front Desk after a long Navy day.

Sansego said...

Cecilia was my favourite of the ladies! I wonder what all of them are doing now? I know that they loved their jobs and the base closure could not have been happy news for them.

The Mix's said...

I just stumbled on your blog about La Madd. My father was stationed there in 1976-1978. The best memories of my childhood (6-8th grade)were made there. It was fun to read your thoughts. It was a special, magical place and time for the La Madd Brats of the 70's as we now call ourselves.

ROVENIA said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nubianteeze said...

Wow someone else misses it as much as I do. I was a navy wife stationed there from 1982 till 1984. It was an awesome experience. I remember eating at the Rock cafe and catching the liberty boats to the base to go shopping for American food. And of course the pool at Paradico. I remember the bus trips to Obia and the $10 military hops to Naples and Rome. Oh how I miss the island. I actually came in 2nd place in the miss La Maddalena pageant in 1983. Which amazed me since I am African American. Anyway thank you for the trip down memory lane.

Anonymous said...

i have fond memories of la madd...back then we rented over priced apartments.
i was stationed there for 18 mos in 1978 on the USS Gilmore a WW II bucket of bolts...i worked off ship and basically went native...i LOVED IT!!! i miss even now...