MILANSince I left you in Vincovtsi, Jugo-Slavia, last Tuesday, what little hair I have left has turned snow white, my hand trembles, and, an soon as I get back to the States, I am going to retire on "regurgitation and mitral insufficiency", or whatever it is that one gets as a result of a severe strain on the heart.
Monday, September 8th, 1919.
I have just finished four hair-raising days in the high Alps with a Fiat touring car and a wild Italian soldier chauffeur without any brains. And the punishment that poor car got! I am certainly strong for the Fiat, though it will always be associated in my mind with unbelievable feats of mountain climbing, terrifying precipices, yawning chasms, and all the trimmings. I am enclosing a sprig of Edelweiss picked from the car. As you know, it only grows where even the goats can not go.
Not since taking a handcar coast down the Oroya Road in Peru have I had such a nerve wracking experience. Bat down there it was a problem in mechanics, solely; that is, would the car stay on the track. Here we had the human element added. Would he use his gears, brakes, steering wheel, etc., so an to avoid slips.
But to go back. I made my connection at Vincovtsi and reached Trieste only three hours late. I missed the Simplon Express, but, as I was going only as far as Venice in any case, I caught a slow train and reached Venice late in the afternoon. I had time in Trieste to get my laundry and also some breakfast, as our dining car had been put off at the frontier before daylight.
The West Point Special was sidetracked in the station at Venice, but every one was down town so I followed. I then found out there was to be a banquet at the Hotel Excelsior, on Lido Island, given by the Admiral of the Italian Navy, so I joined the party. I had to make a speech which an Italian Captain translated into Italian after I had blundered long in French and English. He really made quite a beautiful Italian version out of it.
We have three special trains. I draw a stateroom. I got only a glimpse of Venice, but it struck me as a very fascinating place. I have added it to my list of places to which to come back for a second visit.
There are several of our boats in the harbor and a number of U. S. Naval Officers were at the banquet. Afterwards there was a dance till about 2:00 A.M. after which our trains were to pull out for Udine. About one A.M. one of the Italian commanders took several of our Naval Officers and myself out to our ships in his power boat. There I had a wonderful shower and then started back in a Navy launch. The pilot had never been to the Railroad station and all I could tell him was that it was somewhere on the Grand Canal.
My gondolier had brought me into the Plaza St. Marks through all the cross alleys in town. Then I had gone to Lido Island and from there out into the harbour, so I had no idea of the geography of the town.
We found the Grand Canal pitch dark and lifeless. After traveling for what seemed hours, all buildings looming up alike, we finally bumped into some fishing boats and made one of the fisherman come aboard and show us the way.
On Thursday, we visited the Isonzo and Carso Fronts, especially Mt. Sabotino, overlooking Goritzia. It was a glorious drive up the 2,000 feet, a little less than to the top of Mt. Tamalpais, over the military road. We used Italian motor transportation, our Cadillacs and trucks being a little too heavy for the mountain roads. Our chauffeurs performed some hair-raising stunts that kept us from being entirely happy. Little did we dream what was later in store for us.
Mt. Sabotino is completely honey combed with tunnels, gun positions, etc. When we remarked upon the enormous engineering problems involved, the Italian officers smiled and said it was only a small sample, that the real work we would see later. We visited several other hills and motored over quite a lot of this sector. We returned to our train about nine in the evening, had supper, and went to bed quite done up.
On Friday, we visited Mt. Grappa from Treviso and caught our train again at Vicenza after ten at night. For this day I had a Fiat limousine and a worse driver. Before we started the climb, he ditched us once, needlessly, just to get his hand in. The poor cadets in the Italian light trucks had an even worse time.
The climb up Mt. Grappa was simply appalling six thousand feet. If you remember Jacob's Ladder on the mule track down the Grand Canyon in Arizona, and can imagine that Bright Angel Trail widened sufficiently to just pass an auto, then put it all in one climb from the top to the bottom without that half way bench where Cameron's Camp is, you will have only a faint conception of this place. For two solid hours our Fiats climbed on third and fourth speed up thirty-nine zigzags out into the face of the cliff. From each hair pin turn you could look right down as from an aeroplane.
The road is just wide enough for the car, there are no parapet walls, the outer edge crumbles, you back on most of the hair pins, your driver rushes madly at each curve, then jams on his emergency, stalls his engine, and skids part way around. He then shifts gears, puts on all he's got and leaps around; or can't make it, barely stops in time, backs up with a jerk and a jump, catches her in mid-air with his emergency, and tries it again.
On about the fourth turn he got into reverse by mistake and had us over the edge before he could catch her, but fortunately we hit a big rook which held. So that introduced another possibility to think about. We were very uneasy. The miracle is that, in four days of such work, we lost none of our forty cars.
Mt. Grappa was the strongest position on the Piave. There are positions for 32 batteries or about 200 field guns of different calibres within the mountain. In all, about 200 kilometers of tunnels and 600 kilometers of roads were constructed on the mountain by the army. It was hard to believe it, even after seeing it. I can not describe the trip down. That is where my hair turned white.
On Saturday we did Mt. Pasubio. We motored out from Vicenza and caught our train again at Trento about 8:00 P.M. Here we had to turn out for a reception and musical performance by a really magnificent military band. We drank a lot of champagne, made complimentary speeches to the Lieutenant General, the three Major Generals, the Brigadier General Chief of Staff, the First Army, the Mayor, the Prefect, etc., till I nearly died of fatigue.
Multiply Mt. Grappa by twenty and you have Mt. Pasubio, on the Adige, 7500 feet up in the snow and away above the clouds, and a military road in very poor condition in spots. Here is where I got my heart lesion. Our driver was worse, but I got an open car. But the worst spots were always where my side of the car was outside and I could not get off without wings. The road is really a marvel of engineering. It keeps going on up and up with the valley actually under you like an aeroplane photograph. Some four or five cable trams or teleferias supply the last 3000 feet in winter when the road is blocked. On this mountain I got the Edelweiss.
After we got nearly down by a different route, we joined one of the regular Alpine roads and had a beautiful drive into Trento. The wide road with wide easy turns and parapet walls, when necessary or desirable, seemed like a prairie boulevard by comparison.
Yesterday we did Mt. Vignola, a little under 5500, and met our train at Verona about 6:30. We climbed Mt. Vignola by a long round about road following the ridge. This gave us an open view of the country and a more regular heart action. But our guides took us a short cut down that repeated all the thrills of the previous three days.
In Verona, after a bath at the military hospital in icy water right off the glacier, several of us were given a dinner by some, very likeable Italian officers who had been attached to our train to look out for us. It was a very pleasant little party, but, as usual, I did not get in till very late. Altogether, it was the most strenuous four days that I can recall.
This morning we woke up in Milan. A Lieutenant-General was down with a battalion of Bersaglieri and a band to greet us. Then we took a run around the town in our Cadillacs, which were today called into service again. There is something official on for this afternoon and then I am going to take the 6:00 o'clock train for Bordeaux and Paris. I'd like to stay with the Special for Turin, Genoa, Monte Carlo and Marseilles, but I simply must got back to Washington, even though I'll probably find everything completely rearranged when I arrive and orders for myself to some outlying border station.