Posts tagged ‘Italy’


Air Corps poster


My time with the 456th Bomb Group was cut short when somebody at Air Force headquarters in Caserta, Italy, noticed that as a civilian I had been a writer and magazine editor, and immediately jerked me back to headquarters to write publicity for the weather squadron. None of what I did in that capacity, I promise you, did the slightest harm to the German Wehrmacht or the least imaginable good to the Allied — no, wait a minute. By gosh, I did do a little something for the ground-down enlisted men of the 12th Weather Squadron. See, they were getting screwed, and they didn’t even know it.

The 12th Weather Squadron was unusual among small military units in that it was split up into quite tiny groups, four or five officers and half a dozen enlisted men, or just enough to man a weather station for each bomb group. The people in these detachments seldom saw any of the two or three thousand other people in the squadron.

I received a copy of every promotion, so I could write a little news release about it to send to the promoted fellow’s hometown paper (who almost always threw it away). Meanwhile I had started a little, well, all right, it was pretty much a sort of fanzine — only for the B-24 groups rather than sf fans — that was circulated to all the detachments. I encouraged each of the detachments to send me little stories about what they had been doing, even if no more than occasionally playing softball. I decided to make that more interesting, so I started printing news of promotions in every issue, officers in the left-hand facing page, enlisted men in the right. As I had expected, most months there would be a couple dozen officer promotions, few or none for enlisted men.

This caused some concern among the squadron’s higher authorities, who didn’t think it was good for morale, and they dealt with it by promoting me to the post of Squadron Historian, which carried with it a few privileges, including the right to rehouse myself in the squadron’s recreational hotel, the former Albergo Eremo or Hermit Hotel, halfway up the slope of our friendly local volcano, Mt. Vesuvius. So I took the bribe, turning all my news writing and fanzine publishing over to a corporal who, I think, soon stopped bothering with any of it.

As a resident of the Eremo, I had my own room with my own sheeted and pillowed bed, made every morning by my maid, and my meals were cooked to order by Lisa, the hotel’s peacetime cook, who got us all kinds of delicacies by trading powdered eggs and Spam for fresh Italian veggies and other edibles. And I got some of my own writing done, though, unfortunately, little of it was on the squadron history.

To be continued.

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When my speaking-tour bookers at Foggy Bottom (as we insiders term the State Department) told me what my next port of call would be, in my world-girdling pilgrimage in the attempt to make foreigners like the U.S.A. better than their own daily papers did, it was Yugoslavia.

That didn’t thrill me as much as you might have thought it would. One of the reasons I jumped, as I usually did when the State Department said “frog!” was that I was trying to beat my friend Jack Gillespie’s record of number of countries any Futurian had set foot in. (His lead was unfair. During the War, he had been Merchant Marine, serving mostly in little freighters that cruised up and down the coasts of both Americas.) Against the odds, though, this time I had already been there.

When we went across the Italian border into Yugoslavia, to tell the truth, the border guards of both nations were more interested in the American comic books they were puzzling over than in what terrorist, regicide or cigarette smuggler was sneaking past them. There was a fair quantity of traffic going through, which led me to make the first of my dumb-headed remarks for that day.

I said, “This ocean drive must be really beautiful to get all these cars driving it.” To which a Foggia-bound Italian fan, who had hitched a ride to his home with us, said, “Not for the beautifulness, no. Is for cheap shopping.”

And the second one was when I said, “There must be a lot of Yugoslavians named Zimmer, because half those little houses have a sign that has their name on it.” Which produced another of those little giggles from the back seat, and then the comment, “In German language the word ‘zimmer’ means ‘room.’ They wish you to stay with them, for money.”

I won’t deny, though, that that drive down the coast road was indeed spectacular, with the broadening blue Adriatic on one side and that mountain range, getting taller and taller, on the other. So, when the man from State had said “Yugoslavia,” my first thought was, “But I’ve seen the mountains and the sea, what’s the point in seeing them over again?”

That would have been my third dumb-headed remark if I’d said it to those two easily amused passengers. Fortunately I didn’t say it to anyone but myself. Because, you see, that vanished nation of Yugoslavia didn’t have any “over again.” At every point it betrayed its origin as a clutch of sovereign states; go one way and you’re among the ski lifts in the mountains, go another and you’re sailing among the gorgeous Adriatic islands. Sometimes you’re in a city, sometimes in hectare after hectare of farmland or pasture.

Well, you say, doesn’t almost every country have that same sort of variety? You’re missing the point, I say. Yugoslavia’s variation was extreme. Go up to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. It’s a Saturday night and the city square is filled with two concentric rings of strollers, one going clockwise — those are all young men — and the other, walking the other way, young women. You’ll see that in almost every Macedonian town, for young men and young women must somehow meet, or else the race dies out, and there only a certain few approved ways to do it.

And you glance up at the clock on the tallest building. It says 11:15 and you say to your English-speaking companion, “Oh, look at the time!”

And he laughs sand says, “The correct time is a little past eight-thirty. So you know what the time eleven fifteen means? No? Eleven-fifteen is the time when the great Yugoslavian earthquake struck. It caused much damage, so much that our then President declared an emergency and required every other province to send food, vehicles, building materials and money to Skopje. The drive was a great success. So much so that other provinces in Yugoslavia — ” he winks — “begged couldn’t they please have an earthquake of their own.”

You recognize that is a joke, so you just say, “So the earthquake rolled in at eleven-fifteen and stopped the clock. Was there much — ” You were going to ask him about panic, but he’s sighing. You ask if something is the matter.

“Not exactly — well, yes. That story was not entirely correct. Yes, the earthquake struck at eleven-fifteen, but it didn’t stop the clock. The clock had already stopped years before, when something broke and wasn’t fixed. After the earthquake one of the people who worked in that building got a ladder and reset the hands to eleven-fifteen. Which is where they have been ever since.”

I don’t want to give the impression that Macedonia was the only part of the old Yugoslavia worth visiting, especially when what I’m trying to say is that was hardly a part of it that was not worth the trip. You could have visited Dubrovnik, for instance, an ancient city built on a spur of solid rock extending out into the Adriatic Sea. It remained intact, when other cities its age had long since been fought over, converted largely to rubble and then rebuilt.

Dubrovnik was preserved intact because it’s really hard for an attacking army to attack, conquer and demolish a walled city on top of a great big rock. This siting had an odd effect on the city’s hotels, or at least in the only hotel I’ve ever stayed at there. The lobby is at street level. The streets, however, lie on the top of the rock, and when you’ve signed in you take the elevator down to the guest rooms carved out of the side of the rock.

(More about Yugoslavia coming to you shortly after I write it.)

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When the great world of non-English-speaking science fiction fans began to flex their young muscles and develop their own brand-new sorts of clubs and cons there was o way to slow them down. So it was no surprise to us Americans that, when there sprang into life an annual science fiction film festival, it was on the other side of an ocean, in a city called Trieste.

When some fan asked what country it was in, some wise guy — it may have been me — asked, “What country was it in when?” Because in the memory of living people — -that is, of people who were living in the 1960s — Trieste had alternately been Austro-Hungarian, Yugoslavian or Italian. And that doesn’t count those periods when the wars that changed things were over, but the old men with the chalk in their hands hadn’t quite finished drawing those map lines that dictated who would live where, and what they. would call themselves.

By the time Trieste hosted Il Festivale di Fantascienza, though, it was irrevocably (they said) Italian, and that’s what got us there. We were sitting on our porch in Red Bank, New Jersey, my then wife Carol and I, me reading the final pages of my latest collaboration with Jack Williamson, the Old Master himself, and Carol studying a map of eastern Europe.

I had just finished the final pages, having made only a handful of penciled improvements, none that required retyping whole pages, which meant all I had to do just then was put it in the mail for a final lookover by Jack. Unless he found something he wanted me to do over, which he almost never did, the next thing I would have to do with that one would be to deposit the check for the on-delivery half of my part of the advance when it turned up in the day’s mail.

That’s when Carol said, “Ðubrovnik” pronouncing the name as though enjoying the flavor of it.

What I said then was. “What?” I don’t know exactly what thoughts had been floating around my easily distracted mind at that time, but I was sure that they had nothing to do with towns with funny names..

She filled me in. “I said, ‘Dubrovnik,’ because I always said I wanted to visit some place that had a name I couldn’t pronounce.”

I reminded her that she had just pronounced it, and she shook her head at me. “How do I know I pronounced it right? Anyway, that’s not the important part. Look on the map here. Here’s this Dubrovnik place, and it’s right down the coast from that sci-fi film thing you said you wanted to go to, the one in Treesty.”

“There isn’t any such place as Treesty,” I informed, “The Film Festival is in Tree-esty. And all I said was maybe one of these years we might take a look — ”

“Well, what’s wrong with this year? You said you wanted to go there.. And just the other day, Mother was asking if we were going to want her to mind the kids while we went somewhere. I told her I’d ask you, so now I’m asking.”

I said, “Hum.” That was my coded expression for meaning, Let me mull this over in my mind, because Carol had a point. Back in those wartime days when my personal travel agent had been the U.S. Air Force, they had shipped me all over the map of Italy, except for two areas they somehow missed. One of them was Sicily, way down at the farthest south. The other, in the farthest north, was that spur of land at the top of the Adriatic Sea that held Trieste. The opportunity to see more of a country I had come to love simply couldn’t be passed up. So we made our plans, Carol and I, and we checked to see that our passports were up to date and that Carol’s mother, Carolie Ulf, was still cheerful about supervising the youngest children for two or three weeks, the two older ones being off at school,.

And next thing you know, our Alitalia jet was touching down at Milan’s airport and we were shifting our not inconsiderable baggage into the trunk of a Hertz car and heading east.

Continue reading ‘Under Three (or Maybe More) Flags, Part 1’ »

waterless urinal


A simple high-school electrochemistry question for you smart ones: how do you make that excellent, but tricky, fuel for your car, hydrogen?

Simple. You start with plain old water; you dip two terminals from a battery at the ends of the tank and turn on the current. Something starts bubbling at the terminals, hydrogen at one, oxygen at the other. You can use the hydrogen to make your car go, sell the oxygen, perhaps, to the nearest hospital. It’s a great little system, the only problem being that it takes at least 1.23 volts to split the water molecule and electricity costs money.

Okay, forget the water. Let’s electrolyze a different chemical liquid, say urine.

Human urine takes only 0.37 volts to electrolyze. This cuts your power consumption down to not much more than a quarter, and the process is now economical. What makes the difference is that urine contains urea, and a molecule of urea contains four of the hydrogen atoms that constitute your electric current — twice as many as a molecule of water — and the bonds that hold the molecule together are weaker.

So, supposing you want to start building your plant for peepee power right now, where do you get your urine? You might think that that’s a silly question — nearly 7 billion humans alive on the Earth, and every one of them generating your new motor fuel for you every day — but you may have to go to some trouble to get what you need. No, you can’t just pipe your sewage into a tank and run a current through it. Sewage is contaminated with many other materials, and the worst of them for this purpose is plain old water. Any flush toilet dilutes the urine drastically, and thus also seriously dilutes the urea it contains, so much so that you might as well use plain water to begin .with.

There are various solutions to the problem of the urine collection. One was invented for us by the ancient Romans. They liked to wear white woolen garments, but those garments got dirty and couldn’t be laundered in water because they would shrink. Plain urine was fine to wash them in, though, so to provide their cleaning liquid, those old Roman dry cleaners put barrels out at street intersections, with ingratiating little signs urging those who had to go to use the barrels.

Of course, some neighborhoods might not care for that sort of public display. Fortunately, there are other options. The urine doesn’t have to come from human beings. Any large mammal will do. The particularly placid cow would be close to ideal. And how do you persuade your herd of cattle to pee in a barrel? You don’t.

There is a useful bit of minor surgery widely in use for elderly male humans whose prostate has grown so big it interferes with their urination. One end of a catheter is inserted directly through the skin into the gentleman’s bladder, the other end leads to a collection vessel of some sort. From then on the man never has to dash for a public urinal, and his own urine arrives at the electrolysis plant in a nearly pristine condition. (You save a bundle on water bills, too, since from then you never have to flush for pee.)

See how easy it is to solve some pretty big problems if you want to make the effort?

* * *

All the Lives He Led — is set partly in Pompeii, and I’ve done a lot of writing about those Romans at other times as well.

Campi Flegrei (Photo by Donar Reiskoffer).

Campi Flegrei (Photo by Donar Reiskoffer).

The whole of Yellowstone National Park is basically the gigantic caldera of a super-volcano, the kind that can mess up the whole world’s climate when it blows. The Yellowstone one is pretty regular about how often it does blow, too, and at the moment it’s about 6,000 years overdue for its next ka-boom. One of the postulates — the “big lies” that an author is permitted to tell to set up his story — in my latest novel, All the Lives He Led is that sometime before the story gets going Yellowstone did blow sky-high, covering much of the country with volcanic ash and dust and thus converting the U.S.A. from the richest country in the world to something with approximately the Gross National Product of Liechtenstein.

This means our hero can’t make a decent living in America. Therefore he goes to Italy, where he gets a job in the theme park the Italians have made out of the 2,000-year-old ruins of Pompeii.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, as it happens, during World War II I was stationed in Italy for a time with the U. S. Army Air Force, first with a B24 group on the Adriatic side of the peninsula, then with AAF/MTO (translation: Army Air Force, Mediterranean Theater of Operations headquarters) in Caserta, near Naples. What I am getting at, in my perhaps unfortunately highly discursive way, is that for a long time I have been interested in (a) supervolcanos like Yellowstone and (b) the region of the Italian coast around Naples.

And I have — alarmingly — recently discovered that those two areas of interest have become one.

You see, the whole territory around Naples is what the old Romans called the Campi Flegrei (meaning “the burning fields”), and Lake Avernus was described by Virgil, in his Aeneid, as the entrance to Hell. Modern observers have not confirmed that identification, but what they have established is that the lake is actually the water-filled crater of a dormant, but not necessarily dead, volcano.

Like Yellowstone, the area is marked by fumaroles (vents of steam), pots of boiling mud and, most disconcertingly, irregular raising and lowering of ground level in some places by as much as eleven feet, which has not been good for some of the constructions on those sites; a hospital and many, many homes have been destroyed. There is a big difference between the Yellowstone caldera and the one for the Phlegrean Fields, though. Most of the Phlegrean territory is underwater, stretching from the famous Isle of Capri to the less celebrated island of Ischia and including much of my dear unkempt city of Naples. (Another difference is population. In winter, at least, Yellowstone is inhabited largely by bears, while the Phlegrean Fields area is home to four million human beings,)

So how dangerous is the situation? Well, no one exactly knows. It would take quite a lot of drilling down into the worrisome ground to get the evidence to predict just what is going to happen there.

That drilling seemed about to start a while ago, because Giuseppe De Natale, the search director for Italy’s National Observatory for Geophysics and Volcanology, was prepared to get it started with a $14 million course of drilling. That didn’t happen, though Critics reminded Naples Mayor Rosa Russo Iervolino of what happened in Indonesia in 2006 when a mud volcano erupted after similar drilling was done, killing a few people and rendering tens of thousands homeless. Mayor Iervolino took no chances. She stopped all drilling until somebody could prove to her that it was safe.

(By the way, people who have been to Naples and seen Mt. Vesuvius puffing its ominous little trail of steam on the horizon may wonder what part this other volcano plays in the Phlegrean Fields scenario. The answer is none at all. Vesuvius, which destroyed three little cities in one 48-hour rampage back in 79 A.D., is just too trivial to worry about when considering the threat posed by the Phlegrean Fields.)

Robert Silverberg and Karen Haber, 2009. (Photo by Cat Sparx.)

Robert Silverberg and Karen Haber, 2009. (Photo by Cat Sparx.)

From time to time, Robert Silverberg has told the world that he had written himself out and was retiring from the field. Fortunately for the rest of us, these periods of abstinence from the computer were so depressing to his irrepressibly auctorial psyche that he fled back to the keyboard before long each time. Now he maintains a delicate balance between time spent in putting words on paper, as it seems God has intended for him to do, and time spent traveling the world to view art treasures in the greatest museums and the tiniest of ancient churches.

Betty Anne and I were lucky enough to join him once or twice when we found ourselves inhabiting the same land mass at a convenient time. One such episode that sticks in my mind took place in Italy in 1989. Bob with his wife, Karen Haber, and I with my own, Elizabeth Anne Hull — the wives both had elected to keep their maiden names, which tells you something about them, but at least they didn’t make us take theirs — had been attending a World SF annual meeting in a little town, up in the mountains, called Fanano.

The meeting had been good. World SF had been started by a few of us in order to give sf writers in every country that possessed any examples of any such native creatures a chance to interact with the major writers and editors of the world, and it had come to function very effectively, especially in helping writers from travel-restricting countries get permission to join us. The Fanano meeting had people from all over Europe, including a couple of groups from the USSR, as well as people from several countries in Asia and, of course, a large contingent from North America.

When it was over, Bob wanted to visit a bunch of old churches along the Adriatic on the way north to Venice, and Betty and I volunteered to go along with him.

I can’t say that I have a compelling interest in old churches. I do like to wander around new places, though, so Betty and the Silverbergs parked near a church and I went off to explore. I did peer into one or two churches that might have been where Princess Mathaswentha was saved from a loveless marriage by Martin Padway (at least, she was in L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall, though in the real world she was less fortunate). But really, after a week of concentrated good fellowship with friends from all over the world I was content with peace and quiet.

Venice, of course, was something else. None of the four of us had been there before, though I had barely missed it once when driving from Trieste down along the (then Yugoslavian, now multinational) coast to the Ancona ferry. And Venice itself was a constant delight.

We had pretty much lost any detailed contact with the world we usually lived in, not having any English-language newspaper or TV handy, but more language-gifted friends in Fanano had told us about big trouble in China. Something was going on in Tianenmen Square, the big open space in Beijing usually given over to crowds of young people anxious to try their imperfect English — or their teacher’s — on us so we could help improve their accents. No crowds of happy youngsters were there now, and no tourists. What young people there were were staring down the barrels of Chinese tanks, and the tank captains — we heard when we found an English paper — were said to have their fingers on the triggers.

It was at that point that we ran across a couple of old friends who, like us, had been at the World SF meeting in Fanano and decided to add on a little Adriatic exploration.

Takumi and Sashiko Shibano, from Tokyo, had been doing the Worldcon for years, and once or twice had stayed with us for a day or two before the con. Yang Xiao, from Chengdu in China, was the editor of the very successful Science Fiction World, by far China’s most prestigious sf magazine. Not one of them spoke a single word of Italian, so they had banded together to do their exploration, in spite of the fact that Yang didn’t speak either Japanese or English, either, and the Shibanos had no Chinese. At home in Chengdu, Yang Xiao didn’t need to know languages, having a staff of translators to keep her informed of what was in all those articles, stories and letters, but they were all still in Chengdu, while she was a world away. A clearly courageous human being, Yang had done all sorts of world traveling, with no more English than you can get out of a Chinese-Engish “useful words” booklet.

I admired her pluck, but immediately discovered she had heard nothing about the drama being played out in Tiananmen Square. I began to worry about how to inform her of the problem that looked like it was convulsing her home country.. We all put our minds to it. We succceded, too. Our American team went over the principal stories about Tiananmen Square in the English and Italian papers to clarify any parts that the Shibanos were unsure of. Then either Takumi or Sashiko wrote each story out in Japanese characters. It is a fortunate quality of the two languages that, although the spoken tongues are mutually incomprehensible, the written ones are enough alike that, with some effort, a Chinese reader can make sense of a Japanese story. And Yang Xiao got the news of the dismal encounter that was shaking her homeland up while she was a world away.

Which just goes to show you what a bunch of science-fiction types can do when they put their minds to it.