Saturday, September 02, 2006

15 November 1955

At 7:30 in the morning, the sun had not yet risen—the silhouette of low hills & sudden huge mountains was my first glimpse of Europe. During the complete darkness just an hour or so before, we had passed through the Straight of Gibraltar & were now in the Mediterranian sea, launching planes & circling slowly until time to dock on the inward side of the peninsula. Most of the crew were lined up at the various hanger bays & catwalks, waiting for the sun to come up.

Following astern of us & slightly to starboard, a sleek grey destroyer moved silently, flashing messages from her bridge. To one side is Spain—to the other, Africa. The sun rose slowly behind the clouds, saturating them with red & orange. On the horizon, directly in the center of the growing dawn, a ship trailed black smoke across the sky.

The effect could not have been greater if it had been carefully planned & staged. Slowly, as the ship turned, the view from the hanger bay, like a huge picture window, showed the hillls & mountains as the day spread over them—Toward Africa, low dark hills rolled away like a carpet into the interior. Spain provided mountains that looked as though they’d been painted; there was just enough mist & haze to remind me of a Shangri-La, or Bali Hai—some land that should be but wasn’t.

And then came Gibraltar—not the face we are familiar with from photographs & life insurance policies, for we were on the other side—but she stood out, almost vivid against the softer surroundings. As it became lighter, the yellow of the rocks changed to a light grey, and the city could be more clearly seen, cluttered at the foot of the mountain, as though it had tumbled down from the top. Along the top of the ridge could be seen the miniature buildings and tiny radio towers. High over the Rock was a large cloud; the sun was just beginning to cap it with brilliant silver. A fine birthday present.

We docked beside one of the few piers in Europe large enough to accommodate us. This one was at least a mile long, for docked directly ahead of us were two British carriers, squat weird-looking things. Aircraft carriers are not supposed to be things of beauty, but beside those British ships, the Ti looked as graceful as a gazelle and as strong as an elephant.

These British carriers are, as I said, squat, & give the appearence of being smaller than they are. Where the Ti’s shape, from head on, is like a gently curving "V" the Brittish carriers look as thout they’d started out to be that way, & then were pared off near the flight deck. No forward gun tubs, no catwalks—nothing on the exterior—she’s all enclosed. I was amazed at her armament—unless she had some guns hidden somewhere, she’d have trouble warding off a bunch of mosquitoes. Almost no island; not at all like the Ti’s, which looks about six stories high.
In fact, I was never at an angle where I could even see the island—only some radar antennae.
No hanger bays—not even a hanger deck that could be seen—no outside elevators. Perhaps the lack of a hanger deck is one thing that makes her look so squat. And the British sailors still sleep in hamocks! I saw this through a porthole (another commodity that went out with World War I on American ships).

I got to go ashore about 3:30 that afternoon. Either they have awfully low docks or we have an unusually high ship—the gangway was so steep it was almost a ladder.

Gibraltar is a fortress—of that it makes no efforts to hide—everywhere along the dock are thick stones & heavy gates. The Rock itself is honeycombed to such a degree that it’s practically hollow. In the pre-atom era, it was without a doubt impregnable. And it is also very, very British—the defenses, at least—the city is a mixture of British, Spanish, & God Knows What.

The dock is made of cobblestones, it appears, & must be quite old since the roadway is rutted and worn. More gates, more stone—stone, stone, stone. And then you reach the end of the dock & the end of the naval base, & there is the city, winding away along the base of the mountain in narrow, solidly-lined streets. Most of the buildings are a brownish-orange. The sidewalks are either two to three feet wide, or nonexistant. This make the streets more like canyons—the cars are small with very few American models, though some of them are really beautiful. The people seem to have as much right in the streets as the cars, & no one appears to mind much. The "downtown" is like no American downtown I have ever some seen—same narrow streets—one or two side spaces where several streets join. When they do meet, it is as if it were purely by accident, & they go meandering their merry ways, often as not ending in—not in a dead end; just ending. All shops—few restaruants, several bars, all of which line the streets with open shutters (few have windows, where you can rest your elbow on the windowsills & reach out & touch almost anyone in the street).

Approximately ¼ of all the shops are strictly for the tourist & sailor trade, selling everything from cigarette lighters (3 for $1) to three-foot-high dolls that walk, talk, & do everything but breathe ($8) to 400-day clocks ($8). What fascinated me most was the oriental influence—in every single one of these shops, silk Kimonos, ivory & jade were standard items. One jade statue of a Chinese lady, about 5" tall, sells for L27 ($75). That’s asking price—I don’t know what it would be if you argued them down.

Stopped at a bank (or the Gibraltar equivalent thereof) & exchanged $5 for Gibraltar currency.

Gad, it’s taps—more tomorow.

2 comments:

Dave said...

How'd you luck out and not pose for the port entry? Did you get to the top and visit all the monkeys?

Dorien/Roger said...

Hi, Dave:

Well, since I worked in the Commissary Department office and was responsible for typing up rosters of who had to stand for port entry, I somehow neglected to put my own name on it. I felt terrible about missing it, of course.

R