Thursday, November 16, 2006

27 Feb. 1956 (Part 1 of 2)

Dear Folks

Just been day-dreaming of home, which is only 167 days away, & yet seems like an eternity (if not longer). No word yet from Northwestern, but I hope to hear from them soon.

I was sitting here tonite, reading Robert Burns ("The best laid plans of mice & men….") & brushing my hair—something I haven’t done in a long time. You should see the floor when I stood up & brushed myself off—it was almost ankle deep in dandruff. Oh, well—ready for the second day in Rome? Here we go----

To sleep in a real bed, between real sheets, is a privilege not enjoyed since Paris—the night the boats stopped running won’t count because it was only for four hours. The buzzing of the phone woke us at 8:00. Peter Paul answered it: "Yeah, he’s getting up now" & hung up. I sat up & said "Who was that?" Nonchalantly putting on his socks, Peter Paul said "I dunno; I couldn’t understand him anyway."

Why I bother taking my electric shaver along I don’t know—it was one of those triangle-of-holes affairs. We washed & dressed & went down to breakfast—two eggs with a strip of bacon dead in the center, cocoa, & bread. From what I could gather by looking out into the street, shady anyway, it was a beautiful day. A notice at the desk said we were to have an audience with the Pope at 0930.

The busses came at 9, & I, my pockets jammed with two rolls of film, two rosaries & a crucifix for the Chief, climbed on board. We drove first to the USO, on the Via della Conseliazione, which looks directly on St. Peters. A block or two behind us on the same street is the round Castle de San Angelo, better known as the Tomb of Adrian . Built by the emperor Adrian as a tomb for himself & all succeeding Emperors, it was turned into a fortress during the middle ages, & is connected to the Vatican by a long, covered passageway like an aqueduct, through which the Pope fled to the safety of the fortress if danger threatened.

While we waited outside the USO, an American woman working there came on the bus & explained the protocol of the audience, & to give us all special tickets, to allow us to enter. It was wonderful to see an American, & to hear her talk to us in a language we could understand. She was very friendly & cheerful, & made us feel much better. She said we had until ten fifteen, & suggested we come into the USO for coffee. "Is it American coffee?" someone asked; the stuff they serve over here is nothing but melted coffee beans.

An American away from Americans is as lost as a week-old puppy; you can’t possibly
imagine what it’s like until you’re in that position—& then you wish you weren’t. That’s why such little things as an American cup of coffee, or hearing an ordinary American voice can mean so much.

Inside, since I don’t care for coffee, I went into the USO. A red-headed woman was there with her three children—one of them the cutest little blond I’ve seen in ages, & a lot of other people, in & out of uniform.

Another group was to leave the USO & walk to the Vatican—we were to drive down & meet them in St. Peter’s Square.

When we arrived in the Square, we had to leave our cameras on the bus. The other group of about forty came along shortly, & we walked to the right-hand arcade. Audience is the correct word for it—there were already over a hundred & fifty people, with more coming all the time.
Our guide, another American girl, took us around on a sort of flanking movement, & brought us up near the head of the line. The group of people we were standing near looked familiar. They were. Americans, naturally. I got to talking with a woman from Detroit.

"We’ve been here two weeks now; we’re going back next week, & I’ll certainly be glad to go." I was saying how it seemed like you could spot an American six blocks away—she agreed. "You know, the other night my friend & I were looking for a nice place to eat, & we stopped in this small restaurant. Well, we’d no sooner gotten in the door when a waiter came over & said ‘Good evening, ladies’ & he showed us to a table & they brought over a little American flag.---And we hadn’t even opened our mouths!"

Ahead of us, standing in the entrance to the building, were the fabled Swiss Guards, dressed in orange & black pantaloons, & carrying a spear as they did 300 years ago—really a sight Behind them were a flight of stairs to rival anything Hollywood has ever produced.

Suddenly someone must have given some sort of signal & everyone began rushing toward the entrance, swarming past the guards & up the stairs—young priests running pell-mell up the stairs, their cloaks puffing out behind them. The long corridor echoed with the scuffling of hundreds of feet. Nuns, Italian women all in black, Americans—two sailors hurried by carrying the kids I’d seen in the USO. Men, young women, old women,--all scurrying up the long steps, like citizens flying from a Sodom, or toward a paradise.

The stairs turned a sharp corner & ended in a large room, heavy hung with Cyclopean tapestries & red velvet curtains. Men in red velvet robes took our tickets, & we headed into penned-in enclosures—the wooden railings were the only thing that kept us from completely flooding the room. On either long wall were immense tapestries depicting various battles—rather incongruous, I thought. Though we’d been told to stay together, we were spread all over. To the right, another door led somewhere I couldn’t see, being masked by heavy green drapes.

A troop of guards, in blue & gold, came marching from a large door center, past me, & out the door to the right. People, among them the woman I’d been talking with, followed the guards.
"Where are they going?" someone asked.

"I don’t know—maybe they’ve got a private audience."

But when a few sailors from our party started drifting after them, I began to suspect that somebody was fouled up somewhere. Our guide came hurrying up, gathering everybody together & told us to follow the stream.

"Now, when you get in the next room, stand by the railing—don’t let anybody shove past you; some of these little nuns & priests get carried away with enthusiasm sometimes & go charging in like football players—but don’t you let them. Hurry, now—everyone else will be going in there in a moment." And with that she vanished into the crowd.

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