What I remember about the short drive from our turn off the autobahn at Sterzing-Vipteno to the Sonklar Hof is winding through darkness.
The headlights didn’t give up much of this Ridanna-Ridnaun Valley, the heart of our journey, where secrets would emerge in the light of day. Here we expected to see and feel the place where our father had appeared out of nowhere after bailing out of his P-51 into a 10,000-foot nothingness of clouds and somehow survived his descent in snow deep enough to drown in. The several roundabouts that Roland maneuvered in mostly darkness didn’t do much but disorient me. After what must have been the final roundabout, we began winding upwards sharply right, then left, then right, left again, back and forth, switchback after switchback, Joanna Leigh on my lap with a suitcase, Roland pulling uphill, Susan and Jakob Mayer in the car behind us.
Faint lights appeared in the distance. Soon Roland, slowing down, said, “We are here.” I could see very little of the hotel itself or whatever lay beyond the parking lot. I remember thinking that if someone was holding a lit candle in the distance, we’d see it in such darkness. The air and darkness were so complete and fresh that it seemed to have come from millenniums ago.
I would have to wait to put my eyes on the Mountain – Zukerheutl – that dad had survived.
I still felt disoriented as we entered Sonklar. The man who greeted us was like some kind of mirage, a German official from a black-and-white World War II movie. Jarring me out of fuzziness, he was talking loudly to Roland, and fast, in German. I handed him my credit card. I looked around the lobby and peered around a corner, wanting to see if the oil painting hung on some wall. Because it was late, people were not coming and going in the lobby. Then we walked over to the staircase. We’d be on the third floor, and I wondered if there was an elevator.
Dreading my own exaggerated emotions, good or bad, I expend a lot of energy on anticipating what is going to happen, a senseless exercise, I get that. I try to make this free-floating anxiety look and feel like “planning,” but it doesn’t really work, and anxiety was taking over. I think it is what’s left over from the trauma of the night I learned my 23-year-old brother was dead. In Vietnam. I got to Tuscaloosa tired from the day’s work and trip from Huntsville. Joe Lee said, “Your dad called and wants you to call him.” He said it so casually.
I called. Dad said, “we’ve lost John.” I went blank. I said “lost where?” He had to explain “lost.” The damage from the concrete wall I hit emotionally was permanent and became free-floating.
So, true to form, I put too much needless energy into anticipating whether the oil painting would be there or not be there. Infused with way too much symbolism, the painting was going to hyper-charge my emotions – overreacting if it was there, deflating if not there, either way, an omen of something.
Research on the Sonklar revealed it to be popular as a winter resort, for sure, as the pictures and videos show, the steam of the heated pool and hot tub rising up against a snowy background. In the summer it is a health and wellness spa resort where physically fit families and hikers and mountain climbers, and hang-gliders vacation. As we started up the three flights with suitcases, I wondered how I could hide my lumbering for the next five days from all the young and fit, bounding up and down the stairs.
Ah, the last stretch. I hauled the monster bag up step by step, facing backward. I turned and looked up. Two stairs to go until the landing. And there it was. The oil painting unframed, about 7 feet across by 4 feet or so high, above a German cabinet. It hung just outside our room. I looked at it each time I came and went, as if it were a seeing and knowing totem that had lured us to the Valley and to the Sonklar.
Below: My 2014 photograph of the same oil, now on the Sonklar’s
3rd floor landing.
The 1950 Sonklar
This Sonklar is where mom and dad stayed in 1949 or 1950, when we were still living in Munich. We knew about this trip from having to watch home slides and movies a thousand times, but understanding dad’s strong need to come back was never revealed to us. At that time the Sonklar’s oil painting of Zuckerhutl was in the dining room. He shot it four or more times with his 35 mm camera. I shot it that night with my iPhone. It all felt spookily ordained, but I managed to corral my emotions and be grateful it was there, on our floor.
Many curious, unbelieving, eyes were on our Woodie in 1950 as it drove the winding road to the Sonklar; then the villagers saw that mysterious, strange airman who had shown up out of the snow to the mining community just above this level of the valley. Word spread quickly, the airman and his wife were there. Not only was he driving this big, wondrous Woodie, but he wore his official U.S.A.F. blue uniform.
The military had to ship all the belongings to the families of the allied forces, from their clothes to dishes and tableware, to the tables and beds and sheets and towels and all their furniture all the way up to their cars. There was almost nothing in Germany but destruction. Food to stock the military commissaries, goods for the PXes -- everything had to be shipped over. Frozen foods, still their new phase, had to be shipped over; I gag today remembering the grotesque frozen English peas and asparagus we had to eat.
Mom and dad were able to travel in Europe a lot because of the household help they had. The German people needed work and food and clothes. We lived in German’s houses, us at 30 Fraunkimmsee Strasse, Herr Dahlmeir’s home. Annie helped with cleaning; I remember Oscar polishing all the copper mom had collected; Susan was born in Germany and Inge was her nanny and my brother’s and my sitter.
Military personnel wore their uniforms at all times, and that’s how I saw dad, always in his blue uniform; he had to wear it even when travelling on his own time. Always, whether in Paris or Madrid or the Ridanna-Ridnaun Valley or on the Isar River in Munich on a picnic. Wearing it was mandatory.
The Strange Airman
World War II was still new and fresh, destruction too close, and Allied occupation possibly only a substitute for what they had been living with. Even in this beautiful and closed-off Ridanna-Ridnaun Valley with its complex political make-up, people’s allegiances were unknown. Some villagers in the Valley thought that dad, in his blue uniform, was there on some kind of official mission; a few, war weary, suspicious, cautious, stayed away. Anton Volgger, (then about 10 years old) and his older brother Joseph (then a teenager) were there that day in 1950.
I first knew of Anton from the second or third e-mail I got so unexpectedly from the then stranger Roland Domanig, dated Sunday, September 9, 2012, almost two years ago.
The e-mail said, “Anton is now about 70 and he remembers the admirable tall young man, with short hair, mysterious and unique, adventurable. The villagers in Ridnaun talked silently, with hands in front of mouth about the strange American. South Tyrol was still occupied by the US, but people were save from the Italians.”
We would finally meet Anton the next day. For now, when we got in our room, we flung open the window onto the darkness, the air unmarred, only scented with nature’s cleanliness. We slept long and well under a down comforter.
Future posts: Anton, the Mountain, and the Little White Church.
More pictures: https://plus.google.com/photos/+JoannaCraveyHutt/albums
The Sonklar: http://www.sonklarhof.it/