Window wide open, morning at the Sonklar in the Ridanna-Ridnaun Valley enticed our eyes and noses with a clear, sweet wake-up nudge. We heard cow bells. My feet hit the ground; I grabbed my iPhone, having no idea what I would see out the window. Unlike the oil painting, which might or might not have been there, the Mountain, Zuckerhutl, was there, looking west, but having arrived after dark, we had no orientation. Were we facing north, south, east, or west? Leaning out as far as I dared, I saw it, on the left, the highest peak I could see, a throne at the western head of the valley and all else only supplicants.
“Susan, here it is, the Mountain” I said. “And the Little White Church. I can’t believe it. Susan, it’s in one of dad’s shots of the mountain. Now we know for sure the orientation of those slides. We’re here. In person.”
I stared at this sight, this mountain, me, in person, not wanting my eyes to ever forget this moment. Zuckerhutl, at 11,500 feet and the tallest peak in the Stubai Alps, sat immoveable, containing the earth’s entire history; it felt like sure footing, the reason for making this complex trip. I breathed. Zuckerhutl was imbued with all we had thought we knew about our father and his ordeal nearly seventy years ago; with all that became known and all we would learn in the coming days; with all our assumptions about a man who was first our father and a distant second, a man, a whole person.
The Stubai Alps closed off this Valley. There is no outlet except back the way we came, making the question of how dad survived an even bigger question mark.
We were facing north. Just across the valley floor, straight ahead, as the terrain began to climb, a tractor, leaning with the hill’s angle, was cutting the grasses and creating the sweet scent, maybe for hay. I wondered. A group of houses, white stucco with reddish roofs, brownish trim, and window boxes of cascading colors, sat huddled together, then one lone house of the same style nearby.
The land was green. Not apple or hunter or emerald, but pure and absolute green.
“I want to see,” said Joanna Leigh. I hoisted her up, keeping a tight grip.
(Above) The green Ridnaun-Ridanna Valley
“That’s the mountain Grand John came down from, there.” I pointed.
“The one in the middle?
“Yes,” I said. “The tallest.”
“How did he do that?”
“I have absolutely no idea,” I said.
Before the trip was over, we would find out a lot more about how dad got down and how he survived.
The phone rang. It was Roland wanting to know what time we should leave for Innsbruck. “Crap,” I thought. “We have to drive all the way back to the Hertz office and pick up the wretched car.”
“Would about ten o’clock be ok?”
He said yes and that he would meet us at breakfast.
Roland met us in our dining room and showed us to our table, explaining in his halting English that this would be our table for the whole visit. Susan and I had liked the idea of our reservations at the Sonklar including breakfasts and dinners. We soon understood that they weren’t just being nice. If those meals were not included, no one would stay there or at any of the few other choices in the Valley, since there was nowhere else to have those meals unless you were willing to drive on those winding roads, in the dark, to wherever. It was certainly not like going down to the Gulf Coast, which would be a bust if you didn’t go out for lunches and dinners to restaurants or beach shacks for the freshest seafood around.
The setup is more like that on a cruise ship; you have the same table, the same waiter, your same bottles of unfinished wine or bottled water, and the same people at nearby tables.
Views of the Sonklar: Our dining room The dessert spread Toward the buffet area
Unlike a cruise ship, with its humongous, loud dining room, the Sonklar had several smaller rooms, lending a sense of familiarity. We saw the same people and families at each meal. I stood up at one meal and my chair fell backwards. I looked around at the other four or five tables. My own eyebrows raised and arms outstretched, I apologized. No one spoke English, but they nodded nicely and grinned a bit. The second time I did it, laughing in spite of myself, I grabbed my own head as if pulling out my own hair; they just laughed with me.
Being the only English speakers in the hotel was kind of fun, since Roland’s passable English helped fill the gaps, but I’ve wondered what our animated conversations sounded like to the others -- a crash site, Anton’s finding it, the glacier, the role of the huts in the mountains, everything.
We had a view toward the patio, heated pool and hot tub. Sun came in the windows and reflected off the warm light brown wood on walls, tables, chairs, and off the white linen tablecloths. I couldn’t ask what kind of wood, since no one spoke English.
Crucifixes decorated most of the wall spaces. Despite German being the primary language and the main social/historical background, the land is nevertheless Italian; the religion and churches are overwhelmingly Catholic, including the Little White Church. (See the October 3 post for a quick sketch of the social, religious, and historical make up of the Süditrol or South Tyrol: http://spittingrits.blogspot.com/2014/10/a-long-day-into-italy-over-brenner-pass.html .)
I pulled out my iPad and brought up photos to remind Roland that one of the earliest pictures he sent me was one of himself standing at the black wrought iron fence surrounding the church. He laughed and said, “That was about ten years ago.”
Three views of Ridnaun-Ridanna’s Little White Church, Zuckerhutl in the background: Joanna Leigh and Roland 2014,
Roland about 10 years ago, and the photo my father took in 1950
Then I brought up the scan of dad’s 35 mm slide of that same shot of the church taken in 1949 or 1950 and explained that we didn’t know the orientation of the shot until now. The slides didn’t tell you which was top and bottom, so we scanned both sides, ending up with one of the church on the left of the frame and one with the church on the right of the frame. The same was true of all those slides dad had taken on that trip, of the houses being built, the three men “who had helped” him, official buildings, and other scenes.
“I want to get a picture of you and Joanna Leigh in that same spot,” I told Roland.
We had to leave for Innsbruck, for the stupid car, as it was to be our means of getting back to the Munich airport, which is some 40 miles northeast of the city. And the whole debacle of the Hertz car would get even stupider when we got to Munich to turn it in.
On the autobahn I quizzed Roland about crash sites, the research process, and his circle of other crash and aircraft archaeologists/researchers. We would meet his friend whom we met at the Innsbruck train station Jakob Mayer, and he would take me to a well-known and exciting crash site.
Roland said, “That is Anton over there cutting his hay. He must cover it before it starts raining again and rots it.”
We had not yet met Anton.
Anton cutting hay near his house, 2014
Note: The next post will include the story of Priority Gal’s crash near Innsbruck and Jakob Mayer’s role in honoring the U.S. pilot of the plane. Future posts will look at other stories of crash sites and their meanings to survivors and to the families and friends of those who didn’t, as well as how the sites can help heal old wounds. Links to many more pictures start here: https://plus.google.com/photos/+JoannaCraveyHutt/albums