“You are not going out with that boy unless his parents are driving and that's that. I'm not just Spitting Grits here, young lady!”

. . . My father, John Thomas Cravey, USAF, to me in 1956.

A Dark Night to Sonklar


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.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Below: Dad’s 1950 photograph of the oil painting of Zuckerhutl at Sonklar  Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

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.


And that’s why we had the Woodie overseas and why the military families had all their stuff.                                                                                              Our 1950 Woodie              Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH


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/




A Long Day into Italy: Over the Brenner Pass

Roland had brought a colleague to the Innsbruck train station for us to meet. He had worked with Jakob Mayer for many years on crash site archaeology and research. Both had begun their tutelage years ago under Keith Bullock, their mentor. (More about Bullock in a post to come.)
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I was happy to meet Jakob. As Roland’s long-time colleague, I knew he understood very well the feelings and thoughts when a family member or crash survivor unexpectedly learned of the crash site, made the trip to see the site or a piece of the aircraft, and was determined to learn more details of what happened.
Because of Hertz’s upcoming screw up,  Jakob, Roland, and I would have a chance to visit the crash site of a U.S. B-17 Flying Fortress, “Priority Gal,” on the outskirts of Innsbruck, right where some skiing competitions of the 1972 Winter Olympics had been held. Jakob was one of the prime movers in having that site made a memorial and in finding – as unlikely as it was – the surviving pilot of that bomber.
Before returning home, I would have a much better understanding of the work and dedication that goes into unraveling the mystery of a U.S. aircraft downed in World War II enemy territory.
Meanwhile I had gotten a text from Susan saying that she would arrive at the train station shortly, so we waited. Then, pulling luggage behind us, we all walked over to the Grand Hotel Europa to talk, drink coffee, and eat Austrian desserts. Everyone seemed to know Jakob, who is in real estate in Innsbruck. Roland and I had to walk across the street to the Hertz office to get a car.
 We met Roland (back) and his colleague Jakob Mayer at the Innsbruck train station
Number Two to Hertz
And I don’t mean the number 2; I mean the other one. When we got to the door, it was locked. We banged in case someone was in the back. No one. We looked at the hours and sure enough, they closed at 5 p.m. It was about 5:20. “But I called them earlier and told them you’d be here,” said Roland. So there we stood. No car. They knew I was coming, so what was the problem here? I knew Roland had a small European car, but I didn’t know about Jakob’s. Guess what. It was also very small. The price of gas in Europe motivate people to buy small cars.
Back at the hotel and ordering more coffee, we tried to be rational and figure out what to do. I got out my paperwork and we called Hertz International, which I had tried to do before we left home. I had needed to know if we would be able to use the car charger plug in the rented car. In a curt manner and bored tone, the person on the other end said, “I don’t know.” Pause, as I tried to process; after all it was Hertz International. Then, “You’ll have to call the office where you’re picking up the car.” Funny thing about the office where I was to pick up the rental car.
“Surely you’re kidding,” I said back.
No, she wasn’t. That whole conversation seemed really stupid. Now it seemed even stupider. And, believe me, the Hertz stupidness would become a debacle in Munich before we left on our return trip for home.
The next decision wasn’t Flexibility: It was Physics. How were we going to get all of us and all of our luggage into the two small cars? The answer was, “We just are.” We did, but by the hair of our chinny-chin-chin.
Jakob had made dinner reservations in a restaurant he knew well, off the autobahn but well up into the Alps. It was dusk, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to see the views over the historic Brenner Pass, which marks the border between Austria and Italy. I had heard my mother and father talk about the Pass many times, especially when we lived in Munich after World War II (see previous posts) and they traveled to Italy. (Images of the Pass.) The Pass has been in use since the European Ice Age. It was a well-used route for the Romans and invading Germanic Tribes; during WWII, Hitler and Mussolini met here after agreeing to a treaty that lured Italy into the Axis countries against the Allied Forces. The carrot for Mussolini was land; the stick would have been an invasion into Italy. He could keep the Tyrolean lands that the despised Treaty of Versailles ending World War I had turned over to Italy. The irony of course is that the Fascists and Nazism were already in Italy, and Hitler was not known for keeping agreements.
(Here is a fun, but long, YouTube video that puts you in the vehicle driving the autobahn between Italy and Innsbruck. If you agree, give the videographer a thumbs up.)
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When we left the Trinfer Hof it was dark; the clarified air invited you to skip to the car, and I think Joanna Leigh in fact skipped. We stuffed ourselves back into the cars and got back on the autobahn. Once over the Pass we were in Italy, in the South Tyrol, Italy’s northern most province, its summer and winter playground, well known to Europeans and little known in the U.S.
After about 20 minutes or so, I saw the exit: Sterzing (German)-Vipiteno (Italian). In the past two years, after getting that first e-mail from a then-stranger, Roland Domanig, I studied maps of this area many, many times, and I knew we would turn right off the autobahn here, in the South Tyrol. Dark became darker and we could not see this town of Sterzing-Vipiteno that dates to the Romans. It is located at the junction of three Alpine passes, including Brenner, and became an important medieval trading post and mining town. It grew rich on silver from nearby mines until the 16th century. Many burger homes dating from that time are still standing.
 (Before) I had trout at the Trinfer Hof                                    (After)
The South Tyrol—Südtirol
This area has a complicated history with a mostly happy ending. Its current social, cultural, and political stability is relatively new, dating from the 1960s and 1970s. If you ever decide to visit this part of Italy, here are some introductory facts that explain the area:
1. Currently, this gorgeous land sees nearly 6 million tourists each year, but has only 500,000 residents.
2. The population is comprised of three general cultural/ethnic groups most easily identified by their language: not quite three-fourths speak German, about one-fourth Italian, and less than five percent, Ladin (the language of the indigenous population of South Tyrol dating from the Romans).
3. Its political make-up stayed in a state of flux after World War I, when the infamous Treaty of Versailles took the South Tyrolean lands from the Austrian monarchy and turned them over to Italy, with the Brenner Pass being the border. This move explains the large percentage of German-speaking people. The Fascists took control in 1922, and Mussolini initiated a forced migration of Italians to this northern-most province, explaining the smaller percentage of Italian-speaking people, even though it’s located in Italy. His demands included the Germans having to give up their identity by not speaking the language, not dressing in traditional German clothes, and by banishing German teachers, political administrators, and other officials.
4. Then in 1939 Hitler demanded that the South Tyrolean people choose between returning to the Reich or staying, thereby giving up their German identity to become Italian citizens.
5. After WWII, at the demand of the Allied Forces, Austria and Italy signed the Paris Treaty designed to afford the South Tyrol special considerations in determining its social, cultural, and political identity. Nothing was implemented until the 1960s when the area saw violence erupting because of these differences.
6. Finally, in 1972 an agreement known as the Second Autonomy was signed by Vienna, Rome, and the Bozen Province, giving the different groups making up the population equal rights and protections. By 1992 under the watch of the United Nations, all the measures were implemented.

Today, the Südtirol is a stable and autonomous area of Italy. The population of 500,000 has a high birth rate, a low death rate, a very high life expectancy (80+ years for men, 85+ years for women), a low unemployment rate (a little more than 3%), a long history, an extremely varied and beautiful landscape, and fabulous summer and winter activities for the six million tourists who vacation in the area every year.
The South Tyrol and Sterzing-Vipiteno would have particular significance for my father in 1945.
Next stop, the Sonklar Hof where we would spend the next five days.

The Plan: A Train Ride to Innsbruck

The plan was this: Since Munich’s Bahnhof, train station, was only two blocks from the Kings Center Hotel where we were staying, we would walk, which would coincide with check-out time and give us plenty of time to figure out the train logistics; we would meet Susan there at the station, as she would take the subway from the airport to the train station a little after 11 a.m.; we would rail to Innsbruck, meet Roland in person (for the first time), pick up the rented car we reserved months ago, and follow Roland on the autobahn over the Brenner Pass and into Italy to the Sterzing-Vipiteno exit. We’d turn right at Sterzing (coming from the Pass), and, if I was reading the maps correctly, it’s a short ride to our ultimate destination, the Sonklar hotel in the Ridnaun-Ridanna Valley. Simple.
Except when it’s not.
No way we could walk to the Bahnhof from the hotel with all the luggage, get everything up stairs, wander into shops to pass time, and get past whatever other barrier there might be. Then, “tweet,” a text from Susan landed on my phone. Problems with her flight from the U.S. and then the layover in Frankfurt wiped out any chance of getting to the train station in time to meet the 2 p.m. trip we had tickets for.
Great. Except when it’s not.
Suddenly it was time to punch either the Panic or the Flexibility button. I hit the Panic button. I, a 71-year-old grandmother, decided to sit down on the edge of the bed and cry, a wonderful example for my granddaughter.
Don’t even think about it.  I told Joanna Leigh we would go down to the desk and get help with these problems. I shot Susan a quick text, saying (ha ha ha) “sit tight. I’ll figure this out.”
Two incidents helped me out. First, the staff at this small hotel knew us; they had already solved a couple of things for me. Second, (and it will be hard to admit what I’m about to confess) thinking that this small hotel wouldn’t have a hair dryer, I had stopped at a local beauty salon, where no one spoke English and somehow made them understand I needed a hair dryer. The young woman nodded yes, she understood. She and an older woman went back to a storage room and came out with a new unopened hair dryer. I was delighted when she said 18 Euros.
She shook her head and wrote down the price on a piece of paper: 80 Euros. I nearly fainted, but I was in a bind. I paid. Please don’t do the conversion. It’s disgusting. When we checked into the hotel, there was a hair dryer. Feeling completely stupid, I took it down to the desk and gave it to the man in charge; he said, with a wide grin, his wife needed a new dryer.
I explained our plight and he said, “I will call you a taxi to take you to the Bahnhof.”
I protested that the driver might get angry over a two-block trip. He said, “No, it’s his job. Don’t worry.”
Then he brought up on the computer the train schedules to Innsbruck. There were plenty of choices. I texted Susan with times and said that we’d go on but wait for her in Innsbruck at the train platform. She was pretty grumpy. My nerves were hanging out.
I tipped the taxi driver adequately, as indicated by his behavior, not his English, and we went to find the right platform. At the platform, we walked up and down looking for the right car. Joanna Leigh pulled her carry on and took turns helping me with mine. The “monster” piece, the largest one in a set, was the problem. I wondered if I could get it on the train and put it somewhere on the floor, as I wouldn’t be able to put it on any overhead spot.

 In the King Center Hotel waiting on the taxi that would take us to the train.
That’s the Kings Center bear on my shoulder.
 We got on a car that had seat numbers 25 and 26, as printed on our tickets. One person offered help with the “monster,” and I accepted. We plopped down in our seats and a nice young man helped with the overhead pieces. The Age Card wasn’t necessary; it’s obvious. Sometimes it takes getting out of your element and environment to see the truth of a thing. No one was going to take me for a 55- or 60-year-old anymore. I’m an old grandmother and I look it. “Accept the help graciously and get over yourself,” I thought to myself.

A lovely family got on as the train was filling up – a pretty mother and two cute children. She came up to me and indicated we were in their seats. Again, no English, but it became clear to me somehow that she must be right; it became clear to her that I had no idea what to do about it, as both our sets of tickets said #25 and #26. By then the train began pulling out. I looked up, looked toward the door and the space between cars. I looked pitiful. She indicated “never mind.” She sat down with her little boy, about 5, in her lap and her daughter in the second seat. Speaking in a kind of sign language, we learned that our girls were both seven. By now the train had picked up speed and the ticket-checker came into our car. I said, “I think we’re in the wrong seats.”
He said, “No, you’re in the wrong car.”
She again indicated again that it was ok.
Then Joanna Leigh got my iPad and began playing games. The little boy got interested, then the daughter. Things were going to work out. We both kind of laughed in a knowing way, that sometimes a language barrier didn’t really matter.
Theirs was the stop before Innsbruck. When they got ready to get off, she indicated up on the hill was where they lived. Joanna Leigh said, “Wait a minute.” She got a stuffed bear that the Kings Center Hotel had given her and presented it to the little girl.
Really, everything was fine. We both had a good time watching the kids play games. We said our good-byes as they got off. They waved.
It wasn’t long before the engineer announced the Innsbruck stop. The same fellow who had put luggage in the overhead, got it down; then he helped get it all off the train onto the platform.

On the train in seats #25 and #26

Then I heard, “Joanna, Joanna” in a German accent. Finally we were to meet Roland face to face after two years of constant communication by e-mails and a growing friendship.

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At the Innsbruck train station: (left to right)Susan, Roland, Jakob Mayer,
and Joanna Leigh (no duh!)

Going into Italy, next.


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