“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.

Sonklar in the Morning: The Mountain

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.
                   2-RidannaValley2014                                     01-my first view of Mountain
                                                          Two views to Zuckerhutl from the Sonklar                             

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
                      9-SonklarDining                           13-SonklarDining             14-SonklarDining
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
                                 10-JoannaLeigh and Roland2014                   25-0514Roland church

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
1RD-1making hay

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 

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.)
09-2014-08-05 19.19.37
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.)
15-2014-08-05 20.08.49 
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.

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