From My Tuscan Window

Chapter 2
When Opportunity Knocks,
Open the Door
For many years, I have thought about writing a different book entitled, “When Opportunity Knocks, Open the Door,” to express how we are all greeted from time to time with great opportunities. If recognized and seized, they can take one on exciting paths that add quality to one’s life and perhaps may even save one’s life.

Such an opportunity occurred to me in 1970, when I was contemplating the set of orders handed to me by the U. S. Army. The orders would have taken me to Jump School at Fort Bragg, Jungle Warfare School in Panama and then to Viet Nam, to a war that I did not believe was either honorable or ethical.

At about the same time, the Army was looking for junior officers who would be willing to serve their country voluntarily for an indefinite period of time; and, as an incentive, they were offered assignments in places such as Ethiopia, France, and Italy. Having already studied Spanish, Portuguese, and French at Louisiana State University, I applied for the position in Italy, assuring the recruiter that I could learn Italian in no time. Soon, my wife Sue and I were on our way to three years on the Tuscan Riviera.

I learned Italian by reading Italian comic books, especially Topolino (Mickey Mouse), and became one of the few officers in our command who could speak Italian. I became the Milo Mindbender of STRATCOM (Strategic Command) at Camp Darby, which incidentally is located almost exactly where the events in Catch 22 took place some 25 years before. Whenever a general’s wife needed an alabaster lamp or a marble coffee table, it was Lieutenant Russell’s duty to help her obtain it at the best possible price. The complete story of my very eventful and colorful military career in Italy can be the subject of another book, if this one finds a certain level of success.

Our first child, Anne, was born on December 6, 1971 in the U.S. Military Hospital at Calambrone, in the Province of Pisa. Sometimes for fun, I would call her Anna Pisana, until the day many years later, when Pisa won a greatly coveted soccer cup. Our village is located in the Province of Lucca, and when we returned to Gioviano waving Pisan flags, we were greeted with scowls from the villagers. They explained later that Pisa had always been the enemy of Lucca. It turns out that Pisa had conquered Lucca after the death of Castruccio Castracani some seven hundred years before, and the Lucchesi harbored a grudge that lasts to this day.

Having an “Italian” child, Sue and I thought it would be nice to own a little piece of Italy, and thus we began our search for the perfect house. Our adventures took us to the far corners of Tuscany in our attempt to find something that we could afford with our very limited resources. Quite frankly, we never dreamed we would find any house, much less the perfect house. In those days, junior officers were paid very little, and thus we had to struggle to buy gasoline and surplus C-Rations at $2.50 a case which served as our meals during our travels. It was the adventure and the quest that mattered. If opportunity did by some chance knock, would we be able to open the door?

Updated December 21, 2009
Copyright 2005-2009 George H. Russell
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