From My Tuscan Window

Chapter 10
The Challenge
Here we were the proud owners of a ruin with a view in a country that we would be leaving soon, with no way of knowing when, or even if, we would ever be able to return. At the end of the Viet Nam era, thousands of young servicemen and women were hunting for jobs with skills such as platoon leader, artillery gunner, tank commander, bombardier, or in my case Company Commander with a hodgepodge degree in Anthropology/Cultural Geography/Cultural Ecology/Romance Languages. Our future was tenuous and somewhat frightening at best.

The problem or challenge of the moment far outweighed concern for our future, as it was essential that the little house be protected with a new roof. A new roof would prevent further deterioration as well as provide dry storage for the many antiques that came with the house. It would also protect the additional antiques moved from our rented house in Tirrenia to Gioviano. We had to leave many items in Italy due to having accumulated possessions far above our 10,000 pound shipping allowance back to Texas.

Not having money to hire a crew to have the work done meant figuring out how to acquire building materials at low cost as well as recruiting labor to help with the heavy sacks of cement, beams, wooden decking, and terracotta roof tiles. The first problem was how to acquire boards for re-decking the roof, as the existing ancient chestnut boards were unsalvageable.

Camp Darby just happened to be adjacent to the port of Livorno (Leghorn), which served as the major supply point for Allied Forces during World War II, and which still housed an unbelievable amount of war surplus material. Every month or so, the 8th Logistical Command would hold a sale of some of the surplus items. While cruising the acres of surplus goods, I spied a pile of rough cut oak planks and asked the officer in charge if they could be declared surplus and sold that day.

As the boards had been sitting there since about 1944, he decided that if the military hadn’t had a use for them during either World War II or for the past 29 years then it seemed obvious to him that they should be sold before they rotted and became worthless. The price for enough American oak boards in perfect condition to deck the entire roof was $2.50, so I immediately purchased the entire stack of lumber which then required strapping to the roof of the Bronco in several loads and hauling them up the hill to Gioviano.

The next problem was getting the extra heavy sacks of cement and other building materials beyond the parking lot and to the little ruin that the villagers were already calling Casa Giorgio. That problem, too, was solved in turn. A young man in the village by the name of Stefano possessed a three-wheeled cart with a small truck bed on the back. For 500 lire a load, or a little less than $1.00 he would transport a truckload of building materials up to Casa Giorgio.

The final problem required a little of my specialized skill that some call “con artistry.” At that time, the Army was promoting “adventure training” and what better training and what better adventure that to leave the barracks and venture off into the mountains to rebuild the roof of a medieval house. So, on Saturdays I would go through the barracks and ask the G.I.’s if any of them would like to have an adventure in the mountains. As an extra incentive I offered to provide lunch, which of course would consist of surplus C-Rations.

Surprisingly, several soldiers not only relished the idea but also would come to consider the experience one on the highlights of their assignment to Italy. Tragically, many, if not most servicemen and women stationed overseas tend to associate mostly with other Americans and thus never really get to experience the true culture and flavor of the civilization where they have been sent. I always encouraged the soldiers under my command to learn the language, meet the people, and add new dimensions to their lives. Those who did took great pleasure in their tour of duty; those who didn’t seemed more dissatisfied with military life.

And so it was that over the course of the last few months of our tour of duty in Italy, the roof was replaced on Casa Giorgio. I often wondered if those oak boards might have been cut from the last great virgin hardwood forest in the United States, the Singer Preserve, which was until recently, the last known refuge of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

What a tragedy to destroy ancient trees to be shipped to a war zone where they weren’t even needed and left as surplus. I felt somewhat better by making myself believe that even if the woodpeckers did suffer a terrible fate, at least the boards had been used to save a marvelous medieval house from further ruin and thus spark a renewal of life into a little village that until then had been largely abandoned.

Revised March 3, 2008
Copyright 2005-2006 George H. Russell
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