Here it is the day after Christmas and all the festivities have for the most part ceased. This year we had a much better time than the last one, but I don't think that I appreciated it any more. The reason, of course, that it was better was that we were able to have access to more to celebrate with. Actually I started the evening of the 23rd, when a few of us had a little party. Then on Christmas eve the platoon had a big party at our illustrious billet (the electric lights are now on; what luxury!). Then the next day all the platoon went to the next town where our company HQ is located for the main part of the festivities. It started off with a church service that one of the AFS men conducted, he being a minister. I attended. After that we sat around and "shooting the breeze" with a little alcoholic stimulant. At 2 p.m. all the fellows sat down to a meal that would make any restaurant say was too much, and one that had taken weeks in preparation. In true British Army fashion the officers of the AFS served it. It started off with a vegetable soup, next the main course. On one plate weighing at least five pounds excluding the weight of the plate was: Turkey, ham, stuffing, two kinds of potato, cauliflower, cabbage, peas, spinach, stuffing, turnip, and giblet gravy. And many of the fellows came back for more! Then dessert was a fruit cake with chocolate sauce. There was fruit and nuts on the table besides. After the meal there was a little show in which some sang and talked. This was ended by Santa Claus who was an English chap in the AFS who is an actor. He was perfectly wonderful, not giving presents to all but to those who were in need. One fellow who is always in need of a bath got soap, another who always gets tons of mail got some more, some shell cases went to a chap who has slews of kit, and yours truly was given some axle grease to wax his moustache which is flourishing bigger and better than ever, thank you. We then adjourned to another room for some singing and merriment during the afternoon. I went and paid my respects to the officers messes of some of the units with which we are associated who were in the neighborhood. A rather tedious duty, but by the time that one gets through one finds oneself feeling no pain. At 8 p.m. there was a buffet supper with a table as long as it is from the living-room fireplace to the dining-room one just crammed with sandwiches and cakes and other delicacies. Then we staggered home with bloated stomachs and thoroughly wet whistles. That was our Christmas, and I think a plenty good one it was. It was fortunate that our platoon could be resting for it. Otherwise it might not have been so congenial.
Letter home. A Mother's Scrapbook: John Newlin Hobbs and the American Field Service, 1942-1945.
* * *
Not all our activities were frivolous fun. Inevitably, our American work and community service ethics took hold, as well as the urge to keep busy. Outstanding was the achievement of George Collins to restore the town's broken water mains and water supply system which were gravity feeds from a cistern at the top of the hill. Potable water was lost, or contaminated. George directed the necessary technical assistance with the help of our workshops, and mustered able young men regardless of class or caste to provide labor. Platoon members pitched in.
George Rock, in his richly documented The History of the American Field Service ... noted (p. 269): "G.R. Collins discovered that the town's water mains were broken ... Under Collins' guidance, some members of the Platoon fell to with pick and shovel, working with unemployed day laborers whom the Allied Military Government (AMG) put under his direction ... he passed their labor bill on to the Town Major ... he did get the job done."
In my letter home dated January 7, I rendered a slightly different and more jocular version:
You would be interested in the scientific pursuits of George Collins. He has assumed the role of "sewer and water commissioner" of the little town where Platoon C is resting. Whenever an able-bodied male chances past the "scientific" project which George has under way, George thrusts a shovel in his hands and leads him to ditch or water pipe. With the help of his good if pedantic Italian (and some American cigarettes), George will have a gang of the local good-people hard at work in a matter of minutes. Most of them have nothing else to do anyway.
The women do a good share of the work in these parts, and the young men are too busy studying to be doctors etc. (or so they say) to soil their hands. George is changing all this. That's one of his selling points in his campaign for Mayor: he expects to cop the women's vote hands down. At any rate, his efforts at pipe-repairing have served to build up enough pressure to flush our toilet --- on occasions. Incidentally, George hasn't stooped as yet to kissing babies and passing out cigars. His methods with the fairer sex are more subtle, as is the case with most of us. The old "racket" around here is to take Italian lessons from a fair lady. Even big Chan has gone in for this sort of thing, and no less than three young things to teach him the language.
There were other pursuits. As in the Western Desert and Tripoli some of us exercised our minds by volunteering for discussion groups organized by the regional British Army Padre. I wrote in a letter home (January 17) concerning one such event:
Jay, Chan, Jock and I have just returned from conducting a discussion at a near-by convalescent camp along English-American lines: differences and points of cooperation. The "Little Padre" (who was my guest for dinner last week ... ) suggested the discussion just after church services yesterday, and we were all eager to help out ... if only for the purpose of giving ourselves some much needed mental exercise. It all took place in a smallish ward of bed patients, and so we all got to know each other pretty well, which I suppose is the main thing after all. We got a bit side-tracked on the differences, but at least we weren't kidding ourselves. I came to this discussion with Dad's pipe glowing brightly, and with a feeling of well-being in my "inner man." That can be traced directly to a terrific spaghetti dinner of this noon...
We were responsible for the care and routine maintenance of our ambulances in accord with our assigned detailed Vehicle Maintenance check list; our Platoon was also accompanied by a contingent of RASC workshops. By now, all of us "veterans" had become adept at servicing our sturdy and faithful charges, and to call upon workshops for the major repairs.
"Skip" McKinley especially loved to don his soiled coveralls, and get under the hood or frame. The six-week rest at Pollutri provided time for servicing and repairs, also for replacements for ambulances destroyed in recent battle action.
One of our happiest social and "intercultural" pursuits were Italian lessons offered by the three attractive nieces of the Marchese Gerbasio family at their imposing family palazzo. The lessons, perhaps a subterfuge for meeting with the girls but nevertheless expertly conducted, were already in full swing by the time I had reached Pollutri. The vivacious and well educated young ladies --- Teresa, Wanda, Inez --- were often joined by brother Achille and others, along with us "students," around a polished wood table and matching chairs in a beautifully appointed room of the mansion.
The Marchese would sometimes ask for a game of chess with Jock Cobb in his ambulance, although no match for Jock. Jock wrote, in a letter home dated January 1 about the chess and the Italian lessons; this letter also provides a vignette about the life of an AFS ambulance driver on rest leave in winter in Pollutri during World War II:
... Oh dear, an interruption, someone is knocking on my ambulance door ... It was the Marchese, a youngish man wanting to know if I would like to play chess as we did last night at this time ... I think he likes to play because I get the car nice and warm with the heater and he is ... never warm enough. In fact, I don't see how anybody who lives in these old Italian palaces all made out of cold stone ever does get warm ... I prefer living in my ambulance with a heater and good light to read by.
It's dark out now, so I have the windows blacked out. I am parked on the street right outside the Marchese's mansion. We are out of the line for rest now, so we find ourselves in this little out-of-the-way town, which has hardly been touched by the war. We are getting to know the people of the town pretty well,
Four of us go up to the Marchese's house every afternoon for a lesson in Italian. Our teachers are the three lovely nieces of the Marchese. They also supply the necessary incentive through the spirit of competition they inspire us with. For the unlucky fellow who falls behind is sadly left out when it comes to pairing off for social occasions. I am happy to say that my Spanish and French give me a head start. Right now we are learning the Italian equivalents of the 850 basic English words, and they are learning the English.
Participants in the lessons included Dunc Murphy, Skip McKinley, Chan Keller, John Leinbach, George Collins and Jock. I joined in, with an advantage of already speaking Italian. These lessons were a learning experience of a beautiful language; more they were a social highlight of our Pollutri sojourn, providing an entree for singing and parlor games; more, to discover the bonds of our common humanity.
I wrote in a letter dated January 22 before we left Pollutri to return to action:
John and I joined George, Jock, and some others for a final visit at the home of the Marchese, whose nieces have been teaching us Italian. The evening with them soon resolved itself into singing, and the playing of parlor games everyone seated in a ring of chairs around the living room. I was "the goat" more than once, and had to pay the consequences by standing on my head, or something else equally ridiculous. My "excellent" basso profundo (which was once again absent at the Edwards carol singing this Christmas) rang out on more than one occasion, and supplied some amusement to the party...
Our moments with these high-spirited lovely girls were among the happiest we knew overseas.
Charles P. Edwards. Part 6. An AFS Driver Remembers.. [draft] New York: AFS, 2002.
AFS Letters, 1943-1944. Published at AFS HQ, 60 Beaver
Street, New York.