Wednesday, July 23, 2008

D-197: Sea Stories: The Italian Death March

The Army’s institutionalized misery is starting to get the better of me. Today was another grueling day during which everyone who I usually really on for some entertainment was in an equally bad mood. So, in effort to both cheer myself up and maintain my audience, I am going back to the well of Navy stories, where suddenly it seems that the good times were plentiful.

The first port of my last deployment was in Naples, Italy; a historic Italian metropolis best known as the “New Jersey of Europe,” due to their industrious organized criminals who dutifully collect the trash of the entire continent and distribute it to the cities’ streets, where it stands in mounds five feet tall.

Recognizing Naples for the garbage dump that it is, we decided to take the first train to anywhere else. That train took us to Sorrento, along with just about everyone else from the ship. Although Sorrento was a gorgeous coastal Italian town with a breathtaking landscape view in every direction, the presence of the 5,000 people who we most wanted to avoid ruined the ambiance, so a dozen of us caught a bus; and by “caught a bus,” I mean we embarked on the most terrifying voyage of our lives; flanked on one side by the jagged, stony wall of a mountain and on the other by a steep cliff overlooking the rocky shore of the Mediterranean, certain death loomed about six inches in every direction. The bus was apparently piloted by Otto of ‘The Simpsons,’ who, with the petal to the metal, delivered us to Positano with soaking wet drawers.

Positano is a gorgeous little town along the Amalfi coast; its central feature is the golden dome of a 600+ year old church. The town flows from the church in every direction, including straight up, with the houses and hotels seemingly carved into the steep rock face of the sea-wall. You would be hard pressed to find a single location in the town without a magnificent view; the entire scene jumped right off of a postcard. I remember thinking that it seemed like a perfect honeymoon destination, or at least it was before a bus from hell dropped off a dozen urine-soaked American sailors whose only objective was to achieve a state of blacked-out drunkenness as quickly as possible.

We checked in to a hotel, and walked down to the hill to the waterside for dinner. The wine flowed, the food was amazing, and I popped off into an extremely loud rendition of my now-famous “Naked Wedding Story,” that made me the center of attention, not only of my table, but of the entire restaurant, for the better part of the meal. I have told many renditions of this story, but this was by far my best. I could not have been happier, as being the center of attention is what appeals to me most, and although I am certain I annoyed many of the patrons, a table of Canadians actually bought the twelve of us a round of drinks in gratitude for the entertainment.

Dinner consisted of many, many drinks, and with the wild success of my wedding story, I was feeling just delightful. Armed with my good spirits, and a BAC likely shattering the legal driving limits of any developed country, we headed to find a bar.

A bar we found, but not just any bar, a bar that was playing 1980’s pop classics, and I just happened to be desperate to prove to Italy that I knew every word to Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean. With that mission complete, I sauntered up to the bar to refresh my gin and tonic, and began an endeavor to convince the bartender to pour me stronger drinks, by repeatedly throwing a closed fist at the ceiling and screaming the word “STIFF” at increasing volume; I don’t know where I learned that was the international sign language for “stiff drink,” but I do know the message was delivered because the remainder of the night is a complete blur.

The following day, I limped back down to the water crippled by a wine, limoncello, beer, and gin hang-over, which I mistakenly concluded was the worst possible hang-over formula ever invented (as it turns out, the worst hang over formula is simply one half of a bottle of Goldschlager, but that is a story for another time). I sat at the outdoor counter of a little café with a buddy, and ordered lunch. I decided to attempt to “take the edge off” of my hangover by ordering a beer, and in keeping with the tradition of the great naval service, that beer ultimately led to two sailors, hammered drunk.

Several of the members of my group had the dreaded third day duty day, so we hopped on the bus back to Sorrento. The bus was packed like a clown car, and we were not one of the lucky few to score a seat; although those seated were treated to a face-full of some stranger’s ass or crotch every time the bus hit a bump, and likely did not consider themselves to be very lucky at all.

The inhumane conditions on the bus, plus my hang-over’s successful battle to overtake my buzz, allowed me to forget the cliffs and mountains of death bearing down on both sides of the bus. In all the madness, I lost track of my friends, until my afternoon drinking buddy jumped off the bus at the wrong stop, without a word to the rest of us.

Someone saw him racing up the sidewalk and alerted the rest of us, so we screamed for the bus to stop, and hopped off to search for him. Having no idea where he went or why he got off (we later learned that he had to make ‘poopie’), we started going in and out of all the shops on the street in search of him; the whole scene was reminiscent of an episode of “The Monkeys” sitcom.

While in one of the shops, I too had to make use of the facilities; I took care of business, and emerged from the shop and found no one.

Half drunk; half hung-over; having no idea where we were when we got off the bus; having no idea where I was going; and speaking not a lick of Italian; I was screwed in every way imaginable. I assumed that the group would be searching for me with the same fervor in which they searched for the idiot who got us into this mess in the first place; I wandered up and down that street, for three hours! I marched along with all the rage of an ordinary Italian citizen, which helped me blend in and avoid what I thought was an inevitable beating and robbery.

Finally, with darkness long since fallen, I had to admit that I had been abandoned; I got on a bus that was headed in our original direction, and hoped for the best. Unfortunately, no one else on this bus spoke English, so at the next stop I asked the bus driver as clearly as I could manage “So-ren-toe.”

He pointed toward the back of the bus, which may have meant, “Stand behind the line,” but may also have meant, “It is behind us.” I considered it, and decided on the latter, based on no information what-so-ever. I got off the bus and started walking again. The details of how I eventually found the group are a mystery, and to this day I just consider it a miracle, but after another two hours, I found them.”

By my approximation, I walked about 25 miles that day. My clothes were completely destroyed; I actually threw them away. I could not have been more pissed off.

“Oh there you are,” they were all smiling and laughing, “We thought we’d lost you!”

“Really? Why? Just because you fucking left me drunk in the middle of a fucking foreign country to fucking fend for myself you fucking assholes?”

With the traumatic death March behind me, I joined up with one other guy who needed to go back to the ship. We went to the train station and caught the last train back to Naples; or so we thought. It being so late, there were not many people on the train, and as it made stops, whatever other passengers there were in our car had filtered off. Finally, with just the two of us aboard, the train stopped, the doors flew open, and it powered down with a whir, leaving us both sitting in the dark.

We debarked, and assessing the situation, only one thing was clear; this was not Naples, nor was it a tourist-loving, American-friendly town of any sort. My friend turned to me, and with a short, nervous laughed observed; “Well, we’re fucked!”

“Yes, we are fucked indeed.”

We left the station, and wandered out into the town; it was dirty, run-down, and seemingly abandoned. We heard some voices, and decided that our best bet was to move toward them. Upon discovery of a bus station with people waiting, we assumed that a bus was on its way. The bus arrived and we jumped on. There were very few people on it, considering the late hour, and déjà vu of the train incident was setting in as the passengers got off one by one. Luckily, the one other passenger left spoke some English, and after a short negotiation, informed us that the driver agreed to take us to Naples in exchange for all the money we had on us. Essentially, the transaction was a robbery disguised as a deal, since this bus was supposed to be going to Naples anyway. We agreed.

The bus driver let us out about four blocks from Fleet Landing, and we hurried towards it, not wanting to miss the last liberty boats. We promptly were approached by two very unconvincing transvestite hookers, who either wanted business, or wanted to beat us up. Both options were terrifying, so we just pretended not to notice them and picked up the pace, with the man-hookers screaming insults at us as we fled. I thought about the likelihood that at least one of those hookers had been solicited by a sailor that day, and forced back vomit.

Finally safe at Fleet Landing, we got a burger and caught a boat back to the ship, where I went to my rack and slept for sixteen glorious hours.

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