An Idiot’s Confession by Roy quinton
An Idiot’s Confession
By Roy Quinton
By 1956, following two promotions, I finally felt that I could afford to purchase my first car-(albeit 2nd hand). After all, my Italian wife, our two sons, Philip and John-(our3rd son, Richard was not to appear on the scene until another 13 years had elapsed)-,and I, had been taking our annual summer holidays in Italy, since 1948, catching the train from Victoria station to Dover, the Channel Ferry to Calais and, from there, the continental train direct to Milan, where we always spent the night of our arrival with my wife’s two maiden aunts. The following morning we then caught the train for central Italy, alighting at Foligno station, where we caught a secondary line train direct to the city of Perugia, where I had first met my wife at the end of June, 1944 and where I married her in June 1946, just over a year after the end of the Italian campaign and of WW2 in Europe. The Allied troops did not finally leave Italy until early 1947, following the signing of the Peace Treaty, although I was sent back home to be demobilized in August 1946, my wife finally joining me in September of that same year. My father-in-law was the Gestore Principale-(station manager-freight)-of Fontevegge Railway station, Perugia, which was the point of distribution for all goods entering the Region of Umbria-(no motor way transport giants in those days, all long haul goods being delivered by rail). The journey from home in Sutton, Surrey, to Perugia took about 35 hours, if my memory does not fail me, after all those years.
The thought of making the journey by car excited us all, so we went to the local car dealer, where I purchased a second hand “baby” Austin A30. I was given a discount because, as the salesman related, the car’s oil sleeves badly needed replacing, and the job was an expensive one. He further stated that, provided I took a 4 gallon can of engine oil with me and remembered to “top up” with oil about every 50 miles, I should have no trouble.
The next steps were to obtain a provisional driving licence and take driving lessons. During the course of the lessons, the SUEZ CRISIS of 1956 suddenly occurred and, in December of 1956, the Government was forced to reintroduce petrol rationing. I received coupons covering 200 miles worth of fuel per month. However, the announcement of rationing evoked the war years and panic buying ensued until rationing actually commenced in late December of 1956. One of the consequences of the panic affected learner drivers, because the car testing centres became inundated with demands for their services. To deal with this problem, the authorities decreed that, until further notice, learner drivers could drive their vehicles unaccompanied. This was a tremendous boon for me, and others like me, because it meant that we not only had free reign to get as much driving experience as we could, thus building up our confidence, but also save on tuition fees. Thus, when the time came, in early 1957 for a driving test appointment to become available, I underwent the “ordeal” with a great deal of confidence
It was in the atmosphere of euphoria, brought about by the feeling of confidence, in advance of the test, that I took a chance and, in about February of 1957, I booked, via the AA, the car and the four of us to travel to Italy in May of that year. Happily, thank “gawd” I did pass the test first time, otherwise I would have lost quite a bit of money.
At the end of May, we left for Dover where we boarded the Car Ferry bound for Calais. Once there, I followed my pre-planned route which took us partly along minor roads as well as many important “Routes Nationales”. There were no motor ways in France at that time. We drove in the general direction of Vesoul and finally stopped for the night just beyond that town. The following morning we branched off in the general direction of Alsace Lorraine and, once in that region, we soon reached the French area of the city of Bale, where the people of German part of the city and the Swiss-German part both called the city Basel. We drove into the Swiss section and, making our way cautiously, eventually hit the Swiss main road leading to the town of Lucerne, which we skirted, and where we stopped over for the night in a small roadside hotel, which was not at all cheap!! The following morning we proceeded on or way and, eventually, found ourselves approaching the lower slopes of the Swiss Alps, which loomed up in the distance. Shortly afterwards we slowly made our ascent along a winding road and at a certain point we spotted, just a few hundred yards away, a small workshop-cum garage, where a number of cars had stopped and were having chains fixed around their wheels. We noticed that several people were waving their arms in our direction so we waved back, thinking that it was just a friendly gesture. It was perhaps about an hour after that that the mountain road began to take on the aspect of an icy track, as we rounded one sharp bend in it after another, gaining height all the time. Shortly afterwards we reached a fork in the track and, in the absence of a visible road sign, I did a “eeny-meenee-mynee mo” and took the right hand track. I was not to know that I had just started to ascend the most dangerous pass in the Swiss Alps…the FURKA Pass!!! We proceeded for a further 100 yards or so when, rounding a sharp bend, at a particular point, I saw through my rear mirror that right behind me there was no protective wall and it was clear that a sheer drop of thousands of feet was only a few yards away. We slowly crept forward for a few yards, constantly in first gear, when I sensed that the car wheels were no longer gripping the surface of the track and my car was actually slipping backwards towards the abyss which was measured in thousands of feet. My heart was in my mouth and I wanted to give loud vent to my fear, but, the knowledge that I had a wife and two young children to protect prevented me. However, at that point, my wife suddenly realised the enormity of our situation and, panic taking over, started to open the car door, through which I could then see that, to our left, there was about six feet of virgin snow between us and another drop of thousands of feet. With my left hand I grabbed her and rather fiercely told her off, poor dear. Luckily she did as she was told, probably because, like me, she became aware that 10 year old Philip and 7 year old John were both terrified by what was happening and, indeed, had both buried their heads in some cushions. At that moment I told my wife to open her car door, very slowly, so that I could see the layer of virgin snow, and slowly steered what, in England would have been my nearside wheels, into the untouched snow. There I slowly applied the brake and the car ceased to slip any more. I then gently put my foot on the accelerator and cautiously released my hand brake and, to my enormous relief, the car started to move forward, as the tyres gripped the snow. Slowly we proceeded up the track and, almost immediately, reached a bluff, where the car was protected on both sides, shielding us from the precipice. At that point the track took a downwards direction and, in an instant, the car was covered with a downfall of fresh snow, counterbalancing the icy surface of the track and further assisting the tyres to get a grip on it. Had it not been for the car’s excellent pair of windscreen wipers, the snow would have completely deprived me of a sense of vision but, as it was, I crept along, in 1st gear, and we eventually observed that the track was winding round to the right. Shortly afterwards, the track bent sharply to the left, the snow continuing to pour down, and, as I straightened the driving wheel again, we suddenly met another sharp bend to the right. The very moment that I steered the driving wheel in that direction the snowfall immediately disappeared and we were all suddenly blinded by brilliant sunshine, causing me to bring the car to a rapid halt. When our eyes had adjusted to the sudden change, we saw a vast blue sky before us in the distance which appeared to merge with the outlines of an enormous plain. I brought the car to a halt again and glanced back to our rear, just in time to catch a glimpse of the snow still falling from the sky, at the point where we had suddenly left it behind and met the blinding sunlight. We were all amazed by it all but, subsequently, we learned that, in the Alps, such instantaneous changes of weather conditions were not phenomenal.
It now dawned upon us that, before our very eyes, there stretched the plain of the TICINO, which gave its name to the Italian-speaking Swiss Canton of the Ticino. In fact, as we slowly descended, we noticed on our right side that we were passing by a mountain village signposted as being called FAIDO-(another Italian-sounding name). At that moment, I turned to my wife and children and, with a carefully contrived smile, told them not to worry any more, for we had now almost “made it”. Shortly afterwards, the track ceased to look like an ice rink and to look like a normal road. By this time I had put the car into 2nd gear and I observed that, about 100 yards ahead, the road intersected another, considerably wider road. I carefully negotiated our entry into this road and we continued to descend. About a mile farther on, we suddenly noticed a small wayside café-restaurant place, where a number of parked cars could be discerned. It dawned on me that we ought to stop and have something hot to eat but, when I broached this to my wife, she, being always careful with our money, told me that we still had a lot of sandwiches to eat and a flask of hot coffee to finish off. So we did justice to everything on the spot. However, I took advantage of the stop to “top up” my engine with oil again. As I saw to that task, I fell into conversation with the driver of one of the parked cars and I startted to give him a quick resume of our adventures, at which point he butted in to say that it was obvious that I had mistakenly taken the FURKA Pass, instead of staying on the main St Gotthard Pass, which he said was the one we had re-joined at the road intersection mentioned above. He asked me to enter the café and speak to the proprietor about it, which I did. Immediately afterwards, the latter asked me whether, on commencing the ascent into the Alps, I had spotted some people waving to me and, when I answered in the affirmative, he told me that the group of people had been frantically trying to get me to stop and get some anti-ice chains attached to my tyres, because the meteorological authorities had forecast a worsening of weather conditions in the Alps. The proprietor of the roadside garage had immediately contacted the mountain rescue team located in the Ticino to tell them that some stupid idiot of a foreigner-(whose car appeared to have been British)-had failed to stop and get chains secured to the wheels of his car and, together with his passengers, was potentially in great danger. It had been the intention to wait for a predetermined amount of time, in the hope that the car would eventually succeed in ”making it” across the Pass, and, if this did not happen, a search party would have set off:-but it would have taken it for granted that the idiot Britisher would have remained on the Gotthard Pass and not wandered onto the dreaded FURKA pass !!!…
The “top and bottom” of things was that I admitted to being the “idiot” concerned but asked the proprietor to give the “all clear” message to the people concerned, which he agreed to do. I then quickly returned to my car and we sped away with one very ashamed husband and father driving the vehicle !!!…
It was not long before we passed by the very nice town of Bellinzona and after that, eventually passed by Lugano and its lake. It was not long before we finally reached Italian territory, entering the country at the frontier locality named CHIASSO-(a sort of outskirt of COMO). We skirted Como and immediately found ourselves speeding along the COMO-MILAN road, passing the towns of ERBA and LECCO and eventually pulling off the road at the village of Olgiate Calco and making our way towards the village of Olgiate Molgora, where my wife’s parents then lived, having left Perugia when my father-in-law retired on Pension from service with the Italian State Railway, to be near their son, my brother-in-law Fillippo-(“Pippo”), a qualified pharmacist, who had purchased a Pharmacy in the town of LECCO.
In a few minutes we had climbed the hill on top of which stood the villa, named “Il Butto”, which my brother-in-law, “Pippo”, had rented for his parents, and we parked the car in the large rear garden, grabbed our luggage and joined my “in-laws”, ready to begin our holiday. To end this article I would just mention that, on our return journey to England, we “hugged” the St Gotthard Pass and, ensured that we did not deviate from it. Even so, we took great care to inform ourselves of both the prevailing weather conditions and of predictions regarding any possible changes in the offing.
In 1969 work began on the construction of the St Gotthard Road Tunnel, which, when completed in 1980, was 17 kilometres long, cars being able to traverse it in less than 15 minutes. I motored through the tunnel each year, up to and including 2004, when Anno Domini was beginning to take its effect on my wife and myself, and we have not since been to Italy on holiday. With the eventual complete integration of the Road Tunnel and the new St Gotthard Pass Motor Way, which took decades to complete, there were thus created the conditions for a safe journey across the Alps, thus obviating the dangerous crossing of the Alps that I made in 1957.