Jimmy sprawled over the railing at the end of the coach. He was pretending to be shot by the bad guys on the next coach. He looked down at the ground, fascinated by the railroad ties flying below him between the two cars. The coupling banged and slammed as the train eased up and down the gentle terrain between Portbou and Barcelona. “Okay, cowboys!” I heard Mr. Devan’s deep voice, as he opened the back door to our coach. “Everybody back indoors.”
“Aw, sir,” Jimmy started to whine. The Scoutmaster gave him his famous scowl with the cocked eyebrow. With a shrug, the dead cowboy went back into the car.
“But it’s so hot in there,” Mark complained, as he led his outlaws from the Bat Patrol across the steel bridge and into the car. ”It’s really stuffy!”
He was right. The train from Rome across the French Riviera to Portbou on the Spanish border had been much more comfortable. In second class, we had compartments to ourselves, and the large windows provided plenty of ventilation. When we got to Portbou, we had to change trains because the Spanish and French railway gauges were different sizes. We also had to change clothes, and make sure that all our Scout uniform parts were at the bottoms of our backpacks. The Boy Scouts were banned in Franco’s Spain.
The Spanish train looked like something from a Wild West movie set, and we thought it was really cool. That is, until the summer sun began beating mercilessly on the roof. There was no insulation, and the coal-burning locomotive did not generate enough speed to create decent ventilation. We had to keep the windows closed, because the smoke from the locomotive would fill the coach when we went through a tunnel.
“What was all that about?” Mike asked me as the Bat Patrol filed past the door to our compartment.
“They were playing cowboys on the couplings this time.” As we sweltered in the compartment, I felt grateful that my gang, the Beaver Patrol, had been inspired to do no more than walk the length of the train a few times and meet people.
A half hour later, the two dozen Scouts of BSA Troop 236 from Rome, Italy, climbed down from their Wild West adventure ride and hiked to the Port of Barcelona. We were berthed in the steerage with the third-class passengers, but we had the run of the ship. Scoutmaster Devan told us only to make sure to stay out of prohibited areas. With the whole steamer to explore, we could satisfy our curiosity all day, and still not go anywhere dangerous.
Personally, I was all over the ship. I got myself invited into the engine room, and hung around the door to the galley, where the aroma of the heavy rolls that I loved for breakfast rolled down the passageways. Cute American boys were like kittens in a ship full of working-class Catalans and Moroccans. We got extra rolls and seconds, and lots of caring attention.
Blessed with fair weather and little wind, the steamer made its way around the Iberian Peninsula for the next three days. When we debarked in Cadiz, a gray U.S. Air Force bus was waiting for us on the pier. Although it was only 36 km to Rota, the trip took more than an hour, and all I remember of it was bumping violently in our stiffly sprung American school bus.
This year, instead of Camp Novara in Northern Italy, Troop 236 was going to Camp Columbus, located in a vast pine wood on the Naval Air Station, Rota. There were cabins instead of large tents, but the sand still got into everything. We did all the usual things that Boy Scouts did at summer camp, like play, swim, chase each other around, pull pranks on one another, earn merit badges, and get into harmless trouble.
One thing that we did not expect to see was a troop of Spanish Boy Scouts camping near us. Because the US Naval Air Station was outside Spanish control, it was a rare opportunity for this underground organization to experience “normal” Scout camp, and to wear their uniforms. They were older than we were, most of them 15-18 years old, and they wore their uniforms everywhere. We were fascinated, and not a little proud, that the World Scout Movement could not be put down by a dictator as powerful as the Generalissimo.
Two weeks later, we found ourselves in civilian clothes on another USAF bus. I remember the beautiful scenery, and trying to trace our journey by following the road signs. This trip took more than four hours, on a narrow, two-lane road. Today, the trip is only an hour and a half. We bumped along, staring at the broad plain covered with the grapes that fed the Spanish brandy industry stretching out to the horizon. The land rose, as we passed a beautiful lake to the right side of the bus. Then we climbed into the hilly preserve called Los Alcornales. Cork trees grew everywhere, stunted and windblown. Steep cliffs fell away from the road. Winding down the other side, we reached the little town of Los Barrios, and turned left, away from Algeciras.
Our destination was Gibraltar. Today, the expanded airport occupies covers up what was the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in 1960. The border was closed then. The bus left us at a gate, which the Guardia Civil sentries opened for us. The bus drove away. We pulled on our backpacks, and nervously passed through the gate into the DMZ. I felt very self-conscious as we hiked on a road with barbed wire and threatening warning signs in the field on either side of us. The DMZ was only hundred meters wide, and the gate on the British side was open. Some British Sea Scouts welcomed us, and walked with us across the airport to the Sea Scout house down by the Camber. We stowed our gear in a large room with military bunks, and went to supper with our hosts.
We were very impressed to meet a Sea Scout unit that had been active since 1914. They had their own floating house, boats, a Pipe Band, and status as the only unit recognized by the Admiralty outside the UK. During both World Wars, Sea Scouts had run messages and served as a Royal Navy auxiliary.
There wasn’t time for much more than dinner, conversation, and bed. At 0200, we made our way to the quay, where a launch from the SS Queen Federika came for us. Back then, the passenger liners provided scheduled service, and Gibraltar was an occasional stop. However, the ship was too big for the ferry port, which has been expanded since then. It seemed a little mischievous to sneak aboard in the dark, which increased our sense of adventure. Soon we were all asleep in our third class berths.
There was no time for exploring on board Queen Federika. She was very fast. The day after we boarded, she moored at the Stazione Marittima in Naples, Italy, where our parents and friends were waiting to take us home. We got back to Rome just in time for the 17th Olympiad, but that is another story…
© 2019, JT Hine
Awesome blog you have hhere
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Thank you! I hope you enjoy the other stories, too.