ust before Christmas in 1985 my call-up notice arrived in the mail. I’d been hoping for a postcard from a dream girl at an exotic beach resort. Instead I’d been drafted, a yearlong stint faced by most men of my generation. The infamous green card “invited” me to show up at a Sulmona, Abbruzzo barracks no later than 3 p.m. on Jan.16, 1986. I was thrilled. After all, it ruined my vacation.
Italy’s an amazing country. You can steal, dodge taxes, drive without a license, bribe people and spray-paint love poems on the Trevi Fountain — any of which might get you a slap on the wrist. But fail to show up at the barracks and you faced a manhunt and a year-long military prison term handed down in 20 minutes.
So, on the fateful morning of Jan. 16 dear old dad took me to the train station positively moved that his eldest son had been summoned to defend freedom, democracy, and the rule of law against the invading hordes. I wanted to tell him World War II was over, but he was so busy being proud of me and giving me military salutes that I didn’t have the heart.
It’s 160 kilometers from Rome to Sulmona, a two-hour drive in light traffic. The train can turn that into days. I got away with seven hours, arriving in a blinding snowstorm and spending a half-hour wandering around aimlessly in the surreal chill. I saw four Huskies pulling a sled, a white bear chasing down a calf, and listened to old woman muttering incomprehensible local dialect. Basically, everything and everyone seemed lost in the blizzard. Help was not on the way.
A military truck finally pulled up. The soldier asked me if I was a new recruit and if I was alone. I asked him if that included the bear, the calf and the old woman. He wasn’t amused. He stuck me out in the open in the back. Luckily the barracks complex was just a few minutes away.
The fortress-like building left me much colder than the sub-freezing temperatures. It had a huge spiked metal door that made it clear you were giving up 12 months of youth and personal freedom.
Once inside, I knew had to make friends fast or risk being sent to the front (beware the Nazis) or get toilet-cleaning duties. My first chance came when all the new recruits were packed into a room. An officer called us to attention and then said, “Who here knows how to play a musical instrument?” Only five or six hands went up. Maybe they thought it was trick question. The seventh hand was mine. The music men were then hauled off to a room full of instruments. Apparently, the barracks needed to replenish its band since the previous musicians had just finished their stints.
I’d played the guitar (along with my brother) and knew the basics. But there’s no guitar in a military band. I panicked. I nudged my way over to the drums, guessing they’d somehow be easiest alternative. It was pretty obvious I’d never used a drum set in my life. After three-and-half hours of flailing my military band career was over.
Before starting basic training you had get vaccinated. That meant having a syringe full of amber-colored plasma poked into a nipple (yes). It burned like hell and usually triggered a high fever. Lots of pained recruits were holed up for days.
Not me. But I was still confined to the barracks. All I could do was watch others perform strategically vital military duties such as playing soccer. One of them asked me if I wanted to join in. Technically I shouldn’t have been anywhere near them, let alone watching. But I agreed, and probably had the best game of my life. After scoring a goal, someone suddenly patted me on the back. It was a non-commissioned officer who wanted my name, rank and serial number, and demanded to know why I was playing soccer. Next stop, Guantanamo, I thought to myself (or something like that, since it wasn’t a detention camp in 1986).
Sure enough, he escorted me to a headquarters building where I found myself face-to-face with an icy captain who had a Prussian general-style handlebar mustache. The officer told the captain he’d found me playing soccer, to which the captain (not even looking up), said, “And how was he doing?”
“Well, very well,” said the officer.
Instead of a maximum-security prison term I got a three-day pass to pick up my soccer gear. I’d been recruited into the barracks soccer team, which was gearing up for a vital game against another barracks in an all-important military tournament.
While all the other recruits were stuck in the mud, on the shooting range or tossing hand grenades, I wore soccer gear, practiced, and hung out at the local bar. Italy wouldn’t be winning any wars thanks to me. That said, we did win the tournament.
Rome residents eat lots of lamb. The city is famous for grilled lamb cutlets, costolette di abbacchio alla scottadito — the name means “burned fingers.” It’s a simple recipe that brings out lamb’s tender tastiness. I honestly don’t see it as a wine dish. Instead, I recommend artisan beer. Balanced Crowbridge, an Italian double malt (7%; €10), is a perfect match.
Crowbridge got started 20 years ago, when Claudio di Rollo of Pontecorvo decided to name the beer after his Lazio town. It’s bright amber and all natural (water, malt, yeast, and hops). Long fermentation and low-temperature maturation allows for slow aging and gives it a complex, fruity taste with hints of apple, vanilla and almonds. The aftertaste delivers a floral hint of hops. Call this meal “draft lamb with beer.”