Sea story: Hermes on a Bike: the Olympic Messenger (1960).

When my 13th summer started, I was a First Class Scout, and leader of the Beaver Patrol, a gang of outcasts who had bonded to become one of the proudest patrols Troop 236 had ever seen. We were the boys who were always chosen last during games at recess; we belonged to no one’s clique. We were also uniquely well-equipped for summer camp that year. We lived in Rome, Italy, and the summer camp was at the Naval Air Station near Rota, Spain. We were multilingual and comfortable on the road. The Troop crossed five countries, caught two different trains to Barcelona, boarded a coastal steamer to Cadiz, and a US Air Force bus to Rota. After camp, we took another bus to Gibraltar, where we boarded the SS Queen Federika by small boat in the dark at 0200.

Olympic Village

Olympic Village

Yet none of that prepared us for the adventure that awaited us when we debarked in Naples in early August. Rome was a city beside itself. It may have seen armies come and go, and centuries of history, but we had no idea of the scale of activity required to catch up the years of procrastination to get the Eternal City ready for the XVII Olymipiad, which would open on 25 August. Construction crews were working around the clock to finish the Olympic Village (a huge housing complex on a drained swamp north of the ancient city), build highway interchanges, paint crosswalks, and erect traffic signals. The new traffic code was only implemented early in the year, and the traffic was even crazier than normal as confused drivers mixed with thousands of tourists and newcomers crowding in for the Games.

Olympic distintivoWhen the Games opened, Troop 236 set up a ticket-exchange service downtown in the Pan American Airlines ticket office on Via Bissolati. Ticket holders who could not use their tickets could come in and drop them off for someone else to use, and pick up tickets to something that they could get to, all free of charge. It was a big hit. We manned the ticket-exchange counter all day during the Games, and we could pick up tickets at the end of our shift for anything that was about to start, but had not been claimed.

It was easy to attract tourists in to the counter, because American Boy Scouts in uniform were an unusual sight, and we were easy to recognize. (It was a simpler, more innocent time.)

I worked the counter for a couple of days, then my mother came in with a request for an interpreter at the Olympic Village, for the USA Crew Team. Our representatives in the 8-man crew event happened to be the team from the US Naval Academy. My heart leaped at the opportunity, because I had always wanted to be a Naval Officer, and to go to the Naval Academy.

Lago Albano

Lago Albano

My new job began every morning at the Olympic Village. I would ride my bicycle to the gate, show my day pass, and ride to where the team was getting on the bus to go to Lago Albano, the lake in a volcanic crater where the rowing events were held.

USNA crew

USNA crew

I would interpret for the coach, the midshipmen and anyone else around us. After the day’s practices, we would ride the bus back, and I would hang around and interpret for them until lights out. The food at the Olympic Village was unbelievable, prepared by top-notch chefs from all over the world.

One service I provided was to carry things in my panniers. The midshipmen had to stay in the Village, as did the coaching staff. Being military, they were authorized to use the APO (Army Post Office) at the Embassy, so I would carry mail back and forth for them, as well as run errands downtown. The Team gave me a USA 1960 Olympic patch for my uniform, which the gate guards recognized, and waved me through. A real high for a 13-year old Boy Scout.

Our team was eliminated in the quarter finals, but by then, the rest of the USA team knew who I was, and asked me to continue to run messages and interpret. It kept me riding all over town, but I loved it.

That did not last. Mom showed up with another interpreting job for me during the last week of the Games. Jesse Owens RomeJesse Owens needed a personal interpreter, so I was detailed to accompany him until the end of the Olympics. I would ride out to the Intercontinental Hotel near the Termini train station, meet him in the lobby, then accompany him to the field and track events and any meetings he had. Rudolph in RomeNaturally, he had finish-line seats for the events in the Olympic Stadium, so we watched athletes like Rafer Johnson and Wilma Rudolf setting records and claiming gold medals.

The summer ended on a bittersweet note for me. As we went back to school, I was elected Senior Patrol Leader. It was an honor, but I remember closing myself in my room and crying, because I would no longer be leading the Beaver Patrol. It was my first promotion, but it was also my first farewell as a leader.


Trip update. Nephew Michael came downstairs when I arrived at the house in Andover, and immediately asked if I had remembered to bring my recorder. First things first: I pulled out my alto recorder, set up the score to the Ode to Joy on my tablet, and played the alto and tenor lines for him. Then I went upstairs and joined my family. The next day, I repacked my panniers, and laid out the trip as far as Vermont.

2014-07-14 09.30.20

Setting out from Vernon, CT.

Monday, Bob had to take Michael to the doctor, so he dropped me off in Vernon, Connecticut, on Route 83. I rode to Amherst, home of the Five Colleges and the University of Massachusetts, and checked into a motel in Hadley. The motel backed up to a large shopping mall, where I was able to find a ground cloth for my tent at Eastern Mountain Sports. There was a storm coming in, but I made it back to the motel just as the rain began.

Tuesday morning, I woke up with what looked like a few bed bug bites, which sent the manager and his team into a scramble. It was a clean, well equipped hotel with a very friendly staff, so I felt a little sorry for them, but they seemed grateful for the information and determined to check it out immediately.

2014-07-14 11.12.07

Connecticut River valley, looking east.

The Connecticut River features a broad valley, especially on the eastern side. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself riding in rolling farmland instead of climbing up and down steep mountains as I had expected. I thought that the storm system was clearing, and I expected the weather to improve all day. However, the system was slower than I thought, and I got drenched by catching up with the tail end of it just outside of Greenfield, Massachusetts. By the time I stopped in Bernardstown, I had dried off. Soon I entered Vermont, where the hills really began.

After I checked into the motel in Brattleboro, Vermont, I saw that an allergic reaction to the bites had set in. The next morning, the pharmacist at the Walgreens across the street in Brattleboro set me up with some hydrocortisone cream for the day and antihistamine at night. Oh, what a relief. The condition cleared up in a couple of days.

2014-07-16 Putney Library

Putney Library

From Brattleboro, I made my way north to Putney, where I stopped to use the Wi-Fi at the public library. The Wi-Fi in the two motels had not been satisfactory, and I had a backlog of mail to take care of. At Putney, I crossed the Connecticut River, and made my way inland to Claremont, where I spent Wednesday night.

The Connecticut River flows to the South, so even though the terrain consisted of rolling farmland, I was almost always climbing, and rarely getting into a high gear. I was down to my lowest granny gear for more than 1200 m crossing the town line from Charlestown to Claremont.

2014-07-Connecticut River at Putney

Connecticut River at Putney

On Thursday, I set out on the last leg of this week’s trip. I crossed the Connecticut River for the last time between Lebanon, New Hampshire, and Hartford, Vermont, then followed Routes 12 and 14 along the north side of the White River. The White River is smaller and faster than the Connecticut, and I could feel the steeper gradient even though we were moving essentially parallel to the river.

The secret to riding a bicycle through hilly country like New England is to find the rivers and stay as close to them as possible. I left the White River 20 km from Randolph Center, and found myself climbing agonizingly steep hills on dirt roads, partly in the rain. By the time I reached Saxon Hillock Farm on the ridge above Randolph Center, I had climbed 650 m from Old Lyme, Connecticut, most of it in the last two days.

2014-07-18 15.27.24

Looking over Vermont to the south.

My colleague and friend Joan Sax and her husband Daniel have welcomed me into their wonderful home overlooking the hills of Vermont. I will be here for the weekend, planning next two weeks, including deciding whether I will take the train from Randolph, hitch a ride to Montpelier, and either take the ferry across Lake Champlain or ride around it. Come back next week to find out where I end up.

Next week I will try to review the Northern Trek 2014, and determine what significant changes set it apart from the Southern Swing 2013. This would be an excellent time to ask questions about living on the road and working at the same time.

Smooth roads and tailwinds,

2 thoughts on “Sea story: Hermes on a Bike: the Olympic Messenger (1960).

  1. Oh my gosh, Jonathan! What a wonderful life you have led! No wonder you are not content to stay in one place for long. We don’t always comment, but we enjoy reading your blog very much.
    Thank you!


  2. Pingback: Reunions, Expos and New Friends | The Freewheeling Freelancer

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