My time in Cassino did not go precisely as planned. I wanted to arrive from Rome early in the afternoon and have a chance to freshen up and relax at my hotel before walking to the Cassino War Cemetery to pay my respects to my other great-uncle lost in the Second World War, Sergeant Everett Clinton Nichol. Then I was going to wander into town and have a nice dinner before retiring to my private hotel room for a relaxing, early night.
The first problem started when the LP turned out to be uncharacteristically silent on the entire subject of Cassino, despite the fact that there's a well known monastery at Monte Cassino right up the hill from the town. In fact, I was so surprised that there wasn’t even a listing for the city that I think I went back and checked the index three or four times before finally admitting to myself that the beloved LP had failed me.
So I was on my own. Undaunted, I managed to locate the cemetery on Google maps and found some information that seemed to indicate it was only about 2km from the train station. Then I hit Google again to find a hotel and ended up making a reservation at Hotel Diana (which I accomplished entirely in infant-level Italian, thank you very much.) So I arrived in Cassino on the 12:51 train from Roma Termini and set off in the direction of the hotel. I was pleased when I came upon this sign, because it all seemed to tally with my memory of the Google map.
And that’s when things started to go awry. It turns out that the scale of the Google map in my head was perhaps more ambitious that I realized. And the Aeronaut was a might weighty, and the sun was a touch warm, and the sidewalk was ever-so-slightly non-existent. And on I trudged, with no map, and almost no language skills, and an increasing level of frustration. I stopped several times to ask for directions and each time I was directed further and further down the road and kept hearing phrases like “autostrada” and “lontano”. It seems that Cassino has a Via Raccordo Ausonia and a Via Prov.le Ausonia and a Via Ausonia Nuova. Naturally it turned out that the hotel was on the one farthest from the station down a busy highway. Finally I gave up. I’m sorry Hotel Diana, but if you had been in the same time zone as the rest of Cassino, I would have been happy to darken your door. Then I had another trudge through the area around the station and could not find one single hotel, which is extremely bizarre. Cassino must be the only hotel in Western Europe with no hotels near the station.
So I sat down and had a calzone and a beer and regrouped. I checked the departures list at the station and determined that trains to Naples were frequent that afternoon and evening. And I phoned the hostel in Naples and moved my reservation up a night. And then I hoisted the Aeronaut once again and headed off for the cemetery, which turned out to be easy to find and actually was about 2km from the station, as advertised.
In some ways it was very much like the Beny-sur-Mer cemetery in France. It was quiet and tidy and seemed to be well-tended. And there were rows and rows and rows of gravestones from all over the commonwealth. Unlike Beny-sur-Mer, though, it’s kind of smack in the middle of the city, or at least surrounded by busy roads and some businesses and some semi-rural residential stuff.
I didn’t have as much documentation to help me find the grave I was looking for as I did in France, but the Canadian Virtual War Memorial website has an excellent search function that made it really easy to determine exactly where I needed to look. Section 5, Row B, Grave 21.
And due to the foresight of my personal assistant (Winnipeg Division), I had another Canadian flag patch to leave at the grave site. Thanks Karen. I really feel it was important to leave something tangible behind.
Unlike Beny-sur-Mer, there was no cemetery register available and no book of remembrance to sign. The website says that frequent vandalism means these are only available when the gardener is present, and those hours apparently didn’t mesh with my schedule. I think it’s disgusting that something as simple and important as a register of war dead can’t be kept out for fear or it being stolen or defaced. I mean, really.
I wandered around and took some more pictures, and enjoyed the feeling of not having a 45 pound pack on my back. And I sat near the grave and tried to think about what it must have been like to be a 35-year old Saskatchewan farm boy-turned Royal Canadian Engineer landing in Italy in 1944. In fact, Sergeant Nichol enlisted in 1939 and was shipped overseas within ten months. He served in England, Sicily and mainland Italy before he was killed in action on May 23, 1944. And now you know almost as much about him as I do, which is sad; he should have been part of my life. It wasn't as emotional as my trip to Beny-sur-Mer, but maybe that's because it wasn't all new.
Also unlike the grave at Beny-sur-Mer, which was for an uncle on my grandmother’s side of the family, this was my father’s father’s brother. Consequently, that was my name on the gravestone. It was striking. I actually pulled out the copy of my passport I carry around and held it up to the stone and looked at the names. Nichol… Nichol. It felt a bit weird, but it also made me proud and really glad I’d come. It was like I could feel how we were connected.
And then I shouldered my pack again and bid farewell to Uncle Everett and turned my face towards the station and the 17:13 train to Naples. I feel badly that the trip turned out to be a more of pitstop than a pilgrimage, but I’m still glad I went. I hope it’s not important how long I was there, but that I was there at all. That someone was there.
Once again, there’s really nothing I can say to sum up except thank you. Thank you Sergeant Everett C. Nichol. You make me proud to share your name.
Rest in peace.