Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The End of My First Army Tour of Duty

[I don't know for certain, but I vaguely remember something like this in Bordeaux.]

Buses ran daily from the camp into Bordeaux. The service increased on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The weekday bus went to the train station but the extra ones dropped soldiers off at small square with Roman arches. We walked up cobble-stoned streets to the local Red Light District. The old, glaring district had been replaced with lots of bars catering to us American soldiers, not just from Camp Bussac but a couple of others in the area.

I always found it hypocritical that a female French politician had raised such a fuss that such establishments, once controlled and overseen, had been done away with – to be replaced by places with no control at all. The only censorship came from the U.S. Forces Military Police by making them “Off Limits.”

If one walked a couple of blocks further up the street, one entered a large square with a big pond in the middle filled with huge goldfish. That was to play a hilarious part in my memories.

A small Air Force station was located downriver. The boulevard ran directly from the square and we used to walk there to get cheap booze when we were close to broke. We couldn’t get the same stuff at the camp as they only sold cheap, weak American beer. The AF club had everything in the world, including Absinthe; the French called it a liqueur but I’m told it’s a spirit. At the time, it was outlawed in France and many thought it was a hallucinogenic drink. I remember drinking it once - but never again. It came out of the bottle clear and, when water was added, turned either light green or white.

One dare at the AF station was to pay $5 for a large beer stein in which they poured a half shot of every alcoholic beverage behind the bar. One had a 30 minute time limit in which to down the whole thing, then get up from the stool and walk across the bar to the dart board and back to the stool. If one managed to do it, they got to eat and drink for free the remainder of the month. I never tried it and never saw anyone who did that managed to get halfway back to their stool.

The last bus back to camp left at about two in the morning. If one missed it and didn’t make it back to camp in time for bed check, he’d be counted AWOL and would usually be restricted to camp for at least a month. Do it repeatedly and the GI would end up with Article 15 punishment. [I will never tell here how I managed to avoid this several times!]

In all the other units in the camp, getting an overnight or three-day pass was very difficult. In our small unit, it wasn’t that hard at all. And, as the unit clerk, the one who typed them up, I had no problem getting them whenever I wished.

One Saturday night, we’d been drinking pretty heavy at the AF station club and it got awfully close to time for the last bus. We left the station, I seem to remember six or seven of us, and double-timed along the boulevard to the square. We’d made such good time that we knew we’d have no problem getting down to the riverside square. Someone decided the night was too warm and wanted to wash the sweat of his face. So, he stepped into the goldfish pond, followed by the rest of us. Another then decided it’d be fun to try and catch one of the big fish. Apparently, someone took umbrage to our desecration of the park and called the Gendarmes. We made it just in time to pile onto the bus as it pulled out, leaving several Flics angrily waving their batons at us.

One of he things we did to pass the time in the bars was play a dice game using a cup and match sticks. I don’t remember exactly how it worked but the idea was to win the most match sticks. The one who lost first had to pay for the round, the second named the drink and the winner drank it. I seem to remember that it had the words four and twenty-one in it.

I was there when the French had a presence in Indochina and Algeria. Many of the ladies in the bars came from Algeria. There was also numerous Indochinese restaurants in the area and I found the food quite good. As Duple had been a missionary in China, she often took me to Chinatown in Los Angeles and I was rather adept at using chopsticks. So, every once in a while, I’d take my latest companion to one of the restaurants and found the cuisine quite tasty, although some of the dishes were beyond my delicate sensibilities.

Coming from Southern California where rain was rare, the time I spent in France gave me a completely different experience as it rained on a regular basis, almost daily. The day would start out with clear skies and by early afternoon., clouds began to appear. Then, about four or five, the rain would start. Sometimes it would pour down and others would be a simple drizzle. I loved the rain and would sit out on the barracks balcony to watch the lightning displays.

Rain storms and lightning displays are still my favorites – something I dearly miss living in Las Vegas.

In all honesty, after my nearly three years there, I could not (and still cannot) understand why some Americans seem so enamored with France. The food was okay and I found the best to be what was served in restaurants in small towns and villages or the garden variety café where our platoon had its monthly get-togethers.

As I’d never had wine before, the Bordeaux reds seems okay but I actually liked a couple of whites I found in St Émilion. I liked Cognac from that region.

I didn’t find French women all that glamorous and often backed away at the body odor their perfume couldn’t cover up, along with hairy armpits and legs. French men were generally sullen and rude. If I tried a restaurant with waiters, I’d leave to try and find one with waitresses - the men were insufferable and haughty.

I tried to learn French and could get by. But, I never became fluent and quickly forgot most of it within a short time of getting home.

The time came to leave and I looked forward to getting back to the land of hamburgers and cute girls. Harold sent his wife and car home ahead of time and we ended up getting travel arrangements together - again, it didn’t hurt that I was the unit clerk. The company had sent down a replacement so I didn’t have to do a lot to break in the new guy.

I shipped one box of things home, carrying only military stuff in my duffel bag. We rode the US Army train north, once again changing from the Gare Montparnasse to the Gare du Nord, going on an army bus. We were highly relieved when we got to the German border and they transferred our car to a German train.

I wasn’t about to go home in another troop ship and finagled a deal where Harold and I would fly, courtesy of the US Air Force. We got off the train in Frankfurt and were bussed to Rhine Main Air Base. I thought we were going to fly in an Air Force transport plane but were shocked when they loaded us onto a big Lockheed Constellation aircraft. It was huge to me and I couldn’t believe how many people it held - all military. As an air force charter, the stews weren’t exactly beauty queens but, after French women, those American women were movie stars to me.

We landed in Shannon, Ireland to refuel. The weather was cold and damp and we happily walked into the terminal, being free to roam until time came to get back on the plane. I loved the lilt of Irish voices and was able to drink one of their beers - don’t remember the brand. I also wandered through the gift shop to find something for Duple. Don’t remember what it was, but it didn’t cost that much.

Our next stop was Goose Bay, Newfoundland. There were also piles of snow on the ground and it was colder than I’d ever experienced before in my life. There was an air force mess hall and we had a wide choice of dishes as it remained open twenty-four hours.

I remember we landed at McGuire AFB in New Jersey and were never so happy to be back in the good old USofA. It didn’t take long to process us out of the service, giving us our discharge papers and final pay. Harold and I traveled with two other guys from Bussac and we’d arranged to buy a car not far away in Pennsylvania. We were picked up in a van and driven to a town filled with car dealerships. We’d arranged to buy a 1959 Chevy with the huge rear fins. It was a sporty two-door sedan. 

We’d pooled our funds and the deal was to drive it across country. One guy was from St Louis, Harold from Redding (we’d drop him in Sacramento where his wife and family met him), I was from LA and the last guy from near San Diego got to keep the car. I don’t know about any cross-country records but we only stopped to gas up, grab a bite to eat and use restrooms. I seem to remember getting to LA thirty-some hours from leaving the car lot.

It was good to be home and a civilian again.

[Maybe, in the not-too-distant future, I'll start posting various adventures/SNAFUs from the next 20 years]

No comments:

Post a Comment