Sunday, December 25, 2011

Military Life in The South of France

First of all, I continue my narrative with a bit of trepidation. It appears Lonnie Robinson has a far better memory of what took place so many decades ago than I have. I have totally forgotten our platoon leader's name – Lieutenant Rumbaugh – and CWO Bosze who was the man behind our shop. Hopefully, he will occasionally chip in to clear up a thing or two I have forgotten.

After all, it's only been 52 years!



Now, to explain the bottle of Four Roses in my last post. One night, it was my turn to sneak out of camp to get us some booze for an all-night poker game. Getting out was no problem as there were holes in the fence the Polish guards turned a blind eye to. Just across the field next to camp was a small huddle of buildings that included a bar where some of the well-worn “girls” hung out. In that particular instance, I had enough script to buy a couple of bottles of Four Roses. We had plenty of coca cola in machines in the barracks, in glass bottles. We spent that Friday night, all the next day and the night after that playing poker in the barracks drinking coke and whiskey. We took breaks to go to the mess hall to eat and a few short naps. We called it quits some time Sunday afternoon and I remember waking up well before reveille Monday morning in my cot, sick as hell with a hangover that didn‘t go away for three days. To this days, fifty years later, I can’t stand the smell of Four Roses.


Every month or so, we would have a unit party in a small village not far from the camp.
All military units have some discretionary funds – usually coming from shares of the earnings of the various entertainment facilities on the bases – to purchase items for the Day Room or other unit activities. Lieutenant Rumbaugh and our platoon sergeant – hopefully Lonnie remembers his name – would arrange for us to convene at a small restaurant. I remember it had lattice work all over the place loaded with grape vines. They even produced their own red wine. The food was actually quite good and I must admit that the French fries were delicious. Who would believe that a tuber from far away Peru would become a trademark of French cuisine?



Harold met a “nice” French girl and, after going through all the paperwork (which I, of course, filled out) married her. He then bought a Renault and I took a train to Paris to pick it up. After being cold-shouldered by every Frenchman I encountered – including many Gendarmes – I made it to the factory where they gave me maps and instruction on how to drive back to Bordeaux. Unfortunately, the factory was on the north side of Paris, meaning that I had to drive through the heart of the city to get there. I encountered incredible traffic in Paris, especially traffic circles. It was a case of the one with the biggest balls winning. Close your eyes and dive in. By the time I got out of the city, I was shaking like a leaf and had to find a place to stop and calm my nerves.

As I stated, it was my first encounter with Parisians. Leaving the train station, I stopped at a small sidewalk restaurant and tried to get a bite to eat. The waiter was one of the most insufferable people I’ve ever met and, I was ready to punch him in his arrogant mouth. But, he was not the only one. No matter where I turned, I encountered the same thing. I spoke little French and was treated like I was some third-class creature barely worthy of notice. Even the people in the Renault factory were snotty!

I was never so happy to get back to camp. Harold's wife found a small apartment near the camp and his wife would drop off and pick him up every working day.

I've spent a lot of time trying to remember where I me and became friends with another soldier and it just came to me – we worked together at the battalion personnel office. Teodore [Ted] Kleemann was a fellow personnel clerk who came from Holland. I remember who impressed we were that he spoke Dutch, German, Flemish, French – and English. He was drafted where he lived in New York City and his main goal was to become an interpretor at the United Nations.

I don’t remember why, but Ted invited me to join him on a trip home to The Hague. We caught the train and it was a lot easier to get through Paris changing trains with Ted’s help. We actually took the Metro subway system, the first I’d ever ridden. Wearing European clothes and with a Dutch accent to his French, he was treated far less disdainfully than I, even though he received some dirty looks for being with an American GI.

(Didn’t we free those people from the awful Germans not long before?)



We stopped at the World’s Fair in Brussels. If I had a hard time understanding French and Dutch, Flemish was even harder. However, the vast majority of people at the fair spoke more than reasonable English. There were good crowds and the only reason we were able to afford the prices was a center for American military personnel where we got special tickets and offers.

From there, we went to The Hague where I met Ted’s family -- truly friendly, generous people. We spent a couple of days, then went to Amsterdam. The canals were kinda neat but I must admit the most interesting part was visiting the area where storefronts held something other than scantily-clad mannequins.

There had once been similar locales in all major and some smaller French cities. However, a female member of the French parliament made such a fuss about the world’s oldest profession, that it had been outlawed. That didn’t mean the areas didn’t exist but were much harder to find.

Once again, the world grew gray and dreary when we crossed the border back into France. At least traveling with Ted was a most educational and interesting way to travel. As soon as we returned to camp, I headed back to the library to read up on the area we'd just visited.

Some more views of France in my next post.

An aside – some time during my tour of duty in France, two events occurred that our platoon became involved in. One was an earthquake in Morocco where the battalion was sent to clear the rubble. Some members of our platoon went along to repair the equipment. Another was a similar earthquake in Lebanon. For the life of me, I have memories of going along. I seem to remember the long, boring hours with the drone of airplane engines deafening us. I also can see a beautiful beach and hear the words calling it the playground of the eastern Med. A stop in Athens and somehow I picture the Parthenon. C'mon, Lonnie! Tell me I'm not imagining things.

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