US Army Retired

US Army Retired

Thursday, April 14, 2016

A US Military Base in France in the late 50's

Being confined to the camp wasn't as bad as I expected. While not a big place, it had just about everything one needed. Beyond the Post Exchange, something like Sears and Roebucks, there was a bookstore that sold all sorts of stuff and was operated by Stars & Stripes, the American newspaper for soldiers stationed overseas. The other amenities included the expected barber shop, a small snack bar, a theater, bowling alley, and a Special Services club with a complete library, recreation room, pool tables, lots of tables for playing cards and other games.

And, the on-base things were perfect for my meager paycheck.

The hardest part was watching the guys load onto buses Friday and Saturday afternoon for the ride into Bordeaux – those that were given passes, And, when they returned to the barracks after an afternoon and evening of carousing, I had to listen to all their tales of beautiful French women falling all over them and the fantastic food and drink. (Soldier's are about the best liars in the world – second to Swabbies that is)

The next hardest thing was missing out on the local tours provided by the Service Club. Once a week, they provided free bus tours to a variety of places not too far from the camp. I promised myself, that as soon as I was free, I'd take advantage of them. As my Freedom Day came in the middle of the month – and I only had very little cash in my pants – one of the Service Club tours was my first outing away from the camp – and into the French countryside.


To be perfectly honest, after all these years, I really have no idea where the tour went to. I do know that during the next few months, I took one tour to Cognac where we saw the vineyards and a distillery where the “real thing” was brewed. And yes, we got a taste of it.

One of the other tours I remember was to the town of Saint-Émilion. I clearly remember the church carved out of the face of a cliff with the bell tower rising above it. And yes, we had a free wine tasting with Pâté and fresh bread.

And yes – the first Friday after payday, I was on that bus for the long ride into Bordeaux. There was a plaza facing the River Garrone with a large stone arch. I stopped to check out a discolored bronze plaque and saw it dated from some time in 150 or so AD and had been built by the Romans. On a later tour of the city, I learned that many Roman buildings had been rebuilt by the Franks and then were razed by the Moors in 732 AD.

But, with that tiny bit of curiosity taken care of, it was off to partake of the delights of France!

Following the file of clearly American GIs, we went up a cobble-stoned street and everyone turned into one particular side street. Two guys from the platoon had taken me under their wings and we walked directly to one particular bar – to find it filled with more GIs. And, of course, some ladies who worked there. They sure were not Brigitte Bardots! [If you're not old enough, she was a hot babe that every young guy in the world swooned over in the 50's – especially as she loved to wear the risqué new bikini bathing suits.] The Queen of that particular bar was a well-worn Algerian. The one thing I remember about her was her mustache and tendrils of hair peeking out of her armpits. Bienvenue en France !

I'd never been in a bar before in my life so I had no idea what to expect. Thanks to my friends, I managed not to make a total fool of myself. First of all, the girls crawled all over the guys trying to get them to buy a “piccolo” - a small bottle of what was supposed to be champagne that was hugely over-priced. The first thing I learned was a dice game played with a cup and match sticks. Somehow the deal was that the first to lose named to drink to be ordered, the second paid for it and the winner got to drink it. I somehow stayed true to my religious upbringing and spent the night nursing several soft drinks equally over-priced. As a wide variety of people might read this, I will completely skip over my introduction of French bar girls.

I do remember riding the bus back to camp wondering what the big deal about France was all about.

Setting Out to Tour Southern France

I bought a motor-powered bicycle - it had a “clip-on: motor mounted over the front wheel. One pedaled to start and it would almost get up to 25 or 35 mph on flat land. Of course, one disconnected it when going downhill and I often had to get off and push going uphill. 1 liter of gasoline would take me over 100 kilometers “clicks“ as we called them.

The best thing about this was how easy it was to work on. The downside was everything was metric so none of the tools we used in the shop for US equipment. However, the ever-useful screwdriver, pliers, and adjustable wrench solved most of the problems. Oh yeah! Don't forget the patch kit for the tires' inner tubes.

Royan is a village on the Gironde Estuary of the western coast of France near the sea. While the rest of France was old and drab - they seemed to glory in their gray buildings that have not been upgraded since the middle ages - the town was almost completely new. Modern buildings and several nice beaches with barely noticeable waves. The water sort of lapped the shore. I wondered how this unusual town came about and was told a story about typical Gallic ignorance or bravado or whatever.

Seems there were a couple of major Nazi installations nearby. The Allies were sent to bomb it. Using American and British aircraft, Free French aircrews screwed up and bombed the town instead of the German targets they were sent after. Later, other raids took place in which huge loads of napalm were dropped to finish the job.

When the war ended, the French demanded the town be rebuilt due to the errors. The money came from American coffers and the town was rebuilt from the ground up. Even then, in 1958 when I was there, it had already started to transform to the drab Gallic color scheme, covered with coal soot.

As the land was flat, going to Royan on the bicycle was easy, I only had to pedal a few times. Once I got off restriction and had purchased the bike, it was summer time and I heard about the seaside resort. Being from Southern California, I wanted to see what French beaches looked like. Of course, I’d heard about the scandalous ones that were topless and even nude.

There were a number of villages between the camp and Royan. If I left early in the morning, it was the time when the bakeries had just taken their big, long loaves of bread - Baguette - out of the oven, I would stop to buy a half-loaf, then go next door to the butcher shop to buy goose-liver pâté de foie gras. One further stop would result in a nice bottle of red wine. Thank goodness I’d purchased a Swiss Army Knife in the Post Exchange as it had a corkscrew.

With all this in my backpack, I’d pull into Royan to find a nice bench under a shade tree.

The bikini had been around since the late 1940s but was rarely seen in the USA. 1958 was a time when girls wore big, wide pleated skirts with hemlines just below the knees and high necklines. Only gowns showed a hint of cleavage. So, it was really something else for a young American like me to sit overlooking the beach where women lay in the sun wearing such skimpy swimwear. Some topless!

The major problem was that French women, unlike the American counterparts, didn’t shave! One might see a truly attractive female only to have her lift her arm to show a thick mass of hair. Legs, at a distance, were okay but up close left much to be desired, covered with hair.

1958 – My first full year in France

Surprisingly, I quickly settled into my new job as company clerk. Sergeant Kapalino was a good teacher and the guy I replace had everything well-organized. It also helped that every single job had an SOP – Standard Operating Procedure – a step-by-step guide to doing it. That and the ever-present Army Regulation. I was always up and at work before revile and was excused from physical training and the morning formation – that meant I had to do my exercises on my own. Luckily, as in every military installation in the world, there was a gymnasium that included a steam room – one of my favorite places to relax.

Although thousands of miles from home, we knew what was going on “back in the world” due to The Stars and Stripes. The newspaper kept us up to date and the book stand had loads of books and magazines. I'd always been a voracious reader so that and the camp library kept me in reading material. We also had Armed Forced Radio and could easily pick up BBC on my Grundig AM/FM/SW radio. I can't find any pictures of anything similar but this was during the early stages of transistors so it was a very large item. It is also necessary to point out we were on French 220 volt electricity, so every electrical item had to meet that standard.

The big news of 1958 was the induction of Elvis Presley into the US Army. Mister Swivel Hips had to get a GI haircut and go through Basic like the rest of us.

In April, something called The World Fair in Brussels opened. The theme was some strange looking thing

Of somewhat major interest to us was that in June, General De Gaulle was brought out of retirement to lead France - & immediately made noises about Americans based in his country. Later in September, 79% of Frenchmen voted for the 5th Republic. Gaullists won French parliamentary elections – a sure sign of things to come. And then, The General as he was called in every French publication, was elected president. There was no doubt as to his unhappiness over the leading role the United States was playing in European affairs.

President Ike signed the declaration that made Alaska a state.

In sort of a byline that few of us GIs understood, The Quarrymen recorded their first record, That'll be the Day by Buddy Holly and In Spite of All the Danger by two of their members, a McCartney and Harrison.

De Havilland Comet jets started first trans-Atlantic flights for BOAC. Of greater pride to us was that Boeing's 707 was also placed into service in October.

And, how could we miss the news as all of Europe was riveted to that smokestack on top of the Vatican when Pope John XXIII succeeded Pope Pius XII.

On a local slant, the major thing I remember about the area was the rain. Every single day since my arrival, it would begin to cloud up around three o'clock in the afternoon to rain for at least one hour. Every single day. Thank the Lord for our army ponchos. Unlike modern versions, ours were rubberized cloth in a solid Olive Drab. It covered us well and had the standard hood. Mine surely got put to good use.

Being company clerk also had the best perk of all – making me exempt from pulling Kitchen Police. But, I was still required to perform Charge of Quarters basically because it ensured I'd be up early enough to prepare the daily Morning Report. It was during tours as CQ that I think my desire to write blossomed. Up until then, it had been a case of writing notes in a small journal. Now, I had from five in the evening until five in the morning to sit at a typewriter and pound out page after page of ramblings. I don't remember what I wrote about but can honestly say not a word of it was ever meant to be for public consumption. I do seem to remember a couple of very short pieces that were published in the camp newsletter – clearly about military topics. I have no idea how many words moved themselves from my gray matter to paper. I only know that I spent endless evenings sitting at my desk writing – always using paper that had been used and thrown away for other purposes.

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