Jacques Delacroix, Santa Cruz, California
Note: I am looking for help in publishing the manuscript from which these few pages are excerpted. The manuscript has about 136,000 words . (JD)
Volume One: The Wheat and the Weed
Part One: The Earliest Journey
How I helped win World War Two
A column of trucks flooded the avenue as a far as the eye could see. (The small body that held the head that held the eye was in my mother’s arms.) The trucks overflowed with big, loud, laughing men in distinctive dun uniforms. People were shouting greetings and waving flags. It seems that an American soldier jumped off his vehicle, swept me up into his arms, and kissed me on both cheeks. That may have been because my mother, who had wanted her second child to be a daughter, processed my long blond hair into Goldilocks-style ringlets. That I am straight today is a testimony to the robustness of genetic programming. My mother always insisted the kissing soldier was black. On the one hand, she may have made up this detail for colorful effect; she was that kind of woman. On the other hand, there were so many trucks the soldiers may have belonged to a transport unit and hence, probably to a black unit, in the segregated US Army of the day. It was August 1944. I was two-something and my family lived in one of the better city projects right on the periphery of Paris, near one of its main access roads. One thing that bothers me about this visual and auditory recollection though is that we lived on the east side of the city. American soldiers should have been arriving from Normandy, in the west; yet, the memory is clear.
Parisians knew from London radio of the slow advance of the Allies after D-Day. All fabrics had been strictly rationed for two or three years. Nonetheless, before the American forces reached Paris, my mother had sewn a makeshift tricolor French flag. The blue came from my father’s old military service flannel sash (a forgotten and now incomprehensible item of clothing).The red came from a Nazi flag. My father was a policeman. He had stolen it from a German general’s car he was supposed to guard. The Germans were packing up at the time and very nervous. He might have been shot on the spot if he had been caught. At a loss for white, my mother made the middle band of the although a small one, in the liberation of Paris, a symbolically important phase of World War Two.
I was born and conceived during the Nazi occupation of France when life was tough and entertainment scarce. My father was a Paris cop, as I said, and his life was more than tough then. His life was not so tough, however, that he did not have the energy to make my mother pregnant one more time before the Liberation, this time with twins. There was little to eat besides rutabaga, for some reason, and milk was rationed, of course, so my mother breastfed me for the longest time. I was precocious. At one point, I think I was able to ask for the breast in grammatically perfect French. It must have been embarrassing for her. Or perhaps I made this up on the basis of bits and pieces I picked up while I was growing up, like some of the other early recollections in these truncated memoirs.
From the days before the Liberation of Paris, I remember mostly bits and pieces, like still photographs with partial voice-overs, glimpses of German gray-green uniforms, and the vast, beautiful fire of the Paris general mills, a mile away. The fire had been set by bombs dropped by the US Army Air Corps. It’s a little known fact that the Allied bombed the hell out of France right before and during, and immediately following the Normandy landing. The French never complained much. They were different then, and too sick of the German presence to bitch about collateral damage. When the air raid siren warning sounded, my mother would wrap me up in a blanket and take me down to the basement of our seven-story apartment house. Some tenants were jaded at the end and they did not bother to take shelter. The basement was a crowded but not especially tragic place. It smelled of the apples that tenants dried there in the dark, on beds of sand spread on wooden shelves.
In spite of this dramatic first, fully formed memory, nothing really important ever happened to me. I have escaped the Chinese curse, of “living in interesting times,” although I did live, in fact, in times that were far from boring. I waltzed through the superficially murderous second half of the twentieth century. But impressions not backed by numbers often deceive: I was born just in time to benefit by what the psychologist Steven Pinker who has dedicated a thick volume to the issue called the “Long Peace.” From the end of World War Two, major wars threatened but never actually exploded. There were many victims of war between then and now but many fewer than in preceding centuries. By far the largest number of victims were neither European (like me) nor American (also like me). My life, began in the midst of war and deprivation, was in fact mostly a peace production.
All my life, I have been mostly fortunate. The undeserved lucky breaks more than made up for the few undeserved blows fate has dealt me. The luckiest break of all was my first coming to the US at eighteen, a prelude to real emigration three years later. In this country, no one ever oppressed me successfully although a handful tried. Many more gave me a helpful push and a shove just at the right moment. I graduated from community college and then from Stanford, both times with honors. A few years later, I earned a PhD, also from Stanford University.
Mine is a happy story. This alone makes it worth telling to the largely glum denizens of the twenty-first century. Moreover, it’s the story of an appreciative immigrant. Many native-born Americans have lost track of this once abundant genre because of the plethora of immigrants’ misery celebrations in the past thirty or forty years of pseudo-radicalism followed by stultifying political correctness. As more Americans turned into whiners, the market for immigrant horror stories ballooned while the market for stories of immigrant success shrank. So, fear not, this is not going to be yet another edifying tale of a hard-working immigrant finally making it in America with harrumphing noises about injustice in the background. Rather, it’s going to be the disreputable narrative of an immigrant who never worked all that hard and who ended up better than OK nevertheless. This second kind of story is more to the credit of this country than the first if you think about it.
Today, I live in the kind of sunny, warm climate I longed for as a child, near the sea I always loved, in a small town rich with the small pleasures I have always appreciated: a variety of movies at all times, a good café in an interesting, lively downtown, several bookstores within easy reach, and young people everywhere; a harbor. My wife is a talented painter whose work I enjoy so much I don’t ever like her to sell it. She has few obligations, except toward our lovable grandchild and she has not had many obligations for quite a while. That kept her beautiful. She is also an immigrant, from the other side of the world from me, from India. Yet we see eye-to-eye on important matters, on politics and on aesthetics. Nevertheless, as long as we could afford it, we each had our own house, only feet apart, each gracious in its own way. Although it’s in the center of town, our small back-plot features an apple tree, a plum tree, two lemon trees, and a big fig tree. All bear fruits, especially the fig tree, a sort of miracle I never fully grasp, because of the urban circumstances of my childhood, as will become clear.
I am a retired university professor and scholar, fairly proud of my scholarship, happy to have been a professor, and equally happy to not be one anymore. Many mornings, weather permitting (it permits often, here in California), after the gym and after coffee at Lulu’s, I am forced to decide whether I want to go sailing, or fishing, or just putter about my boat, or start one of my sometimes fairly good postcard-quality paintings, or again, write a micro-story. (My story, about “Lulu’s,” my favorite coffee shop, was published in the libertarian monthly Liberty in 2010, one of several of my stories to appear in that periodical.) I pay visit to the world with my toddler grand-daughter several times a week. Sometimes, I just simply spend most of the day reading, for no particular reason and to no particular purpose. I read much history but also almost anything anyone hands me. That would include a fair amount of trash. I read in English every day, in French frequently, in Spanish when the rare occasion arises. Overall, I am a satisfied lazy man. There aren’t that many of us.
Sandwiched between an unruly and smart older brother on one side, and two adorable twins (boy and girl) on the other, I was sent off to kindergarten early. I am positive there was no pain, no separation anxiety. I did have an imaginary friend for a while but I don’t think it was a sign of loneliness but rather, of a good imagination. My friend was large and muscular, with short, short hair. His name was “Bosco.” The word means “boson,” “boatswain” in French. There was an old man so nicknamed in my summer environment, but that was probably not where I got the name; rather, it was a corruption of the word “boxeur,” for “boxer,” in deference to my friend’s imposing physique.
The kindergarten was administered by the local Communist municipality. It was an airy, well-lit place and amazingly progressive in the best sense of the word, bless their little Stalinist hearts! I am not surprised, actually; the Communists I have known were serious, earnest people, and Communists are often good administrators on small-scale projects. That is, as long as they don’t have an army, or a secret police, or deep mines into which to salt you away.
The school day must have been about five hours long. It included drawing, painting, clay modeling (with real clay), plaiting strips of colored paper, plus gang warfare during recess. One teacher was a tall young woman with big breasts who favored pointy bras. I lusted for her. (I must have been about five.) This may sound crazy but I remember this distinctly, including tiny erections. (I come from good stock!)
A distribution of hot chocolate broke up every morning. Each child got a big tin cup of hot, vitamin-fortified chocolate prepared with milk. The latter tasted different from the milk we got at home, not bad, but different. Fifteen years later, I realized that the chocolate was prepared with Carnation powdered milk, specifically. I kept asking who provided the treat. “Les Américains,” the teachers would say honestly. One of my first encounters with American imperialism, no doubt! Throughout my childhood, whenever my parents heard someone criticize America, they would say loudly, “Don’t forget who liberated us from the Nazis!” (The Brits got no credit; that was too much to ask!)
One Saturday morning, it must have been around 1948 or 1949, my parents took all their children to sit on the grass of a hilly vacant lot nearby. We were joined by a multitude of local people. Pay attention, my father said, and you will see some really big airplanes. I heard while sitting in the grass that the planes were coming directly from America, without stopping anywhere. I knew even then that America was far away. First, we heard a rumbling in the distance, like thunder on a hot summer day but more regular. Then, six giant planes with either four or even six motors apiece appeared overhead. They were flying low and you could see white stars on their silver wings. They circled slowly above Paris and waved their wings a couple of time and then, they were gone.
All the kids liked the brief air-show, of course. I surmise that the reactions among adults diverged sharply. My parents and others like them were probably put at ease in their minds by this demonstration of American power, and perhaps even more by the unimaginable waste of flying to France from the US and back on no concrete military mission. The huge bombers gave the many local Communists, all unconditional supporters of the Soviet Union, a thing or two to think about. Of course, this all took place before America became sensitive. Back then, it was merely intelligent.
Land of the disorderly Franks
Most of the elementary school-teachers were the expected collection of upward mobile blue-collar types, the same in every country. Many were working mothers. The Principal, however, was of a breed all his own. He was frankly deranged. When he blew his whistle to signal the end of recess, all the kids had to freeze in place wherever they were, with a leg up in the air if necessary. If any boy moved so much as a muscle after the first whistle, the Principal would run to him, grab him by the collar and frog-march him back to where he, the Principal, thought the boy had started from. Since the boys were, well, boys, this happened practically at every recess. That would add up to about 500 times per year. Hence, the Principal must have engaged in this action upward of ten thousand times in his career. He was a kind of addict.
Once he had the several hundred boys immobilized, each in his spot, Mr Principal would blow his nickel whistle on a military cadence while all the kids stomped to their designated assembly point. There, each class would line up in two equal files and the boys measured the distance between them and the guy in front of them with the extended right arm. Then, a final long whistle-blow would initiate another soldiery march to the classrooms, still double-file, right foot hitting the hard ground all the way in. In the classroom, the pupils would stand at attention, each next to his desk, until the teacher ordered them smartly to sit down. That guy was extreme but not truly exceptional. He was just a kind of head-bully.
In many ways, the French were just another kind of Prussians then. Or they were still trying; they were maybe a kind of make-believe Prussians. It’s not that surprising,from a historical standpoint. “France” actually means “Land of the Franks,” the same people for which Frankfurt in Germany is named. Look it up; it’s an interesting story. And, “to be frank” means what it means in both English and French (“franc”) because the old Franks – who notoriously lacked charm – had a reputation for direct and candid talk. And, by the way, the word “franchise” also comes from the Franks, founders of the French kingdom. It means the freedom to do something or other, such as using the brand name “McDonald’s.” It’s another story well worth reading about. And, by the more way, in much of the Middle-East and in India, and as far as Indonesia, the normal word for a foreigner is “feringhi,” or “Frank.” And additionally, by the way, the words “lingua franca” refer to a language that was used in the Middle-Ages by linguistically separate European groups -such as Fleming and Catalans – who wanted to communicate with one another. The words mean literally: “Frankish language.” It was Old French, not a Germanic tongue, but a kind of debased Latin. But I digress again. (Thought you might keep these trivial tidbits in mind for a slow cocktail party or to put down a pedantic professor of American civilization or something at a summertime barbecue.)
US don’t Go Home!
When I was still in elementary school, my family moved to a slightly larger apartment, different block, same government housing, same corner of the same Paris perimeter, same socio-economic category. The new place had a narrow balcony and it was on the third floor overlooking one of the city’s belt boulevards. On warm Sunday evenings, the whole family would stand on the balcony, watching the procession of the cars of the more fortunate returning from their country outing (“le ouikand”). I don’t know what my parents felt but they never expressed envy. On the contrary, it seemed to have been a moment of pleasant togetherness. I suspect that having their five children so close made them feel rich. It is I who envy them retrospectively.
Across the belt boulevard from the new apartment stood a large soot-encrusted industrial plant that had stayed unused during my short presence on earth. (I was about 10 or 11 at the time.) One day, without announcement, teams of men showed up with equipment to clean the structure. Then, they painted it bright white, a startling, incomprehensible color for a factory, especially in a Paris that was still largely dark smoke-gray. Then, young poplars appeared in the factory yard; then someone installed several volley-ball courts. Speculation heated up in the shop queues where my mother would send me to stand in her stead. (By the way, anyone who thinks that standing in five separate lines to buy lunch ingredients is a quaint or charming European custom is out of her mind.) The common explanation for the attractive transformation was that the plant had been purchased and was going to be re-activated by “les américains,” The American bosses would play in the yard while the laborers labored. Although the Communist Party dominated my area, as I have indicated, I don’t imagine it had anything to do with the rumors. They just fit well the pessimistic and mistrustful French mentality of then (and even of now to a large extent).
Shortly afterward someone installed three giant letters on the plant façade: “M.M.M.” (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company). Then, smoke came out of the stacks. Men were observed in the yard playing volley-ball at lunch time and after hours. There was something puzzling about them though: There were too many of them playing volley-ball to be all bosses and, from our window, they looked just like local working stiffs, not like American bosses (whatever such were supposed to look like!) That was my second brush with American economic imperialism (after the vitamin-enriched milk in kindergarten). Subsequently, several new retail businesses opened in the neighborhood and parking became a more common issue on my street.
Teachers and whores
Most of our high-school teachers were amazingly overqualified men in their thirties or forties, studying toward a mysterious exam, “l’aggrégation” that was then the normal path to university positions. One math teacher was also a writer of good adventure books for children. In my senior year in high school, the Geography teacher turned on the whole class to the American science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, which put me well ahead of my American contemporaries, I discovered within two years. (I felt smug, thirty years later when I had a small article published under the same cover as Bradbury.) Whatever specific subject matter I learned or did not learn at these people’s hands, they implanted in me a love of ideas. Moreover, they made intellectual productivity seem natural. I discovered fairly late in my career that it’s not a given. Only one teacher I remember from high-school was grossly incompetent in his discipline but he made up for it by being lovingly avuncular. Here is his story:
At fourteen, I began studying my second foreign language, Spanish. The teacher was a Spanish republican refugee, a lawyer by trade who may have obtained his job because of the sympathy such people evoked (not lawyers, obviously, Spanish republicans!) For several months, no one could tell whether he was addressing the class in French or in Spanish, so thick was his diction. He did not know how to teach and he disliked teaching. At the beginning of each class session, he would go through our satchels, find a book unrelated to any course, usually a novel, and began discussing its literary merits to avoid having to teach. When we began to understand him, the discussion was so absorbing that we would follow him to a café to finish it the next hour, programmed as a study-room period.
The high-school (Lycée Condorcet) was located in a major shopping district, kitty-corner from a commuter train station. The area bustled 24 hours a day because it doubled as a prostitution zone most of the day and all night long. As soon as the sun set, hookers outnumbered shoppers there. Even on winter mornings, when we followed the Spanish teacher to the café, street ladies would come in to warm up between marketing stints on the cold sidewalks. Old Professor Maldonado seemed to know most of them. We never thought anything of it. Later, one young woman who had plied her trade in London helped me refine (so to speak) my English. She was a sweetheart I have never forgotten.
The American Cultural Center’s water coolers and reading cool
At twelve, when I transferred to the academic middle-school out of the area where I lived, I had to take the subway, the Metro. As a natural consequence of this shift, I got the free run of Paris through the Metro whenever I had money to buy a ticket. I spent much time visiting the capital under my own power, like a tourist who would have an excellent grasp of the language. One day, when I was about fourteen, impelled by some obscure instinct, I entered the library of the American Cultural Center, situated in the Latin Quarter, the heart of old Paris. On that hot, sweaty day, the library was air-conditioned, my first taste of this kind of comfort. The blue-haired ladies behind the counter soon began pushing books on me instead of trying to withhold them after the manner of their French public service colleagues. The American ladies were soft-voiced and maternal, almost affectionate, perhaps because they did not have many customers as young as I. Thanks to them, I started reading in English at an early age, struggling, of course, but since there was no grading, it was all downhill. Later, when I spent a senior year in an American high-school, I was reading English somewhat above the grade level of those suburban kids who had English as a first language. I did not even know Faulkner was a tough read until my American fellow-students alerted me (too late).
By the way, in the fifties and sixties, American literary culture reached France in other, more commercial ways. Many Parisians took advantage of their subway commute to read for pleasure. The dominant book-cover colors in the Metro trains were bright yellow and black. The latter color was the defining feature of an abundant collection of crime novels, “la Série noire,” that were all translations of American originals. The hero was always a personage well-known of American readers of a certain age, a down-and-out, alienated, cynical private eye eking out a living in a seedy part of Los Angeles. Jim Thompson may have been, may still be, the American author most translated into French.
At about the same age, the Reader’s Digest in French would make occasional appearances in my life, at the barber’s or at the doctor’s. It contained mostly or only material translated from English. I was perplexed that the section clearly labeled: “Humour,” offered stories that weren’t even close to funny. It was my first warning of the often gross, sometimes incredibly gross inadequacy of many translations from any language to any language. The thought crossed my mind, even then, that I could probably do better. The inadequacy is still there, incidentally. As I watch French language television sub-titled in English, I think the work is done by people who know neither English nor French. Maybe they are Greeks who know Estonian, I tell myself. Computer translation can only become better but it does not represent much progress yet, as I write.
The first day at the American Library in Paris, I noticed a series of tall, blocky, upright rectangular metallic objects I had never seen before and whose function eluded me until I saw a patron use one. They were refrigerated water fountains apparently placed at everyone’s disposal out of some sort of bureaucratic kindness. This marked me as the best illustration of what is good in American society. I was reared in a country where, to this day, it’s practically impossible to obtain, at any price, a glass filled with ice-cubes. It’s also a society where no café, no food establishment will give anyone any glass of water voluntarily except in an extreme and obvious medical emergency. How do I know? There is an actual French law obligating cafés to do so. It’s a society where on hot days, the six-ounces plastic bottle of cold water sells for twice the price of a cheeseburger in California. To put it briefly, I think that the United States is a great country because it’s the only one on earth, for all history, where one is given a tall glass of cold water even without asking. In fact, my pragmatic notion of civilization revolves around the idea of obtaining both very cold water (to drink) and very hot water (to shower) at any time of day and night. (I developed this notion in a story, “The Watershed,” published in Liberty.)
Dead-ended and American salvation
But I must go back to the main chronological thread of this narrative. On my seventeenth birthday, I was an intellectually alert, politically engaged young man, near-brilliant in some respects but favoring a cracked heart. I was also profoundly ignorant in essential academic areas and only two months from an exam that was then the single most determining event in a French middle-class person’s life. Inexorably, I failed the first part of the baccalauréat, the all-important university entrance exam, although with excellent scores in some subjects. My parents were stunned and hurt. They did not know exactly how to react: No one in our family, or in theirs, or among our close acquaintances, had ever even come close to attempting the sacred exam, much less failing it.
I repeated my senior year in a high-school closer to home that was not nearly as good as the first. I don’t know why I did that. I was like an insouciant sheep walking insouciantly, sure-footedly to the slaughterhouse. There was no reason to think I would do better the second time than the first. I had not failed from bad luck, or because I did “not test well,” in the mealy-mouthed gobbledygook of today. Rather, it was because I was not prepared, because vast blank, empty steppes occupied my mind. I doubt one year would have been long enough to fill up the blanks if I had tried. At any rate, my heart wasn’t in it. Someone should have yanked me out and sent me to work full-time. I could have learned something useful, like the basics of charcuterie, for example. Perhaps, everyone around me got caught short and no one had an alternative plan. So, I went back to high-school as the default solution. I performed just as badly the second time. That second senior year would have been a total waste except that it changed radically the trajectory of my life.
In that lackluster second Paris high-school, my advanced skills in the English language shone even brighter than they had in the previous, more elite establishment. In that second senior year, I was the best in English in my cohorts by a long shot, and there were no number two or number three. An English teacher, a very young woman (who may have had the hots for me I dared realize much too late) pressed me to apply for an American Field Service scholarship. The idea was difficult to grasp. I was a bad student in the main subjects I was supposed to have covered and pretty much a reject of the French academic system. Yet, some unknown Americans were offering to pay for my round-trip to the US and to support me for a year. The only conditions were that I had to be supplied with the equivalent of about $25 a month of today for pocket money and sufficient clothing, including six shirts. My parents understood even less: I was a bad boy, I did not own six shirts, and they did not believe in pocket money. My fairy godmother, a tiny woman, stepped in firmly, “This boy just has to go. This is too big a chance to miss.” She would meet all small costs. (Godmother was one of the discreet pro-Americans in her Communist district.) My godmother’s intervention saved my life, not because I would have died without it, but in the sense that, most probably, I would have had a mediocre life. I write extensively below about that remarkable woman.
I was the beneficiary of a positive injustice. I did not deserve that chance. But the Bible put it better than I could:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happens to them all.
(Ecclesiastes10:20-11, Holy Bible, the New International Version.)
The strawberries of life
When I was six or seven, because of some family emergency or other, I spent a spring with Grandma in Brittany where she still lived then. One day, walking back from the grocery store at the village center with her, I had been sassing her and she ordered me to approach to be slapped. “You must be crazy, Grandma,” I replied from a safe distance. The ditches were deep and the hedges thick. Her old bowed legs stood no chance against my muscular young calves. “You will see,” she promised, “I will get you.” With the attention span of the normal small boy, I had soon forgotten the threat and I was walking a few steps behind her. As we came close to her house, she entered a field and dug out a long, thumb-thin cabbage stalk with small leaves still attached. I thought she was just foraging for dinner, of course. Instead, she turned around and beat the hell out of my bare legs with the improvised truncheon/whip, dragged me into the house, and put me to bed early without a meal. Later in the evening, she brought me a bowl of strawberries she had plucked out of her garden by flashlight. The fact is that, as a Protestant, she could not count on confession to deal with her remorse.
My grandmother had a persistent interest in strawberries. When her daughters were small, her all-female household often had “strawberry lunches”: Take all the money you would spend on a conventional lunch and blow it on strawberries. My mother imported this custom into our family when my father was not watching. As I have said, he came himself from a social milieu where people more or less believed, as he did all his life, that if you did not get two square meals a day, with meat, your health would quickly deteriorate and you might even die. My mother improved on her mother’s grand strawberries act. Still when my father was away, she invented the full “pastry lunch.” That gave us a lot of face with the other kids. In fact they scarcely believed it. When my mother died, her oldest grand-daughter approached me, the oldest male in the family, and asked for a significant amount of money for a post-funeral pastry lunch. Thus do traditions get transmitted!
My grandmother showed my mother, who demonstrated it without intent, that the self-discipline generated by strict rules works all the better if one violates the same rules every so often. When I catch myself in flagrante of rigidity, I think of Grandma’s strawberries and give myself, and others, a break. Indirectly, her strawberries procured for hundreds of my students an indulgent C instead of the D, or even the F they so richly deserved. A part of me thinks that I should induce my former mediocre students to raise a small monument to her, perhaps a humble bust under a walnut tree.
My grandparents’ apartment was a different, exotic but slightly foreboding world. With plank extensions, their dining-room table was huge. There must have been twenty matching chairs of heavy, dark wood around it, perhaps more. Mostly, they used a complete, complicated set of matching porcelain dinnerware. There were three plates for each guest on the table before you even sat down, and more appeared for the end-dishes: cheese plates, dessert plates, ice-cream cups, etc. The porcelain coffee-set also matched the dinnerware, of course. In addition, there was a three-glass line-up in front of each setting: white wine, red wine, water. The real silver silverware pieces also matched one another: two knives, three forks, two spoons, big and small.
The formal dinner set as life compass
This business of a complete, large dinner-set of genuine porcelain constitutes a significant and stable cultural divide, I believe. There was never one at my parents’ and this absence may have guided me in the right direction. I have never owned a porcelain dinner-set in my life and never wanted one. The formal dinner-set is usually not about aesthetics or personal taste but about keeping up with the Duponts (the Joneses), who are themselves keeping up with the Durands, everyone finally trying to keep up with the high nobility, real or imagined. In every country, there are slick magazines entirely dedicated to the porcelain-and-stuff Olympics.
The full-regalia porcelain set has existential implications. It expresses unwittingly the intention to stay put. Its possession might even actually discourage moving anywhere because it’s so expensive and broken items might turn out to be irreplaceable. (I have a single plate from my grandparents’ precious set nearby as I write. It’s broken, of course. I broke it when I carried it back to the US.) The porcelain dinner-set proclaims: “We are here to stay. We are a stable family with our asses firmly spread in our heavy chairs. We don’t fool around taking unnecessary risks that might get our valuable porcelain broken.”
My parents prized other things and so do I. My family did not own a porcelain dinner-set but we vacationed at the sea every summer for a long time. The cousins who lived with the grandparents went on vacation for three weeks to the house of distant relatives in a dull part of central France. There was no sea and no mountains and not much for children to do there. I suspect they occupied their time there with that perfect horror: devoirs de vacances! (vacation assignments). I doubt any of my siblings ever knew how to lay a formal table but we all became good swimmers by way of compensation. Even the rare convergences with cousins fortify my “porcelain-set is destiny” perspective. Curiously, my older male cousin became a professor in a Catholic university, as I did. He taught all his life two miles from where he grew up. I taught 5,000 miles away, in another language, and I contributed to scholarly knowledge while my cousin seemed to have done little along those lines. I know this does not exactly qualify as a rigorous laboratory experiment but I draw inferences, of course. My younger, female, cousin became a clinical psychologist, also in Paris. The cerebral gene was in all of us but the spirit of enterprise differed. I credit the porcelain dinner-set to some extent for my comparative adventurousness and also for my siblings’. They mostly stayed in France so that it’s not possible to credit American completely.
Come to think of it, my parents were emigrants before I was. They sort of showed me the way upon marrying by moving, still within Paris, three miles to the east of my paternal grandparents’ apartment. They transported themselves to and chose to rear a family in a radically different social environment. It was as much of a move sociologically as if they had emigrated to Belgium, for example but within the same social class as my grandparents.
I suspect that ordinary fussiness, or rather the absence of fussiness is one of the precedents to emigration. Radical geographic moves demand a high tolerance for messiness, for untucked corners, for ambiguity. My family was less fussy in general than their relatives and than most of our acquaintances. Thus, in those families that had hardwood floors, the housewife lived in terror of the muddy shoes that came with rainy Paris climate. It was common to be greeted at the door with a cry of alarm in lieu of welcoming words: “les patins, les patins!” Now, “patin” is the word used to designate both ice-skates and roller-skates. In that case though, the word referred to small rectangles of felt, sometimes of old carpet, that visitors were supposed to glide on to avoid bringing the outdoors indoors. The motion lacked dignity for a man because it gives one an unavoidable effeminate gait. In spite of her overall neatnikness and in spite of her authoritarianism, my mother only tried to impose “les patins” intermittently and desultorily. I think she sensed their use interfered with manliness; In the end, she chose manliness over impeccable floors.
The rich girl
On the whole, I suspect that children and adolescents did not feel normal poverty keenly. For one thing, the young of my social class lacked means of comparison because we knew few rich people. For another thing, those we knew did not seem to have much fun except those, in our Brittany vacations, who owned their own yachts. The rich in general seemed to enjoy themselves only during the summers and their fun appeared rule-bound, like school or work. Many of the rich youngsters I knew were always preparing for one of the absurdly competitive French special engineering schools or for medical school, even at nine or ten. They did not seem to have a real good time, ever.
Looking back on it, I believe that the main enduring harm of normal poverty was not the actual deprivations suffered in childhood but that it restricted our horizons, that it overly dammed our imaginations, with negative consequences for our futures. Thus, there were many interesting occupations that I never considered because I was barely aware that they existed, or because I did not know what they entailed. Had I known that, I would have had no information on how to prepare for them. My personal exposures to well-off people were too rare and too infrequent for the impressions they made to gel in my mind. Below is one of those rare episodes that caused a rare impression that did last.
The West Indian guy who lived upstairs from me and whose blind father was a jazz musician had some sort of connection with a rich family at the other end of Paris. That was the western end, the rich end, close to the Arc of Triumph. His family had lived in that area previously, before it moved into our apartment house. The black family may have been a charity case of that other family’s wealthy parish. I suspect but there may have been something else involved: All three mixed-race children were exceedingly handsome. (For that reason, my mother kept trying to connect my little sister with the last boy when both were still little kids. She just wanted beautiful grand-children some day. You can’t blame her.)
One day, the sixteen-year old daughter of the rich family crossed all of Paris bearing small, refined presents to visit the black family upstairs. Somehow, we bumped into each other, the girl and I. I was only fifteen at the time but taller than she and big for my age. The girl’s extreme, classical elegance immediately dazzled me. She had an elegant face, an elegantly thin body, and she was dressed with great chic. I remember that a red paisley silk scarf was carefully yet insouciantly tied around her neck. Instantly, I could read in her eyes her interest in me. I was puzzled because I was still at the stage when my big body did not yet quite make sense to me. My large size may have been precisely what drew her interest, of course. (Women are mostly beasts, and from an early age, who often disguise their inherent bestiality under a cultivated appearance of refinement. I learned this fundamental truth too late, unfortunately!) Or, perhaps, the girl was just slumming emotionally. At any rate, she invited me for tea at her apartment the next week.
I passed muster with my social-climbing mother, who was delighted, naturally, but mostly by the girl’s address. Then, I took the Metro to the other end of Paris. There, the Saturday streets seemed eerily quiet and uncongested. I took a silent elevator to the right floor. A white-smocked female servant answered the bell and ushered me into a large apartment that struck me as empty and also as uncommonly quiet. Wall-to-wall carpeting, something I had never seen before, accounted for the quietness. The girl’s mother greeted me briefly and kindly and then, she excused herself. The servant gave the girl and me tea and petits-fours in a porcelain set. We sat in a spacious room that did not seem to have any specific purpose, also a novelty for me. We made small talk. She was more socially mature than I was but she did not make me feel gauche. She was a pretty girl all-around, with beautiful liquid brown eyes and pleasant, warm manners but the sauce did not take, for some reason. I don’t quite know why. Perhaps it was because I was already the kind of guy who says, “the sauce did not take.”
Or, perhaps, had the date taken place one year later, there would have been a spark. I may have disappointed the girl or she was too well bred to pursue our initial contact further unless pressed a little. So, there was no sequel. Back at home, I asked my father to explain the girl’s father’s occupation I had read on a bronze plaque on the door. He was a “consulting engineer.” The explanation made little impression on me because there was no context and no follow-up visit with the girl. Had there been, I would have gained a window into her father’s world and I might have found it interesting and attractive. Her father might even have taken me under his wing momentarily. (Throughout my young years, girls’ fathers often liked me, as if they were unable to penetrate the darkness of my heart or of my mind, to detect my despicable intentions toward their darling little girls.) Even a few such encounters might have pushed my attitude toward school into a different, more constructive channel.
I learned the most important things I know in Brittany, from the local boys. Remember, I am referring to the forties and fifties, when post-World War Two France was still poor. Brittany was especially poor and it has always been a very Catholic part of France, with predictable results: In one neighbor family, where the father worked as a municipal ditch-digger, there were eighteen children. The girls were pretty much taken care of. The boys had to fend largely for themselves in the summer, when they were not eating the school’s lunch. I was only there in the summer myself, and sometimes for Easter break; the rest of the time, I was a Parisian. In spite of this built-in defect, I was a member of their gang by right because all rival gangs were hamlet–based and numbers mattered from a military standpoint.
The ditch-digger’s boys were always hungry. They stole eggs, from wild birds’ nests and from hen-houses alike. They also picked wheat and toasted it in the fields, which was tolerated. Early in September, ripe wild hazelnuts were available for the taking along the rutted rock paths, along with blackberries. The boys belonged to the farm tribe. (More on this distinction below.) They never attempted to fish from the sea or to shore-pick for the abundant shellfish. Having no tribe, I was much ahead of them in that respect. Yet they never asked me to help them exploit the abundant seafood available for the taking. I don’t know what they did after September and I will never know because my family never stayed beyond that month. But school was back in session near the middle of that month and then, they got at least one square a day. They all seemed healthy in spite of everything.
Sometimes, we would climb over the priest’s orchard wall to steal his excellent and well tended pears. This happened less often than one might think because it presented moral problems: Everyone knew that the priest would not beat you hard if he caught you so, it was kind of unsporting to pick on him. And there was the issue of having to tell him in confession that you had stolen his pears (rather than some anonymous pears devoid of social personality). Specifically, we argued about whether one would go to hell for abstaining from confessing that single particular sin. There was no theological consensus.
One time that I recall (there may have been more than one time because I remember the technique involved with exquisite precision), we went chicken fishing. Some poultry-yards were enclosed by wire-mesh, but a few, dating back to before wire became cheap, were contained by a rocks-and-mud wall. You could approach those without being seen by either chicken or farm-wife. Chicken are stupid: If you throw a fishhook baited with an earthworm at the end of string tied to a stick over a wall, a chicken will bite within minutes or seconds. Then, you have to pull the bird up, across the top of the wall and down on your side, very fast, because it makes a contagious racket. A kid twisted the chicken’s neck and we all fled to the woods where we plucked, gutted, and roasted it. Ever since that day, I have never been very far from a pocket knife although I am mostly a city boy.
The manor domain included an extensive but walled oak forest. Once, we clambered over the Count’s park wall with the expressed intent of stealing some of the large, old carps from his forest pond. Some of the fish seemed as big as a dog when they backs broke the surface so they may have been a hundred years old or older. As we approached the pond, deep into the woods, conversations gradually stopped and our pace slowed. In the end, we could not go through with it because we were, by ancestral, historical memory, afraid of the Count and especially of his game warden. The warden was rumored to have shot several children, sometimes long ago, in the ill-defined past. He had even shot some of them from an impossible distance. He was a crack-shot, naturally. The man did carry a shotgun across his back when he was in the forest (to dispose of foxes, I now imagine). We were a lot more clear on legal issues than on religious ones: We all knew for a fact that any landowner, the Count in this case, had a perfect right to kill you if you trespassed over a solid wall (but not if you merely slipped through a barbed-wire fence).
Soon the hired-hand brought in a heifer from the stable and stationed it in the middle of the courtyard. Then, the farmer came in from the road leading a large animal that looked like a cow but with a more massive shape, I could tell. The new head of cattle had something large and pink dangling between its legs. It looked a little like udders but I knew it wasn’t.
The old man and his farm-hand exchanged a few words I did not catch and then, suddenly, the younger man flexed his knees and braced his shoulder against the heifer’s chest. The farmer pulled the other animal forward until its nose touched the heifer hindquarters. The large animal suddenly reared up as if it were trying to mount the small heifer from behind. In my six-year-old mind, it looked a little like a game except that both animals seemed nervous, agitated. Besides, they did not seem to be succeeding at whatever they were trying. The yard was roughly paved with round beach rocks but it was besmeared with the usual mixture of dung and livestock urine which caused both animals to slip. I did not know what the attempted alignment was about but I could tell it was not happening smoothly.
I began speculating aloud about the two men’s actions and their purpose. In the meantime, my brother kept oddly silent. I settled, still aloud, on the idea that they were testing the heifer’s strength. My brother could not take the embarrassment. He pulled me to him and whispered in my ear. “It’s to have a little calf.” I was not stunned by the revelation because it seemed so unrelated to what I was seeing with my limited angle of vision. The show ended after about ten minutes. The heifer was led away but she seemed to resist; she wanted to stick around it seemed to me. (She wished for seconds, I guess, or she just wanted to cuddle.) It was time for the family to walk home anyway.
In the days that followed I completed mentally the picture of what I had witnessed. I did it with pretty good accuracy, I am glad to report. Yet, it was difficult to arrive at the idea that people must do something like it to make babies. Perhaps, I could not draw the link because of the locale, because of the farm context, because of the slippery yard. I could not imagine people staggering hesitatingly as I had seen the bull and the heifer do. The whole act seemed too improvised for humans.
Eventually, of course, over several years, I filled in the gaps between the scene at the farm and my mother’s prattle. The farm scene left me with an impression of roughness. Yet, the cattle coupling did not traumatize me in the least. In fact, I like to think that the brief early exposure to cattle breeding later helped me develop sane standards regarding assaultive intimacy.
Across the barbed wire
The crossing into communist Yugoslavia, near Trieste, almost justified the propaganda instantly. Night was falling as we entered a nightly world. The Italian side was brightly lit. On the communist side of the border, there was only the mean dark shadow of the past except for the pale green neon of the Yugoslav border guards station. Just before stopping there, we could still make out some of the barbed wire extending across the land. Our car was maneuvered over an open pit so it could be minutely inspected from below for I know not what contraband. Ill-shaved, mean-looking border guards kept asking us in bad English and in worse French why we wanted to enter Yugoslavia. They searched our car and our belongings repeatedly. They could not figure out why a nineteen-year old and a not quite eighteen-year old wanted in their harsh country and we could not quite explain our simple curiosity precisely because it was so simple.
How I nearly started World War Three
Fifteen years after contributing to the end of World War Two, I nearly triggered World War Three, inadvertently, that is. This is how it happened.
I may have been the only enlisted man of almost middle-class background aboard because the children of the bourgeoisie who did not avoid the draft went to officers’ candidate’s school; those who did neither sought and usually obtained, cushy shore postings. Most of my petty-bourgeois age group was either lucky and enrolled at the university and temporarily excused from serving. Or they were unlucky and serving in the more numerous land forces. My nearly middle-class orientation made me a culturally abnormal ordinary seaman. In foreign ports, when others rushed to the whorehouse or to get drunk, or to get drunk at a whorehouse, I headed for museums and historical sites. That’s how I first visited Pompeii, for example. It made me look a bit like a goodie-two-shoes but I honestly did not mind. My shipmates did not rib me for it; some may have actually respected me in the mysterious way of the unlettered toward the modestly lettered.
The only time I spent in the brig, it was for having gone to the Vatican! You know no one could invent this kind of formula! My ship was tied up to giant buoys (that is, not docked) in the middle of Naples Bay, with twenty other NATO naval vessels of various nationalities. Given pm liberty, a buddy and I figured from the map that we had plenty of time to hitch-hike to Rome and see St Peter. We figured wrong. We made good time one way but on the return leg, in the late afternoon, it rained part of the way. And even pretty white sailors’ summer uniforms could not abolish distance. By the time we reached Naples harbor again, late at night, all the French boats to take us back to the aircraft-carrier had been withdrawn.
There was still activity around an American shore station nearby, though. Without hesitation, we presented ourselves to the junior American Navy officer in charge. I executed a smart salute and requested a ride in my good English. The American officer was first perplexed and then amused. He told me that when all his guys were returned to their ships, he might possibly convey us back. An hour later, we were on our way but the only boat left was the American admiral’s own opulent, big black launch, with flags and gold laurels and stars, and every other mark of importance. The admiral himself must have still been dining in town.
As the admiral’s launch approached our aircraft-carrier, we could make out a great deal of agitation at the brightly lit wide gate on the side of our ship. We walked up the gangplank, two low-ranking sailors in mud-soiled white uniforms, and were greeted by a smartly turned out honor guard. The ensign on duty could not believe his eyes. An unannounced, late night visit by the American admiral in charge of the NATO squadron must have meant to him that World War Three had started, or perhaps, something even more serious! Good thing no one got nervous and no alert was sent up the chain of command necessitating a pre-emptive strike against the Soviet Union. I don’t know if I could have forgiven myself.
The next morning, my buddy and I had to show up at Captain’s Mast. A senior Marine non-com in charge of everyday security matters on board was present by custom. (Inevitably, he was called, “le shériff.” ) That man actually defended us: On the one hand, we had been technically AWOL for a short time, on the other hand, our goal had been honorable and we had shown a lot of initiative; plus, we had not been drunk on returning. His face showed that he hardly believed what he was saying about our sobriety although it was the pure truth. Our punishment was appropriately mild: one week, nights only, in the ship’s brig, a quiet place where you could read at your ease.
Emigration and the tortuous road to higher education
Concurrently with the beach fantasies, I developed a more complex and more convoluted career plan, or life-plan, centering on journalism. I liked writing but I was too humble even to consider fiction; journalism seemed feasible because it dealt with events you did not have to make up. There was one journalism school in Paris that would accept students without baccalauréat. That was the sacred university admission exam I had failed twice, that I could easily have failed three times if given a fair chance. The journalism school relied instead on a dossier of personal achievements, a blatant abnormality in the frigid, constipated and rigidly, narrowly meritocratic French educational system. I thought I might qualify myself by using the one head-start, or positive handicap I already possessed. I would magnify my information-gathering and my reporting capabilities by becoming one of the few French people – aside from some language teachers – who really knew English, including writing it. Looking back on it, it was an imaginative but reasonable project. Thus, I thought I would return to California and spend two years in a community college, concentrating on writing and literature classes.
While I was still in the navy for a few days, older California friends had sent me the catalog of College of Marin, situated near San Quentin prison. I noticed that the college offered many courses in something called “Penology.” Of course, I thought that those were about using a pen, about writing, in other words. I applied and was accepted on the basis of the social promotion high-school diploma I had picked up during my preceding one year in California. Don’t worry, by the way, after a while, during my first quarter, I would discover that penology was not about writing but, instead, the art of being a prison guard. By that time, I would have become interested anew in general education anyway. But, once more, I am getting a head of myself.
As soon as I was discharged from the service, with a one-way train ticket to Paris and about fifty of today’s dollars in separation pay, I went back to work at the hotel where I had labored during my teenage years. I had left such a good impression there that the head-concierge soon tried to talk me into becoming his successor. That was not a trivial offer but a sure path to riches. The concierges of high-end hotels are in a position to do wealthy guests many favors, from finding rare theater tickets at the last minute to procuring call-girls in the wee-hours of the morning. They receive serious tips for every favor. Often, both sides of a transaction reward them. Even a prosaic service such as getting shoes resoled overnight generates quick and easy income. In his early forties, the concierge already owned a stable of race horses. His plan was that he would sell me his position and that I would pay him over several years from the graft generated by my talents.
I was absolutely poor, poor in the absolute sense that I had no money, so the offer was tempting. Yet, I declined cordially because, by that time, the thought of studying had become attractive. I wish I knew more about the relevant transformation of my young self. I wish I understood it better because it’s a fairly common event in young men that age. The best I can do is to say that I had, by that time, expunged much of the badness and of the craziness that lurked inside me. Working at the hotel, I saved enough tips in two months to buy a one-way ticket for passage on a student ship from Rotterdam to New York, and a little more.
About one month before my departure date, my father became convinced that I was serious about my plans. As I have recounted, he took me aside and kindly urged me to reconsider and to abandon my mad project. He pointed out sadly that though I was brave, having no money and no connections, no support there, I could not possibly expect to survive in a foreign country. Somehow, he did not know me well, or else, he did not know the new me, well-tempered by military service, with brain all caught up with hormones! Mostly, he did not understand America, its prosperity; its unique openness, its unparalleled generosity. I boarded the transatlantic ship with no regrets and no anxiety whatever.
At twenty-one, after three senior years in high-school (two in France and one in the US), after a few months traveling around and getting into nothing but trouble, after almost two years well warehoused by the French Navy, I was finally ready. The wheat had ripened in the midst of all the weeds of my life. Though completely unskilled, I was confident I could support myself, even as a sometimes, somewhat illegal alien. Suddenly, I became a first-rate student. I did not know it then but I was squarely on the road to being able to say; “Je suis américain.”
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