Saturday, August 8, 2015

My Father--Part I

I was sorting through a sheaf of old papers I found in the back of a desk drawer when an envelope full of old photographs fell to the floor.

There were shots of my parents in the South of France with friends I vaguely recognized, and four photos of my father and me. These were taken sometimes in the early 70s in front of the house my then-wife and I had bought for a pittance in what was considered a dangerous neighborhood in Washington, DC.

We are standing on the sidewalk. I am impossibly thin and longhaired. My father wears a sly grin, as if he’s just told a really bad and slightly off-color joke, or perhaps put one over on my mother when she wasn’t looking.  The picture made me smile.

My father was a good man. Born in London of French and British parents in the first decade of the 20th century, he had hoped to become an architect and studied in Versailles. When World War II broke out, he was in the West Coast of the US, employed as the traveling secretary to a British Lord. He could have avoided military service but chose instead to sail from the Panama Canal to Portugal, and then to walk from Portugal to Le Touquet, a town on the French side of the English Channel. He then ‘borrowed’ a small boat and sailed it to England.

His 1000-kilometer trek took him through occupied France. He hid from the Germans during the day and walked at night. Various underground resistance groups helped him along, supplying clothing, food, money, and fake identification papers.

In England he joined the Free French, the breakaway military force that answered Charles de Gaulle’s call for the French to keep fighting even though their government had capitulated to the Germans. He was infiltrated back into France to run a clandestine mobile radio station that re-broadcast news from the Voice of America and BBC to a populace that secretly listened in hushed tones.

At the end of the war, he met my mother, who was also with the Free French and serving in Algeria. They had a one-night stand and I was conceived in a US Army truck somewhere on the outskirts of Marseille.

My father did the right thing and married my mother. For a while, living in Paris, they had a radio show where he played a somewhat dumb American GI to her wily French demoiselle. It was a monster success and my parents became household names, albeit poorly paid ones.  When I was born, the station that aired the program was inundated with diapers, bibs, booties, tiny berets and an assortment of mostly hand-me-down baby clothes.

This was all well and fine except that my mother, still in the hospital recovering from my birth, demanded a ham and cheese omelet. This was post-war Paris; there was no ham, there was no cheese, there were no eggs. My father, in a rare show of intemperate behavior, found the hospital cook and forced him, at gunpoint, to raid his personal food supply. The cook fixed the omelet. My father took it to my mother’s hospital room. She ate it, though she complained it lacked salt.

They were both fired from the radio station the next day.

I know all this because, though my father never spoke of his war, he kept a series of journals that I still have. I also have the Legion of Honor awarded him by the French government, and his discharge papers, as well as a photograph of him and my mother, in uniform, standing amidst the bombed out ruins of a city that may have been Dresden.

Of the two, my mother was the creative one. She painted, wrote children’s books, acted in local theater, played the piano and the accordion. She was also a couturiere who wanted to rival Coco Chanel. My father catered to her needs. He repaired used sewing machines; he built frames for her paintings, and attended the endless play rehearsals. He edited her writings. He re-upholstered the tatty furniture she found in flea markets.

When the family came to the US many years after the war, only he spoke English, and so he found the house we would live in, and the car my mother learned to drive. He taught me my first words of English using a Bugs Bunny comic cook. He spent a lot of time soothing the ruffled feelings of my mother, who could not understand how a country could survive without decent cheese, baguettes and pâtés.

(End of Part I)




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