Sunday, December 20, 2015
Christmas in Paris
The last Christmas we spent in France before coming to America was a somber affair. My two sisters, almost grown up by now, would not be going with us. One was attending school in London, and the other, though still in her early teens, was already establishing herself as a mainstay composer at the Paris Conservatory. I would not see them again for several years.
My parents decided to have a party, what the French call a reveillon, both to celebrate the holiday and say goodbye to friends. One guest, I forget who, foolishly gave me and another kid, Eric, spud guns. An error, that.
Spud guns were the silly present of a silly year. Basically, they were compressed air bb pistols that shot little bullets of potato, carrot, radish, or any other available hard tuber.
Eric and I were delighted. In no time at all we wreaked havoc, first by shooting at the lightbulbs that, when hit, hissed and emitted the smell of freshly-made mashed potatoes, and then, ever more adventurous, by deciding to go after live game.
The guns weren’t accurate at a more than six feet but even at that distance, getting hit felt like a bee sting.
There was one large woman both Eric and I disliked, a regular at my mother’s afternoon bridge parties who always talked down to us as if we were mental midgets. My parents, I knew, didn’t much like her either. She was one of those people you invite based on the notion that the best place for a pyromaniac is the firehouse. That way, at least, you can limit the damage. This woman, I knew from my parents’ conversations, was a malicious gossip and deserved wounding by rootstock.
She was juggling a well-filled plate of hors d’oeuvres and a flute of champagne when we each took aim at a selected buttock. We had both pumped our guns for maximum velocity and the organic missiles struck her as she was cramming a petit-four into her largish mouth. She roared. The champagne went flying and she dropped the hors-d’oeuvres. She spewed bits of half-chewed petit-four, spun around, and saw Eric and me cowering behind a fauteuil. The room was a frozen tableau. Eric was trying desperately to reload his gun. Another mistake, that. She seized him by the neck, slapped him twice hard and then dropped him like a sack of coal. This prompted Eric’s father to grab her around the waist, which she took as an attack from another quarter. She turned on him and bashed his ear with a ring-studded fist. Somebody screamed; somebody laughed. My father stepped in, ducked a blow and got her in a bear hug. He dragged her away as Eric’s father used one of my mom’s linen napkins to staunch the blood flowing from his cut ear.
Both guns were confiscated and destroyed. Eric and I were sent to my room in tears and told that the Père Noël would be taking back any gift he might have left for us.
The Père Noël must have thought better of the punishment. I don’t know what Eric got, but I received a handsome child’s suitcase in which I packed some belongings for the weeklong boat trip to America.
In retrospect, the attack was worth it. Though they would never say so openly, I knew my parents secretly approved. The potato gun tale was told and embellished every Christmas for decades, and probably had something to do with my present thoughts on gun control. Guns don’t kill people, but tubers can hurt.