The first time I saw Paris–and lived to tell the tale

Christmas Eve 2012

Christmas Eve 2012

Having just returned from spending Christmas in Paris with my family, I have all-things-French on the brain and thought I’d publish a post of the first time I  saw Paris when my family moved to France in the early sixties.

There were four of us children living abroad in rural France in 1962. At twelve, Tommy was the oldest. I was next, the only girl, then Kevin, and finally Terry the youngest at eight. In September of 1962, my father, a Major in the Air Force Reserves, had been transferred along with us, his family of five, to a small tactical fighter base in western France. War-damaged and remote, the airbase that would become Chambley A.F.B.—and eventually our home—had originally been used by the Luftwaffe during German occupation in the 1940’s. It was situated twenty miles southeast of Nancy, very close to the German border, in Alsace-Lorraine. After the war, Chambley (named for the village it is nearest to) was abandoned. Its runway was considered too short and its location nonstrategic now that France and Germany were friends again (sort of). It was, however, ideal for the Americans and so, the United States Air Force set up housekeeping under NATO and began to fly its F-86 jet fighters from Chambley as our contribution to the Cold War.
When our plane landed at Orly Airport in Paris that September afternoon, I had seen enough film clips of Jackie Kennedy poised at the top of the non-motorized gangway to take a moment and strike a similar poise when I “saw Paris for the first time.” This was, of course, before the days of the equipment scooting right up to the gate. In 1962, you still had to climb down to the tarmac and walk across the runway to get to customs. It would be a little harder for a romantic child today to weave her way through the Pizza Huts and magazine stands and moving sidewalks inside Charles DeGaulle airport, past customs and baggage claim to where the Metro opens up to take her into the heart of Paris before she ever got to say “I am now on French soil!” There’s a reason the Pope doesn’t fly Coach—he’d never find an empty spot to kiss the ground upon debarking.
Paris in the sixties was, to a starry-eyed nine-year old, the perfected picture of Paris in my dreams. It even smelled different from America, or at least New York City, from where we’d just flown. I’d been practicing my French vocabulary for months, but it was pretty clear, right from the beginning, that learning and speaking a foreign language was not going to be as easy as I thought.
As soon as we landed on French soil, it was clear that we had all taken a huge step back in time. Gone were the neon signs of Rome, New York, from where we’d moved. Gone were the super highways, the outdoor movie theatres, the McDonald’s hamburger stands and early morning television cartoons. Gone also were the bright colors that had earmarked the beginning of the new decade. France was tired and gray and, more often than not, black.
Paris was Paris, however. When I saw the Eiffel Tower for the first time, I gasped as if seeing my favorite fantasy character come to life. My memory of the first time I saw Paris always has a cheesy, scratchy-record Edith Piaff song playing in the background. Absolutely magic.
Our view of the French countryside was a very different one from the countryside we’d left back home in upstate New York. Although we traveled on the equivalent of an interstate highway in France, it was, in some stretches, little more than a dirt road. The villages looked uninhabited, with dark, largely windowless stone buildings, linked together in long, uninterrupted expanses of filthy, quarried stone. The village looked less like a place where normal people lived and more like a movie set from the eighteen hundreds. It reminded me of the field trip my class had taken the month before to Jamestown where we saw how the pioneers made butter and forged their own buttons and stuff.

Me at age 10 on our first solo shopping trip to Paris with my Mother

Me at age 10 (on the window sill) on my first solo shopping trip to Paris with my mother

The clothes the villagers wore, from their ubiquitous berets to their old men’s baggy pants, were mostly ancient ebony wools. The village facades were dark with a thick patina of coal dust. The roads were unpaved, the villagers’ expressions untrusting and worn. It appeared that urinating in the street—in full view of the world—was de rigueur. Any restaurant or shop could have been easily transplanted back to the 1920s without any loss of believability in the dress, setting or food.
The fact was, from the moment I stepped foot in Ars-sur-Moselle, the remote and hilly village in Alsace-Lorraine that would be my family’s home for the coming year, it was immediately obvious that it was a fantasy world beyond my child’s dreams and expectations.
The house my father had rented for us was beautiful. I could almost hear the sigh of relief from my mother as we drove up to the crest of a long hilly street. The house was fairly large, with a bright orange Mediterranean tile roof. A wrap-around balcony gave access to each of the three bedrooms from the outside. There was a large side garden, a double garage and a full basement.
While it was true that France in the early 1960’s was a fantasy-come-true for us kids, the experience was a rather different kind for our parents. Considered the “arm pit” of France (and often even more colorfully referenced), the airbase where most dependents lived was unlovingly referred to by dependent wives as “Shambles A.F.B.” (Such a kinder, gentler time!) Chambley was too far from Paris, too small, and too much in the middle of nowhere. Plus, the French people in the area surrounding the base were not often terribly gracious with their American visitors. And although I have no doubt our hosts were usually justified in their pique, it definitely didn’t help make for Chambley being considered anything but a demotion or reprimand by the Americans who had been sent there.

My father, standing in front of our trailer on Chambley AFB. Believe it or not, officers quarters.

My father, standing in front of our trailer at Chambley AFB. Believe it or not, this was officers quarters.

There was no obvious standard of behavior for American-children-in-a-foreign-land and no visible enforcement even if we’d known what the rules were. Like the other recently shipped-in American wives and dependents, my mother was stressed out enough just trying to understand the toilets in post-war France without monitoring the movements of her four very active children. And so it happened, never to be repeated in any other time or venue, that my three brothers and I were given an unprecedented freedom. My parents’ desire to believe that no real trouble could come from such a pastoral setting combined with the anxiety of living abroad as part of a military installation—and make no mistake, there were plenty of rules for the grown-ups—allowed us children something I would never be able to offer my own child: the opportunity to roam freely and safely, and to discover the world on its own terms and in its own unique wrapping.
There is an argument to be made that this was simply a manifestation of the time we lived in. My husband, who spent his entire childhood living in one American city in the fifties and sixties, experienced much the same freedom of being able to ride his bike miles from home, or certainly over to a pal’s house, unencumbered by the need for cell phones, pagers, or having to check in with various minders. But even so, it is totally mind-blowing for me today to think that I, a dreamy-eyed nine-year old girl, frequently roamed alone for hours over a foreign landscape. Or that two little boys, aged seven and eight, with only each other as logistic or moral compasses, often did the same. (On the other hand, it’s less shocking to think of Tommy going off on his own since he was always so formidable. Tommy, like my father, had a bigger-than-life quality about him that tended to mitigate the necessity of worrying about his safety.)
I used to roam with my two younger brothers in tow for hours around Paris or Nuremburg or Berlin. Often at night since that was the time my parents were most ready for adult relaxation and socialization in the various restaurants and pubs. We spent many wonderful hours looking in shop windows, discovering alleyways and cobblestone mews, riding the buses, watching the bateau mouche go up and down the Seine. We spent most of our money at patisseries, once went to the cinema to watch largely incomprehensible (and more than somewhat rude) gibberish, lay on the grass in the beautiful city parks, and fed the thousands and thousands of pigeons the ubiquitous crumbs from the remnant pain chocolat that we were rarely without.
I remember sitting with the two of them at the back of Notre Dame Cathedral when it was cool and quiet inside and too hot and summery outside. I remember bargaining one snowy November with the sellers at the Christkindlmarkets in Nuremburg, the golden fairy lights dancing above my head on magical, invisible strings that seemed to hold the whole toy market together, and huge snow flakes falling in slow motion all around.

Our backyard in Ars. Yes. It's an open sewer. We kids practically lived in it.

Our backyard in Ars. Yes. It’s an open sewer. We kids practically lived in it.

In our new home in Ars, we children made friends quickly with the  French children and sucked up the language from the first day. (One of my mother’s favorite early anecdotes involves my youngest brother, Terry, playing tag on the day of our arrival in the village and walking up to a French kid, tapping him on the shoulder and saying: “Vous it.”)
For my older brother, an intense and brilliant (if decidedly quirky) boy of eleven, this meant a serious and determined raid on the French countryside for any and all war artifacts, or what he ominously called his “souvenirs.” Tom’s hallmark at the time was his obsessiveness. This may have been what is today diagnosed as ADD but, in those days, simply appeared to be chronically, single-mindedly bad behavior. His obsessions ruled him. Mostly, these involved aviation, guns, bombs, World War II history, and (scarily) a few imaginary friends. He was highly uncommunicative with his siblings and lived, happily, (for him and us) in a world of his own. During our time in France, Tommy quickly developed a reputation for his exploits and weapons plundering. Later in the year, when my father became Acting Commanding Officer of the airbase, Tommy’s tenacity and inability to give up his munitions raids would prove to be one of the more difficult and frustrating footnotes of my father’s rule.
Besides the lack of structure, the other important discovery we made about our new country was the fact that aside from a few inadequate attempts at farming, the main thing that had been done to the countryside in recent history was that it had been frequently and consistently bombed. This translated into a treasure hunt for adventurous American children who had been taught the value of curiosity and adventure—unlike our petites French counterparts—and to whom the fairly recent events of World War II—in all their glamour—was adventure at its zenith.
There were unexploded bombs all over the place.
Our village, Ars, was very close to the city of Metz and, historically, was an important Roman city with plenty of evidence of its Roman roots. There was a humongous great aqueduct built in the fourth century which looms over a hundred feet on the outskirts of Ars. The stone was dragged from Gravelotte, nearly twenty miles away. This aqueduct was used for centuries and is in remarkable shape for a ruin. Its construction must have been a gargantuan task performed by the Roman army and led by hydraulic engineers of the time.
Another example of the Roman occupation is seen in the great wide boulevards leading to and from the major towns of the region: Nancy, Toul, Lyons, Verdun, Reims. They’re not only wide and flat but shaded by wonderful sycamores to cool the marching Roman armies. I always thought of the soldiers, first planting the trees and then trudging beneath them, every time we sailed under their leafy branches on the way to the base.
It seemed that Metz was constantly being fought over. It was defeated in 59 BC by Julius Caesar and was one of the last Roman cities, in 451, to surrender to Attila the Hun, after which it became German. During the War of Metz in 1324, cannons were first used in Western Europe. Throughout its history it ping-ponged back and forth between France and Germany. One of the reasons for this is that Metz is in Lorraine, the only French region to share borders with three other countries: Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany. (Belgium and Luxembourg always behaved themselves, it seems.) Since its location made it a strategic asset as a crossroads of four countries, it was always switching hands. Plus, it has no less than four major rivers running though it: the Rhine, the Moselle, the Meurthe and the Meuse.
With more than 1,350,000 killed in this area in World War I and another 700,000 in World War II, there definitely should have been plenty of ghosts visiting our playgrounds at night.
Anyway, Metz was taken over by the Germans during the last world war and was important enough to serve as a Nazi stronghold full of Nazi party members, and officials. When things started to get hairy towards the end of the war, Hitler actually gave orders to hold Metz and “fight to the last man.” In order to fulfill this wish of der Fuehrer, the 17th SS panzer Grenadier Division joined the 1215th Regiment to defend the town against the obstreperous and very determined Allies. This was in November 1945. We’d taken Normandy seventeen months earlier and were painstakingly moving our way from the coast, through Paris, and on toward Berlin.
Metz sits exactly between Paris and Berlin.
On November 9, 1945, the Eighth Air Force put 1,299 planes, mostly B-17’s and B-24’s, into the task of liberating Metz. 1,233 of them reached the target zone (our new playground a mere seventeen years later) and dropped a total of 3,753 tons of 1,000 and 2,000-pound bombs. It’s no wonder we kids found so many unexploded bombs in the area. In one day, the sky literally rained upwards of five thousand of them. Most of the heavy bombers released their loads from a height of more than 20,000 feet with their targets often totally invisible through the clouds. As a result, most of the payload ended up in the fields and pastures that day with the effort marked, largely, by volume of bombing rather than accuracy. (The liberation of Metz was done by the foot soldier.)
In any case, the battle for Metz involved several skirmishes between the Nazis and the Allies which extended to the fields and vineyards surrounding Ars-sur-Moselle and environs. In fact, the route my older brother’s school bus took every day to the airbase tracked some of the most vicious fighting as it migrated from village to village…Argonne, Arnaville, Thionville, all bombed-out, shuttered near-ghosttowns in 1962, (although inhabited), were ground zero for this terrible battle as the Allies pushed to take Metz.
As recently as 1990, a tractor clearing some brush in a field outside Verdun dug up the skeleton of a German soldier, complete with dog tags and helmet. My mother remembers watching a French farmer on a tractor in 1962 carefully plow around a gigantic unexploded bomb in the middle of his field—as he had done for the preceding seventeen years. So it’s hardly surprising that a bunch of inquisitive, adventure-mad, ten-year old Baby Boomers would find war booty just seventeen years after the war.
Another interesting point about how history came alive for us was the fact that the entire area was a rabbit warren of tunnels connecting the many Nazi forts. The Germans were able to appear and disappear in order to harass the forward companies of the 379th Infantry. Later my brother Tommy would happily reopen some of these tunnels—at least the ones not crammed full of adders or snarling foxes or lynxs. (And more than a few that were.)
My maternal Grandfather fought at Verdun as a doughboy in 1917 during the First World War after the famous Battle of Verdun—waged 48 years before the last gasp at Metz at the end of World War II. Verdun is situated due west of Metz. The Battle of Verdun is considered the longest single battle in world history. It lasted from February 21, 1916 to December 19 of that same year, causing over 700,000 causalities.
Although we kids had been to Gettysburg battlefield back home, the Civil War always felt a lot like looking for Indian arrowheads—too far in the past to feel real to us. World War II was real to Boomer children. Even civilian kids were taught that the epitome of evil was Hitler. The cartoons we watched still showed goose-stepping despots as the bad guy. (Poor Germany sure took it on the chin in popular culture in America for a very long time.) To us, the war was very recent. And in 1962, living in still-war-torn France, we felt like we were right in the middle of it. Right in the middle of the stories our uncles told, right in the middle of America’s greatest triumph as the rescuing good guys. It was great to be an American in postwar France.
The above is a modified version of the first chapter of my memoir Air Force Brat.

15 thoughts on “The first time I saw Paris–and lived to tell the tale

  1. I enjoyed reading this. You really transported me to your childhood, and the pictures are fantastic (I particularly like the one of you sitting on the sill). I’m an American expat, and I often feel like a child when exploring castles, WW2 sites, Roman ruins, etc. in Europe. I can easily imagine how it must have captured your imagination. We vacationed in this area last summer, we stayed in Eguisheim outside of Colmar and drove through Metz and Verdun on our way to Reims. I swam under one of those giant Roman aqueducts in southern France (on another trip). I love how they just live amongst these amazing ruins – so different than the US.

    • Oh, I envy you being an expat in the UK! How long have you been there? Yes, I love how Brits and Europeans live with the antiquities on a day to day basis. Seems to add so much more depth and texture to the daily round IMO.

  2. There is a magic about Paris – I often think about the time I spent there. Your story sounds incredible, a wonderful experience in so many ways. I am intrigued by the extent to which ‘the war’ still intruded then – and I guess we forget that 1962 was just 17 years after the end of it, The adults of the day had lived through it, and it framed their thoughts and perceptions in ways that are probably foreign to us now.

    • Exactly. Plus, being over there where it was all fought was a singular experience for boomer kids, too, because it was ground zero. We SAW the evidence of the war everywhere. I’d be curious to see if the French countryside still had bunkers and the odd bomb lying around today. (I’m pretty sure you couldn’t find it in Germany nowadays.) I went back with my mother in 1988–twenty years after we left–and things didn’t look all that different, at least in the French villages. We went to where the USAF base was, Chambley, and everything stood exactly as it had the day the Americans pulled out. There were weeds and small trees growing out of the runways and the flight tower had a window broken out. (Looked more like weather related than vandals.) When I peeked in the base theatre–where I spent many a Saturday afternoon in the sixties–I could see unused popcorn boxes still sitting on the shelves! Amazingly, the French had just padlocked the place and walked away.

  3. What a familiar story! I enjoyed your history of the base and surrounding areas. I wish we had stayed longer and seen more. My NCO dad along with his family of four and two dogs arrived in France in May 1966. We lived in a small village outside of Chambley for several months before moving on to the base. Started my freshman year that September at Verdun, bussed daily. By the end of December 1966, we had been reassigned to Wheelus Air Base in Libya. What an adventure those three years were!!!

    • Thanks for commenting, Barb! Sounds like you and your family were at Chambley the same time we were! My father, Major John Kiernan, was acting CO of the base. (He had some great stories about how that came about, mostly having to do with the REAL CO being insane.) I’ll bet you have some great stories to tell about Wheelus in the sixties!

  4. Susan, what wonderful details! I can relate to the magic of days spent in France as my farher was stationed at Toul Rosieres. I am associated with a group of mostly GIs that were stationed there in the 60,’s on the TRAB ( Toul Rosieres Air Base) facebook page I am in the process of posting photos and telling of my memories. What lucky kids we were to have had such an experience.

  5. I was at TRAB from June 64-June 66. I remember going to dances at Chambley. I also dated Brooke Francher. Her dad was the base commander at TRAB and then Chambley.
    Your article brought back very fond memories. -Rick McKown

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