There was a best-selling novel a few years ago called “The Thirteenth Tale” in which the protagonist states that everyone mythologizes his or her childhood. I think there’s some truth to that but I have to say there was a three-year period in my childhood when I didn’t need to embellish the things that happened to me.
I was nine years old the first time my brother placed a live bomb in my hands. It was the Sixties and I was living in post-war France with my parents and three brothers. My dad was the acting commanding officer at Chambley Air Force Base, an American air base situated in Alsace-Lorraine that had originally been used by the Luftwaffe during the German occupation.
Chambley was war-damaged and geographically remote (basically, it was no where near Paris) but after the war it was deemed ideal for the purposes of the United States Air Force who, under NATO, flew its F-86 jet fighters from there during the Cold War.
The unexploded bombs my brothers and I found—and we found dozens during the year we lived in France—were the result of an Allied bombardment in November 1945 when the 8th Air Force dropped 3,753 tons of bombs in our backyard in one day… resulting in the ultimate scavenger hunt 20 years later for four Boomer kids.
A few other memories in my scrapbook from the time include:
- The fact that I attended the girls-only village convent school—built in the 1300’s—which had no toilets but a very nice straw-filled outdoor stall.
- My first kiss which I got from a French boy (named Laurent) in a stone washhouse built by the Romans in 300 AD.
- Being shot at by an angry French farmer who patrolled his vineyards in an effort to keep out pests (i.e, wily American kids)
- Playing a game in the hills with my French pals that involved teasing wild boars with rocks and sticks until they chased you intent on ripping you to bloody pieces. (Fun!)
I once tripped over a dead body in a snake-infested World War II bunker that my brother and I discovered and were trying to fix up for a clubhouse. (The Mouseketeers was real big back then.) It was a skeleton, wearing a molding German uniform. (Showing an early entrepreneurial streak, my brother tacked up a sign at the entrance to the bunker to sell tours to the local French kids—”Ten francs to see the dead kraut.”)
When my father was later transferred to Germany, I had a full-scale castle in my backyard—built in the 1200’s—complete with dungeons, stone balconies and crenulated towers—that my brothers and I played in almost every day of the two years that we lived there.
We moved back to the States when I was 12 at which point I began a fairly conventional adolescence, but I’ll always be grateful that there was a time in my childhood when I was not only allowed to discover the world on my own terms but was able to experience history and true adventure as a part of my daily round.