Thursday, April 20, 2006

When I was Eight, Part III

Editor’s Note: Last year I wrote a short story for my youngest son on the occasion of his eighth birthday. I’ve decided to post that story here, one chapter per day, for three days. Keep in mind the story was written for an eight year old…so the tone is quite simple!
Part Three, the final installment...posted early, coz Laurie's gonna be out of pocket tomorrow.
Chapter Three: I See England, I See France
We didn’t stay in England long. Shortly after we arrived and got settled in our house in Southfields, on the south side of the Thames River, Dad came home from work with news that he had been transferred to Paris. Mom was absolutely thrilled! Paris was a dream city to most Americans at that time, and still is for some today. And to think we were going to live there for three years!! But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
We were sort of settled in before we got the news we were going to move to Paris. I say “sort of” because our furniture and things hadn’t arrived from the USA yet. We were renting a furnished house in Southfields, and I went to school at the American Air Base at Bushy Park. I remember taking a long, long bus ride to get to school every day. I had to leave for school before my Dad left for work, and it was dark in the morning when I walked to the bus stop, and dark when I walked home in the afternoon. The best part of the bus ride was the stop for “sweets” we made every afternoon. The bus driver would pull over at a small shop and the kids would all pile out of the bus and buy candy. I got ten pence a day for candy. “Pence” is British for penny. The English money at that time was divided into pence, shillings, and pounds, and was quite confusing for us Americans. A candy bar cost two or three pence, and a bottle of coke cost another two or three pence. Ten pence went a long way!
London was a very dirty city in the early 1950s, especially in the winter. Most homes were heated with coal, and coal was a dirty fuel. There was a constant brown haze in the sky, and lots of fog…it was foggy nearly every morning, sometimes so thick that you couldn’t see across the street, and I’m NOT kidding! Our house didn’t have central heating; we had a fireplace in every room, including the bedrooms. My Mom had to learn how to light fires and keep them burning to keep the house warm. It seemed like we were always cold, and we had several small electric space heaters that we used in the bedrooms and the bathroom.
Another thing that was different about London was that there were entire city blocks that were nothing but piled up rubble left over from the bombing during World War II. London suffered terribly from the war time bombing, and even seven years after the war was over there was still much clean-up work to be done. You could see the scars of war everywhere, and the war was still very, very much in the memories of the British people. It made me sad to see so much destruction.
But, then again, London is a beautiful city. Even though we were only there for about six weeks I got to see a lot of the tourist sights. We went on sight-seeing trips every weekend, especially once we knew we were going to leave. I particularly liked the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. Seeing REAL castles was pretty exciting for a seven-year-old boy!

Tower Bridge and the Tower of London
Just as a note, do you see the large building at the lower right in the picture? That’s the Tower Hotel, and I lived in that hotel for about two weeks back in 1994 when I went to London on business for EDS. The hotel wasn’t there when I lived in London as a boy, this is a fairly recent picture. I hated that hotel, by the way, and moved out of it into a much older and better small hotel off of Oxford Street. But, that’s another story!
We left London for Paris the week before Christmas. We took the train from London to Dover, took a ferry from Dover to Calais, and then the train to Paris. The trip took all day and into the evening. We stayed in a hotel for a few days while Dad and Mom looked for a house for us to live in.
Mom and Dad found us a great three-bedroom house in Sceaux (pronounced “So”), which is about a 30 minute ride from downtown Paris on the Metro. The Metro is short for “Metropolitain,” which is the name of the Paris subway system. I really liked our house in Sceaux. We lived there for three years, and it was a really neat, cool place to live. The house was two stories tall and was surrounded with a four or five foot concrete wall that had large iron gates for the walkway and the drive way. I’m guessing at the height of the wall, all I really know is that it was taller than I was! All the windows on the house had folding steel shutters that were painted green. It was customary to lock the shutters at night and open them in the morning to let the sun in. Your neighbors always knew when you got out of bed, because the shutters would be open!
There were lots of kids in the neighborhood, mostly French kids, of course. But there was also two other American families nearby. Both the American families had boys my age. One boy was named Tommy Wallace, and he was in my class at Orly American Dependent School. The other boy’s name was Skipper Amey, and he went to an American private school in Paris. Both of those kids and I became great friends, and we had lots of adventures together. My best French friend was a boy named Christian (pronounced Kris-tee-awn) who lived across the street with his grandparents. The four of us, Christian, Tommy, and Skipper, would ride our bikes all over Sceaux and Bourg-La-Reine. We especially liked going to the park and the chateau in Sceaux. The park was large and was a great place to play.

The Chateau de Sceaux
My Mom got a job and went to work shortly after we moved to Paris. My parents decided that my sister and I needed more than a babysitter, especially since my sister was still a baby. So they hired a live-in maid who took care of the house, did the cooking, and took care of us kids. Our first maid was an older lady named Madame Grachon (pronounced “Gra-shown”), and she spoke no English, only French. My sister was just learning how to talk, and to my Mom’s horror, my sister began speaking in French, not English! My Mom would spend hours with my sister on the weekends, trying to teach her English, but my sister, being Pennington-Pig-Headed, pretty much refused to learn English. One of my most important jobs during the last year we lived in France was translating between my sister and my parents. I spoke excellent French, so well, in fact, that French people always assumed I was a French kid. Ha! The joke was on them!
I went to school at Orly Field, which was a combination U.S. Air Force base and the Paris airport. I rode a bus for over an hour to get to school, and was picked up by the bus at the front of my house. There were at least ten bus routes for the kids that went to Orly School, my bus route was called the Choisy-Le-Roi (pronounced Chwazy-lu-wah) route and wandered all over the place. There was no base housing for the military families in Paris. The lack of base housing was why there were so many bus routes…families lived all over Paris and its suburbs. The school was small, and the third, fourth and fifth graders shared a class room. There were maybe six kids in the third grade. We all had to study French, because it was required by the American military schools. My French teacher was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen and was the first love of my life. I don’t remember her name; we all called her “Mademoiselle,” or “Ma’amselle,” because she was single. Married women are called “Madame,” single women are “Mademoiselles.” I remember she broke my heart when I began the fifth grade because she had gotten married over the summer. She told me first thing that first day back at school that I had to call her “Madame” from now on. I instantly knew what that meant. It made me cry, and then she hugged me so hard. I’ll never forget that.
I was her star student. Mademoiselle went to the school principal and requested that she be allowed to have special one-on-one classes with me, and he agreed. She would take me on a “field trip” once a month to really cool places in and around Paris. We went to the Louvre (a famous museum), Versailles (a very famous chateau and park), the cathedral of Notre Dame, and various other museums and famous places, like the Eiffel Tower. I knew Paris better than my parents did, if you don’t count the bars and restaurants. Ma’amselle and I only spoke French to each other, no English was allowed during our time together. By the time we left France I spoke French as well or better than any French kid my age, and was reading French novels and magazines for fun. I can hardly speak a word of it today…if you don’t use it, you lose it.
My family took a three week vacation every summer while we lived in Paris. The first summer, when I was eight, we went to Alsace-Lorraine on the France-Germany border, crossed over into Germany and visited there, and also visited the World War I battlefields at Verdun. Our other summer vacations were to Spain (the second year), where we spent our whole time on the beach in a town called Sitches, not far from Barcelona. Our last vacation in France was spent in the towns of Nice and Cannes, where we stayed with French friends in their house on the beach in Nice.
My Dad bought two cars while we were in France. The first car was a large Citroen (pronounced Sit-tron) which I thought looked like a car a gangster would drive.

Citroen Sedan in Black
My Dad called the car “The Corporal” because of the chevron on the front grille looked like army corporal’s stripes. That car was loud, rode rough and was uncomfortable in the back seat. I didn’t like it much.

Hillman Minx
Then Dad bought a small English Hillman Minx convertible. I don’t know which was worse, the Citroen or the Hillman. The Hillman was bad because it was VERY small and had a cramped back seat. Dad always seemed to drive with the top down, unless it was pouring rain. I remember nearly freezing to death in the back of that car! But, Dad and Mom liked it a lot. We kept that car for three or four years, driving it in France, Turkey and the US. Dad finally sold it while we were living in Washington, D.C. in 1958.
And one final thing. Remember I said I was sad because we left my bike in Atlanta? Well, I got a brand-new bright red Churchill bicycle for Christmas in 1952. It was what we called an “English Bike” back then, because all American bikes had big balloon tires and very heavy, almost clunky frames. English bikes, on the other hand, had thin tires, a “racing” saddle and more than one speed. My bike was a three-speed, and I thought it was just the COOLEST thing I had ever seen! I kept that bike until I was 13 or 14.
These stories have been just a few things I remember about life when I was eight years old. There’s probably a lot more that doesn’t come to mind at the moment, and my memory about things that happened over 50 years ago isn’t all that good. But, the one thing I remember most, and the thing I tell people when I want to amaze and mystify them is this: “I went to school in the third grade in three different countries: The US, England, and France.” Not many people can say that!


  1. You posted this early just for me? You're so sweet :) I loved it! I've led such a sheltered life. I don't know if I had even been out of NY by the time I was 8. We went to Maine one year on vacation but I don't remember how old I was. What I remember about that trip was my brother and I slept in a room with bunk beds which I thought was pretty cool except they wouldn't let me be in the top bunk...and one night I went to bed with gum in my mouth and woke up with it in my hair and it had to be cut out. And my mom and I spent hours on the rocky beach looking for pieces of glass that had been tumbled smooth on the rocks. She still has our collection in a pretty vase in her bathroom.

    I took French for 2 weeks in 9th grade and decided foreign language is not for me. Only phrases I know, aside from a few words you pick up here and there (and probably not spelled right) fermez la porte, fermez la busch, and la petite sha.

    Okay, must go do some work so I can leave on time tonight. I'll make a point to say hey to MF.

  2. I love your stories. The pictures would not completely come up :( I can just see you as a little boy in France with your beautiful teacher. I laughed out loud at you translating for your sister. Did you retain your French?

    Kind of a silly coincidence, but a high school friend called today to say she wants to attend our class reunion this summer. Then she gave me her address. She is living in Chemin Du Verdon, France.

  3. I'm glad you guys liked it, and thanks for sharing your stories, too!

    I've lost my French, Lou. "Use it or lose it" really IS true. Part of my "loss" is inhibition...every noun has a gender and I can't remember most of them, and French conjugations are bizarre, to say the least. The fear of screwing up is VERY strong, and like all inhibitions, this one diminishes exponentially with alcohol intake. After that first bottle of wine is gone I can be a babbling French!



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