How I Helped Win World War Two

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


All of a sudden, that road was flooded by a long column of trucks overflowing with big, loud, laughing men in distinctive uniforms. People were shouting greetings and waving flags. It seems that an American soldier jumped off his vehicle, swept me up into his arms and kissed me on both cheeks. That may have been because my mother, who had wanted her second child to be a daughter, processed my long blond hair into Goldilock-style ringlets. That I am straight today is a testimony to the resiliency of genetic programming. My mother always insisted the kissing soldier was black. On the one hand, she may have made up this detail for colorful effect. On the other hand, there were so many trucks the soldiers may have belonged to a transport unit and hence, probably to a black unit in the segregated Army of the day.

It was August 1944. I was two and my family lived in a (nice) city project right on the periphery of Paris, near one of its main access roads. One thing that bothers me about this visual and auditory recollection is that we lived on the east side of Paris. American soldiers should have been arriving from Normandy, in the west. Yet, the memory is clear.

Before the American forces reached Paris, my mother had sewn a makeshift tricolor French flag. The blue came from my father’s old military service flannel sash (a forgotten and now incomprehensible item of clothing). The red came from a Nazi flag my father had stolen from a German general’s car he was supposed to guard. (The Germans were packing up at the time and very nervous. He might have been shot on the spot if he had been caught.) At a loss for white, my mother made the center piece out of one of my diapers. That’s why I have always felt I played a part, although a small one, in the liberation of Paris, a symbolically important phase of WWII.

I was born and conceived during the Nazi Occupation of France when life was tough and entertainment scarce. My father was a Paris cop. His life was not so tough, however, that he did not have the energy to make my mother pregnant one more time before the Liberation, this time with twins. There was little to eat and milk was rationed so, my mother breastfed me for the longest time. I was precocious. At one point, I think I was able to ask for the breast in grammatically perfect French. It must have been embarrassing for her. Or perhaps I made this up on the basis of bits and pieces I picked up while I was growing up, like some of the other early recollections in these truncated memoirs. They stop at age 21 when I moved to the US for good. I made that choice because I think the second part of my life would be less  interesting to an American readership than the first, the preparatory phase, so to speak.

I  described above my first, full, cinematographic memory. From the days before the Liberation, I remember bit and pieces, like still photographs with some sound, glimpses of German uniforms and the vast, beautiful fire of the Paris general mills, a mile away, set by the US Army Air Corps. It’s a little known fact that the Allies bombed the hell out of France right before and during the Normandy landing. The French never complained much; they were different then, and too sick of the German presence to bitch about collateral damage. When the air raid siren sounded, my mother would wrap me up in a blanket and take me down to the basement of our seven-story apartment house. Some tenants were so jaded by then that they did not bother to take shelter. The basement was a crowded but not especially tragic place.

In spite of this dramatic, first, fully formed memory, nothing really important ever happened to me. I have escaped the Chinese curse, of “living in interesting times,” although I did live in fact in quite interesting times. I waltzed through the murderous second half of the twentieth century with hardly a scratch to show for it. All my life, I have been mostly fortunate. The undeserved lucky breaks more than made up for the few unjustified blows fate has dealt me. The luckiest break was my first coming to the US at eighteen, a prelude to immigration three years later. In this country, no one ever oppressed me successfully though a few tried.  Many gave me a push at just the right moment. Mine is a happy story. This makes it worth telling to the largely glum denizens of the twenty-first century.

I live in the sunny, warm climate I longed for as a child, near the sea I always loved, in a small town rich with the small pleasures I have always appreciated: a variety of movies, a good café in an interesting, animated downtown, several bookstores within easy reach, and young people everywhere. My wife is a talented painter whose work I enjoy so much I don’t ever like her to sell it. She has few obligations, and she has not had many for  quite a while. That’s what keeps her beautiful, I think. She is also an immigrant, from the other side of the world from me, yet we see eye-to-eye on most matters. Nevertheless, we each have our own house, feet apart, each gracious in its own way. Although, it’s in the center of town, our tiny plot contains an apple tree, a plum tree, two lemon trees, and a big fig tree. All bear fruits, especially the fig tree, a sort of miracle I never fully grasp, for reasons that will become clear below.

I am a retired university professor and scholar, fairly proud of my scholarship, happy to have been a professor and equally happy to not be one anymore. Most mornings, weather permitting (it permits often, here in California), after the gym and after coffee at Lulu’s, I am forced to decide whether I want to go sailing, or fishing, or just putter about my boat, or start one of my sometimes fairly good postcard paintings, or again, write a micro-story. Sometimes, I just simply spend the whole day reading, for no particular reason and to no particular purpose. I read much history but also almost anything anyone hands me. That would include a fair amount of trash. You guessed it: I am a satisfied lazy man.

The pages below tell the tale of the unlikely beginnings of the journey that brought me to my current state of beatific smugness.

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