by Willie Lagarde
After spending almost five years at sea aboard USS Yorktown CV 10 and several merchant ships I finally had the opportunity to bid for a mates job on a European bound vessel. While the Navy experience afforded many memorable moments so did the time I spent aboard merchant ships; here’s one of them. This one’s for you Em. We’ll always have Paris. Sound familiar.
My ship for this trip was an EC2-S-C1 Liberty ship, one of over two thousand built during and for WW2. She was 455' long, could carry up to 10000 tons of cargo, had a top speed of twelve knots and thirty six men normally in the crew. I was the third mate; my watch was 8-12 morning and night, and like similar freighter crews had two able bodied and one ordinary seaman on my watch. Normally during the day the two AB’s split the steering two hours each and when not on the wheel all three worked on deck under the supervision of the ship’s bos’un. At night, usually the three men divided the four hour watch into one hour and twenty minute segments, spending a segment each on the wheel, lookout and standby.
Since USCG regulations decreed there must be a mate on the ship at all times; when we were in foreign ports and wanted to stay ashore longer than eight hours one of the other two mates would have to agree to cover. Such was the case in Antwerp Belgium where we arrived with a cargo of wheat and were on the hook (anchor) waiting for dock space. We had loaded at a grain elevator a hundred miles up the Mississippi river a month before. Our voyage had started with passage down the river into the Gulf of Mexico, around the Florida keys then followed the Gulf stream, often in sight of land until taking departure from Florida and the US east coast at Jupiter light then proceeded on to the north Atlantic.
It was a typical crossing for a tramp freighter; stopping among the fishing boats on the Grand Banks to trade cigarettes and magazines for the only thing they had to offer. Fresh fish was a welcome addition to our mess but as much as anything else it was an act of brotherhood and good will among men who made their living and spent their lives on the sea. Some of these men, from as far away as Portugal, had been at sea for many weeks aboard their sailing schooners and wouldn’t go home until their holds were full of salted cod.
Now in port with time on our hands a shipmate and I decided to check out and spend the night in Paris about 200 miles and four hours away by train. The second mate, a much older man and veteran sailor of many years was never interested in going ashore anywhere and was agreeable to cover for me anytime I asked. The shipmate, actually one of the AB’s on my watch, and I arrived in early afternoon and set about the usual quest of seamen everywhere; female companionship during the day and bunk mates for the night.
We approached two women at a side walk cafe both of whom were attractive even if our judgment hadn’t been conditioned by long lonely days and nights at sea. One was blonde who said she was from Czechoslovakia and the other, with almost jet black hair, told us she was from Corsica. Both were reasonably well dressed in the styles of the times and I didn’t suspect they were ladies of the evening because initially they showed no interest in us. They told us they had come to Paris to work as domestics but later found employment in the entertainment and theatrical business though not as performers.
As would all men knowledgeable about such things, we let the women decide the pairing. Never mind your preference, don’t complicate matters. We weren’t looking for wives. The blonde apparently preferred my shipmate so I wound up with the brunette who seemed not very interested in either of us. She wouldn’t have been my choice, but I would find out later she was quite a woman. The blonde was the more talkative of the two and spoke some English along with French. The brunette spoke French and only a few halting words in English but very little of either to us. I never told them I understood some French. It was an advantage if women were unaware you understood what they were saying to each other; sometimes about you and whatever their intentions may be. Because of her accent I suspected the blonde was probably German and a DP (displaced person). The war had been over only about three years and because anti-German sentiment was still strong among most Europeans she may have considered it best not to reveal her nationality.
We later moved to a bar and after drink or two I had begun to ignore the brunette and her taciturn attitude speaking only to the blonde. At one point she stopped me, “you’re a rebel aren’t you.” Of course she was referring to men from the southern US. She had obviously been in the company of American servicemen and could distinguish men with southern accents. During WW2 these men were often referred to as rebels. Going along with it I asked, “how can you tell?” “You speak slower” she said. The brunette suddenly perked up and asked the blonde in French what we were talking about. All I caught of her reply was something like, “il se battre des etats unis”.Meaning he fought against the United States never explaining it was almost a hundred years before. With that the brunette hugged me and said,“oh mon cher garçon viennent à moi”. She pulled my head to her bosom and I can’t say if it was the softness there or the fragrance of her perfume but the erectile tissues began to stir a tad. She obviously thought I was actively engaged in some kind of anti US rebellion at the time. It was an eye opener for me; no matter we had liberated most of Europe, there was still anti-American sentiment among some Europeans. It supported my suspicion the blonde may have been German and perhaps a bit of that sentiment bonded the two women. Was I going to straighten her out; no way, I wanted to see what else she had to offer rebels. After the two couples separated later in the evening we found lodging for the night nearby. Suffice it say, it was the most exciting night I ever spent in Paris. It was the only night I ever spent there but so what, I can’t imagine anything better. Truly a night to remember.. At breakfast she suggested she order and pay the bills (using my money) because it would be cheaper for me. She was right, and in spite of whatever opinion she had about my country I began to feel attracted to her for more than just favors granted. I would have loved to learn more of her life story. What were the experiences that turned her against us? Conversation was difficult with language a definite barrier. I estimated xxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx (real name) from Corsica to be about twenty eight. I was twenty two. She wouldn't accept the twenty dollars (like two hundred today) I tried to give her and gave me her address in Paris and one in Corsica. I never wrote but I never forgot her. Parting at the train station one would have though we were lifetime lovers. As you read this story, somewhere in a Corsican village, olive grove or sheep pasture there may be an old woman in her mid nineties or beyond, recalling the night she spent with a young rebel in Paris many years ago and wondering if he is alive as I sometimes wonder about her. C’est la vie mes amis; long, long ago.
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