APRIL 30, 2012 8:00AM

The Best of Times

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QuayIt's a sad but universal fact of the human condition that we often do not fully appreciate the present until it has become the past. I use the photo accompanying this blog as my desktop background, to remind me of one of the very best weeks/best times of my life, recorded in letters to my parents while I was in the U.S. Navy aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga so very many years ago. Here's one of them.

 

14 July 1956

 

Dear Folks

 

The last three days have been a sort of star-spangled climax to my European tour.  They have been more like a vacation; for two days I laid on the Riviera, soaking up the sunlight and swimming in the glass-clear water.  But the best part of it happened like this….

 

Tom Dolan and I decided Thursday to go ashore and go swimming, just so we could say we’d been swimming on the Riviera.  Neither of us wanted to go to the “Plages Public,” where the sky is all umbrellas and the sand is all people, so we began walking up the half-moon seafront toward Nice.

 

We had seen, while bicycling, the ruins of a fort with extensions out into the water, and thought we’d stop off there.  These ruins are about halfway up the crescent, just past the cement sea wall which sweeps along most of Cannes’ waterfront.  At the end of the concrete pier, covered with flagstone, steps lead  down to a landing, evidently used at one time for small boats.  Four young guys were already there--all of them between twenty and twenty-three.

 

"Hello, boys--come on down” one called, and then began yodeling (he did it very well).  We couldn’t figure out what they were (nationalities, that is), for they spoke two different languages and English.

 

We found out that two were Germans, and two were French.  Since the French didn’t speak German, and the Germans didn’t speak French, they “conversed” in English, all of them knowing at least a little of it.  One of the Germans (the one who yodeled) spoke quite good English; his name is Guntar (Goon-tar).  The other’s German name is unspellable, but it is pronounced “YO-hah-kiem”; he looks typically Bavarian--blondish hair, blue eyes, and a fascinating way of speaking German. Tom also speaks  German, so they got on well right from the start.  The Frenchmen’s names are Marc (“Mahk”) and Michel.

 

All of them were campers--Guntar and Yohakiem hitchhiking from Munich, Germany; Michel and Marc came the same way from Paris, where both work.  Yohakiem likes Americans because “there are many American soldiers in Munich, and they fight a lot.”  Guntar was part Swiss (i.e. the yodels), and learned English from the American soldiers around Munich.

 

Marc is a bartender in Paris, and Michel works just outside Paris, though what he does I don’t know--he is the Junior Champion Skin-Diver of all France, as we soon discovered without anyone telling us. 

 

We spent the afternoon talking (many gestures; “compre?”, “understand?” and such), swimming and generally fooling around.  The water beside the landing is about twelve to twenty feet deep, and you can see every rock on the bottom.  One of Marc and Michel’s favorite games was throwing a water-filled bottle in, letting it sink to the bottom, and then diving down after it--they never missed.  Another trick was to dive down, pick up a large white rock, and walk across the bottom with it.

 

Oh, I forgot to tell you how one changes into and out of a bathing suit on the Riviera!  One carries along a towel, naturally.  When wishing to change, sometimes in the middle of the beach, one wraps the towel around one’s middle, like an apron.  The trick is in fixing it so it won’t fall off, which might prove embarrassing.  Then simply remove your pants (or skirt) and slip on the bathing suit.  Remove the towel, and Voila!  Oh, these French are clever, I tell you

 

Guntar wandered off to pick up sea shells and look for crabs (“for souvenirs”); Yohakiem, in his plastic bathing suit, slept.  Marc, Michel, Tom and I splashed around, jumping off the edge of the pier where it came out and covered the landing.  

 

Marc and Michel wore identical red-and-blue male Bikinis; I wore the old pink boxer suit I bought in Pensacola.

 

About sundown we all went to supper at a little place miles away Tom had found a couple days before.  Guntar was wearing Levi’s and cowboy boots, with a wide leather belt embellished with cows and brands.  Yohakiem  wore shorts--which made him look more Bavarian than ever--and  sandals.  Michel and Marc wore Levi’s and moccasins.  Tom and I wore sailor suits.

 

The bar--which was rather out of the way--was a small, old-ish place with large, small-paned windows.  The lady who owned the bar speaks seven languages, and was very friendly.  Actually, it is not a restaurant, but if you want something to eat, she will run out and get it.  We explained that Marc, Michel, Guntar and Yohakiem were probably on a low budget and asked her advice accordingly.  She suggested an omelet, some ham, chicken soup, and salad.  Her husband ran out and returned with a head of lettuce and some carrots, fresh from the garden.  The soup was delicious--a large bowl, with noodles.  The ham and omelet were also very good, though the omelet was a little underdone for my taste.  We also had a glass of wine and later a large bottle.  Total price for the meal and wine?  2,500 Francs ($8.00 for 6 of us.).

 

While waiting for dinner, and afterwards, everyone began doing stunts--Guntar yodeled (he is very good), Tom did the Charleston, Marc and Michel did balancing tricks with chairs (i.e. holding one’s body at a 90 degree  angle in the air while holding onto the arms of the chairs).  Guntar tried--unsuccessfully--to swallow burning matches.  He is really a natural comedian, though he doesn’t mean to be.

 

After we left the bar, we walked arm and arm down the street, singing old German war songs.

 

A grand time was had by all.

 

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please take a moment to check out his website (http://www.doriengrey.com) and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (http://bit.ly/m8CSO1 ).

 

 

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letters, navy, 1956, memoir, open call

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