(An excerpt from Hope for Misfits: A Prodigal Rides the Cycles of Addiction.)
Do Angels Drive Citróéns?
Ernest Hemingway wrote in his memoir, A Moveable Feast, that “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” While Paris was never my domicile, I spent a lot of time there as a young man, and I can attest to the truth of Hemingway’s sentiments. The sights, sounds, smells, people and experiences of Paris will always be with me.
It was easy to get there as French trains were punctual and ran about every two hours from 6:10 a.m. until 8:20 p.m. from Laon to Paris. The trip took two hours, and I always bought a round-trip ticket and tucked the return portion away in my wallet.
Getting to Paris was a problem only when I was struck with an irrepressible impulse to go there after the last train had departed from Laon. My impetuosity didn’t permit waiting a few hours for the first train the next morning. Hitchhiking was my only option.
On these foolhardy ventures, the rides I got were usually for short distances, and I never got all of the eighty miles to Paris via a single thumb. Most drivers who picked me up were going only to the next village or to their nearby homes, and I would sometimes be stranded in the middle of the night. I wore a neck scarf and a beret, which made me appear French and enhanced my chances of someone stopping. But drivers put me out prematurely once they discovered I was a drunken American.
Hitchhiking was pleasant in the summer, but winters in northeastern France are bitter and once I almost froze to death. The ill-conceived journey turned into a surreal episode, and the telling of it is clouded by my intoxicated condition at the time and by the blurring of details through the passage of time. I actually had two similar experiences, and I am uncertain of how much of one has merged with the other in my memory. But when I sat down to write about it, the saga moved from my mind to my fingers to the keyboard as follows.
The escapade began after midnight on a wintry Friday as the bars in Laon were closing. I was off until Monday morning and had francs in my pocket. I had been drinking for about six hours, but was not ready to stop. The last bus had departed for the base, and the temperature was steadily dropping. Few cars were on the road in the snow and sleet.
But I had a craving for the exhilaration of Paris that wouldn’t wait. I had to have drink and lights and girls now. To me, Paris wouldn’t be there tomorrow! Any semblance of logic was lost in my drunken mind – logic like getting a cheap room in a Laon hotel and catching an early-morning train.
I was wearing my Air Force raincoat over a long-sleeved shirt and sweater. I often wore the coat with my civilian clothes. It was good protection against the elements, had no obvious military insignia and could have passed for a London Fog. My feet were most susceptible to the wet and cold in loafers with thin, black Air Force stretch socks. I had neither hat nor gloves that night.
So, alone and out of my mind, I walked to the outskirts of town and began hitchhiking, not certain I was headed in the right direction. As I walked and sipped cognac from a flask, I lost any sense of time and place. My mind floated on ethanol into a euphoric, movie-like, eclectic river of dreams, memories, hopes, and absurdities. I was captivated in my altered state of consciousness by the jumble of images, some realistic, some ridiculous.
“I’ll have the book signing for my first novel at the library in Randleman, and then on to New York for the promotions. People will compare me to Hemingway. I wonder if the Randleman folks will give me a parade; by and large, they are not big readers, but they honor their own.
“Mom and Dad, kid Brothers Barry and Ralph…what are they doing tonight? What a happy day when we see each other again! Can’t ever let them know about my drinking. But I’m a GI now and GI’s drink a lot. I’ll change when I get home.
“Which college will I attend? Too bad I wasn’t big enough to play for the Tar Heels, but I’ll go to school there when I get home…go to Chapel Hill and become a lawyer and have a successful practice and later run for governor. Maybe I’ll even walk on to the gridiron during a practice session and show the coach my moves…who knows, I might be the next Charlie ‘Choo Choo’ Justice…
“That night I scored all those touchdowns and they carried me off the field held high on their shoulders…wish I was back home…wish I had a steady girl. Someday I’ll marry the right girl – she will love me more than anything and we will be soul mates forever.
“Maybe I’ll become a football coach instead of a lawyer…I’ll be tough like Coach Gregory…what a man! I’d like to be like him.
“The fire…the roaring campfire on the hillside in the mountains with all the boys and girls from our church youth fellowship singing ‘Kumbaya.’ Wish I could sing. Betty Jo was special to me, but she got married. But I can find another Betty Jo, one who would marry only me. Betty Jo was beautiful in her blue and white cheerleader’s uniform…
“I’ll return to Randleman as a hero, and with a French Betty Jo. They will cheer me, a decorated serviceman, like they did when I scored those touchdowns.
“Great town, my hometown…they’ll be proud of me…I want Grandpa and Grandma Hinshaw to be proud of their first grandchild…they wouldn’t understand the kind of life I’m living, but that’s now. Back home I’ll be different.
“Of course, I was an offbeat loner and rebel back home, but that’ll change…I’ll change…
“Good Air Force job…handling secret stuff is important…if only the folks back home knew how important, but wish I were a pilot. Maybe get out, go to college and come back in as a jet fighter pilot, wear my uniform home with bright, silver wings on my chest…maybe just go into the Marine Corps. instead…a tough, couldn’t-care-less man like me…go home in glorious dress blues, maybe a big funeral parade if I get killed in combat. But no war now so I’ll just go home in the Marine blues and walk down the street with a swagger that says I’m ready to fight for my country and for Randleman. But I’m not, not really. I’m not afraid, but I just don’t want to kill or hurt anybody.
“Wonder what happened to my classmates…Jimmy and Bill and Wayne and Dale and Jerry…we had an unforgettable senior trip to Washington…embarrassed that I didn’t know how to order chicken in the cafeteria line…white or dark, fried or baked…never thought about it before…maybe nobody noticed.
“I’ve never even gotten the nerve to ask for a fried egg in the chow hall because I don’t know what to say when the cook asks ‘How do you want it?’ I’ve heard other airmen say how they want theirs, but I can’t remember what they said so I just get mine scrambled because they’re already cooked.
“That’s okay, I don’t go to the chow hall much anyway…beer has a lot of nutrition and I can live mostly off of that, beer and wine…wine is good for me and, besides, Jesus drank wine.
“So much I don’t know…so many places I don’t fit…that’s par for the course for a lone wolf, though.
“I hope Mama is okay and her asthma is not bad…what a wonderful mom, the best…I am so glad she can’t see me now.
“Dang, it’s cold.”
I don’t know how much time passed as I dreamed drunk dreams, barely aware of the storm I was slogging through, hardly thinking any longer of the hedonism awaiting me in Paris.
After finishing the cognac and as the alcohol began to wear off, I became acutely aware of how cold I was. I shivered from head to foot and felt that pins were pricking my toes and feet. It occurred to me that I had not seen a car or a light for a long while, and I had no idea how far I had walked. But I was sure I had gone too far to turn back.
I realized more with each step that my situation had become critical. How could I have gotten in such a stupid mess? “How will it feel to freeze to death? Mama will never know why I died under such conditions.” I thought about the night at Le Normandy when I contemplated quitting alcohol. I wished I had. I thought about the decadent life I was living and felt remorse. “I wish I were back in my safe, warm, dry bed in the barracks.”
I began to pray, nothing fancy, mostly, “Oh God, please help me.”
Walking became increasingly strenuous. I was exhausted and weak. What a way and place to die! Thousands of American soldiers had fought and died in similar weather conditions at the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes not many miles away, but they had died with valor, fighting Nazis. My enemy was alcohol and it was about to kill me. There would be nothing glorious about freezing to death in the middle of nowhere.
“How did I get into this predicament? I wish I could talk with my mama.”
No traffic, no lights, only darkness, snow and sleet. And fear. “Help, Lord, please help me, Jesus.”
I resisted the temptation to lie down and curl up in a fetal position and warm the front of my body. I knew that I likely would never get up. I remembered the night I passed out in the cow pasture beside the road between Courvon and the back gate of the base and awakened with my head on a piece of dried cow manure. But I wasn’t freezing then or afraid.
My shoes broke though thin layers of sleet, and I could barely feel my feet.
“O God, please help me, please.
“I’m sorry, Jesus, so sorry…please help me.
“How will my obituary read? What will the Air Force investigation into my death conclude? Oh, my sweet, pitiful, loving, innocent mom…
“Please God, please….”
When I thought I couldn’t take another step, a car mysteriously appeared on my left. I had not heard a vehicle approaching or seen projected headlights ahead.
It was one of the popular French economy cars, a Citróén 2CV, a vehicle I had joked about and described as a misshapen tin can powered by a lawn mower engine. But this one was the most amazing car I had ever seen.
The passenger side door opened and I stuck my head inside. A priest nodded for me to get in. I sat down, closed the door, and thanked him. He didn’t speak. I was shaking from hypothermia. As we rode, I began to thaw and rubbed my feet until feeling came back into them. I thanked the priest repeatedly and rambled on about how I was about to freeze to death.
He looked straight ahead and didn’t respond.
I asked where he had come from, where he was going, and how he managed to drive when no one else was on the road. He didn’t answer. But it didn’t matter because I was warming up, and I was going to live.
I don’t know how long I was in his car before streetlights appeared shrouded in gray mist and lightly falling snow. We passed several dark buildings before coming to a petrol station. It had no customers, only a wrecker parked beside the well lighted, glass-walled little office.
Day was breaking when the priest stopped the Citróén and motioned for me to get out. I thanked him and he nodded his head. I had the feeling that the priest wasn’t happy about rescuing me, but he had saved my life. He was gone as quickly as he had appeared.
I cannot claim that the priest was an angel, but I will not deny it, either. Certainly, what he did for me was angelic.
I entered the gas station’s warm office where a fat man in light blue coveralls sat at a table methodically cracking and eating roasted peanuts from a big bag. I tried to explain to him what had happened, but he only grunted.
He sat in the only chair and I motioned to the floor and asked if I could sit on it. He grunted again and nodded his head. I sat, leaned against the glass wall, thanked Jesus, rubbed my feet some more, and fell over onto the floor asleep.
I awakened to a gray, overcast day, but the snow had stopped. The station attendant still sat at the table, still eating peanuts, and a pile of shells had accumulated on the floor. I smelled vin rouge but didn’t see a bottle.
My throat and chest were raw and my feet hurt, but feeling had returned to them. I stood shakily and thanked the man. He grunted and I left.
I learned that I was in Soissons, twenty-five miles from Laon. I found the train station and caught the next train to Laon, then took the next bus to the base, arriving late Saturday afternoon.
I had never so appreciated my Air Force bunk, and I slept soundly until late Sunday morning. I went to the chow hall for lunch Sunday, stopped afterward at the base exchange and bought the thick Sunday issue of the European Edition of the New York Herald Tribune. I returned to the barracks and read and slept the rest of the day. I went to work Monday morning without a hangover.
Monday I went to the airman’s club immediately after work. Over shots of vodka and fifteen-cent Heineken beer, I mused over my bewildering experience and celebrated my survival.