I had only met Sue, the colonel’s daughter, at noontime, but we spent every hour the rest of the day together, talking about everything under the sun. She was a large-framed girl, long-legged, lanky and coltish, with lustrous black hair in a French roll, a pert nose, kissable lips, and I-dare-you eyes — and she was an unmitigated nut. I liked her a lot.
I was her guest for lunch at the NCO Club — previously and subsequently off-limits to me as a mere enlisted man — as she did a pre-event interview. I was a Private First Class in the U.S. Army, stationed just outside Paris in the days before DeGaulle kicked NATO out of France. My claim to fame was that I was a published writer. Her father was a NATO staff officer and she was a civilian employee of the library system, who wanted me to give a talk about writing.
Back at the library, she plied me with several cups of pretty good French coffee and prepared her introduction. Only five suckers initially showed up for my presentation.
Sue and her boss went through the library frog-marching innocent victims over to fill up the chairs. Then Sue threw out a couple of obviously pre-arranged questions. That was as far as she got. I opened my mouth and disengaged my brain and commenced to talk.
The chaplain’s assistant at Fontainebleu said I had a speaker’s voice that would reach any cranny of a large room. Maybe he was right, because more people began to drift over, ask questions, laugh at some of my japes. I kept talking and talking, and people laughed, people talked back. It was supposed to last half an hour but after an hour and a half I was just getting warmed up.
Coffee and sandwiches were passed around, and a copy of my novel. When the group broke up I found myself hemmed in by, I guess the word would be admirers, who wanted a personal word.
A tall, muscular, soft-spoken Negro patiently waited his turn. He had a handshake like an iron glove, a deep soft gentle voice full of the South — and a burning dream: to be a writer.
He produced a legal-size yellow tablet covered with handwriting and asked if I would read a couple of pages. Instant déjà vu: I saw me asking the same thing of two Associated Press correspondents who shared the teletype room with an introverted copy boy just out of high school and burning to be a writer. I gave my royal assent and began to read.
The words brought the Deep South alive before my eyes, right there in France. Two paragraphs were all it took for me to realize that I was an impostor pretending to be a writer.
He was Thomas Wolfe in ebony. He was James Baldwin with all of the lyricism and none of the bitterness. I could have read the entire tablet’s worth of story right there, forgetting all else; he was that good.
But I stopped after two pages, and told him that he should have been the one in front of the crowd talking about writing, not me, because he was the real deal. I told him that with his gift of language, he would be an utter fool not to pursue his dream of being a writer to the ends of the earth.
He ducked his head and acted as if he suspected me of having fun at his expense. I wanted to smack him upside the head and yell wake up! You’re a writer!