Snowing A Little In Paris

Bill Burkett
33 min readNov 5, 2023
three GIs in Paris. Christmas 1965.

The horrors reported out of Israel last month are almost beyond comprehension. News from around the world as Israel strikes back covers the gamut, from apologists for baby-killers and woman abusers to grim satisfaction at the butcher bill inflicted by Israel in retaliation. Each of us I suppose has an individual take on Holy Land wars.

As a young man studying history I always liked the story of Saladin gifting Richard the Lion-Hearted an Arabian stallion as a show of respect for a gallant opponent. That was during the Crusader Wars.

When my school class was assigned to write about the Allies turning Israel over to the Jews after Hitler's genocide, displacing Arabs, I took the Arabs’ side. Let ’em have Germany was my argument; they deserved each other. In due course of time I found myself in Germany during the Cold War. And developed a personal, intimate connection to Israel.

A story I wrote about it:

&&&&&&

New Year’s Eve that year, one of the Headquarters Detachment MPs went berserk coming off duty and shot up the arms room.

We already had our first call but were still lying in our bunks trying to decide to get up. We each had a top sheet and two scratchy wool Army blankets, and we always laid our big OD parkas with the button-in liner over the top of that. We were warm and snug that way, even when the idiot German furnace keeper banked the fires at midnight. After he did that, it was almost as cold inside as it was outside by reveille. We were too warm inside our little cocoons to worry about what it was that vibrated up through the building to our third-floor squad room in little thudding shocks, like doors being slammed far off.

When he broke outside down below and ran off toward the woods screaming, we knew what it was, all right. He let off his last couple .45 rounds out there, flat pops that didn’t sound anything like guns do on TV.

We still didn’t get up to look. It wasn’t our concern. We didn’t stir at all until we had to get up or miss guard mount. Then we got into as many layers of clothes as we could put on under our fatigues. By then it was light enough to see the ice lying in wide, ragged patches in the fields over toward the German village where the puddles had been in November.

We got quick breakfast in the first-floor mess hall and then got our rifles and magazines out of the basement arms room. Headquarters CID men in civvies were interviewing the armorer. They stopped talking until we were gone. After guard mount, we loaded onto the three-quarter-ton squad truck. Somebody said it was Trotta who had gone off the deep end. They caught him over near the railhead with a fresh clip in his pistol, trying to get up the guts to eat the barrel. He had been shipped straight down to a rubber room in Landstuhl Medical Center before we even finished eating.

We picked up our mail to read on the way out to the exclusion area. I had one letter. It had a Paris postmark. My heart began to bump hard. Her handwriting flowed across the page like music from a desert flute. Some of the words defeated me. She begged forgiveness for her clumsiness in attempting to write in an alien language, which she spoke much better:

“It’s snowing a little in Paris and it’s very cold outside. Me too. I have the impression I am snowing in my heart and is cold. Thanks thou for been a little fire comes from far away just thank you for been existed for me…”

By the time we got out to the main missile-storage bunkers it was snowing again in Germany. B. Walter and I were the BAF (Backup Alert Force) this guard-trick. We got into the break shack and huddled the stove quick. The ride out always felt like it emptied your veins of heat and put ice back in, just the quick couple miles over the rutted road through the snowy evergreens. But BAF was gravy duty, where you hugged the stove and listened to Armed Forces Network on the radio or maybe read the worn paperbacks.

You never slept on BAF, because that was asking for it. Some guy on Ten would slip on that icy catwalk up there and bust a leg on the loading apron, and you’d be up there for the rest of his trick.

Most of us didn’t talk much either. B. Walter was the exception. Even the cold didn’t faze him. He was born and raised in Blue Norther country anyway. He looked like a Bavarian school boy, apple cheeks and all, if they made Bavarian schoolboys six feet plus and two-thirty.

“Poor Trotta,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “You knew him, didn’t you?”

“We were drinking buddies.” He shrugged. “He went to Georgia Tech. Had a broad there, and all. They were going to get married when he finished his military. But he got a Dear John. Who don’t?” When B. Walter smiled, his button eyes vanished in fatty wrinkles beneath his shock of yellow hair. “He wanted to do his military first. Get it over. He was Regular Army. RA all the way.”

“Sometimes,” I said, “it takes the RAs harder, this duty.” A gust of wind drove snow against the shack’s dingy windows. I listened to the guttering song of the little stove. But my mind was on Paris…

The cold in Paris a week ago had been a still, quiet cold. The rain slipped through the streetlights with hardly a sound, trying to turn to sleet. The holiday crowds provided all the noise — the laughing, toy-horn tooting crowds — and the bleating horns of the traffic. The evening before Christmas Eve was the first time I saw Paris.

I was sitting next to Goldman in his beat-up ’50 Volks when I saw the Eiffel Tower, framed between two banks of roofs down a twisting market street. Morgenstein and Novak crowded forward from the back seat to see, too. For me at least the sight evoked a powerful emotion, akin to coming home…

“I’m going to Paris today,” B. Walter said to me suddenly. “Soon as this shift is over. Want to come? We’ll share expenses.”

“I can’t,” I said. “I’ve already had my three-day holiday pass. I went Christmas. I’ve got the duty New Year’s.”

“You should have been here Christmas,” B. Walter said. “Fisher told us all to bring our canteens to the arms room when we came to get our guns, and to only fill ’em half-full. You should have seen us. We’d turn over our weapons card and Baker would go get our rifle while Fisher took care of the canteens. He had a big kitchen funnel, and he had some bottles of I.W. Harper hid in the rocket-launcher tubes.”

“Why that specific brand?” I asked.

“Fisher says I.W. Harper bottles are the exactly correct caliber for the tubes.” B. Walter smiled happily. “He kept pouring and then swigging until he used it all, and he musta drunk about half of it straight down, but we all got plenty in our canteens. That was the easiest shift I ever pulled. We got to singing Jingle Bells about midnight. We really sang it, too. Some lights went on over in town. Then they went back off. We must have scared hell out of ’em. ‘Specially when Ricio started trying to shoot down Santa Claus. Two full mags.”

“They do anything to Ricio?” I asked him.

“Uh-uh. He didn’t hit anything, so they just charged it off to disposing of surplus ammo. We had him going, though. Told him they were going to dock his pay a dollar a round. You should have been here.”

“No,” I said. “I should have been right where I was. And I should be there right now. I should never have left.”

“Then why did you?”

“I would have been AWOL if I’d stayed,” I said.

He shrugged. “You’re a damn draftee. This more important to you than anything?”

“It’s not that.” There was no point in using a word like duty with B. Walter. I’d just get the horselaugh. “But she agreed I had to come back. Because I always do what I’m supposed to do.”

“She, huh?” He grinned. “So that’s why you ain’t been over at the club. Got you something going in Paris, huh?”

“No,” I said. “I did have. But not now. Not ever again.”

The pack-phone jangled. B. Walter picked it up, listened, said Yeah and then Yessir and hung up.

“Got a couple loads up at the gate for open storage,” he said. “We gotta ride shotgun.”

We dropped heavy magazines loaded with twenty rounds apiece of 7.62 NATO into each of our parka pockets, and slung our rifles behind our shoulders, muzzle down. Then we put on our pile caps. They made us look like a cross between Admiral Perry and Sergeant Preston of the Northwest Mounted. We went out into the stinging, blowing brightness of the day.

There were two big Diesel semi-tractors hitched to long flatbed rigs, each with a solid, lumpy cargo roped under frozen olive-drab canvas.

It might have been some sort of industrial machinery, but it wasn’t. There was enough stuff tarped down to make a good size city into radioactive history in a hurry.

There was enough in the exclusion area, where we were going to store these two trailers, to do the same for most of Russia. That was why we stood such ungodly guard tricks and couldn’t all go on pass the same weekend. There always had to be a certain strength present. It was all a charade to us, because we read the newspapers about vanishing documents in Washington, and moles in the Pentagon and out at Langley, and we knew that nothing we did here was a secret to the other side.

We also knew we were right on the crosshairs of somebody’s shit list, if war came. If the other side came at us conventionally, Blitzkrieg-fashion, like in the old days, we had to hold the perimeter until the EOD boys blew the stuff in the bunkers. Not the big blow, but big enough to ruin the nuclear components for anybody else. The modern-day equivalent of spiking the cannon.

EOD wouldn’t blow up all that taxpayers’ money until we were engaged, and getting hell kicked out of us. Right then, we were way more scared of hordes of Soviet tanks waiting on the other side of the famous Fulda Gap than we were of nukes. If the other side started throwing the big stuff, we’d start too, and it would be curtains back in the States and everywhere. We figured we knew the people across the barbed wire better than that. They weren’t that crazy.

The First Air Cav had just gone into Nam then, and anybody who had studied the least amount about how armies function in the field when the politics behind them is shaky could have told you the way it would go from then on. The thing that a commander in the field must be able to expect, to know that he is fighting the good fight, are troops and more troops, and still more troops. You need a lot to fight guerrillas anyway, and you want lots more, to bolster morale and your own feeling that you’ve got standing.

We all figured in those days that if anybody on the other side wanted to keep that old schedule of Khrushchev’s of putting a Red Star on the White House by 1980, now was the time. We knew what was going on in Korea before the public knew. We fully expected that to turn hot, a second Korean War. Then some organized riots in Germany to sow confusion, the spearhead thrust of Russian armor, and it would be our turn in the barrel.

We got weekly training sessions and situation reports. I had learned all these things and knew them quite clearly by the time I had been humping a fence for six months. We simply didn’t have enough bodies to stall the divisions the other side had under arms. We were in the business of keeping them honest by just being here.

Until the worst happened, nothing much was going to happen at all, and a graveyard shift in the snow was a very good place to get acquainted with the insides of your skull. You practiced meditation or something like it, or sang to yourself, or dreamed of hot repeated sex — anything to keep from getting too deep inside yourself. I had duck hunting to fall back on. I could remember every duck I had ever killed over decoys, or missed, in one long shift, and how I rigged the decoys for different winds. If you didn’t have something extra, it could finally get to you, like it had Trotta.

B. Walter and I went through a little personnel gate in the storm fencing, and followed the drivers outside to their rigs. They were both runty, like a lot of Transportation people, and we loomed over them in our parkas like pregnant walruses with rifles. Our boots crunched in the fresh snow. It fell and clung, to our shoulders, to the trucks, on the cold metal parts of our rifles.

B. Walter’s driver was cussing this damn fool security rigmarole as they mounted up. B. Walter was grinning mean. Too bad for the ill-tempered truck jockey; B. Walter would scare the crap out of him before they returned to the gate. I climbed up beside my man and the big Diesel snorted. The Diesel reminded me of the way Greyhound buses sound, and how there was always a rest stop in Waycross, Georgia, when we took the bus up to visit Mama’s friends. It was hard for me to comprehend that Waycross, Georgia and Paris were really on the same planet.

“Where you going?” I asked my driver.

“Over by Bunker 73,” he said.

“Okay, follow them and I’ll tell you where to turn off.”

“Left or right?”

“Left. Your first left.”

“All right.”

He shifted up a gear or two, and let her roll. Number 73 was in the Annex, all the way around. He wasn’t very talkative, and I was glad. Paris was filling me up again, almost to choking…

I remembered sitting in a third class Metro coach, submerged in the stink of unwashed bodies and Caporals; my old civilian topcoat and fedora, that I wore as a newspaper reporter before I was drafted, blended in and made me just part of the scenery. It felt surreal, carrying the passwords for the exclusion area in my head. I was author of the December/January list. Christmas Eve’s sign and countersign was Lemon/Sunset. I figured it was a good thing telepaths — mind readers — were just something I wrote about in my science-fiction stories before I was drafted and not somebody who rode the Metro in real life.

Goldman took charge of our little band in Paris and designated the morning of Christmas Eve for sightseeing. The four of us left our Montparnasse hotel in a mad rush that I found silly: Goldman and his Instamatic, Morgenstein and his Leica, Novak and his Polaroid. They thought I was crazy without a camera. It started raining right after we left the hotel. We covered La Tour Eiffel, Notre Dame and L’Arc De Triomphe in a steady drizzle. It was like Parcheesi with cameras.

The muddy, crowded carnival of Pigalle seemed a brave, pathetic, hopeful tourist trap to me. I liked it a lot, because I grew up around Florida tourist traps. As early dusk came down, and all the Pigalle lights began to sparkle, the four of us window-shopped the prostitutes, who were too thinly clad for the damp miserable weather.

It was a smorgasbord of every hair color and skin tone and feminine shape in the world, all huddling under awnings and doorways in flimsy, revealing attire. It was so casual and open and accepted that I couldn’t help gawking. For all my supposed Florida worldliness and published author status, I was a 22-year-old virgin and ashamed of it. I intended to do something about it Christmas Eve.

I eagerly waited for my more experienced companions to take the lead in negotiations, but they never approached a single woman. Gradually I began to suspect that they were not as seasoned as their squad-room bravado had suggested.

Aching with frustrated lust, I wanted to go in and see one of the sex shows that lined the street, advertised by bright signs and promoted by sideshow hustlers who reminded me of carnival barkers, trying to pull pedestrians inside. I told my companions that I wanted to prove to myself it was all a hoax, and nothing sexual really would happen on stage.

But my secret, sweaty hopes were just the opposite: maybe Pigalle would be as depraved as Havana had been, back when Florida boys routinely took the ferry over for their rites of puberty and came back swaggering and full of salacious stories. Before I could figure a way to escape my grandparents’ surveillance and make my own pilgrimage, that damn failed ballplayer took over and went Commie.

Admission to the shows required purchase of an over-priced bottle of cheap champagne to sit at a stage-side table. The others refused to share the cost of a bottle. I didn’t have the finances or the nerve to go it alone, so I never found out whether those shows were rip-offs or real.

Next, I wanted to get in one of those sidewalk boxing rings on Pigalle, featuring club fighters who promised you 500 francs if you could stay in there with them for two minutes. Deux minute. Work off some of my frustration that way and earn enough money to brave the fleshpots alone.

My companions literally dragged me away. I had my hands on the ropes and one foot on the edge of the canvas when Goldman clamped me in a damn Military Police come-along hold and marched me off, surrounded by the other two.

I don’t know what they were afraid of. I knew how to handle my fists and take a punch, if I didn’t know the first thing about getting laid. I felt like using my fists on Goldman when he finally let me go. But I didn’t. I just sulked, remembering one of my favorite novels of all time, Lasso Round the Moon by a Norwegian, Agnar Mykle.

The author famously said that for every Norwegian trying to have an adventure, there was another Norwegian running after him to keep him from it — always for his own good. I thought sourly that for all his time spent on kibbutzes in the Middle East, Goldman would have made a pretty good Norwegian of the second type, because I had been hoping for a memorable Paris adventure.

When my companions began to debate the relative merits of Mary Poppins and Thunderball, both opening that night in theaters on the Champs, I couldn’t believe my ears. You could watch first-run movies on post back in Germany, for crying out loud. I told them that I would see them back at the hotel, and struck out on my own.

I had almost left it too late. Most of the whores had been swept off the streets by the weather, and the remainder looked like they were getting ready to call it a night. The one I finally approached had a little transparent dome umbrella to protect her hairdo, and had picked up one of those little string shopping bags bulging with loaves of bread, tangerines and a bottle of wine, knocking off for the night. She walked like her feet hurt in those high heels.

She wore a sleek dark sheath dress that showed off her nice legs, but her attire was more conservative than the flimsies I had noted earlier. The way she cocked her head at me, unsmiling, when I said “Combien?” gave me an ugly turn; maybe I had picked on a civilian, headed home from work.

Then she sort of shrugged and sighed, and named her price.

Twenty francs. Still thinking in marks, I thought that was five bucks, and I had five bucks. But at five francs to the dollar, it was actually less. She led me down Pigalle to one of those hour-rate hotels, where I forked over another ten francs — highway robbery! — to the concierge for a room key and fresh towels.

The great mystery finally was about to unfold.

What a letdown. She folded her plastic bumbershoot and slithered out of that sheath in less time that it takes to say it, shucked her bra and knelt before me before I had my buckle undone. With the efficiency of a nurse, she unzipped and inspected me, a literal short-arm inspection, efficient as an Army medic.

When I passed muster, she gestured for me to disrobe and betook herself to the little bidet that every French hotel room had. She got the water running, lathered up a wash cloth, and wriggled out of her panties, demonstrating by sign language that she was cleaning up just for me — and then beckoned me over for a wash. Her hands were gentle and the water was warm.

It was the first time a woman had ever had her hands on my nether parts — a naked, good-looking woman at that. My brain couldn’t seem to catch up with my body, which responded with alacrity to her touch. Before I knew it she had patted me dry, led me to the bed, pushed me back and straddled me, and inserted tab A in slot B. Then she was off to the races, jiggling and jockeying me into the final turn…

I crossed the finish line in a blaze of sudden heat from my groin. She made what I supposed she thought were obligatory sounds of gasping ardor and slumped down on me. I felt a deep and unreasoning sadness rise like a dark tide. Was that all there was to the grand mystery?

She only lay there for a moment before levering herself erect, panting slightly from her exertions, and betook herself back to the bidet, posing fetchingly with one leg up on the appliance to glance back at me.

Her eyes widened almost comically. She stepped down and came back and took hold. “Encore?” she inquired. “Maintenant?”

I just shook my head. “Non, merci.” The flesh was willing but my saddened heart wasn’t in it.

“C’est c’a,” she said, or something like that, and was washed and dressed and gone before I sat up.

I walked the nearly vacant streets in the bitter wind for a good long while, numbing myself thoroughly, before I finally wandered back to the hotel where the four of us had taken rooms.

“We thought you got mugged,” Morgenstein mumbled when I came into the room we shared.

“Not quite,” I said. But he was already asleep again.

I slept in Christmas day, refusing their urgings for another round of tourism. From time to time I would hear high heels clicking up the stairs outside my room accompanied by a heavy male tread; giggles, male murmurs. It appeared our hotel did a booming daytime business of the hot sheet variety, even on Christmas Day.

When hunger finally drove me out into the weather after noontime, I purchased a fresh loaf of bread from one of the storefront bakeries and a bag of tangerines from another shop, ate while I walked, then sat in a sidewalk café for coffee. I felt grungy and cynical and oh so Continental, and looked at every woman with fresh speculative eyes. My thoughts turned again to Agnar Mykle. The evocative translation of love scenes in his novel was so vivid that I thought they could serve as a guide for making love to a woman, now that I understood the basic mechanics of the thing.

Drinking coffee and watching the lovely ladies of Paris, bundled in their winter coats, faces bright in the cold, I realized that going to a prostitute was to actual lovemaking what target practice was to shooting live game. I wished I had time remaining in that magical city for a hunting trip.

It was growing dark and getting colder when I almost literally stumbled across the USO on the Champs. When I walked inside, it was like America had closed around me. I purchased some picture postcards at a kiosk and sat down to get the obligatory notes home done before I went back to my hotel.

They were having some kind of dance there. To my newly sensitized state, it was awful. The French girls were lovely and animated, dressed to kill, radiating sensuality. But the American soldiers left them sitting all alone and acted like it was their first junior-high formal, clustered together and laughing like teenagers. I thought that later they’d go spend a mille for a blow-job or twenty francs for a screw up in Pigalle. Maybe they would. Or maybe they’d go see Mary Poppins. Everything was colored by my freshly jaded outlook.

When she sat down at my table in the USO, she was with another guy, a German-Canadian. As soon as she sat down next to me, he was out of it. She knew it, and he knew it, but I didn’t know it until a lot later. When I finally figured it out, we had only a few hours to be together. We didn’t waste any of it…

“Turn in here?” my driver said. It snapped me back to Germany.

“Yeah.”

Riley already had the Annex gate open and was back inside the gate shack. You could hardly see him because the windows were icing up. He hadn’t been scraping at all. He had twenty days before he rotated home. He was too short to care. They didn’t bother to court-martial you when you were that short. They just let you go.

I told the driver to go on in, and we eased up in the lee of Bunker 73. It looked exactly like a snowy natural ridge, but there was a lightning rod and a telephone booth on a catwalk along the top of it. The telephone booth was the guard shack, empty now. It was only manned at night. When we got out of the truck, the cold bit into us after the overheated cab. The driver got into a greasy field jacket in a hurry.

“Ke’rist, this weather,” he said, and started walking.

We went back past Riley, and he waved blurrily from inside. A red eye glowed through the rime of ice. I smelled burning tobacco.

“He’s smoking,” the driver said. “That’s a violation.”

“No, he’s not,” I said.

“Yes, he is,” he said. “It’s against regulations.”

He said it in that prissy Ordnance way, as if a Camel could trigger a chain reaction. We kept walking, me a little behind.

“How fast can you run?” I asked him.

“Why?” His breath was short already, pluming over his shoulder in white puffs like a steam engine.

“Because you don’t know the password,” I said. “How’d you get in this restricted area anyway? Damn Commie infiltrator.”

He started to slow down.

“Or worse,” I said. “A lifer spy checking up on us, trying to catch us smoking on duty.” Lifer is what we called career soldiers. “You know what happens to lifer spies out here in the Area?”

He almost stopped, and started to turn around.

“Keep walking,” I said softly. “Walk faster.”

He got tense up around the shoulders but he kept walking, all right. And he didn’t say another word about violating regs. Our reputation had kind of got around, I guess. We were all considered a little mad in here, as the Red Queen told Alice. I was getting as strange as the rest. I hated to talk to people from outside our company, who didn’t stand these bitter watches like we did. I didn’t like them trying to talk when I was thinking. They weren’t around at three in the morning, when the wind was trying to blow your shack off a bunker. There was no reason for them to think they had anything to say to us, ever.

“He wasn’t smoking,” he said finally. “I was mistaken.”

“That’s your password,” I said.

He didn’t say anything else. He had it straight now. Our boots make a steady crunching. I was left to my thoughts again…

She loved that old flop-brim fedora of mine. When cigarette ashes fell on it, she would pick it up and carefully wipe them off. After I stamped my postcards, I told her that I liked her perfume. It interrupted the Canadian’s discourse about how being a man and a soldier amounted to the same thing, and how his German father had been with Rommel before migrating to Canada. The wrong thing to be telling someone with a Russian-Jewish heritage who lived in an Israeli kibbutz like the ones Goldman had worked on every summer before he was drafted.

But she didn’t much like the U.S. either, calling us imperialists who dominated Israel as the price for our support against the Arabs. That irritated me. I told her I was a security policeman, and asked her how freely she would criticize Moscow if her nation was a Soviet satellite and I was, for instance, a Russian security policeman.

It was an indelicate point to make, but she smiled at me as if I had imparted the wisdom of the ages and granted the justice of my remark. Her dark eyes glowed at me. I noticed that her hair in the indifferent USO lighting had the sheen of the midnight Seine under city lights.

When the GIs and the girls finally got together to dance and laugh, the USO got noisy. The three of us ducked out and walked around the Etoile to a cafe on rue Grand Armee, next door to, of all things, a Ford dealership with bright showroom lights. It was too cold to sit on the sidewalk, but warm and cozy inside, where the pimps played the pinball machines and waited for their girls to come back from their assignations. She ordered peppermint tea. The Canadian and I drank coffee.

The Canadian kept after her to promise him a date for next weekend. She wasn’t buying it, and it was so obvious that she wasn’t that I was embarrassed for him. When he excused himself for a bladder break, I told her I’d better be going.

“No,” she said. “Don’t go now.” The way she said it did peculiar things to my insides.

“Why not?” I said. “You two have got some things to work out.”

“No.” She shook her head imperiously. “He and I have nothing to work out.” She leaned forward, holding me in her dark eyes. “You,” she added. “You and I have things to work out.”

When the Canadian came back, his growing desperation was explained. He had to catch an Army bus in less than a half-hour to go back to his post outside Paris and he was running out of time to secure a date. There was no way he wanted to leave her with me.

He had no luck at all. She tucked her arm under mine with complete familiarity and smiled at him and said we would walk him to his bus. Suddenly we were the couple and he was the outsider; the very idea caught me so by surprise that I could hardly breathe.

The Army bus had a regular stop right around the Etoile from the café. It was already loading when we got there. She shook hands with him and said goodnight, and tucked her arm back in mine. I will never forget the forlorn expression on his face, framed in that bus window.

But I forgot it then, instantly and completely, because she was right there in front of me in that snug black coat with the fur collar, and her hair tucked up in a scarf against the cold rain. Her eyes were bright as stars in the reflection from spotlights on the Arc. While I was no longer technically a virgin, I wasn’t precisely sure what to do next.

We walked kind of aimlessly and looked at the Christmas displays and the derelicts. The bums all seemed to have a jug of 50-centime skull thumper, and they all looked happy on their park benches. She danced away in front of me, moving lightly backwards, gazing at me, smiling gravely.

“What?” I asked.

“I am memorizing you,” she said.

I felt my ears burn in the cold, and said something foolish and grandiloquent to the effect that in the Old South where I was born, gentleman always walked their ladies home. She said that home was all the way across the city and furthermore, she lived in a girl’s hotel. I took it for a dismissal of my clumsy attempt, but she showed no inclination to leave me.

We walked some more and paused at a map shop. Lighted world globes were on display, and her delight was infectious. We pressed our noses to the window side by side, trying to find our respective spots on the globes. And there was Florida, easy to see. On the adjacent globe, Israel. She linked her arm with mine, pressing close.

“An omen,” she said.

“Ships that pass in the night,” I said.

Our reflected faces were very close. Mine was shadowed by my hat. I saw her turn to study my profile. “Explain.”

So I told her it was a phrase my family used to describe chance encounters, like ships from different ports, en route to different destinations, exchanging Morse signals as they passed at sea.

She hugged my arm more tightly to her. “But sometimes ships can sail along together for a brief time, yes?’

My throat tightened. “Yes.”

She led me happily down the street, not letting go. Couples were running and dancing from the sheer exuberance of being alive and together. Our shadows moved together as one beneath the streetlights, the shadow of a couple. I felt like I should be running and dancing, too. But I still didn’t trust it.

It was almost midnight. The last Metro trains ran at one a.m. There were gendarmes in black cloaks walking almost invisible in the gardens. Walking their posts. They made me remember I had to leave at 10:30 the next morning to get back to walking my post in Germany.

I knew Goldman would leave without me. He was scared shitless of AWOL. I didn’t have nearly enough money on me for the train back to Germany. And I was scared of AWOL too. The combinations of the bunker locks that I kept the lists for would be changed the minute I was late; the December/January password list would be scrapped. The alarm would go out to pick me up, sooner rather than later, and the watch on the Czech border would be intensified.

Her heels rang echoes out of the blank walls. My old crepe-soled shoes were soundless. I held onto myself tightly. She mentioned the outer logic of the universe that the Greeks invented to crush illogical and feeling man in its patterns. I said the Metro was my logic, then, tearing me away. She said that she had to take the Metro too, but she would walk all the way home before she would be the one to leave.

We turned a corner into Place Victor Hugo. She had decided to take me there since I had said I was a writer. There was a Metro station there. She let out a little cry and said she had forgotten about it being there. She didn’t want it to be there, because now that I had seen it, I would leave her. I said see what? I hadn’t seen a thing but her…

B. Walter and his man were in the gate shack. There was a Jeep from Ordnance waiting outside the fence to take the drivers back to the barracks. B. Walter’s driver was arguing with the corporal of the guard. The COG was being patient. B. Walter was grinning. When the driver saw us he cut it off and stalked out the personnel gate. My man handed me his temp access badge without looking at me and beat it on through. B. Walter put on his pile cap and came outside. We walked back to the break shack…

She faced me beside the Metro steps in Place Victor Hugo, her gloved hands in mine. She said the outer logic must be honored in some things. A woman, she said quietly, still cannot say take me in your arms and love me. That is for the man to do.

To say that your heart stops is only a saying until it actually does, on a frozen midnight street in Paris, as if waiting for your answer. I had never even kissed a girl before.

But I took her in my arms, and kissed her.

I felt her cold lips move under mine, and grow warm, and part. For the first time in my life I felt a woman’s tongue caress mine. It was like being electrocuted. Then my tongue responded as if it had known how all along. My heart was back in full operation, banging my ribs and thumping in my ears.

When we could speak again, she murmured it was time for me to take her home. I mumbled a question about the girl’s hotel. She smiled and said she meant that I should take her where I was staying.

At that moment, I hated Morgenstein desperately. He was a prudish Midwestern Baptist with a German name who would never surrender his sleep of the righteous for us. I suddenly felt as desperate as the Canadian, as I tried to explain this. But she placed her gloved fingers over my lips and said we would find a way. We must.

We took the Metro after all, the last run of the night, to her side of town. When we got up on the streets, she cautioned me against speaking English, which wasn’t popular in that quarter.

From the number of bandy-legged little Asians wandering around drunkenly with fresh mosquito bites on their faces, I wondered if the Viet Cong ever got R&R to Paris; the way the world was going, it would figure.

She said she would do the talking. She smiled radiantly and said I looked like a flic, a cop, and she would be my trollop, paying her Christmas bribe to me. And laughed delightedly at my expression.

For what seemed like an eternity we walked the dark echoing streets, looking for a room. We would step into the small lobbies and I would stand silent while she queried. We had pooled our francs, and she said we had enough together for a room. But that late on a holiday night, there were no rooms.

Finally we found a dwarf desk clerk with an oversized head who had to stand on a high box to reach the counter. A giant Alsatian that shared his night vigil stood up and looked me over, wagged his heavy tail once, and settled back into a comfortable curl.

Beneath the dwarf’s impressive skull, one vivid blue eye, the left, and one green eye appraised us carefully. I wondered if the dog’s approval influenced his. He reflected for a long moment, and then rented us his own room, far up under the eaves, interminable flights of narrow stairs above the narrow street, leading us up there personally and turning down the covers. Romance and commerce in a perfect Parisian blend was my secret cynical thought.

She went into the bath down the hall. Alone, I sat in the one chair and listened to the echoing footsteps and laughter of late revelers down in the street. Before I had time to panic, she was back, barefoot, wearing only her dress.

She knelt before me and put her arms around my neck and kissed me, and then leaned back, and the dress slipped off her shoulders to her waist. She had removed her bra. When I kissed her left nipple, she arched her back and made a low, murmuring sound in her throat.

By then there really weren’t very many hours left. But somehow there was time enough. Time enough for slow urgent lovemaking that seemed to unfold as naturally as breathing, just as Agnar Mykle had written that it would. I was lost in her warmth and response, moving with her and in her on the low bed under the worn quilts, with no tomorrow and no yesterday, in a cramped warm cubicle in a half-frozen city.

We did just about everything that a man and a woman can do to each other in those few hours, passing from one plateau to another as if she had choreographed each movement. That seemed an appropriate term to me, somewhere deep inside my amazement, because she was in Paris studying the dance. Her lips and fingers and body offered cues, wordlessly, and my body hit its marks and moved right into the next thing as if I had been dancing this particular pas de deux forever.

There was time for one clear, clearly remembered sentence after a slumberous pause, when we threw off the quilts and she mounted me beneath the low ceiling, before we plunged once more into the joined rhythm: “I knew it would be this way with you. Knew it would be wonderful…”

B. Walter warmed his hands over the stove. “Not long now,” he said.

“Not for you,” I said. A standby would take the rest of B. Walter’s trick after our chow break, because of the holiday pass routine.

“Wanta give me this Paris broad’s name and number?” he said. “I could, like, comfort her in your absence.”

“Don’t joke,” I said.

“What makes you think I’m joking?” He was grinning again.

“You were, though,” I said.

“What makes you think so?”

“Because you want to live to get to Paris.” I was wiping the condensation off my rifle. I pulled out a magazine of ammo and laid it on my knee and wiped it, too. He kept grinning, but the grin was phony now. He was remembering Trotta, and those others before Trotta, who had snapped and wound up in a rubber room down to Landstuhl.

“Hey, man, take it easy.” B. Walter let go of the grin like it didn’t fit anymore. “Don’t kid about that.”

“What makes you think I’m kidding?” I took out the second magazine and wiped it down.

“Jesus!” he said. “Hey, look. Don’t go stale on me now, man. Trotta’s enough craziness for one day.”

“Just don’t joke. Not about her. Joke about anything but that.”

“Okay, man,” he said, and started wiping his own rifle down. He didn’t have his nerve back enough yet to reach into his parka for his magazines.

The whole memory of Paris had cranked itself down way out of reach when he started to joke. My hands went through the familiar motions, cleaning the M-14. After it was dry I wiped it down with one of the oily rags left in the shack for that, and then the magazines. The heater gurgled. B. Walter was through with his weapon already. He never looked after a firearm properly. He seemed to be brooding.

The wind picked up outside. I waited for Paris to come back out of hiding. It helped to have the rifle to tend to. I never let a gun rust in all of the years of salt-water duck hunting since my thirteenth birthday. My shotguns were at home, waiting, with my battered decoys.

That made good strong remembering, when you had the long graveyard watches by yourself at railhead or up on a bunker. I could remember every blind I had ever built and how different decoy layouts worked on the marshes of home, the days I shot well and the days the shot shells seemed to contain sawdust. I was going to need to remember a lot of that later on.

I knew when my shift ended that I would start thinking about the train station in the village down the road, how easy it would be to walk out the gate and have them flag down the Paris Express. It wouldn’t work to go back like this. To do it would ruin this that I had. But I might do it. I might, without all my other memories to steady me. It was good to have something extra. When you ran out of that something extra, or used it all up, you were in trouble. Like Trotta…

She understood about duty she told me when, finally sated, we lay snuggled and whispered to each other about our lives. She had been a sergeant in the Israeli Army, which I couldn’t quite get my mind around.

But she said that in her native tongue there was no word for individual rights, only for duty. A phone call from the dwarf at the hotel desk, as agreed, got us moving early. It wasn’t raining. The roofs we could see were grey with frost. The sky was pink with a cold new dawn when we got out on the street again.

There was an empty, lost-feeling time while I stood around the corner from her girl’s hotel, shivering almost uncontrollably, while she got ten francs from her room to cushion me on taxi fare back to my hotel. The Metro was running now, but I couldn’t risk getting lost.

When she put my arms around me again, I stopped shivering instantly. Her arms felt as right as anything ever felt in my life. We didn’t say much, just huddled together, prolonging the moment. The sun was just up, the city still sleeping, when I held her very tightly and kissed her goodbye on rue de la Gregoire de Tours. We said shalom, but it was goodbye. And I heard her footsteps on the cobbles for the last time ever, walking away from me…

B. Walter got up and huddled the stove. I looked at him.

“It’s time,” he said. “The relief truck should be coming through the gate just about now.”

“Okay.” I got up and put my parka on and zipped it, replacing the magazines in the pockets.

“Listen,” he said. “I really didn’t mean to joke about it. About, you know, Paris and all.”

“Forget it,” I said. “I’m sorry I got up tight. I know you didn’t mean anything. Have a good time when you’re there.”

“That’s just it,” he said. “I don’t know whether I should go there now, or not. Maybe I should go to Amsterdam.”

“Well, they say the whores are cheaper in A’Dem,” I said. “I’m sorry,” I said quickly, “that just slipped out.”

“Yeah. Forget it.” He was tight, thinking hard. I heard the relief’s three-quarter-ton grinding up the road in low gear. “That isn’t what I’m worried about. You know?”

“I know. I do know. I’m sorry I said it.”

“Listen,” he said. “I don’t know if I want to go to Paris now, or not. You know? The way your face got when I joked. Man, you should have seen yourself! Ain’t no two men can be that lucky in the same city at the same time of year, man. It’s against the damn law of averages.”

“Yeah,” I said. “But you forgot something. Day after tomorrow is another whole year. But it will still be Paris.”

&&&&&

Two years later I was out of the Army, my letters to Israel unanswered, when the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War took place June 5–10, 1967. I worried she had been called to active duty.

Israel’s decisive victory included the capture of the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, West Bank, Old City of Jerusalem, and Golan Heights; these territories reportedly became a major point of contention in the on-going Arab-Israeli conflict. I was too uncertain of myself to travel there to look for her and never heard from her again.

Prior to the start of the war, attacks conducted against Israel by fledgling Palestinian guerrilla groups based in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan had increased, leading to heavy Israeli reprisals. In November 1966 an Israeli strike on the Jordanian West Bank left 18 dead and 54 wounded. During an air battle with Syria the Israeli Air Force shot down six Syrian MiG fighter jets.

In 1973 came the Yom Kippur attack by Egypt and Syria. Historians say Israel had a small standing army whose main goal in wartime was to hold the line until the quantitative bulk of the military, the IDF’s Reserve Forces, were able to reach the front lines, dependent on a very quick and efficient system of reserve mobilization using public media like radio, TV, and phones.

During Yom Kippur, the media in Israel is shut down, and people do not answer their phones, all of which made the Israeli mobilization much slower, less efficient, and more confusing than it otherwise would have been. Tactically, that was a brilliant choice of timing for Egypt and Syria.

Thousands of Israelis died. The USSR backed the Arabs. Some histories say the Cold War came closer to nuclear confrontation than since the Cuban missile crisis. I mostly remember the Arab Oil Embargo instituted to punish Israel’s backers.

Took Israel about a month to get in gear and kick ass.

Now this; almost on the anniversary of that war. The Middle East was never at rest; there were terrorist attacks, missile strikes, if never another full-scale war until now. I remember watching a young female IDF soldier being interviewed about a skirmish and being startled how much she resembled my teenage daughter. Could it be…? Always wondered.

Finally this century, the age of the internet, I found the obituary of the woman who made me a man past all unmaking. She only had one daughter, the one relatives looked after while she studied in Paris. She succumbed to Lou Gehrig’s disease, a dreadful end for a dancer let alone Yankee first baseman. Published reports said she fought the decline with grace and courage.

So the Arabs didn’t get her.

Cold comfort.

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.