tagRomanceThe Forests of the Night

The Forests of the Night


The theme is "nautical." That usually means a sailboat and the Windwards . But, I did that last year. So, I decided to go a totally different direction – canal barges. I got to know those things during my time in the UK. Always wanted to try one; never had the opportunity. But, that's what imagination's for. So, here's my contribution.

Also, I'm mindful of what this day represents. Hence, this story. It takes courage and commitment to raise your right hand and I'm not just talking to all of you eleven bravos and special operators. I'm talking to every eighty-eight mike, food service specialist, and ex-company clerk who's ever put on the uniform. I realize that I'm sitting in the comfort of my home because of your sacrifice and you have my humble gratitude. Of course, Randi has my thanks too, since she's the one who gave me the chance to express it.



The place reeked of cigarettes, beer and racket. It was New Year's Eve 1940 and there were drunken Germans everywhere.

The Huns had rolled into Paris the prior June and helped themselves to everything; including Harry's New York Bar. Harry'd closed-up shop and left. So, they needed a barkeep. I wasn't Harry. But I WAS a barkeep. That led to an offer I couldn't refuse.

The Heinies were persuasive. It was either manage the place... "Or else." People who didn't cooperate were beginning to disappear; and, frankly, it was no skin off my nose. So I satt there nightly, in my worn-out tux, hair slicked back and a cigarette hanging off my lip, making the Krauts feel at home.

It wasn't THAT odd for an American to be working in occupied Paris. I'd been there since 1919, and the U.S. didn't get into the War until the following winter.

I'd come over when I was sixteen. It wasn't to do the Grand Tour. I'd lied about my age and enlisted. I was full of naïve patriotism back then. I loved being a soldier; until Chateau-Thierry. That's when the Third Division got its baptism of fire. It's also where the Third got its nickname, "The Rock of the Marne." I suppose it's also where I got my hyper-cynical, world-weary attitude; it's a con game and we're all marks.

After the War, it was a matter of, "How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?" They mustered us out in New York. But, I'd seen Paree and, I knew that was where I wanted to live. I had my discharge bonus and the City of Lights was cheap back then. So, I was on the next ship back to Le Havre.

I found a place in the 5th Arronddisement; known as the Latin Quarter. Living under the Paris eaves was cold in winter and hot in summer. But frankly, it was a hell of a lot better than my former residence, which was a trench. People might even call my flat romantic; if going down four flights of stairs to use the back-yard shitter is your idea of quaint.

There was a big Peace Conference at Versailles. The spill-over from that, generated hustle-and-bustle. Plus, the French never need an excuse to party. So, Paris was hopping day and night, and would be that way for the next twenty years. Throughout all that time, yours-truly served the drinks and wiped down the bar.

I hooked on as the night bartender at The Dingo. It was from nine PM to sunrise; all for fourteen francs a week plus tips. The Dingo American Bar and Restaurant was a favorite joint for the Lost Generation. It was the place where Hemingway met Scott Fitzgerald. It was also the place where Papa met Lady Duff Twysden. The less said about that encounter, the better. He DID put her in a novel though, changed her name to Lady Brett Ashley. That character was a real slut.

The Hemingway I knew, was an asshole. He was forever bullying people, particularly Fitzgerald. To me; his macho man act was just a cover-up for the fact that he was a closet queer. But, Papa liked the ladies too. At various times, he paraded two wives and a dozen mistresses past me.

I didn't begin life running a bar. The family had a farm in one of those all-German enclaves in Wisconsin. I don't remember whether my first language was English, or German. But, it was the reason why picking up new languages was so easy for me. Being fluent like that ultimately had an impact.

There were too many mouths to feed and I was the youngest. So, when I was nine my folks shipped me to my uncle Fritz. He worked the ore docks in Superior, loading the lake freighters. They didn't have child labor laws back then. So, I spent almost eight years as a loader's assistant, and then as a loader.

That amounted to shoveling the taconite pellets back on the conveyers, as they filled the holds on those huge ships. Half your young life spent lifting shovels full of iron ore will build impressive arms and shoulders. People started calling me "King," once the movie came-out. They were referring to the gorilla, not my regal bearing. I'm five-ten and about 240 pounds; and there isn't any fat on me.

The first wave of American ex-pats arrived in the early 1920s. By nineteen-twenty-five, well-known artists were showing up nightly; Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Picasso. Isadora Duncan even had an apartment across the street.

She was one voracious lady. I didn't blame her. With a body like that, it would be selfish to NOT share it. The only woman who rivaled Isadora, for sheer volume, was Nancy Cunard. Her daddy owned the shipping line. She must have fucked the entire lost generation, including Gertrude Stein.

That era seemed like it was a million years ago.

Everything changed in the 1930s. Germany's economic problems helped our friends across the Rhine get back in touch with their former bad selves. I'm not smart enough to know what started the fight. But I DO know that by 1939, the Germans and French had picked up where they'd left-off in 1918.

The French leadership was incredibly incompetent, even by French standards. So, by June of the following year, long grey waves of Boche were marching under the Arc de 'Triomphe and down the Champs-Élysées. It was far too easy for them.

I slept through the occupation of the City. I usually got to bed around six in the morning. But I had worked late. Too many people were drowning their sorrows or calming their nerves. So, I snored through the German arrival.

It was business as usual the following day. The French had declared Paris "open." So, it missed out on the destruction that every other major European city experienced. A bunch of the occupants, especially the rich ones, left town in a panic. But, most of them returned a month later, and Paris was back to its usual one-and-a-half-million residents.

Then things kind-of settled into an odd new form of normal. It was easy to pretend that the guys in the field grey uniforms, and all the military traffic, were part of the scenery. And, life went on like it had before the Heinies showed up.

There was rationing of course, and the French got the short end of THAT stick. But, needless to say; most days the black markets were in full swing. And, you could still get a perfectly cooked chop and a good bottle of Beaujolais at one of the great restaurants; if you were the right customer.

The Huns had imposed a nine PM curfew, which most Parisians totally ignored. We still worked ten-hour shifts at The Dingo. I had just relieved a Brit named Jimmie, when a couple of German officers walked into the bar.

One was in field-grey, meaning Wehrmacht. His name was Rommel. We all know where Rommel ended up. But he was just a junior Division commander back then. The other guy was in an all-black uniform. He was a piece of shit named Lishka.

Lishka was a member of an outfit called the "Schutzstaffel." The SS is infamous now. But at the time, I just thought he was a National Socialist clown, in a bizarre uniform. His underpants probably had swastikas on them.

Somebody must have tipped them off. Because, they both walked right up to me and sat down. Rommel did the talking. He spoke decent English. But I spoke better German. That sealed my fate.

Believe me - we civilians were eager to stay in the good graces of the Germans back then. I was just an American, ex-pat barkeep; not a military, or political thinker. I wasn't French. It was none of my business who ran the City. All I knew was that the Huns were in charge and I wanted to stay on their good side.

Parisians were trying to keep their lives from being too badly interrupted. I know that sounds incredibly short-sighted and selfish, now. But, society had been way-too civilized up to that point. NONE of us could imagine how dark the heart of man could really be.

The Germans I knew were the spearhead; professional soldiers with plenty of military discipline. The other crap; the atrocities and the deportations of the Jews, didn't start until the Nazi scum arrived.

Rommel said, "Do you know Harry's New York Bar?"

I said, "Of course. Everybody knows that place. It's the top joint in town."

The other guy said scornfully, "The owner fled the Country."

I didn't like his attitude. I said, "If you haven't read the newspapers your reputation precedes you. He's a Scot, and you two are at war."

I got a sneer back. Rommel put his hand on the other guy's arm to shut him up and said, "The Reich has appropriated several places in Paris. They are reserved solely for its soldiers. Harry's is one of them. Now, we need an experienced person to manage it."

Then he paused, fixed me with a meaningful stare, and said balefully, "You are going to have that honor my friend."

I looked at the SS guy. He was daring me to say, "no."

In reality, I had always wanted my own place. I knew I could make a go of it. I just never thought that I would get the chance. So, instead of turning them down, I told them that their offer sounded like a fantastic opportunity.

Don't you DARE judge me. You weren't in my shoes then, and I didn't have the benefit of your 20-20 hindsight. The Germans controlled the press, and everybody thought they were going to win the war. England stood alone and the Huns were bombing the shit out of them.

As a result, the attitude in Paris in 1940 was, "Go along, to get along." Of course, some of the French were still full of patriotic fervor and a few resistance groups had sprouted up. Their own countrymen mockingly called them the "refus absurd." That means "absurd refusal."


So, it was New Year's Eve 1940 and I was wearing a monkey suit and sitting on my regular perch. It was a stool next to the actual piano where Gershwin composed "An American in Paris." But, the pianist wasn't Gershwin. He was a black guy from Norcross, Georgia, named Tyler P. Boggs.

Boggsy had come over with the 369th, nicknamed the "Harlem Hellfighters," and discovered that the French were a heck of a lot less racist than the white folks down south; which really wasn't saying much. So, like a bunch of his fellow soldiers-of-color, and luminaries like Josephine Baker, he decided to stay. Boggsy was a wizard with the ivories and a big draw at Harry's. He was also my best friend.

He was a flashy dresser and he loved the ladies. He was like me in that respect. Working the Paris bar trade gave us access to everything from royals to hookers. So, there was an endlessly movable feast of beauty and availability. Each night brought a new encounter and I never lacked for bed partners. Boggsy doubled my score. He could seduce anybody with a song.

Harry's attracted the Wehrmacht types; not the Waffen SS, or the freaks from the Gestapo, and the Sicherheitsdienst. So, things were usually convivial. That's why I was surprised when there was a shriek, the sound of breaking glass and a loud slap. That was followed by an angry roar and a much harder blow.

I had heard the same slap, in many different venues, but never the retaliation. It meant it was time for me to saunter over and take a look. I slid off my stool muttering to Boggsy, "I'll be right back. Keep it light." And he began to spin out a slow jazz tune that was pure North Georgia honey.

The trouble centered in the only collection of black uniforms in the joint. I loathed the SS, even back then. They were low-life trash. So, I got a good grip on my temper before I approached the scene. I didn't want to start my new year by strangling a member of the Master Race.

When I arrived, I found a young Untersturmfuhrer being held back by a couple of older Obersharfuhrers. In military terms, that meant that a shave-tail Second Looey was being restrained by two sergeants. But of course, those black shirted fuckers needed appropriately Aryan titles.

The woman was lying in a heap on the floor, not moving. I thought about ripping the bastard's head off and shitting down his neck. I could have done that, no doubt. But I knew that those guys had their own code and they didn't cotton to outsiders. Even their Wehrmacht compadres were wary of them. And, I wasn't prepared to take on the whole SS.

This was going to require some old-fashioned bartender tact.

I noticed that all three dickheads were from the Second SS Panzer, Das Reich. Their commander was a regular at Harry's. He liked the American hotdogs. There's no accounting for the taste of members of the German General Staff.

I put on my haughtiest and most disapproving face and said in perfect German, "I shall have to report this to Herr Obergruppenfuhrer Hausser. He demands that I inform him if his people disobey his orders."

The sergeants looked horrified. Hausser might, in actuality, skin them for public acts of brutality. Those kinds of things stirred up the natives. The Germans didn't want an uprising in France, when England was still a viable threat. That was the reason why they had set up Petain and his Vichy regime.

I said with condescension in my voice, "I might be inclined to forget this, if you leave immediately." I gestured to the drunken piece-of-shit hanging between the two enlisted men, adding, "And I never want to see him again." I made a mental note that, that fucker would suffer a fatal accident. I'd been in Paris long enough to know every trick, and the Seine keeps a lot of secrets.

The two Germans actually clicked their heels and said, "Danke!!" and hoisted their drunken comrade out the door by his armpits.

I turned to the girl. The punch had put her out-cold, even before she hit the floor. I worked the ore docks and I had dealt some one-punch knockouts. It's the only benefit of being built like a silver-back gorilla. So, I had experience with the situation.

She was sprawled on her side, exactly as she had landed; with her friends twittering around her. I squatted down and pried her mouth open. Sometimes they swallow their tongue. That semi-woke her up. She began to stir. I could see the purple bruise starting to form on the side of her jaw. But it didn't look broken.

I called to one of the waiters, "Brandy!" It was obviously for medicinal purposes. So, he brought the drink in a glass not a snifter. She was still just coming around. I raised her into a sitting position. She opened her eyes and looked at me. I expected hysterics. What I saw instead was wild anger.

She launched a slap at me. I didn't even blink. I have a 22-inch neck. It makes shirts rather hard to find. But I can take a punch. The tactile difference between the forest of bristles on my cheeks, and the SS boy's baby face, must have told her that she had hit the wrong person.

She looked shocked. I said, "Relax little lady. I'm not him." But I was thinking to myself, "What kind of broad would take a swing at the guy who had just knocked her out."

I held the brandy to her lips and said, "Here, drink this. I want to make sure there's no permanent damage." I knew she would have serious symptoms for a week. We just called it a "headache" back then. Now they call it a "concussion".

She sipped the aromatic liquor and shook her head like a dog drying himself off. Then she took another deep sip. The color was coming back into her cheeks and her eyes were better focused. Eight months in the trenches and a lifetime of fistfights makes you expert in head injuries. I held a hand up to each eye. Her pupils reacted normally.

I scooped her up in my arms. She weighed nothing. She struggled a bit. I said, "Take it easy doll. I'm just carrying you to my office. There's a couch there. You can lie down until you're ready to go home. Your friends can wait with you." She relaxed.

The back-office at Harry's is small, but comfortable. Most of the time I slept there, on the old overstuffed couch. The two women followed me. They were clichés. One was a tall and willowy blond. The other was short, dark and voluptuous.

The girl in my arms was the average French woman. She had a dense mop of dark brown hair. Her face was heart shaped with huge gorgeous eyes. Her figure was neat and tidy, very slim. She was wearing a silk blouse with a black skirt, high heeled pumps and a string of pearls.

I put her down on the couch, stepped over to the sink and ran some warm water into a washcloth. When I returned she was lying with her long legs crossed over each other, one arm shielding her eyes. The single bare bulb caused a lot of glare.

I delicately moved her arm out of the way and put the washcloth over her eyes. I said, "The light will bother you for a while. You can go home once it stops hurting."

She said, "Merci." It was the first thing I had heard her say. She had a deep husky voice that was pure sex.

I turned to her friends and said, "Tell me what happened."

The blonde, who appeared to be the best-friend, said, "The three of us were talking together when that awful man came up behind Bernadette and grabbed her by the breasts."

The blond saw the look on my face. She knew how the French viewed women who partied with the Germans. She said emphatically, "We are good girls. We do not allow such liberties."

She added, "Bernadette dropped her wine, turned and slapped the man hard. He punched her in return. It was callous. The two soldiers who were with the man grabbed him and pulled him away. That was when you appeared."

I said the obvious, "If you are such good girls, what are you doing in a bar full of German soldiers?"

The dark voluptuous one said, "The Germans have all of the things we miss in life. We never do anything but flirt with them. What's wrong with that?"

There was a lot wrong with it. First, even being seen with a German carried the stink of collaboration. More relevantly. These were all young and pretty girls. I knew the people who drank at Harry's. And I was certain that a few of them were not above rape; at least, if the answer was "no."

It was hard to believe that adult women could be so naïve. But, letting-go of old attitudes is always problematic, especially in a time of war. That is even truer if the former reality was a lot more pleasant than the current one.

The world that we lived in, had lost all concept of civility and the Germans ruled the roost. So, it was reasonable that these girls would try to retain some semblance of their old way-of-life. In a lot of respects, I was doing the same thing.

You need to experience the altered reality of conquest to truly understand the situation. We no longer controlled our daily lives and an alien culture did. I said, "I'm not judging you; honest. Everybody has to do whatever's necessary to survive the occupation."

Then I turned to the tall blonde and said, "Why don't you help your friend home? I think she'll be alright. Keep an eye on her tonight. Don't let her sleep too much. There might be damage we can't see."

Just then, a bunch of brash Teutonic voices shouted, "Frohes neues Jahr!!?"

Midnight of a new year always gives me pause. That was especially true for the year 1941. If I'd known, what was going to follow. I might have packed my bags for Kenosha.

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