April was not the cruelest month

17 April 2017 12:04 

We were due.

I had not been back since 2014. Catherine and Annie had not been back to the United States since we moved to France in 2011, and therefore had not seen any of my family. Catherine had the first two weeks of April off for Spring break, and because this summer we had other plans, now was time for a visit to North America. We pulled her out of school a week early, and on the last Monday in March we took our first flight out of the airport at Montpellier (MPL – MPV is that other city with one l).

In our previous home in La Garde we were equi-distant from the airports in Nice and Marseille, and while having a choice can be useful, at times it can also be paralyzing.  The black hole of time spent looking for the best plane fare was reduced to a light grey hole as was the logistics of getting to the airport on time: instead of leaving up to seven hours early, here in Montpellier we simply walked out the door, took the tram to the Place de l’Europe, by the Antigone Olympic pool, then a twenty minute shuttle to the airport.

Our flight from Montpellier to Paris was uneventful. The most interesting item viewed out the window was two towers of an atomic power plant, located about five miles away from a series of large wind mills. 

At Charles De Gaulle Airport we had to go through border control to get to our connecting flights: unlike the USA, the French keep track of your arrival and departure. There were two French agents on duty to service several hundred travelers, all of them rushing to make their connecting flights to North America. The attendant tending the lines put so many people in the fast track line that soon the regular line became shorter. Annie and Catherine finally rushed ahead to make their flight to Montreal. A few minutes later, I finally got through, and arrived at my gate during the last boarding call, and was last on the plane (of course back in steerage: seat 89Q).

A time to cast away

After a long, dull flight across the Atlantic,  I arrived in to Dulles Airport, which after all these years still uses those old shuttles to ferry you from an outer terminal to the main terminal. Next came a new procedure to get into the country: there are kiosks you must go register at prior to getting into the usual guard behind the glass inspection line. You bring a print out from the kiosk and give that to the officer at the window. My officer was friendly enough, held my passport picture up next to me like a director framing a shot, and asked if I had any food. I showed him the bottle of rosé purchased at the duty free shop in Montpellier (a first – I’d never bought anything at a duty free store before), and he laughed and said that didn’t count.

The baggage carousel was not only completely full, the conveyor moved slowly because of all the weight of the bags, but there were several hundred suitcases lined up next to it. After a brief search, I went over to the Air France counter, and the young woman already had an envelope for with my name on it: regrettably my bag had not made it on the flight, and if I could just provide an address and phone number, they would deliver the bag to me tomorrow. 

Once set up at my sister’s house I spent the next week going through all our stuff in the attic, basement, and in 10 x 30 storage locker. It was time for anther purge. 

All old clothes went to the Goodwill. For my American clothes, the cut is just too big: just because you are 6’4″ doesn’t mean you have a waist size of 62. The European cut of clothes just fits better, with a few square yards less of fabric to wear. So just about everything went, even that great J. Crew jacket (too billowy) and a dark green Nino Cerruti suit, bought and fitted  on the way to a wedding at a store in Richmond (Virginia) and worn twice, both times to weddings, the last time being my cousin’s wedding in Abilene in 1998. Who wears suits these days? Now all that’s left are clothes for sailing or skiing: an ancient nylon CB green/blue pullover, some West Marine bibs, and a farmer cut wetsuit with leg and butt pads for Laser sailing. I almost brought my Tyr/Menlo Masters swimming warm up jacket, which Annie said I could wear around the house as a robe in the winter, but there was no space in my bags, and along with an old but still in good condition Harris tweed jacket, it’s all still in the attic.

I sold my Yakima bike rack, an older semi-flat TV,  Annie’s craft fair tent, and took about eight boxes of books to Wonder Book and Video, where we now have a massive credit on our account. But I kept a lot of books, too, including the Encyclopedia Britannica from 1961.

The sale of the Yamaha digital piano and stand was more involved. I posted the ad on Craigslist, price was $150 for the piano and folding stand.  Two days later I got email offering me $135. I got busy, and didn’t respond for a day. The next day I checked the email and there were three more inquiries about the piano, and the very first inquiry upped his offer to something over $150. Then I got a call from a man asking about the piano; I said I was sorry, but he was way down on the list, but if no one ahead of him bought it, then I would contact him. Three hours later he called me back, offered $200, and the next day he picked it up. He was about my age, drove up from Winchester, Virginia, and was a beginning piano player, who had been learning on his friend’s Yamaha, not quite as good as the one he just bought from me. I’m not given much to thinking about the satisfaction of a transaction, but I was very glad that he was the one who bought the piano.

One more divestment was the only new car I’ve ever owned: my 2000 Toyota Tundra. I bought it new only because back then Toyota has just come out with the Tundra, and there were no used models to be found. At that time I had just bought a house, and planned to do a lot of the gardening myself, and would surely need a truck for that. In that truck I carried hundreds of pounds of flagstone for a patio, Italian Buckthorn bushes and coral bark maples, my black labs, an Optimist, a Laser, surfboards, and my daughter. But with us in France and the truck in the U.S., it was just too much of a logistical burden on the family. The truck went to a branch of the Virginia Elders, where it is being used and cared for. Sayonara.

In the meantime,I’ve now owned English (Jensen), Swedish (Volvo), German (VW, BMW), American (GMC), Japanese (Toyota), and French (Renault) cars, and I’m not real interested in anything Korean, but God yes something Italian, some bitch’n Alfa Romeo.

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

I bought some rosé in the duty free shop in Montpellier airport because I assumed it would be hard to find rosé  in Hagerstown, and we drank it that first night I arrived. Happily, I was wrong: Longmeadow Liquor, whose owner is always there and likes to talk about wine, had several rosés, the cheapest of which was a Portuguese rosé, which was quite good. He also had for sale, but it was too expensive, at least on this side of the pond to pay that much for, a rosé from Bandol (near Toulon), which is by far the best. And, of course, from the local Martin’s supermarket I bought Peet’s coffee, Brown Cow Yogurt, and the makings for Mexican food.

Annie and Catherine arrived about a week later, and as always time got away from us. We went through more of our stuff, we cooked, we took advantage of all that great American beer, Courtenay and Julie taught Catherine the fundamentals of throwing, fielding, and batting. Catherine spent hours on the swing in the backyard. I got in a few rides on my Trek single speed, and on one outing was surprised to see a sign for a European style traffic circle (frequent readers know I am a fan of these), and when I got to the traffic circle, everyone, even those pick-up trucks, were driving around it properly just like the French!

There was not enough time. I scanned only a fraction of the photos I wanted to digitize. There were more books to sort through. We never made it to any of the museums in Washington, D.C., not even to the nearby Civil War battlefields. We drove down to Floyd to visit the Virginia Elders, played pool, ate too much.

During all this I again noted a missed pleasure of North America: the radio. In this case it was the discovery of WWCF open format radio, listening to The Guess Who’s 969 or Anders Osborne’s Meet Me in New Mexico.

Soon, Annie and Catherine had to return to Montreal, and then to Montpellier, and I was not far behind. The second to last day I drove to Annapolis to see the best guy in the world and his wonderful family, then suddenly it was my last day.


My flight back to France left at about 2100 hours, and to occupy the day, I had made an appointment to visit the archives at the Air and Space Museum out near Dulles Airport (the original museum is on the mall in downtown Washington, D.C.). Why?

As someone who sometimes thinks about writing and authors, on my mind had been James Salter, Richard Bach, Nevil Shute, Roald Dahl, Saint-Exupery, and perhaps others. All of these men wrote and all of these men flew. Is there something about flying that enhances writing? Hold that thought.

In the early 1970’s my mother arranged for a talk for me and some of my friends to be given by our next door neighbor, a retired Air Force colonel whom we knew as Colonel McMullen (1896 – 1979). She said that among other accomplishments that he had once done a ‘flight check out’ for Charles Lindbergh. Col. McMullen came over to my mother’s house, and spoke to about eight of us about the early days of flying. We were about twelve, and had no inkling of what he was talking about. Pearls to swine and all that. 

Over the years I’ve thought about that day that Colonel McMullen talked to us, and those writing flyers I mentioned above. Yet my thinking ran to not only to these flyers as writers, but also in the cases of McMullen and Shute, of them as flyers, engineers, and participants in the early days of  the ‘air age’ (a term McMullen used in a speech), and how that compared to the computer age: the science and engineering behind it all, the impact of the technology on both the economy and society, the role of government, and of course, the personalities.

So one random day over a year ago I got it into my head to do a search on McMullen + Air Force + probably something else, and one of the results was a link to an archive of Col. Alexis B. McMullen at the Air and Space Museum. I clicked and read the information. Whoa – that guy was my neighbor! He has an archive at the Air and Space Museum?! 

I sent emails to the helpful staff at the archive at the ASM (can I use that abbreviation? I’m tired of typing Air and Space Museum). I found and downloaded a file about using archives called Using Archives by Laura Schmidt. I made an appointment, told them I had no idea what I was doing, and they were wonderfully helpful. I arrived a little late for my appointment, was  met by somebody whose name I should remember. He give me a brief tour of the museum (more about that in a moment), and then takes me behind the scenes to the archive room. 

I spent about five hours going through only five of the thirty-one boxes of Col. McMullen’s archive: newpaper clippings, letters, photos, business records, articles from journals and government publications. A lot of it was dull, and once in a while there was something interesting: a letter dated 16 December 1929 to McMullen from a business man in Chicago, in which is floated the idea about how to sell more airplanes, in particular by-passing professional pilots and instead taking out advertisements in The Saturday Evening Post, and offering creative financing to all those potential non-flying buyers. The businessman had spent a lot of time talking to automobile dealers about their business model. I didn’t find a reply from McMullen, but I don’t think he got involved.

But mostly I was thinking, this guy was my neighbor? He flew way back then? He was one the vanguard of this new…industry…technology…warfare? I made some notes, but I’m still not sure what I was looking for or the value of my errand, my sort of fishing expedition. The archives closed at 1600, but the museum was open until 1700, so I spent the last hour walking around. 

It’s important to be careful with superlatives, but the Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia is stunning for its collection of shit that flies. I’m not given to unmerited patriotism, but that the USA put that place together, and was responsible for a lot the aircraft in there, was a rare moment of pride.  

No good deed goes unpunished

After the museum I drove my rental car to the Avis building, then took the shuttle to the Dulles terminal. But wait….

Two days before, on my way to Annapolis, I stopped at West Marine just off Route 50. While visitng my storage locker I had found my old offshore sailing harness: there are D-rings to attach to the jack (safety) lines that keep you on the boat, and in the event you don’t and instead end up in the water, a dissolving pellet triggers a CO2 cartridge that inflates enough flotation to keep you buoyant until the boat picks you up (you hope). 

I purchased the harness in 1997 ahead of a boat delivery, a lovely ketch rigged CT forty something long, from Anacortes, Washington, down to San Francisco. Since them, I had been offshore a bit, but never unintentionally in the water. And so now that here in France I’m not just sailing dinghies, but out offshore a bit more, I thought I should get that harness checked out.

At the West Marine a really helpful sales guy showed me how to disassemble the harness, extract the old CO2 cartridge, and replace it with a new pellet, firing pin, and cartridge. All is well and good, and he asks me where I’m from, and hearing France, he advises me to put the harness and new cartridge set in my carry on luggage. The TSA, he says, should be okay with it. 

Now back to the airport: I never made it as far as the TSA.

At the check in for Air France I made the mistake of mentioning about the harness, and should I check it or keep it in my carry on luggage? I displayed the harness, and upon seeing the shiny metallic CO2 cartridge, the gate keepers raised their hands in the air, gasped, took a step back, and called their bosses. You know how this ends: no matter what, they, the Air France personnel, said I could not take the harness on the plane with the CO2 cartridge attached. I unscrewed the cartridge and gave it to an attendant who offered to disposed of it, stuffed my harness in the checked luggage, and was on my way, grumpy.

A couple of hours later I’m on the flight, and as we taxi around the runway, I am watching the safety video – watch the linked video and you’ll understand why. At about 2:39, the dishy sexy oh so smooth voiced French woman mentions about the gilet de sauvetage or life jacket. And note that as each of the models dons a life jacket, each and every one of them has a CO2 cartridge, just like the one I had that was confiscated. Merde.

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