Skip to main content

Prince Albert and King Lothar

ISSUE:  Summer 1997

In a long Foreign Service career I had some difficult posts— Panama when anti-U.S.feelings were running high; Moscow in the 1960’s; Mogadishu, as Somalia neared collapse. But none of these was as tough as my months as an Army recruit in Missouri. God knows the Army was nothing I had predicted for myself. When I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth, I planned to go on after graduation to earn a doctorate, marry some rich and lovely girl, and teach Russian in some pleasant New England college. The Korean War was ending. I was confident that the draft would end soon, too.

By the time I began my second year of graduate work at Columbia I could not abide the thought of spending more than two years in New York. The city was too big and noisy, even for a Chicagoan like me. My main subject of study was Soviet literature and nothing of interest was being written, or at least published, in the Soviet Union. Yet my professor, whom I thought a fat bureaucratic toad, insisted that those of us who entered his department in odd-numbered years (I had entered in 1953) should concentrate on the Soviet period, while the fortunate ones entering in even years could study Aksakov and Afanasy Fyet and the creation of byliny.Besides all this, I was in love and wanted to get married, to a lovely girl as planned, though not a rich one. I had a generous Ford Foundation scholarship, and it would pay me more if I was married, but I wanted to support my wife. So I gave up my thoughts of a doctorate and teaching in a small college and took the Foreign Service exams. The Foreign Service would certainly mean travel, and next to teaching I wanted to travel. I had always envied my father, who traveled widely from the time he shipped out on a tramp steamer at 19.

Somewhat to my surprise I passed the Foreign Service written examination, which in those days was a three-day ordeal. This gave me the right to go to Washington to take the orals, one day in May 1955. Four stern examiners at the State Department subjected me to hard questions, my throat went totally dry after a half-hour, but I took a drink of water and I passed. Then I walked in bliss down Constitution Avenue back toward Union Station, and strolled under the big trees on the grounds of the Capitol thinking, I shall be a servant of the nation.

But the first service coming was the military kind. The draft had not ended. The Army wanted me, and I was too near-sighted to go to officers’ training school. My love and I got married in June, as soon as I got my M.A., and we went on a honeymoon paid for by most of our savings. Then I said goodbye to her, and together with two dozen other young men boarded a sleeping car in Chicago for an overnight train trip. My sleep ended suddenly before dawn the next morning, with a sergeant shouting at us to get out of our berths. We new privates had reached our new home, Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

I spent the next eight weeks, from August until October, in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood. It was rigorous, and all the harder for me because I had gotten soft. I had stopped smoking a year before and gained 15 pounds, and in graduate school I got little exercise. Yet the only really bad part of basic was the lack of sleep. The order for lights out came sometime after ten in the evening, and the platoon sergeant woke us every morning before five. Then we did calisthenics under the oak trees and ran to the mess hall where, after chin-ups on the bars, we stood outside waiting to be admitted to the home of scrambled dried eggs and bitter coffee. As we waited, dawn came to Missouri and a pale green lit the castles of the sky. I stood and thought of my young wife far away in Chicago, and looked up into the lovely delicate clouds, and thought that Heaven lay there and someday we would be there, she my cloudy queen and I her knight.

But for the time being, life was six-mile forced marches through the oak woods with heavy packs and rifles and sitting in a hot building listening to a lecture on machine guns (ON YOUR FEET MEN, two of you was sleeping!) and firing the M-l rifle on the ranges that were a long dusty march from anywhere. Our company commander was a fine black captain not long back from Korea. He found that we had some amateur musicians among us, the first sergeant somewhere rustled up a couple of drums and horns, and when we marched we had march music and we sang. It was the way things ought to be. We were getting tough, and we felt like soldiers.

We were Company B, and Company B had been filled with recruits whose last names began with B.My immediate bunk-mates were Prince Bentley, Bob Branham, and Ellis Brown. Bentley and Brown were black Southerners, Branham and I white Midwesterners. I had until now lived in a white world. I had no black high-school classmates. Our Dartmouth class of 700 had four black members, and none was a close friend of mine. After the first few days we four bunk-mates began to get on well; after two weeks we were comrades.

When we had been a full month at Leonard Wood, the company commander gave some of us—including me, thank God—a weekend pass. Well, not a full weekend pass; but it was enough to let me get to St. Louis and spend Saturday night and half of Sunday with my wife. She was lovelier than I remembered, and she seemed pleased that the plump student was now hard and tanned. We spent a happy night together, and went to the St. Louis Zoo the next morning to see the elephant show and the chimpanzee who imitated Liberace. By late afternoon I was back at the shoddy wooden barracks of Company B, surrounded by other soldiers, far from cities or civilians. It had been a short weekend but a grand one. None of my three comrades had left camp. Poor Branham, a married man from Ohio, was especially envious, not that he would have had time to reach his wife even if he’d had a pass. Prince Bentley was philosophical. He had left a girlfriend and a baby back in luka, Mississippi—but it was her baby, not his, he said—and in any case he figured that soon we’d be either in the Far East or in Europe, where sweet new things were sure to be in store.

Prince had never had it so good as in the Army. He was six feet tall, and when we met he weighed 140 pounds, all sinew. The first morning outside the mess hall he did seventeen chin-ups, five or six more than anyone else in Company B.Three weeks later he had gained considerable weight on the Army food, which he didn’t mind telling us was the best food he’d ever had. Now, though, with the added weight he could do only a dozen chin-ups. By the time we left Leonard Wood he must have weighed 175, and he looked magnificent, but the chin-ups were down to eight or nine. The platoon sergeant regularly accused him, unjustly, of malingering.

Prince had A for a middle initial. One night as we sat cleaning our rifles, it came out that the A stood for Albert. His mother had named him Prince Albert—for the tobacco, not the consort. When our platoon sergeant, a white from the Kentucky hills, heard this he roared with laughter. From then on Prince Albert got railed at hard and often, and especially at the chinning bar. The sergeant didn’t like blacks, although our captain and a third of our company were black, and he especially didn’t like Prince. Maybe it was because Prince was so easy-going. No malingerer, he had a graceful way of moving that struck the sergeant as lazy. So he caught hell, at least when the company commander wasn’t around. Prince just smiled, and winked at us, and thought how soon he’d be in Tokyo.

But now they told us that it would take a little longer to get to Japan, or Korea, or Germany than we had realized. Army regulations required that a soldier have 16 weeks of training to be overseasqualified. Our basic training course was only eight weeks. Therefore they were going to give additional training to those of us bound abroad, as all of us apparently were. Fort Leonard Wood was an Engineer center; the economic thing was to keep us at Leonard Wood and give us Engineer training.

Meanwhile, we were told that anyone with proficiency in a foreign language could take a language exam. I took the Russian and Spanish exams, and scored high in both. A personnel clerk called me in and told me that without doubt I would be sent to an intelligence unit in Germany, in order to make use of my Russian. That sounded fine to me. Meanwhile, the clerk continued, I had to have eight weeks’ more training just like everyone else. It wouldn’t make sense to give me expensive training, like the tractor-scraper driver course, since the added eight weeks was just a formality to qualify me to go abroad and use my Russian. So I ended up in the combat engineer course, along with the least bright privates of Fort Leonard Wood—the ones not bright enough to qualify for tractor-scraper school. Fortunately my three comrades came too, Bentley and Branham and Brown; but all in all it was a pretty uninspiring group, my new training company. It struck me that a number of our members represented the dregs of the Mississippi Basin.

Training was pretty uninspiring, too. We learned how to fill sandbags; how to drive nails into boards; how to read a compass and a map (our most intellectual exercise, and puzzling for many of the boys); and how to build pontoon bridges and Bailey bridges. Bridge-building was hard work, but land of fun and satisfying, when we watched our final product carry trucks across the Big Piney River.

There were two other men besides myself in the new company who could claim a higher education. Both had been sent to fill sandbags for the same reason as me. They spoke a foreign language, and were destined for intelligence work. One was a young lawyer from Milwaukee. The other was a singer who had come home from the Berlin Opera in order to get drafted, and who in later years enjoyed a very successful career. Bentley and Branham and Bosworth were my buddies, no doubt about that, but with the lawyer and the bass-baritone I formed a small circle of, well, intellectuals. We might be muddy privates, but we had gone to college.

Soon the small circle of intellectuals made friends with one of the training noncoms. At a training site, the circle members had observed, the noncoms carried clipboards. Ostensibly these were used to hold pads on which to record things, but our analysis was that mainly the clipboards served as symbols of authority. One day, when our company was to build a bridge, our noncom friend issued a clipboard to each of the three of us. And it worked! Suddenly we were Staff, not just recruits. We stood by busily recording things on our clipboards while our comrades lugged heavy pieces of Bailey bridge to the river’s edge. Our act worked well for most of our remaining weeks, and we saved ourselves a lot of lugging although occasionally some sergeant would remember that we, too, were privates. Solzhenitsyn writes of labor-camp inmates who saved themselves from literally killing jobs, with a Russian version of this same technique. But ours was an independent Western invention.

Fall passed and the winter came on. I was very lonely for my wife. The oak leaves turned brown but stayed on the trees. The days turned short and cold. I still remember doing calisthenics in the cold dark before dawn, while the withered oak leaves rattled in a black north wind. Every Friday evening after chow we were marched to the dispensary for shots, one in each arm. On the third or fourth Friday, half of our company—the latter half of the alphabet, so not me or Prince or the other boys from the old Company B—got a cholera shot. Next Friday we expected our cholera shot, but we didn’t get one. Rumors began to fly. The most credible rumor was that those with cholera shots were bound for Korea, and the rest of us for Europe. I hoped it was true. The Army in Korea was still living in tents, and I didn’t fancy living in a tent in Korea even if the war was over. We completed our second eight weeks of training, and for once the rumor was correct. We, the Europe-bound, boarded an eastbound troop train one freezing morning, and 24 hours later we were at Fort Dix in New Jersey, to be sorted out and consigned to troop ships.

At Fort Dix they fed each man’s name into a computer. The computer considered what it had been told about me and produced a card which said I had been assigned as engineer-helper to CO A 97 ENGR BN (CONS) APO 122 TOUL FRA.France? An Engineer battalion? Where was the promised intelligence unit in Germany? I managed to get hold of a personnel clerk, who consulted the computer. The computer said it knew I had completed combat engineer training; it knew nothing of any expertise in Russian. But, I asked, can’t this be changed? After all I have a master’s degree in Soviet studies. No, said the clerk, it cannot be changed now. But when you get to the other side, just talk to your personnel officer; he’ll fix things up. Sure he will.

That evening they graciously gave us an hour off to go telephone our families. I ran the half-mile to the telephone center, stood in line for 40 minutes, and finally as the hour was almost over I got my wife on the line in Chicago.”Quick, get the atlas! I’m being sent to T-o-u-l in France. It must be Toulouse; but see if there’s a place called Toul in France.” Pause. “. . . Yeah. Yes, there is.” Mary Jane, “WHERE IS IT?” “About an inch and a half east of Paris.” “WHAT? Look at the scale!” “Oh, maybe it’s a hundred miles. I bet you’ll like it. I love you. I’ll come join you as soon as I can. . .”

The next day was the 22nd of January and we sailed out of Brooklyn on a gray mild afternoon. The skyscrapers of Manhattan receded, we passed the Narrows, and there was Coney Island where my wife and I had gone wading in May, the year before, when we were first in love. Now a small Coast Guard helicopter came out and circled us and flew back toward the city. I envied the pilot, who would sleep in his own bed tonight. We pushed out into the gray sea, bound for unknown Europe.

Our bunks were in the hold, in tiers of six. The ship’s heating and ventilating system produced a temperature up in the 80’s at top-bunk level and not much over 50 for the bottom bunks, just off the deck. My bunk was halfway up, which—in relative terms—was ideal. Poor Prince Albert had a freezing bottom bunk. The farther out to sea we went, and the rougher it became, the less Prince noticed the temperature or anything else. He stayed seasick and in his bunk for almost all the ten days of the crossing. I was not sure anyone had died from seasickness; I thought he might. As for me, I stayed on deck as much as I could. It was a crummy troopship, but we were on a voyage, and it might lead me to adventure. Goodbye finally to that shabby camp in Missouri; now for something else. I watched the waves, and thought deep thoughts about the little ship and myself and our place in time and space. On the third day I too got seasick. Metaphysics became pure nausea, from the smell of brass polish which I was sent to apply to fittings in the head, every morning after scrambled eggs. The troop lounge reeked of cigarette smoke. The sleeping compartments stunk of sweat. Even on deck, the sea air was fouled by what the ventilators brought up from the bilges.

But on the eighth morning I saw a lighthouse amid the waters, and then the green low Scilly Isles. On the ninth morning, coming on deck before dawn I saw the lights of Dover harbor. On the tenth morning, we sailed up the Weser to dock at Bremerhaven, and watched its snowy piers and Germans all day from the deck. Finally at six p.m.we boarded a troop train at dockside and went off into Europe: Bremen, Osnabruck, Munster, Essen, Duisburg, as I lay in the top bunk of a six-man compartment and peered out at the dim night landscape of Saxony and Westphalia and the rebuilt cities.

Sleep was short for me that night. I woke again at first light, after Coblenz. I finished my breakfast quickly in the mess car and went back to stand in the corridor by our compartment, looking out the window. The window pulled down easily. We were riding through the cool, early-morning Mosel valley. The train stopped for a while across the river from a hilly town and in the still dawn a church bell began ringing slowly, and another church began to answer with a lighter bell.

All was fresh and fascinating. I had no thought for now of being in the cloddish Army, a private en route to an unknown battalion. I was a traveler in a new country, with new discoveries every minute: new kinds of power-lines, new trees, new shapes for farms, an unknown style of railroad station, a different architecture entirely, new people, strange shapes even in the clouds.

Metz: a dozen of us changed trains. I stood first on French soil; drank some French coffee. Nancy: a wait for another train, and a beer in the station cafe. Everywhere were new objects, new men and women; new glasses, bottles, words, newspapers. Then the train came, a little one, and we traveled through a mild damp countryside with slim tree-lines and small fields, and we came to Toul. Two weeks ago I had never heard of Toul. Yet even before Christ it had been a capital of the Celts, and later it was one of the Three Bishoprics, and the seat of Joan of Arc’s bishop. The old cathedral stood over the roofs of the town as we new men waited for a truck to take us to the American base. The day was very mild. I was willing to believe that in this country the beginning of February almost meant spring. I wished I might have the afternoon free, and go walking through the town and the countryside. But here came the truck, and off we went to the Toul Engineer Depot, APO 122.I spent the rest of the day there listening to the veterans of a year or two tell us that it wasn’t a bad place. I learned that service in France had an unexpected financial advantage over service in Germany for married privates like me. In Germany, there were furnished quarters for officers and married non-coms but not for married privates. In France there were no such quarters, and so an allowance in lieu of quarters was paid instead—and, by some quirk, it was paid to married privates too! I quickly forgot that I’d studied Russian. APO 122 was the place for me.

At six the next morning we were back in a truck, headed up to Verdun to report in at 97th Engineer headquarters. I had the furthest rear seat and looked out the back at the narrow foreign road, early in the morning, foggy and gray, with every few minutes a huddled stone village. Then came a larger place, and looking back at the name sign as we left it I saw it was St. Mihiel. Suddenly it came to me that this was really the country where the war, the First War, had been, the place of old photos of men in puttees and muddy roads and old-fashioned guns. And so we reached Verdun, an ancient place full of military barracks. Our battalion headquarters was in the Caserne Maginot, in a long four-storied old building. I kept quiet about the Russian, and was pleased to learn that a graduate degree qualified me to be a clerk. I would stay in Verdun and peck at a typewriter, not go back to Toul and work a shovel.

I moved into the old barracks. The next day the mild weather turned to frigid cold. It was the great cold of 1956 that Europeans still remembered two decades afterwards. The gentle Meuse that flows through Verdun froze a foot thick, imprisoning the barges. Evenings I went downtown with new buddies to the Brasserie Universelle. We drank beer and played Sidney Bechet records on the jukebox and we all got drunk and the C.Q.threatened us with Article 14, when we got back to the Caserne. Or I walked alone into town at night, watching snow fall and the people chatting in restaurants and cafes. Then spring came, and my wife came, and we moved into a garret and bought a little car and began to investigate Europe. We had no idea where the future would take us. As we spent our weekends busily touring Paris and Domremy and Luxembourg and Vittel and Trier, I hoped that somehow in the future for us there might be more of Europe, more countries of ruins of castles, Roman battlegrounds and camps of Attila, green vastnesses in the forest. Europe captured me. Even now I think of places in Lorraine where lilies of the valley bloom, up in a woods of beech trees; and we pick the flowers, looking down at an old road that maybe once Brunhilde traveled, 12 or 14 centuries ago. Even now it seems I stand and watch the Meuse flow slowly by, little gudgeons darting in the water, on Sunday morning at the Place de la Digue. Again the apple-branch dips in the April wind, the delicate clouds roll over us and rain falls, the soldiers curse Verdun, again my wife wakes me in the early morning in our room beneath the eaves on Rue St. Sauveur.

It could be bitter in Verdun, sitting as a clerk in a dank building when so much was outside beyond the wall: the trees and valleys, cafes and castles and people. I quarreled over papers with the morose Army clerks, while the happy bargemen sailed down to Belgium and the farmers worked the thick black earth. Yet it seemed I had the meaning of Verdun from the first days I was there.

It was at Verdun, a few years after the death of Charlemagne, that his grandsons met and divided up Europe. What Charles the Bald got became France; what Louis the German got became Germany; Lothar got what was in between and it was fought over for the next millennium. To come to Verdun as a soldier in 1956 was to come late to a cold old cauldron, an ancient charnel-house. Just east of here on the battleground stood the Ossuaire, with the bones of a quarter million men slaughtered here in the First World War. The signs at the edge of unkempt woods still warned Danger de mort.The trenches were still there, and from time to time a walker would still be blown up by an old shell. I was glad I had not been at Verdun in 1916.But I thought I would have enjoyed those first summers of the century, when no one knew what was coming. Then I would imagine some young man who had come to France in the summer of 1912, who lay in the afternoon grass and sun on the hills by Domremy, and hiked through Alsace, and climbed green Hohneck as we did once; who got his guts blown out in that same country, not much later.

In fine evenings of French summer, after supper, we walked around the corner from the Rue St. Sauveur to the Place de la Digue, a park and promenade along the Meuse with a double line of chestnut trees and a bandstand. We would walk to the end of the promenade, down a flight of steps to the towpath by the Meuse, and along the towpath to the lock. Sometimes we would meet a barge, and stay to watch its great bulk raised or lowered in the lock’s deep whirling waters. Then we strolled onward. Not far beyond the lock we had left the town behind and were out in the country, pastures on our left and the Meuse on our right. Free and easy, everything seemed there. I was away from the stagnant life of the Army, away from the officers who drove big cars down the narrow streets and the soldiers who got drunk in the bars; away from the world of the Verdunois, polite, bourgeois and shabby. Both worlds pressed on me, neither appealed. But the evenings by the Meuse were peace and beauty. Occasionally I would think of Prince Bentley, who was on his way to a battalion at Kaiserslautern when we shook hands on the dock. I wondered what he made of all this Europe. More than enough, maybe.

Years passed. We came back home, and then went traveling again. Our Army left France. France became rich and sleek. It could not be, I thought, that the Meuse was still as quiet as I remembered it. Yet I used to dream that we might go back and live with the farmers of Boucq or Haudainville, and hope against change, and spend our spring looking at the apple trees in bloom, and the lilies of the valley.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading