Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sky Marshal Story - Paris Trip - #12

During the time I was temporarily posted as Sky Marshal (these days, Air Marshal) out of New York I covered flights in teams of two, or three, from JFK to a number of European cities including Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London, Paris, Lisbon and Rome. Since I had been stationed as a soldier in Germany some years earlier I was relatively familiar with the first four cities on the list, but the place I had visited the most while I was soldier was Paris.

I can trace my original affinity for the City of Lights to two influences. The first was my mother, who being half-French thought the Gauls were superior in all things. The second, and even stronger, influence was the movies. In the early Sixties I was a movie geek who haunted the foreign movie houses in West Los Angeles near UCLA where I was nominally then a student. Those were the years of the New Wave in French cinema. The term in French, “nouvelle vague” is actually more revealing since the plotting in so many of those movies was pretty vague to me.

In spite of all that “cinema,” one of my favorite movies from that period was a piece of Hollywood confetti called Irma La Douce, which takes place in Paris mainly around Les Halles, the historic central produce market shoe horned into one of the most ancient quarters of the city. I loved that frenetic, crowded and pungent madhouse where rattling scooters laden with cases of iced fish would shoot down the narrow cobblestone streets artfully dodging beat up vans hauling beef carcasses, and hand trucks of fresh produce.

I’ve since lost count of the number of times when, during the pre-dawn hours, I sat half-awake at a back table in a grimy worker’s café nursing a bowl of onion soup while waiting for the magic hour of 6AM so I could to check into a hotel without incurring a charge for the previous day. But as Moustache, one of the characters in Irma La Douce, is fond of saying, “that’s another story.”

On this particular flight we landed at the original Orly airport. After clearing French customs the Sky Marshals had to pay a visit to the airport gendarmes and turn in our weapons. Unlike the German polizei, the Flics didn’t trouble us with so much paperwork. They merely took our guns, tossed them in a heavy canvas bag, and gave us each a flimsy carbon of the receipt. “Merci, now scram. And stay out of trouble,” was the gist of their parting words. Since French police carried tiny little automatic pistols that could easily be mistaken for the trick cigarette lighters popular in the 1940’s, I always suspected they fondled our guns as soon as we left.

Since we were not supposed to lodge with airline crews, I had to find another hotel for the night. Still, I was able to catch the crew bus from the airport into the city. During the ride into town I regaled a bunch of the stewardesses with my experiences a half-dozen earlier as a soldier who spent his weekend passes bumming around Paris. In those days New York was what they called a “junior” base for PanAm, and this happened to be the first trip to Paris for many of the girls. In short order, it was arranged that I would squire several of them around the city, and show them some of my old haunts, most especially my favorite pizza place near the Sorbonne University.

The crew bus dropped us all off at the – quite nice – PamAm designated hotel. From there I caught a cab to my – not so nice – hotel in a much less ritzy part of town. Since it was never quite worked out whether Sky Marshals were to be totally undercover, or considered part of the airplane's crew…we ended up being neither. Once on the ground, we were just tourists who happened to be leaving town the next day.

The black Peugeot taxi dropped me off at a nondescript Parisian fleabag. I checked in without even checking out the room, left my gear with the night porter…the less time I spent in my cramped, dingy room the better…and headed back to the crew hotel.

In short order I was back in the lobby of the crew hotel where I located the house phone and dialed up one of the girls. She told me that they just finishing changing out of their uniforms and would be downstairs any minute, which meant I had a good half-hour to kill. The hotel had a bar adjacent to the lobby so I went in, took a chair and ordered a glass the rusty tap water that passes for beer in France. Seated a couple of chairs away were two PamAm flight officers who I recognized as part of the crew I had just flown in with. They were deep in conversation and didn’t seem to notice me so I nursed the sudsy tap water and waited for the girls.

After a few minutes of semi-eavesdropping on their conversion I heard one of them declare something to the effect of, “Hey let’s get a couple of girls and do the town.” At that point, the other one – I think he was the First Officer which is to say co-pilot – turned to face me. He made eye contact and said to his friend while gesturing at me, “That’s a great idea, but HE’S got them all…” Sky Marshals were never all that popular with the boys in the cockpit, who prior to our arrival had considered stewardesses to be their private lovestock.

Eventually, the girls bubbled out of the elevator and into the hotel lobby – all freshly made-up, mini-skirted and smelling great. As I recall each one was better looking than the next. They collected me and we headed out for an evening dans La Cite des Lumieres leaving behind two sullen flight officers. You know, it never occurred to me to ask them to join us.

That evening Paris was at her noisy, crowded, smelly and vibrant best. We ate oven baked pizza with students from the Sorbonne, poked our heads inside the Moulin Rouge, drank café presse at Les Deux Magots, walked a few blocks and caught the end of a session at Le Petit Journal St-Michel, a Jazz “cave” in the Quartier Latin. We finished the night sipping Cointreau in at a bistro on the Place de Montmartre a block or two away from the lighted Sacre Coeur.

However, that was the year they demolished Les Halles, so we had no onion soup.

© Stephen Rustad, 2007

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