16 Jun, 2010 | Posted by: photosource

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My Story

# 23

SCENE: Europe/Africa
TIME: Mid-20th Century

“It looks almost like an ocean out there!” I shouted to Rudi as we sped along the southern coastline of France.
I looked, and for a moment thought I saw Africa on the other side. “And one day, we will get to Africa and look back across the Mediterranean and see Europe,” I thought, “Where I am right now.” If we can get to Africa, I will look back to this side, remembering all our good times in France: Toby, the crazy pot party, Lily, the songfest under the bridge, the Paris caves, Mr. Blanchard’s wine, Mr. Rouge’s farm, and others I haven’t mentioned like little Edith. On her parent’s farm as Rudi and I talked with her parents after supper, little 5-year- old, Edith, who fell asleep trying to keep awake past her bedtime to listen to her American and German visitors.

Traveling along the Mediterranean reminded me of Ocean City, Maryland, my home town, where a walk on the beach meant a broad expanse of fine white sand. We found a stretch of it our first night out camping. But another night it was a pebbly beach where I snapped a picture of a lone woman scavenging for whatever the Mediterranean waves would offer her.

Beachcombing is an art, I suppose, all over the world. Whenever a nor’easter with a 40-mile an hour wind passed through our town, those of us kids who were beachcombers would be out on the surfside the next day looking for stuff. One kid had a coin finder, I usually brought along a magnifying glass. We searched the water’s edge for interesting objects that the ocean would give up after a big storm.
During the war some days it was a tacky job because whenever a German U-boat sank an American tanker offshore, oil from the sunken tanker would wash ashore and for about a week the beach would be left with a black coat of seaweed covered with what we called sticky “Tar”. My mother would make us wash our feet with kerosene before we were allowed back in the house. By the way, she was a volunteer during the war for the WCCGAAP, I think they cal led it, the Women’s Civilian Coast Guard Auxiliary Air Patrol. Her job was to sit high up in the pillbox in the sand dunes up the beach north of town from 3pm to 5pm and watch for suspicious activity out on the ocean. There were only 950 people living in Ocean City during the winter time back then, so the U.S. Air Force was grateful for people like Muzzie, that’s what we called her, to go up there and volunteer.

People are still finding stuff along the beach. One time even a body washed up and a coin from a Spanish galleon. There has been debris that washed ashore from sunken German U-boats, crashed airplanes, and exotic seashells from the ocean bottom. One time, and this was when I was younger, I was walking the shore with my mother, I guess I was 9-10 yrs old, I picked something up and Muzzie suddenly screamed right there in public with sunbathers all around and said “Put that down! Drop I! Don’t touch it!” I had thought it was some kind of jellyfish. It looked like a colorless balloon. I wanted to blow it up. It was a condom.

The U.S. Coast Guard concrete pillbox on the sand dunes north of town stayed up there all alone long after the war until land developers realized the real estate potential of the ocean front and Ocean City became a vacation spot for people from Baltimore and Washington. The wheeler-dealers took over and that’s when the town lost it.
Back to France. Rudi and I camped out along the beach that night, and in the morning, headed toward the looming foothills of the Pyrenees off in the distance. Perpignan was a friendly town with the influence of Spain and Arabic-looking people. We probably were following the trail of the Romans to Spain, and the back and forth movement over the centuries of Arabs, Jews, and French who were either making an exodus, conquering something, getting kicked out or just trying to find a place to settled down, and all squeezed between the great mountains on the north and the sea on the south. It left a feisty mix of people and we were feeling it.
We visited the local newspaper office in Perpignan and one of the reporters gave us his advice about going to Spain.
Don’t. “There’s another Hitler over there,” He said.
Well, there was no way we were going to get to Morocco if we didn’t go through Spain. His advice didn’t dissuade us.

On the road again the next day. We entered Spain by La Junquera. At the border, the Spanish customs officers were all dressed in fancy government uniforms, like they were on a movie set. If we both hadn’t been carrying guitars on our motor scooter, I bet they would have dickered with us for a couple hours, what with us looking like a couple of drifters.

Although the landscape of southern France was a gradual change, I felt an almost sudden change in the people. I was expecting strikingly beautiful girls, guitars, castanets and stomping heels, and hopefully not the kind of boot clicking from storm troopers.

Maybe the newspaper reporter back in Perpignan was right.
We drove toward Barcelona, the Spanish port with a history of Roman roads and Gothic architecture. As we sped along the rolling hills lined with stubby cork trees, and olive groves we shouted out our first impressions to each other in the onrushing wind.
“Where’s all the traffic?” Rudi shouted. “This road has no cars on it, no traffic, it’s like an airplane runway!
“Yeah. I’ve only seen a couple military trucks and a tourist!” Civilization ended at the border. I shouted back to him above the wind.
It was weird, it was like the towns and the countryside, someone had sounded an air raid alarm and everyone was in the shelters.
Later we learned there are no air raid shelters, it’s just that it was siesta time in Spain, and from around noon to 2 or 3 o’clock you just don’t try or do anything outside, it’s too h ot.
Each little village we passed through had a village square and a traffic policeman stationed there. Why, I don’t know because there was no traffic. The policeman would stand in all that heat in his round traffic podium and waved when we drove by. Then probably returned to sleep under his large canvas shade umbrella.
Later in the afternoon, along the roadsides and in the little towns, the people waved and shouted with the frenzy of a political rally when they would spot the guitar strapped to the front of our scooter.
“They’re really friendly people!” Rudi shouted up to me.
I shouted back, “Yeah! Look at them wave!” and we both waved back to a group of shouting men who were sitting on a roadside embankment.
It was now the middle of June, and the countryside was getting bleached by the sizzling Spanish sun. Everything seemed defined in tones of black and white.

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