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The darkness fell and the sun slipped below the horizon to bed for the night. It was when the Officer’s Club in stylish 1943 Paris, France began to show life. World War II had just gotten into full swing, and it was a grave time, but we still had the chance for a little R&R. It was cool for a spring day, and one needed a light coat to ward off the slight chill, which beckoned impending frost overnight. I couldn’t quite make out the words, but it sounded like a Dorsey number on the radio, full of life and one just wanted to jump up on the dance floor and take advantage of it. Ah, my youth. Enjoy it while you have it, for you’ll never see it again once it is gone, so hold closely to the memory.
The moon rose and the stars peered out from their hiding places, where they always were. They just couldn’t be seen earlier when old Sol was dancing about like a kid splashing in his plastic pool. The lights burst forth and from the distance, it appeared to be a place that would have stories to tell, but bear with me while I tell you mine. It was from decades ago, and the most beautiful thing that I have ever witnessed, so gather round and sit cross legged with me by the fire while I warm up these old bones. After you hear this, make sure that you pass it on to as many others as possible, so that they may enjoy it, too.
These were the days when the US Army and the Air Force hadn’t split. The uniforms were brown for the personnel and it was infantrymen and fliers. Nobody was any better, nobody had any more than anyone else. The forties were a fantastic decade. Some called it prosperity, but I called it the time of my life.
There was an ace flier called Hendricks. Nobody knew his first name, it was just Hendricks. He was a young, cocky Second Lieutenant, just out of OCS, one of the ninety-day wonders. He was your classic pilot: tall, thin, light-haired with mustache, very clean cut and the personality of a movie star. Everyone liked him and would go out of their way to do anything for him, even before he asked. Charisma, that’s what it was.
He didn’t go out too often, as he was rather shy, but when he did manage to loosen up, he always had a good time. You’d think that he’d go out more, but he spent most of his time reading and writing fiction as well as non-fiction, and he was pretty good at it.
Tonight was going to be a special night for him, one that actually was the turning point in his life. He walked into the Club and exchanged pleasantries with a couple of fliers by the door, each with a drink. He waved to the bartender for a cola, that was all he usually drank, except for the occasional ginger ale. He continued on and chatted with an older couple, his CO and the wife. That didn’t last long, because when he looked at a table by the window, his gaze was captured, and for all practical purposes, his dull life changed right then and there.
Seated at that table-for-two, with a white linen table cloth, accented with yellow rose, was the most beautiful sight that I, myself, had ever seen. She was tall and long legged, with dark brown, wavy hair done in a bob. Even though she was seated sideways, her soft, gentle face looked angelic and what captured him were those beautiful eyes. Oh, he was an eye man. Forget everything else, the limpid pools always came first: he knew the eye color of everyone that he had ever met.
Overcoming the shyness, he strutted over to that table, as though he had just won the race across the English Channel. Her cigarette was just barely out of the silver cigarette case when he flipped that lighter open and had it lit, as though he had done it a million times before. The truth was, that even though he didn’t smoke, he always flicked that lighter. It was more of a nervous habit than anything, just to keep that hand busy when he couldn’t think of anything else to do.
She eyed him quizzically, as it was rather odd that he had raced over like he did to light her Pall Mall. She surely liked his looks, as a matter of fact, he had a distinct air of mystery about him, and that smile was worth a million bucks.
Her cherry red lips held that cigarette and she let out a long puff of smoke after it was lit.
“What was that all about?” the sultry voice inquired.
Oh, what a voice, he thought. It truly went with the classic look. “You looked like you needed a light,” he answered honestly.
“I would have waited for a slower response,” she replied.
Chanel Number 5 was her perfume of choice, and it was ever so delicate, mixed with the smoke that she created. Together, the aroma was intoxicating.
“They call me Hendricks,” he stated. “And you’re?”
“First of all, “they” can call you whatever they like. I prefer to be on a first name basis, and Hendricks sounds like a surname to me.” She got right to the point.
He smiled shyly. “ It’s David, Ma’am.”
“I like David. I’m Athena.”
The introduction was short, sweet and to the point. Both sat at the table and talked for hours, about everything and about nothing. Hendricks bubbled with conversation and lacked for none. It was amazing how comfortable he felt around her. They got up to leave at last call, and Hendricks asked to see her again.
“Tonight is my last night off this week,” she said. She opened her purse, took out a piece of notepaper and wrote down her telephone number. “This is my number. Call me around 10 a.m. early in the week and we’ll talk about Friday. That is, if you’re free.”
Hendricks stood, and pulled Athena’s chair out of her way as she stood. He always was the perfect gentleman, even since he was a child he minded his manners. He had been taught well. As he walked the Air Force nurse home to her section of the base housing, they chatted about friends and families, small talk. They bid each other good night.
As the weeks and months passed, they came to know each other well and in nearly a year’s time, Hendricks proposed and Athena accepted. It wasn’t a whirlwind courtship, it was slow and methodical. Yes, Hendricks to the core. She enjoyed his romantic ways, for there was always a surprise around the corner, when least expected. He loved her persuasive charm and intuitive nature. It was a match made beyond heaven. Had he not been at the Officer’s Club that night, who knows what would have happened, but I’ll bet you anything, it never would have even been close to this.
Every Friday night, Hendricks and Athena went to the Club to relax and let their hair down, literally for Athena. Hendricks would even get her to dance once in a while, even though she claimed to have two left feet. One never would know it, but most of the time, she actually stood on his feet, but I don’t think that anybody even noticed but me. Also, the funny thing was, that neither drank alcohol after that first night. Athena switched to Perrier with a lemon twist, which lasted until the day she died.
Next thing I knew, Hendricks was promoted to First Lieutenant, and besides the pay increase and more responsibility, his name was printed on the side of his plane. He passed the rigorous tests and became a Flying Tiger, as he had the speed and agility to maneuver on a dime. He and his comrades were stars in their own right. Mission after mission was a success.
Then came the wedding bells. They were married on base and the chaplain presided. Everyone was there in attendance, right from lowly private to the Commander, a four star general. There were flowers everywhere, and Hendricks’ captain’s little girl was the flower girl, and Athena’s little nephew, Roger, was ring bearer. Both sets of parents were delightful hosts and got on well together. Needless to say, everything was as perfect as it could be.
Two months later, Hendricks was a Captain, the war in full swing with the French theater being the most active. There were a lot of casualties, but the Flying Tigers were utterly invincible, their record impeccable with no losses. The Germans were doing their best to hold on, the Japanese were beginning to fall apart. The Italians were trying their darndest to do what they could, but it sure appeared to be a losing battle.
Hendricks and Athena bought a little house off base, and turned into quite the entertainers, but don’t worry, the Friday vigils continued at the club. Athena was fitting into married life quite well, and you could see Hendricks constantly looking down at his right ring finger, obviously ecstatic with the life that he was leading.
Not to anyone’s surprise, Athena came to the Club with Hendricks all aglow, and he was just completely out of character, just talking nonstop. He even sang, “Embraceable You,” at the piano while Athena kept their table safe. She was absolutely gorgeous tonight, and nobody could quite put their finger on what was going on until everything was in full swing.
All the tables were put together around the room, save for a small dance floor, and Hendricks stood up, and tapped on his glass to get everyone’s attention.
“Everyone, there’s something that I’d like to let you in on. This war has been hell, but there’s a glimmer of hope, even in this. I’m going to be a father!” Hendricks was beaming from ear to ear even before he came out with the whole sentence.
Then came the standing ovation, all the women huddled around Athena, discussing a baby shower, where it would be, and who was going to handle what. Also, they discussed baby names, origins of names, and everything else in between. On the other side of the room, all the men were slapping Our Hero on the back, and he was handing out cigars like candy.
In the distance, the rumble of the war was on, including the screaming of the diving planes, but for the moment everyone was involved in the happiest of times, and just for a short while, it was almost like they were all in Hometown, USA. And for all practical purposes, it could have been just that.
The announcement came over the loudspeaker that Paris had been bombed and calling for all personnel to mobilize. Hendricks was the first one out and he directed his company as each one emerged from the door, which never even had time to shut. Athena brought up the rear, taking charge of her nurses. The race was on. Everyone knew exactly what to do. When an air raid came, it was second nature to do what had to be done.
The Flying Tigers soon were in their planes and heading for their target. The enemy was just south of Paris, most likely done with their offensive maneuvers for the night, but the Allies were primed and just getting started. The Brits were already radioing their positions in code, and the biggest battle was about to begin. The Brits and the Tigers braced themselves and pursued the enemy like ticks on a dog’s back, and they didn’t even know what hit them until it was nearly too late.
A couple of the Tigers went down through sheer luck on the part of the Japanese and Hendricks was one of the two. Hearts were pounding, the adrenaline was flowing, and the men who loved him were searching for him even before the plane spiraled down to the Atlantic. Then a panicked voice came over the radio, saying, “Tell Athena that I love her.” Hendricks couldn’t swim.
When the plane was located a half hour later, Hendricks was inside the cockpit, barely breathing, radio still in hand. All the ribs on his right side had been broken and a shard from one pierced his heart. As he looked at the medic from the rescue chopper that was hovering over him on a tether line, he started to speak, but passed out from the major loss of blood. He was flown to base hospital and the best heart surgeon from Paris proper was called to respond. Athena was waiting at the ER doors, shattered, with her second in command gripping her hand so tightly that the knuckles were white.
Hendricks’ surgical crew worked for eight hours and transfusion after transfusion later, he was still barely alive. He was tough as nails and had a wife with a baby on the way that he needed to provide for, so I know that was what had kept him going this far. The head surgeon was amazed that he made it through the operation, especially with all the blood loss.
Athena waited, sleepless, in the waiting area all night, mostly pacing and frantic with worry. She had been given all the details, and knew exactly where her husband stood, but in her own heart, she feared the worst. Nobody could make it through this. I don’t know who, but someone had called her parents, and as I relay this story, the Air Force already had them on their own plane to Paris. Hendricks had no family other than Athena, as his parents recently had been in a car accident, to which there were no survivors.
Six months and three weeks later, Athena gave birth to a nine pound, twenty-two inch baby boy that was named David Lee Hendricks, Jr. Athena had been so crushed by the death of her husband and because of her own exemplary record and her having to care for a new baby by herself, was given an honorable discharge with all base privileges.
She raised the baby as only she could do, teaching him from early on the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, and what a great hero that his father was. She still went to the Club every Friday night and sat at their table, drinking Perrier. She refused to leave Paris, as that was her home, and applied for citizenship through the French Consulate.
Before we knew it, it was then 1946, and things were starting to prosper again. France was rebuilt and you’d never know that there had been a war there. Athena’s life was good and the young boy that she was raising looked more and more like his father every day. He even had that staunch military bearing about him. He was his father’s son, and would likely be some sort of a leader one day. He also managed to care for his mother as best he could, even at such a tender age.
The years passed, the boy grew into a young man, and it was apparent that he would follow in his father’s footsteps. He had been given the best schooling and upbringing, and his mother was just starting to show her age. But she still had that regal bearing and was a stately woman. She never married again, though she had the opportunity. One could see how she looked at that ring on her right hand and still held those memories, though short.
She still continued going to the Officer’s Club on Friday nights, sitting at the same table, still drinking Perrier, still looking out the window, which faced the rolling French hills. The only things that changed, were the style of music and the clothing.
Finally Athena, herself, passed on at a ripe old age. She never physically changed much. Her hair went gray, but she still wore it in the same bob that she did as a young woman. She was still a beautiful woman up until the day that she joined Hendricks.
The amazing thing was, that on certain stormy nights, when the light was just right, you could see her sitting at the same table with the yellow rose, Perrier in one hand and a cigarette spiraling smoke in the other. Her dark, sensual eyes were still staring out the window at the countryside. She still looked at that ring and sometime wrapped her arms around herself and you know exactly what she was thinking when she did that. A tear slipped from the corner of her right eye, sometimes, and she wiped it away before she took another sip of Perrier and another drag from her Pall Mall.
I’ve also heard from more than one person that they see Hendricks’ l942 Studebaker traversing the narrow roads on cool summer nights. Hendricks, of course, had his left hand on the wheel and his right hand holding Athena’s left hand. But I’m not surprised. As short as their married life was, it made an impact, and everyone that knew the couple had been perfect for one another, and perfect for France, as she were.
And me? I became the winner of the Literary Pulitzer Prize, and also lived my life out in France. I never married, but I had a life just as rich as if I had. My own dark-eyed wonder with dark wavy hair is still the love of my life. We have coffee out on the veranda every morning and I bake her fresh muffins every other day. We would have married if we could, but you just wouldn’t understand…