A Boyhood in Africa

Africa in the early 1960s as experienced by a young ex-patriot

But first, a little about Paris

with 3 comments


Somebody wrote that when good Americans die, the heaven they go to looks a lot like Paris, presumably the Champs-Élysées in April. OK.

Before my family moved to Africa, we stayed in Paris for a few weeks. My father had been stationed there for several months prior to the rest of the family’s arrival. We would have joined him sooner but my mother had to close out the family business (a trucking company) and make arrangements for shipment of household goods, activities that took months to complete. Also during that time, I completed the first grade at one of the last one-room schools left in the county and celebrated my seventh birthday.

In late August everything was finally in readiness for the flight over to Paris. As was typically our process, we spent the last night before embarking on a journey at my grandmother’s house. The next morning my uncle gave us a ride to the airport. In those days there was no security at the airport. Passengers and those bidding a bon voyage could mingle freely around the aircraft. Non-passengers could even climb aboard to see what the insides of an aircraft looked like if they cared to. Everything was relaxed and informal.

The first leg of the journey took us from Green Bay to Chicago, a short flight of just over an hour. There was a brief layover in Chicago, followed by a six-hour flight to New York’s Idyllwild airport which would later be renamed JFK after Jack Kennedy’s assassination. There was yet another layover before the last leg of the journey from New York to Paris. Mind you, the aircraft we traveled on were all propeller driven, a DC-3 for the first leg, a DC-6 for the second leg and an Air France Super G Constellation for the final leg. I don’t remember much about the first two legs except that another aircraft, a double-decker, had to stop suddenly to let our aircraft pass and I recall seeing the front end dip down as a result. The final leg was far more memorable.

The flight to Paris left New York well after sunset. New Yorkers were probably already getting about on the town. The flying time in those days was around twelve hours as opposed to the five or six now. The flight featured a full multi-course dinner service, a transformation of the cabin into sleeping quarters and finally a breakfast service. There were no movies in those days.

The dinner service proved to be quite the experience for a Midwestern lad who’d never encountered so many courses in a meal before. At home we typically had only three: a salad, a main course we still typically misname an entrée and dessert. The French had a few more jammed in between. There was soup. There was a fish course. There may have been more than one dessert. After all that the adults got to sip after-dinner liqueurs and smoke tobacco.

Curiously, the cabin didn’t have any overhead bins. The reason would be demonstrated about an hour after the dinner service when the cabin crew diligently went about transforming the cabin into sleeping quarters. Over the seats were drop-down panels above which were diminutive double beds with privacy curtains! Once setup, the crew installed little ladders so passengers could climb into the beds. As there wasn’t room for everyone only half of the passengers could utilize this feature. I remember climbing up there and changing into my pajamas. Not much room but at age seven I easily fit. Those who stayed below availed themselves of the alcoholic beverage service, chain smoked and chattered loudly in French all through the night. At one point when the ruckus proved too much, my mother leaned over the edge and yelled out: “Fermer la bouche!” Those below obliged.

The next morning the cabin crew aroused everybody. We changed into our street clothing and climbed out of the sleepers. Soon the cabin was transformed back into seating. And then the crew served coffee in diminutive cups accompanied with equally diminutive pastries, none of which appeared to be copies of any other. They served orange juice that I remember having an unfamiliar sour taste. I may have been served a class of milk. Then the breakfast service was squared away and soon thereafter we descended through the clouds to be greeted by a sea of red tiled roofs.

In those days the main Paris airport was Orly, some twenty or so kilometers south the city. My father met us and helped us through customs, a somewhat lengthy process in those days. Once through those formalities we hailed a cab and sped to a serviced apartment my father rented in the 8th, about a fifteen minute walk from the US embassy. I recall the cab going by what seemed like a miles-long auto wrecking yard along Avenue de Stalingrad and that it occurred to me that the French must have been very poor drivers for there to be so many wrecked automobiles.

The serviced apartment was in a hotel that had a front desk and retail lobby with a mezzanine. The elevator was one of those brass and glass affairs surrounded by an open stairway. It was operated by a series of old men who didn’t speak English. It was dark in there. It was late August and Paris was already feeling the pinch of a wet autumn. In the weeks that followed I don’t remember ever seeing the sun. It was always cold and wet.

My dad took me around to see a few sights. One of those was the Notre Dame cathedral. Unlike today, there were just a handful of kiosks devoted to selling souvenirs. The majority of the people I saw were actually interested in participating in mass. I remember seeing a lot of older women dressed in black and knew them to be widows. As I’d never seen Catholics practice their sacraments before, I quickly concluded that the French must be worshiping a different god than we did. I was particularly taken by those who took it upon themselves to kiss a glass-covered relic positioned near the entrance.

We took a two-day trip up to Brussels to visit the 1958 World’s Fair. We took a train. I was taken by the diminutive size of the rolling stock that made up freight trains. On the way my father ordered dinner by swiping his finger across the length of the menu to indicate that we’d be having all the courses: I was full after the first and unable to try anything after the second. Like Paris, Brussels was cold and wet. Each county had an exhibit hall at the fair but I don’t remember much except for the Atomium, a large stainless steel expo building that was shaped like an atom. It featured perhaps eight two-story spheres connected by a series of tubes within which were stairs and escalators. As I’d never used escalators before, I nervously executed a little skip getting on and off them to avoid being eaten by the mechanisms. Once while doing this I accidently kicked some guy who turned to express his outrage in a native tongue that was completely foreign and alarming to me.

Since I was a kid, it seemed natural that I should get sick. So, when it was clear that I had something, dad took it upon himself to take me to see a doctor. I seem to recall the clinic being on the second floor of some walkup along some avenue. The place was chaotic. I recall seeing a man holding in one hand what I presumed was his infant son and in the other a loaded hypodermic syringe. He apparently was waiting for someone to administer whatever was in that syringe. Everybody, including the staff, was smoking. The French doors to the balconies overlooking the street were open and the street noise was defining. I was horrified and as soon as my father sensed it, we adjourned ourselves to the embassy where the staff nurse quickly diagnosed my ailment and provided a familiar remedy.

As we were to move to Morocco, my father decided that we ought to see about purchasing a car that we could use once we got there. At that time, many of the retail establishments surrounding the Arc de Triomphe (Place Charles de Gaulle) were automobile dealerships. I remember that we went into a Volkswagen dealership that had every model of vehicle they made on display. There was a display of a beetle that included a set specialized luggage designed to fit into the diminutive trunk in such a manner that every cubic centimeter of space was leveraged. There were even two symmetrically designed triangular suitcases that fit on either side of yet another tapered suitcase designed to fit neatly under the trunk lid. It was amazing but my dad didn’t buy anything.

A few days later we rented a car and drove south to Spain on our way to Morocco. We spent the night a small inn someplace in France along the way. I commented on the racket of somebody chopping emanating from the kitchen. As I had yet to finish my sour French orange juice, my father informed me that the kitchen staff was chopping up a boy from one of the other tables who hadn’t finished his orange juice.

Stay tuned for the short visit to Madrid.


Written by GW Abert

February 16, 2015 at 09:27

3 Responses

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  1. Thank you for the interesting story. I will be looking forward to new installments. I enjoyed your earlier work on our future. The historical background information was always very will done. I printed and saved each chapter as it came out. Your account of a business trip via passenger train during the heyday of passenger rail was a pleasant reminder of travel in my early years. If the US just put little effort into fast rail things could have been a lot better. pre jet age trans continental travel sounds like a real adventure. Also expensive!
    Thanks again George

    Allan Coffman (Al) of Richland Washington

    February 17, 2015 at 01:51

  2. Hi Allen,

    I suspect overseas travel was quite expensive, especially considering the level of service provided. What I didn’t point out was that the diplomatic corps traveled first class in those days. Until the late 1950s the US diplomatic corps was small and drawn largely from those in the New England Brahmin elite who, for whatever reason, chose not to go into investment banking. Mind you these were people who could attend Harvard or Yale at will and were accustomed to nothing but first class service. After the war, in response to changes in US prestige and status, the size and number of our embassies and consulates was vastly expanded. The size of the diplomatic corps had to increase as well thus providing opportunities for those of lesser social status. The State Department’s budget, until then typically not subject to much scrutiny, grew considerably. During the early days of the Kennedy Administration, presumably to quash potential scandal, directives were issued that obliged all but ambassadors and counsel generals to fly what was then termed tourist class. I remember that we flew back stateside for our first home leave via first class in the summer of 1960. For home leave in 1962 we flew tourist class.



    GW Abert

    February 17, 2015 at 09:42

  3. Hi George!
    There was a next door neighbor child who was in college in 1955 when the family moved in, After graduating. in probably 1959 or 60 she went into a state dept. foreign service job. She was pretty much serving in Africa from what I heard from my mother . Eventually she married another career state dept guy and had several kids all of whom were probably raised in several different countries. She and her children would come for a few weeks to visit her parents. That’s the only folks I ever met who followed that career path. I once in in the 1980s I had an opportunity to take a job in the recovery from the security breaches of the U.S. embassy in Moscow. After weighing the money and the family effects I declined the offer. Probably a wise move. I can only imagine the class systems that developed in the foreign service.

    I look forward to your stories. I had the aquantance of 2 brothers who had spent a their late teenage years in Iran in the late 60 s while their dad was employed by some US engineering firm. They had some pretty good stories ! Involving behavior probably not conducive to good international relations.

    For a time reference I was born in 1944

    Allan Coffman (Al) of Richland Washington

    February 19, 2015 at 00:35

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