This is the back entrance to the former United States Air Force base near Laon, France, taken last month. Beyond the padlocked gate, the road extends about thirty feet then disappears into overgrowth.
I was born here, beyond the gate, in a hospital on the other side of the field that – along with so many other buildings – is no longer there. Although the base itself has been closed many years, it is still there, a quiet stretch of land, its gates all locked and the front gate guarded.
In the 1950s my father was a first lieutenant here, in the Maintenance & Supply Group of the 38th Bomb Wing. He received his orders to report to active duty serving NATO two months after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with an engineering degree and starting his first job at General Motors in Indianapolis. He married my mother five days before her eighteenth birthday in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, and left for France two days later. My mother joined him there four months later, and I was born nine months after that.
After my mother died in November 2011, my father, who had last visited France in the 80’s, went back to Laon and Paris and all the other places he and my mother went to the two years they lived there.
Last fall he invited me to go. “I know you’ve been to Europe,” he said, “but have you ever been back to Laon?”
I hadn’t. It was on my list but kept falling to the bottom. “There’s still time,” I would think, year after year.
My father made all the arrangements and wrote an itinerary that was a work of art. He contacted all his French friends—people he’s known for years—and got us all together for champagne in the garden, Algerian food in the penthouse, and home cooked meals on sugar beet farms. Working our way between Paris and the Champagne-Ardenne and Picardy regions of France, we stayed in a 350-year-old hotel in Laon; an urban bed-and-breakfast in Saint-Quentin; a former mansion on the Avenue de Champagne in Épernay; a small hotel in Coucy-le-Château-Auffrique within view of a castle that had been destroyed in World War I; a gîte in Vivaise; and a boutique hotel in the 6th arrondissement of Paris.
I’d brought an iPad Mini with a keyboard, a journal, eight pens and pencils, and three notebooks—that’s how sure I was that I would write every night about what I had seen, heard, and felt each day. It turned out that there was just too much to see, hear, and feel; all I could do was take it all in. The rest would have to wait.
The base where I was born is about ten kilometers (six miles) northwest of Laon, nestled in between the towns of Crépy, Vivaise, and Couvron-Amencourt. I had always understood the city of Laon to be my birthplace, but I know now that I was born closer to Couvron, and that the base is often referred to as the Laon-Couvron Air Base. It’s all in perspective; what had existed only in my imagination all these years is now fleshed out.
To me, the city of Laon has an urban neighborhood feel. If Milwaukee’s East Side, the coolest place I’ve ever lived, had medieval buildings and a Notre-Dame Cathedral in the art history books, it would be Laon. It is the capital city of the Aisne department (what we might call a county) in Picardy. People young and old work and live there. It is a tourist destination; many of the travelers we met were English. Americans are pretty rare here, we were told, much less a father and daughter traveling together, and people were curious about the way we spoke. At night the sidewalks outside the restaurants and taverns are filled with tables and people. It is a vibrant place that is quiet when it needs to be.
In the countryside on the way to Crépy, Vivaise, and Couvron, you can see Laon off in the distance, high on a plateau made of rock and sand and chalk. When you are in Laon, you can see small towns dotting the farm fields. It makes me wonder if this place is why I have always loved the city and the countryside, but not suburbs.
Our last weekend in France, we stayed in Vivaise and drove over to Couvron in the hopes of seeing the base, but the best we could do is look through the main gate at a paved road that ran the length of it. The guard made a phone call to see if he could let us in, but came back apologetic. I put on my sunglasses so he and my father couldn’t see me crying, not because we couldn’t get in, but because something inside me was saying, “This is it.” If it’s true that our souls pick the precise time and place to realize our earthly selves, then this was my place. The gate is locked but I am free. I cried for the next two days.
I will be giving my father serious shout-outs for the rest of my life for this experience, starting with these: first, the man can drink. Second, he drove us everywhere, and when we weren’t driving, he was walking my ass all over tarnation. Third, my father’s French friends are wonderful. If you can tell a person by the company he keeps, then my father is a stellar human being. I look forward to keeping in touch with them all.
Our first dinner out in Laon I took a long look across the table at my 82-year-old father. “You do not look your age,” I blurted, “at all.” My father has always been fit and youthful and still is, and I want to be that way when, God willing, I am 82. I will always be indebted to him for what he has given me – in life, and on this trip.
I plan to publish several short essays about our trip to France, and have started to write a book. In the meantime, if you have never seen your birthplace, I strongly recommend that you go. I can’t yet articulate why it’s important. Just go.