McHenry, Sue: Orleans, France: 1963-1967

The day after arriving in France after sailing on the USSS United States, I became a freshman in high School at La Foret d’Orleans, an old WWII American hospital set up as the school for military and civil service dependants, K-12, all 600 of us. I think that there were American dependants, not associated directly with the Army who also went to school with us. Of course, high school years are incredibly memorable, so there’s so much to say about living in Orleans for 4 years.

I hadn’t been there for long, a rather geeky Freshman, but one night early in November, Mom and Dad were at a formal affair at the Officer’s Club at Chateau La Mote. The night was probably akin to Halloween and called Hell’s A ‘Poppin’. I was at home studying as were Ginny and Madge. Ginny was also listening to the radio and when she heard the news she came to my house, her face white as ash. President Kennedy had been assassinated. We went to Madge’s and shared the news with her as she hadn’t heard. At the O Club, everyone was a bit tipsy and indulging in jokes and pranks. When the Commanding General got on the stage and told every officer to return home and wait at High Alert, folks at first laughed. When Mom and Dad arrived home, all the teens were gathered in the street, in shock. The only other I remember was Bill Wolcott (William Wadsworth Wolcott III or W3). But we were all sent home. At school, Rod Pierpoint played taps in the hall, a very eerie sound. We stayed on alert for some time which was a very different feeling than anything civilians could imagine until 9/11/2001. I experienced alerts overseas a number of times: during the Israeli 6 Day War when I was in London, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait when I was in Orleans for a Homecoming. I very frequently just slept through them!

Classes and teachers at Orleans American High School were excellent. I was ahead of the average student in Arlington VA (my junior high) in both math and science. My freshman curricula included botany and geometry which were normally sophomore classes. But that was actually very normal at OHS. I was able to take gym again and enjoyed soccer very much, basketball and track a little less. At the end of the school year Don Boyer, a graduating senior, gave me his Trojan Helmet (actually from the Paris Guard) to care for. I wore it to games of the Orleans Trojans and was quite the Trojan booster.

I got a best friend during my sophomore year, Nancy Benning. Her father was head of the hospital at La Chapelle. We would bicycle after school eating black cherries we picked from overhanging trees as we rode by and then bake peanut butter cookies when we got home. I got Mom and Dad to let me take horseback riding and joined a group on Saturday mornings at Relais Sologne. I learned a lot of good riding skills there in the years I took lessons. Nancy Quillen, Nancy Benning, Dale Mills, Kathy Weaver and I were among the riders and we really enjoyed sitting by the fire, eating croissants bought in the little village, riding through the country when allowed out of the indoor ring. It turned out that I was a rather responsible person. That plus living just an hour south of Paris gave me all sorts of opportunities I could never have imagined. A train ticket to Paris was about $4 and it was easy to go shopping for the day along the Champs Elysee! And we did so whenever we raised the cash. Sometimes it would be just a few of us and sometimes a whole group would go. A bit treat was to see a James Bond movie subtitled in French, oh how we would laugh at the translation!

My junior year was as eventful as the previous two. Lo and behold, we were assigned larger quarters and ended up moving into the Bennings’ house on the “General’s Circle.” It was a much nicer house, 4 bedrooms with a fenced in back yard and a formal dining room.

Our school had a policy that traveling was good education and we never got docked days attendance if we were traveling during the school year. That year Mom and I joined the Officer’s Wives Club in visiting Berlin and Vienna. We went with Cissie Hoover, Sudie Kieley, and others. On the trip to Vienna, Patty and Meredith Kiely also went with us. Mom also went to Greece for a week. That was a good group to travel with. My photos of Berlin are all in black and white, and that is a very interesting phenomenon. I watched the Wall being built, I had an East German soldier’s rifle leveled at me because I looked out the train window when we were stopped in Potsdam, I saw the guns and the wire and the dogs on the East side at Checkpoint Charlie. Years later I visited Berlin and saw the Wall torn down and Checkpoint Charlie just a signpost by the road, and it was in color!

I went to my Junior/Senior Prom that year. I had been dating Rick Johnson, but we broke up and he went steady with my friend Nancy Rothaupt. They were a couple made to be together and have been married since college! I ended up at the prom with my buddy Walt Smith. We met at the Officer’s Club and bussed to Paris to the Pavilion Dauphine at the edge of the Bois de Bologne for a formal dinner and dancing. There were three bus loads of us! Afterwards I had an all-night prom party for Peggy Moore and her date, Cindy Crumlish and Povl Wise. In the morning Dad made us a breakfast of waffles and champagne and we played badminton in the back yard!

I tried out for cheerleader that spring. There were only 4 of us who planned to be at OHS the next year and we all made it. We were so bad that they actually discussed doing away with the cheerleader squad altogether. But we and the school made a stink and the 4 of us, a real Mutt and Jeff group, had the spirit and the heart and we did it!

My Senior year, 1966-67, was the last year that Orleans American High School was open. President De Gaulle had ended France’s post-war treaty with the United States and the military and dependants had to leave. Everyone says “De Gaulle kicked us out,” but France was ready for the Americans, Canadians and others to leave and so did not renew the treaty. The school shrunk month by month as students left and were transferred to other schools. Most went to Germany, to Kaiserslautern and Wiesbaden. I visited up there once and saw many old friends. I forgot my passport, thought Dad had it (Mom had always carried it for me). I didn’t need it to get into Germany, my military dependant’s ID sufficed. Well, when the trip was over, Dad told me to get on the train in Heidelberg where I was visiting Nancy at the time (and driving all around in her VW bug) and he would join me at Worms. The train pulled into the station and pulled out again and there I was without a ticket or passport and the conductor was knocking on the cabin door. Well, the train pulled back into the station on another track and there was Dad. Boy was I a happy camper! He had my passport; it had been sent up in the diplomatic bag overnight. Whew!

As the group of students grew smaller, we formed strong friendships. What would have been class activities became school wide events. One outing that was pretty special was the art class field trip to the Picasso exhibit in Paris. About a dozen of us went by train with Miss Bower, the art teacher, and we saw hundreds of paintings including Guernica. The end of the school was a very disrupting experience. While classes went on and we all continued to excel in our studies, we never knew exactly what we would find on Monday morning. Kids would say “bye” on Friday afternoon and not ever return to school. While we were taking our final exams, GIs would come through the classrooms and inventory the lightbulbs and blackboards and remove the empty desks at the back of the room.

In the spring, one night, I was awakened by Mommy Bess sounding in distress. She had suffered a serious stroke. She was stabilized at the hospital at La Chapelle and was air evacuated to Landstuhl, Germany. Mom visited her every other week and Dad and I were on our own. It was so difficult dealing with 2 different countries, and Dad being responsible for closing out the French command of the entire American military and me getting my schooling finished and Mom running back and forth trying to do home and hospital across the miles.

My graduation gift for being a National Honor Merit Student was a trip to London. Mom and I took the boat train from Paris to Dover. We went to Stratford on Avon, and Oxford, and Hyde Park, and the ballet and Hello Dolly and The Sound of Music and had just a wonderful time.

Dad was the highest-ranking officer in Orleans at the end and so we were the last family to leave town. We were to be out of town by “high noon” on June 30, 1967. Our car had gone ahead and Dad had a staff car for us and our luggage. We left the house locked up and Mom said our old standby “If we’ve forgotten anything forget it!” To which, Dad asked “Did you remember the ice wine?” The ice wine was 2 bottles of very special dessert wine from his office in Germany. And it was in the refrigerator. Mom and Dad were stricken. I however said not to worry, I’d get it. I went to my bedroom window, jimmied it open, climbed in, reattached the screen, locked the window, got the wine, took it to the car, asked if there was anything else, they needed, went back in and closed and locked the door and got in the car; saved the day I should think! We had lunch with Col. and Mrs. Charbonier, Dad’s liaison and because it was after noon, the Colonel had us escorted out of town by French military police.

We stayed a couple of weeks in a hotel in Paris, our ship was to sail on July 14, Bastille Day. I did a lot of stuff around the city with Mom and by myself. The Louvre, the Tuileries, the Bois, riding the Metro. Dad was ordered to take Mom to Worms, Germany for a meeting and ceremony and I stayed in the hotel alone for about 3 days. One day as I was in the Tuileries Garden I was followed by a man of apparent Algerian or Moroccan decent. He would not leave me alone and I hid from him by offering to translate for a group of schoolteachers on vacation. They let me hang with them and I was able to return to the hotel safely. But I didn’t feel at all safe there, I swear I heard steps outside the door of our suite that evening. Luckily the Standishes were in the same hotel and I was able to eat my meals with them and survived my first lone outing.

We sailed home on the SS United States again and as I was 17 years old, I was berthed with other girls my age instead of in Mom and Dad’s state room. Needless to say, we did things we weren’t supposed to and had a rollicking good time.

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