Tour of Duty
In the 1960s, the Cuban Missile Crisis and escalation of the Vietnam conflict, intensified the fears of the free world. The US military geared up for the worst. Thousands of young men were drafted into active military duty. Miles Ballard was a doctor in training and when drafted, chose the Berry Plan option for physicians, which would delay deployment until completion of a medical degree. Ballard finished his internship and was inducted to serve in the US Air Force in 1960.
Dense layers of gray clouds steeped with damp drifted to the east in the French sky over Paris. Miles Ballard lugged two brown leather suitcases and a backpack from baggage claim into the terminal at Orly International Airport. A woman in a flower-patterned, tea-colored dress cinched with a red, braided-cord belt at the waist, held up a cardboard packing-box lid with CAPTAIN BALLARD hand-printed in block letters. Miles approached her.
“Are you Captain Ballard?” she asked.
“Welcome,” she said. “I’m Ingrid. From the base travel office.”
He liked her look: about five feet, six inches, and waved, light-brown hair shimmered with a hint of gold. It touched her shoulders and accented the blue-green of her eyes, which fixated rather than roamed. Her thin lips formed a sincere, kind smile, if not attenuated. She seemed vulnerable in some way.
She moved to pick up one of his bags.
“I’ll do that,” he insisted. She looked athletic, but she was a woman, and he didn’t feel right about her carrying his gear. “Where can I find the train to Châteauroux?”
“I have a military car and driver waiting,” she said.
“You sure? I can take the train.”
“It’s my job! Grab your bags and get in the car!”
Something about her looks and personality made Miles feel better about his luck in missing his first French train ride that he had imagined with pleasure on his flight from LaGuardia.
As Ingrid led him to the exit, a disheveled man wearing coveralls and a plaid wool shirt, his coal-black hair streaked with gray, approached. “Cochon!” he snarled and spat near Miles’s feet. Miles turned to face him.
“Come on,” Ingrid said urgently.
“What does that word mean?”
“No, what does it mean?”
“It means pig.”
“Very. It’s your uniform.”
“I’m required to wear a uniform while traveling on duty and in public.”
“I know that! But don’t pick a fight on your arrival in France. Keep walking, and don’t look back!”
They exited, and she led him toward a military gray-green sedan waiting at the curb, a uniformed airman driver behind the wheel.
“Why was he so angry?” Miles asked.
“Well, you remind him that it was American soldiers who died to win the war on Normandy beach. A lot of nationalities died, but he doesn’t like the Americans’ conceit about it. And he really doesn’t like anyone not French.”
“I just wanted to talk to him.”
“That’s not recommended. Just not right for the situation. Besides, don’t pick fights with someone eight inches taller than you.”
“But if you treat people with civility, they’re less hostile,” Miles said.
“That’s naive. He really doesn’t like you!”
“You don’t like me either, do you?”
“Well, I haven’t known you long enough.” She smiled slightly.
“You think I’m arrogant?”
“All American military men are arrogant.”
“So why are you working for them?”
“My husband’s a doctor at the base. We can use the money.”
She must know I’ll be a doctor at the base. “I assume you married him for his potential wealth?” he smiled.
“Smartass.” She jabbed his arm in jest with her closed fist. “I know you’re a doctor, and I guarantee I wouldn’t marry you for your salary or personality.”
“That hurt,” he said.
“Your callow feelings?”
“My vulnerable soul.”
Exhausted, he slept on the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Châteauroux air base.