Paris — July 14, 1940
He came to maybe twenty minutes later. The noise of the crowd had diminished. He tried to get up. The same incredible pain stabbed him. He was lying with his left leg tucked under him, tight against his buttocks like a chicken wing. His leg didn’t normally do that. His first thought was to see if it was a compound fracture. He rolled over on to his right hip. When the pain subsided, he felt around his leg; no bones were sticking through, but it was like a dead piece of meat.
He pulled out his handkerchief and tied a rough bandage around his head wound to stop the blood. I’m in a bad place. The alley’s deserted now; if I go into shock here, I could die. Gritting his teeth against each surge of pain, Walter slid on his right buttock across the rough floor of the stairwell until he could reach the wooden door leading into the building.
Pounding on the door, he yelled at the top of his voice, “Aidez-moi! Aidez-moi, s’il vous plaît. Je suis gravement blessé. Pour l’amour de Dieu, je vous en prie, aidez-moi!” There was no response. He waited a minute then tried again. This time he heard noise on the other side of the door and the sound of a lock being turned. The door swung open and a clearly terrified middle-aged couple peered down at him.
“Je vous en supplie, j’ai été pris dans l’émeute du Boul’ Mich’ et j’ai besoin d’un médecin!”
The man and his wife looked at each other a moment. “Can you stand?” the man asked.
“No,” said Walter. “My leg is broken. Perhaps you can pull me through the doorway?” They each took and arm, and with Walter pushing with his good leg, managed to get him into the cellar and close the outside door. By now the sirens of dozens of ambulances echoed off the stone walls of the buildings around them. “Wife,” the husband commanded, “Get him bandages and hot water — and find him a crutch.” The woman scurried off into the cellar.
“You have saved my life,” Walter said. “Might you please tell me your names?”
“Armand,” the man said. “Armand Grillet. My wife is called Hélène.”
“And I am Walter.” He added, “I’m an American. I got caught up in the riot.”
There were packing blankets near the cellar door. Armand grabbed some and helped Walter to a slightly more comfortable position. Then he smiled and said in strongly-accented English, “So those Boche cocksuckers really beat the shit out of you, huh?” Walter just stared at him.
“That is correct English, is it not?” Armand asked in French, clearly seeking confirmation. “I was an orphan in the Great War and some American Doughboys — he pronounced it “Doo – bouys” taught me to speak English.
Walter started laughing uncontrollably, in spite of the pain. He could see he was increasing his rescuer’s embarrassment. “On no,” Walter said in French. “Votre anglais est parfait! On ne peut pas dire mieux. I could not say it better myself.” Armand beamed with pleasure.
Hélène returned with a makeshift crutch fashioned out of a mop. Walter looked at it; it should work. She also brought a tumbler of cognac. This will work, he thought. He took a couple of healthy swallows, enjoying the fire that burned down his throat.
Armand coughed to get his attention. “I think we must find a way to get you to a hospital,” he said.
Walter thought a moment. The nearby French hospitals would be overflowing with wounded. “Forgive me,” he said, “but I’m an American citizen. I think I really should go to the American Hospital.”
The American Hospital of Paris was located across the river in the suburb of Neuilly. Walter could see Armand thought the idea impossible. “I know it sounds difficult,” Walter said, but I have a car. It’s garaged on Rue Gay-Lussac, not far from here.” Armand’s eyebrows raised in interest. “It has American stickers on the license plates and American flags on the front fenders. You could get it, bring it here, then take me to the hospital.”
He reached for his keys — happily they were in his right coat pocket — removed his car and garage keys from the ring, and handed them toward Armand. “Getting past the Germans will be easy,” he said with a confidence he didn’t really feel. “Just honk your horn as if you’re on official business.” He could see Armand was still wavering.
“Please, take the keys,” he pushed them forward again toward Armand, “and when you’ve dropped me off, keep the car for yourself.” Armand weighed the unexpected miracle of having a car after all French cars had been confiscated, one the Germans couldn’t challenge or confiscate, and made his decision.
“I will do it. Yes, by God, I will do it.”
“Wonderful!” exclaimed Walter, Then another thought struck him. “Do you have a piece of good blank paper and a pen?” Armand sent Hélène to fetch them. When she returned, Walter painfully shifted his body so he could write and penned a quick note in German.
He handed it to Armand. “This will do it if you get stopped.”
“What does it say?” Armand asked, looking at the German script.
“Je m’en fou du Hitler. Il n’est qu’un salope, un connard, Walter said.
Armand raised his eyebrows again skeptically. “It says, ‘I don’t give a fuck about Hitler? He’s just an asshole – an idiot?’ Really?”
“No, no,” Walter laughed, “Although depending on which German you showed it to, he might agree with you. It actually says, ‘To whom it may concern: Please permit the bearer of this document to pass unhindered, and give him all lawful assistance. He is acting under the direction and protection of the Embassy of the United States of America.’ The Boche should respect that.” He had signed it ‘Robert Murphy, Esq, Charge d’affaires.’
Armand took the keys and note and disappeared. Hélène cleaned and bandaged the wound on his head, then sat patiently next to him. After a while, she spoke.
“So how did all this happen to you?”
“I didn’t want to be involved but got into it to try to save a friend. The Boche were brutal.”
Ces encleurs,” she agreed. She paused, then asked, “So when do you think the Americans will come?”
It was a question he really wanted the answer to himself. Choosing his words carefully, he said, “Our first goal is to ensure the British survive. After that … it may take us a year to properly mobilize. But do not fear. America remembers what the French did for us, and we repay our debts.”
“You came the last time,” she said. “All those beautiful, strong young boys…” Hélène drifted into her own memories. She had her own experience with Americans in the last war, Walter thought. I suspect they were different than her husband’s.
Armand was back in just over a half hour with the car. “It was easy!” he explained. I just honked the horn like a bureaucrat and they let me through.”
Step by step, they helped Walter up the steep cellar stairs, Armand pulling from the front and Hélène using her considerable weight to push from behind. Every step was agony; Walter needed to rest at the top before hobbling out the front door to his car. Once they crossed the river, they were nearly the only car on the road. Walter had passed out again when they pulled up to the emergency entrance of the American Hospital.
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