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September 18, 2023

Le Saxophone Solitaire

By Timothy B. Barner

Le Saxophone Solitaire
A Memory of Paris

“I simply cannot respect a liar!” Staff Sergeant Hooks’ words cut at my soul. “I have lost all respect for you, Tim. Up until now I’ve tried to be on your side, to give you the benefit of the doubt. But now you have proved yourself to be a liar so I can’t trust anything you say. I won’t help you anymore. You’re on your own.”

Sergeant Hooks was referring to what I would later call, “Burgergate.” I had just turned twenty and I was a soldier in Germany, but I was too young and stupid to make my Army career work. After six months in the Tenth Engineer Battalion, I already had a stack of bad counseling statements addressing everything from showing up to work unshaven to accidentally grabbing someone else’s weapon to qualify on the rifle range.

These infractions could be forgiven with a slap on the wrist. Burgergate could not.

I was stationed in Leighton Barracks in the Bavarian city of Wurzburg with the Assistant Division Engineers, or ADE. We acted as the liaison between the engineers and the commanding general of the Third Infantry Division. When the Tenth Engineers went out in the field to practice for war, we remained on post, setting up camp less than a football field away from our office. On most nights during the war games my roommate and I would return to our room to sleep, but we were included in the rotation for guard duty. The night and time when I was scheduled for guard duty was also the night and time when my roommate and I had a college class on post. My superiors were good enough to switch my duty time with another soldier’s so that I would be able to attend the class, but not without a warning.

“Report directly back to camp after class. Do not stop anywhere else. That is an order.”

After class I was ravenous and I didn’t see how I would eat during a four hour guard duty or find any food after midnight when it would be over. I turned to my roommate, who was heading back to our room, and said, “I’m going to Burger King before heading to guard duty.” When my roommate asked if that was wise, I said, “They won’t even miss me. I won’t take any time.”

I ran off for the on-post Burger King. Unknown to me, my roommate turned around, went straight to our camp site, and told Sergeant Hooks exactly what I was doing. When I showed up at camp a few minutes late, the sergeant asked where I had been.

“I came straight from class.”

He asked again.

“I came straight from class.”

He asked a third time. “Are you certain that’s what you did?”

By this time, I knew something was up, so I told the truth.

Now I was in the conference room with Article 15 paperwork waiting for my signature. First, Master Sergeant Corley had to say his piece.

“Private Barner, I have seen you screw up every step of the way since you’ve been in this unit. Your hygiene is atrocious, you’re completely ate up, you care about nothing, and now we know you’re a liar. If there was a war and we were rushing into battle, I would shoot you in the back of the head to keep you from putting the lives of other soldiers in jeopardy. I will see you removed from my Army and you won’t add up to anything more than a bum begging by the side of the street, because that’s all you’re proving you can be. Right now, I can only give you an Article 15.”

I stared out the window after hearing this diatribe on one of the worst days of my life, because I couldn’t bring myself to keep looking at the scowling, accusing faces. I saw a rainbow in the outside sky. God had let me know that everything would be all right.

They gave me the full punishment I could receive under Article 15: Loss of rank, loss of half my pay for two weeks, extra duty for two weeks, and confinement to quarters for the same two weeks, which just happened to be the final two weeks of December. Yes, 1987 was the second worst Christmas season of my life.

When it came to an end, I went to my superiors with a request. “I would like a three-day-pass for New Year’s weekend, so I can visit Paris.”

The pass was granted.

On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, 1987, I set out from Leighton Barracks bound for Paris, a city where I had always dreamed to go. All I carried with me was a bag full of clothing, round trip train tickets, signed papers for crossing the border, one hundred American dollars, and no idea what to do once I got there. I began my walk to the bahnhof, or train station, but my pastor pulled up and offered me a ride. He asked where I was going.

“Paris,” I said.

“Oh, where are you staying?” he asked as I shut the car door and we started down the long hill into town.

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? Paris is a big city, son. You can’t just show up and find a room. Hey, here’s what you can do. When you get there, go to the USO. They’ll find you a room and give you some direction.”

The USO? I only knew they did Bob Hope shows for the troops. I guessed it made sense for them to provide help to soldiers on leave to foreign cities. My pastor told me that the Paris USO was located one block out from the L’Arc De Triomphe. I thanked him and got out at the bahnhof.

The train ride through Germany brought me to Kaiserslautern, near the French border, at around ten, with over two hours to kill before I could catch the midnight express to Paris. I decided to have a look around.

For almost eight months I had lived in Germany. Soon I would be entering a new nation, new to me, anyway. But it was not yet time, so I walked around some of K-Town, which wasn’t the most exciting town where I walked, but it was good to stretch my legs between train rides. I ended up at the corner of two streets when the city bells struck midnight.

Bombs exploded in all four directions. This wasn’t a city-funded display. These were citizen fireworks, set off by individuals in celebration of a new year of hope after a year of setbacks and failures, for me at least. The show was haphazard but awesome. I would gaze in one direction, then turn around to see more in the other; look left, look right, as the explosions and crackling sounds surrounded. For twenty minutes, maybe more they continued, lighting up the night and taking my mind off my problems for that hour of celebration. Gone were my worries of a future begging on American streets or getting shot in the back by my NCO. Instead, I watched amazed as the colorful explosions continued. They would taper off, stop, and just as I was about to cross that street, a new bright display would keep me there.

Finally, the firework show tapered off and I could no longer tarry there on that corner. I had to get back and catch that train to Paris. When I boarded and found a seat, the man beside me struck up a conversation. He was a Parisian on his way home and he spoke excellent English. I don’t remember the man’s name or any details about him. He may have been an angel sent to help. The Parisian talked to me about Paris, treated me to a meal in the dining car, and helped me with my papers when we crossed the border. I fell asleep soon after and didn’t wake up until I saw daylight at the Paris train station. The Parisian helped me with my bags then said, “Au revoir.” I would never see him again.

Armed with a map, my bag, and still a hundred American dollars, I stepped out of the train station and began walking down the wide, busy boulevards of Paris. I stopped at a McDonalds for some pommes de terre and l’hamburger, then headed straight for the Champs D’Elysses.

The day was overcast and the streets dark with a recent rain. It was a miserable day, but I didn’t care. I was on an adventure in Paris and I had a mission, to find the USO.

First, I found the Champs D’Elysses, which I knew began at the L’Arc De Triomphe, then I followed it to the famous arch, passing trees decked out in white Christmas lights that lined the boulevard.

I took a tunnel beneath the traffic circle around the monument, stepped beneath the L’Arc De Triomphe, and looked outwards, to gain my bearings, but I quickly realized that finding the USO was not as simple as I thought it would be.

The L’Arc De Triomphe sits right in the middle of Place De Charles DeGaulle, a huge traffic circle where twelve city streets and boulevards begin, branching out like spokes of a wheel. The USO was on the next circular street out, crossing all twelve spokes. In other words, twelve city blocks were one block out from the L’Arc De Triomphe. The USO could be on any one of them.

I sighed, walked one block out, and began my search.

I had taken two years of honors French in high school, and I was eager to use my knowledge but didn’t remember much of it. I stopped passersby and asked, “Quel est le USO?” They shook their heads, confused, and babbled back in French. I found a police officer and asked, “Quel est le USO?” He answered in English and pointed me in the right direction. I realized years later that I hadn’t been asking “Where is the USO?” I had been asking, “What is the USO?”

The USO found me a room at a hotel in the Place De La Madeliene. They gave me a metro (subway) map, a better city map, and some brochures. I walked to the hotel, which was a block from the Champs D’Elysses, checked in and climbed the steps to my room on the top floor. It was about the size of a walk-in closet with a sink, one window, a single bed, and a sloping ceiling. I dropped off my bag, kept the maps, and headed back out into the city.

My first stop was the Louvre, within walking distance. I surveyed the outside of the old palace turned museum but didn’t want to spend the money to enter. My second stop was the Eiffel Tower. The line for the tower was about the length of two football fields so I returned to the Metro and rode it to Versailles.

The palace of Versailles was a short walk from the Metro station. I walked through the front court between the two wings and into the central area of the palace. To my chagrin, the inside of the palace was closed, probably because it was New Year’s Day. I walked behind the building and looked out in all three directions, marveling at the view of the gardens. They seemed to go on forever in the distance, grassy fields, ponds, statues, and squared-off parcels of greenery. No flowers grew because it was January but I imagined Louis XVI surveying his lands, smiling beneath his powdered wig and saying, “It’s good to be king.”

I could have spent the remaining day there. Instead, I headed back to Paris where I hit some shops, had another l’hamburger and a sac of pommes de terre, and headed back to the hotel. It was getting dark.

I didn’t have a shower in the room, so I washed up in the sink before lying down on the bed for a rest. My mind wandered. How had I arrived at this place? I was horribly homesick. This was the longest and farthest I had ever been away from home. Wasn’t that what I had wanted?

Following high school graduation, I faced the prospect of going to community college and spending at least another two years living under my parents’ roof and, consequently, my parents’ rules. Instead, I snuck down to the federal building across the river in Albany, signed some papers and was sworn into the United States Army. That evening I told Mom and Dad that I would be leaving for Basic training at the end of November. They were floored, but they couldn’t talk me out of it. I was owned by Uncle Sam.

Now Uncle Sam didn’t want me.

I got up from bed and walked the three steps to the window, in its alcove beneath the slanted roof. For as far as I could see, the rooftops and chimneys of ancient buildings continued into the distance. I imagined jumping from roof to roof, as if a chimney sweep in Mary Poppins, although I knew that was London, the view was similar.

I took out a piece of paper and began to write a letter.

Before I had left home, I knew a girl in youth group who had become a very good friend. She wanted to be closer, but I treated her like a younger sister. I kept up correspondence with her and my time in Germany had convinced me that I wanted to be closer to her as well. In my lonesome state, in view of the endless rooftops of Paris, I poured out my heart to her on paper. I told her of my failures and how I would probably soon be sent home. I told her how much I missed her and wished we had dated. I wrote that I didn’t expect her to wait for me but hoped that she would, then put down the paper, stared out the window, grabbed my wallet and metro map, and headed for the door.

My hotel room had been a small and stifling prison in a large, amazing city. I had to get back out there on my one and only night in Paris.

I headed for the Metro station and checked the map, then boarded a train for Notre Dame. At the Notre Dame station I stepped out into the chilly night. My destination, of course, was the famous cathedral. I knew it was huge so I figured that it would be easy to find, but I had neglected to bring my city map and I couldn’t find it. All I found was a long, high, stone wall. I walked along it, hoping to find evidence of a cathedral but could not. It neared midnight. I didn’t know how late the Metro ran. I did not want to be stuck on this side of the city far from my hotel, in the dark without a map, so I headed back down into the depths of the Metro station and caught the next train back.

My route back to the Place De La Madeliene required me to change trains. I stepped off the first one, then watched as it rode off and left me alone in the station, amazed at the silence that replaced the fading sound of the train. Soon another sound accompanied the silence from faint in the depths, lonesome and longing. Mourning and masterful came the sound of a single reed, rising up the scale and dancing back down it, filling the air with its sad, musical tale.

I walked up the metal stairs from the platform and into a long, subterranean hallway with a curved tile roof. The sound of the saxophone continued its tale yet remained unseen, calling me, taunting me, pulling my heart forward, first in one direction where I walked for about ten steps before I realized that the sound was getting fainter, then in the other direction, where it seemed to grow louder. I didn’t know the tune, I only knew that it touched me, mirrored my feelings, and led me on.

I followed the hallway and descended steps, climbed more steps and found another empty hallway, searching for the source of the song, searching for the bearer who played the jazz. Sometimes the sound grew faint and I would retrace my steps and find another way to go, until the sound grew louder, down hallways and more stairs, deeper into the night. The reed spoke of dreams unfulfilled, love never found, a future uncertain. It told of a young man confused, finding his way in a harsh world, dreaming of home yet afraid to return.

Suddenly I rounded a bend and there he was, le jouer de saxophone solitaire, in beret and sunglasses, standing next to a tin full of francs. I didn’t stay. I didn’t drop a franc in his cup. I merely retraced my steps and found the platform for my next train.

Back in my room, I picked up the letter I had written and read it. I picked up the room’s ashtray and opened the window, then took out my lighter and began carefully burning the letter, watching the ashes fall into the tray and some of the embers fly out to the rooftops of Paris. I hoped none of those embers would alight on a nearby roof, which would burst into flame. That night as I lay in bed, I feared that Paris would be in flames. I soon fell asleep, exhausted, and awoke to sunlight. Paris would live another day. I would return home, in time, and my life would move on.

The fears of a young man and an answering saxophone would become the past. The future called, and it was not bad as imagined.

Article © Timothy B. Barner. All rights reserved.
Published on 2023-04-03
Image(s) are public domain.
1 Reader Comments
11:14:44 AM
Slice of life with an unexpected ending. Thanks.
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