Paris before the age of parkour

Shortly after arriving in Pirmasens, Germany in 1974 for my new military assignment, I contacted my old buddy Tim Stewart in Miesau. He and his girlfriend, Laurie Belanger, were planning their first trip to Paris, la Ville-Lumière, the city of light, and he wanted to know if I would like to go along.   My billet on the Husterhöh Kaserne was about 45 klicks south of Miesau Army Depot where Tim was stationed.   (a klick is G.I. slang for a kilometer.)

I took a train up to Miesau the following Saturday to see Tim, and we had a great time catching up.  He introduced me to some of his friends, and told me that his old girlfriend Laurie Belanger had traveled to Germany to attend the Bodenseehof school on Lake Constance in southern Germany, and he had taken a train down there to visit her, and they had gotten back together.   Tim, Laurie and I were old friends prior to the Army – small world!

Their Paris trip would take place on the upcoming Easter weekend, including the Monday following Easter, and included one of Laurie’s friends from school, Sherrie, and Tim’s buddy Greg Ralston, who served with him at Miesau.   None of us had ever visited Paris; I was very excited about the possibility, but needed permission to go from my superiors, due to the extra day involved.

Permission to travel

Travelling back on the train to Pirmasens via the Deutsche Bahn, I started thinking  about the challenges of getting the extra day off for the trip.  Brand spanking new to the outfit and just out of school, as a newly minted 22L20 Nike Field Maintenance Test Equipment (FMTE) repairman I had been assigned to repair various electronic chassis from the Nike air defense system accumulating on console four, one of the seven consoles in the three FMTE semi trailers permanently parked inside the Direct Support Platoon’s (DSP) warehouse-like building.  I had a lot to learn, and was not very efficient yet, and was worried that the powers that be might not be generous with a day off until I had shown my worth.

When I approached my supervisor with the request, he gave me a wry smile and replied that it was out of the question.  Why?  Of course, because I hadn’t accomplished much work in the first couple of weeks!  I told him in more detail about my possible trip to Paris, and offered to work several extra days  on the weekends, in exchange for the single day off  I required for my trip.  My urgent desire to go produced a certain desperation in my manner, which was not lost on my supervisor, and after refusing permission a few more times, and after a certain persistence on my part, he suggested a deal:  If I could clear all of the work backlog on my console, bring it down to zero, before the trip, I would be granted the time off.

I liked the difficult challenge and agreed immediately, and then more soberly assessed the situation.  Console four had around thirty five chassis to be repaired, and after asking around, determined that new work was added to the queue regularly, if unpredictably; best guess was that ten to fifteen chassis per week might arrive, so I had roughly five weeks to fix maybe eighty to one hundred chassis.  Those weeks were some of the most intense of my young life; I worked many hours a day, seven days a week, to learn my craft and finish the work.

Progress was predictably slow at first; after two weeks, I had repaired only seventeen chassis, and the pipeline had grown since I started.  I let Tim know the situation, and we agreed to a rendezvous place and time along the common part of the train route to Paris, and that they wouldn’t wait if I didn’t show up.  After around three weeks, the pipeline had stopped growing and had began to recede, and by the last week, I had it down to twelve, and even with new arrivals, managed to get it down to three by the start of the last day, Friday.  I finished the last chassis with 45 minutes to spare, and ran excitedly to my boss with news.

He double-checked the paperwork, then told me he decided to add one more requirement before permission would be granted.  I had to promise that I would always work that hard, and that this effort was not just some flash-in-the-pan one-time surge.  Wait, what?  I pointed out that I had fulfilled my part of a hard bargain, that I had become proficient in my new job much more rapidly than they had expected, with very little assistance, and that I had worked the equivalent of perhaps 15 extra days in exchange for one day off.  But he continued to insist on my promise, and with the trip on the line, I reluctantly gave it, and with that was given permission to travel.

As I dashed away, picked up my travel bag, and sprinted the 3 klicks down to the train station, I found myself somewhat disappointed in my boss. He had taken something positive and made it a little ugly; what he had asked for was not part of the deal, and it was unnecessary.  I enjoyed my job, particularly in being good at my work, and it seemed that this guy didn’t have enough leadership sense to see that and to nurture it.   Oh, well.  I finally put it aside, and on the train ride to meet my friends, my thoughts turned to the anticipated pleasures awaiting, and did a quick review of some travel French.

Paris, la Ville-Lumière – the city of light

Our rendezvous in Homburg, near Miesau, was a happy one, and we boarded the train together to Paris.  It was great to see my friends, particularly my old friend Laurie, whom I hadn’t seen for perhaps a couple of years, and on the 4 hour train ride, the group got to know each other a little better, catching up and planning on-the-fly our activities for the weekend.  We had collected maps of Paris, subway schedules, and a guidebook for our travels as was required in the pre-Internet days.  Tim had a couple of years of high school French, so we were counting on him for any required translations.  All too soon we pulled into the eastern train station of Paris, le Gare de l’Est, just after 11:00pm.

We immediately took the Métro subway from the Gare de l’Est to the beautiful Louvre-Rivoli stop, almost an underground extension of the museum itself, with plans to surface, take a quick look at the city, then go find a hotel.  We had no reservations, and had heard from other soldiers that cheap hotels were plentiful in Paris; we planned to secure a hotel through the Paris USO (note 2).  As we surfaced onto the Rue de Rivoli, to the immediate north of the Louvre Museum, we were all nearly dumbstruck by the beauty of Paris.  Paris was indeed lit up in grand fashion, as is typical around a holiday, with the street lamps of the boulevards enhanced by the external lighting of the great public buildings, including the Louvre itself.

Wandering the  Champs-Élysées

We slowly meandered up the Rue de Rivoli to the Place de la Concorde, and from there up the Champs Élysées towards the Arc de Triomphe on its other end, a distance of perhaps 5 klicks, excited to be taking in the grandeur and foreignness of Paris.  Around 1:30am, near the Avenue George V, we began to tire, and realized that we had not yet secured a place for the night, and that the USO had already shut its’ doors!

While we stood on the street corner strategizing about finding a hotel, next to high-end stores long since closed, a well-dressed Frenchman approached us, introduced himself, and in excellent English told us he could not help overhearing our conversation.  He said that since it was Easter weekend, Paris was packed with visitors, and there were few hotels available in the city; we would probably not easily find an affordable hotel at this time of the night; he was also worried that we might be easy prey for street criminals.  He went on to say that the American Legion’s Pershing Hall was nearby, and, since we were American soldiers, that they might let us sleep on the floor at least until it opened for business.  He escorted us, now sheepishly embarrassed that we were so ill-prepared, to Pershing Hall and bid us bon voyage (note 3). This first encounter we had with a Frenchman in Paris, notorious for being unfriendly to tourists, was a bracing and happy reminder of the unreliability of stereotypes.

We were taken in to the bar and allowed to sleep on the hard floor (well, hardly sleep), but were grateful nonetheless for the safe shelter and the kindnesses extended to us, as we awoke and departed before the restaurant crowd arrived.    The first order of business was to find shelter for the next two nights.  We walked the quarter mile from the American Legion to the USO office, and were able to procure hotel reservations without incident. We took a quick Métro to the hotel, checked in and were immediately off to explore Paris.

Parkour précoce – precocious parkour

For the next two days, we mostly walked around central Paris, and sampled cheap but, to our unsophisticated palates, excellent food, sometimes making our own meals with fresh baguette, cheese, sausage and ham, fresh fruit, and Alsatian bière and citrus drinks.  We visited a couple of museums, sat in a sidewalk café to rest and watch, and made the great walking loop from the Ile de la Cité and Notre Dame, around the Boulevard St. Michel and the Sorbonne, over to the Tour d’Eiffel, up to the Arc de Triomphe, and back down the Champs Élysées to the Louvre.  On Sunday, when we arrived at the Tour d’Eiffel, it was determined that we were collectively short of French francs, and needed to exchange some money.  (This was before credit cards became common.)  The banks were closed, and the only money exchanges open were at the big train stations.   Tim and I volunteered to make a rapid foray to exchange money and return to meet the rest back at the foot of the Tour d’Eiffel.  Our destination was the Gare de l’Est.

At the outset, Tim and I agreed that it would be a slow process to catch a subway, make a transfer, get to the exchange bank and return in the same manner, so we decided that all movement between the trains and bank we would make as rapidly as possible, particularly to minimize waiting for trains.  We had inadvertently defined for ourselves a precocious version of the future discipline of parkour.  And what is  parkour?  A  mostly urban and non-competitive sport who’s practitioners use only their bodies and their surroundings to get from one place to another as efficiently as possible, maintaining as much momentum as is possible, by running, swinging, jumping, rolling, vaulting and the like.

Tim and I started by running across the Seine river via the Pont d’Iéna, up the long stairs to the Palais de Chaillot, between the buildings and over to the Métro station in the Place de Trocadero.  Descending the many flights of stairs of the station, we began to extend the number of steps we would skip.  At first two, then three, later more, we began to move faster down the stairs, requiring more focus and risk.  Moving down the passageway toward the platform of our train, we encountered our first portillon automatique, automatic gates at the entrance to the platform that swung shut as the train arrived and came to a stop, to keep passengers from last minute sprints to the trains if they were arriving.  (They were common in the 1970’s but have since been removed from the system.)  The doors swung shut as we approached them, and so we vaulted over them, pivoting off of the top of the gates; they were maybe six feet high, so this was not difficult.  In doing so, we managed to catch our first train without waiting.

Fifteen minutes later, we had to transfer to another subway train for a short ride to the Gare de l’Est, which required ascending and descending several flights of stairs and defeating another set of portillon automatiques.  We arrived at the Gare de l’Est, only to find that the money exchange places were closed!  Asking around, we were told that there was an open exchange in the nearby Gare du Nord, so we sprinted to the Métro and caught the short subway to that train station, where we found the open exchange and finally accomplished our task, now about an hour after we had started.

The return trip took almost 45 minutes longer, and we had by now resigned ourselves to the fact that our rapid foray was in fact turning into half the afternoon.  So we experimented a little more with our new-found “sport”, seeing just how many steps we could cover in the last single leap to the bottom, peaking at 11. (oh, to be so young that the knees and ligaments did not give way!)  Perhaps the most exhilarating was the last stretch, running down the steps of the Palais de Chaillot to the Seine, in full view of the Tour d’Eiffel.  These steps were really short connected platforms, each step being  a long slab of several feet before dropping a mere three inches.  We ran down these long and gently descending steps at maybe three-quarter speed, nearly a sprint, taking two of these long steps at a time, feeling the invincibility of youth.

When we finally arrived back, our group had already departed to places unknown, we having taken much too long.  But what a diversion!  We found them later at the hotel, with their own adventures to share with us.

Fifteen years later the discipline of parkour was born,  coincidentally enough in Paris, a much more rigorous and often more risky undertaking than we had spontaneously performed.  Participants, called traceurs, run from point to point, maneuver over obstacles, jump between buildings, perform flips and twists, run along high walls, and are generally much more inventive and aesthetically interesting than the approach we cobbled together, which nonetheless met the requirements of today’s parkour, and remains a memorable exercise.

Back to Germany

We were a happy group when finally we returned to the Gare de l’Est on Monday afternoon and boarded the return train to Germany.  All five of us, fresh to Europe, were grateful for our experiences together, exploring the ancient and modern city of Paris, each for the first time.  The three of us who had joined the Army had each requested to be stationed in Europe so as to afford such travel and such experiences.  It was the first of many trips for each of us, sometimes together, sometimes separately, and it had proven to be stimulating in predictable and unpredictable ways, just as one would hope any adventure would be.



1. Thanks to Laurie Stewart for amending some of the details, particularly about our first night without a hotel.

2. The USO, or United Services Organization, is a charitable organization that provides cultural support for U.S. military personnel around the world, assisting with travel, providing entertainment and social gathering places, etc.  Many of the European USO branches have been shuttered, including the Paris branch, as the U.S. military presence in Europe continues to shrink.  The Paris USO office at 20 Rue de la Trémoille closed perhaps ten years ago.

3. The American Legion Paris Post #1 still exists, but moved about fifteen years ago from it’s long time location on 49 Rue Pierre Charron, where we slept on the floor for the night, to a place  near the Gare de Lyon.  The old Legion post has been converted into a very plush 4-star hotel, the Pershing Hall Hotel, named in memory of its Legion Post history.  The building was built by the Count of Paris at the end of the 18th century, an example of Empire architecture.  When American troops began fighting in France in 1917, General John Pershing made it his general quarters.  The American government bought it, and provided it to the American Legion in 1918 to serve as their officer’s club.

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