On an autumn evening in 1960 I was sitting in the small comfortable library on the small Muenchweiler Army Post (500 or-so troops)in Germany. At some point I looked up from whatever I was reading and noticed someone I'd not seen on post before. I was struck by his good looks. He looked different. He was the embodiment of clean-cut. Blond neatly clipped hair, just long enough to allow a part. Tall. Blue eyes. His complexion seemed to glow, as if radiating wholesomeness. Even his attire was out of the ordinary: a pair of tan wide-wale corduroy trousers, a brown narrow-waled corduroy sports coat, a crew-necked dark grey sweater, and, peeking above the neck of that sweater, I could see the collar of a dress shirt; this last touch looked priestly. None of us dressed like this.
As the library's nine o'clock closing-time rolled near I found myself standing behind the stranger in the line of us few guys waiting for Herr Bibliothekar to check out the books we'd wanted to take out. The wholesome-looking newcomer turned around. We small-talked. Then, once his books were checked out, he waited for me. We walked together from the library to the barracks, a stack of books nestled in the akimbo of one of each of our arms. We walked past the chapel, catercornered across the unlit baseball field, and finally up a paved road to the barracks area, chatting all the way. He was, I learned, Brad Coons. Actually -- as I was to learn later -- he was Henry Bradbury Coons III. He said he was from Texas. I’d been stationed in Texas; Brad Coons had no Texan drawl. I said, “You don’t sound like a Texan.” He said, “My family is actually from Virginia but my dad moved us to Texas because he’s in the oil business there.”
As we neared my barracks he asked if I'd like to go out for a beer after chow the following evening.
***The first snow fell on that next day. Brad and I used the west hole in the chain-link fence that lined the perimeter of the base; it that had been broken through by GIs to shorten the route to Viktor’s, a gasthaus that stood in the woods; the path was about half of gentle grade at the foot of one of the mountains closely surrounded Muenchweiler. (This hole was convenient also because if you left the post you were supposed to have a pass; there was no guard, naturally, at the hole to check your pass, so you were saved the bother of acquiring one. And, speaking of unauthorized exits, the Germans who worked on the post, mostly in the Mess Hall, had broken a hole through on the opposite side of the base, thus cutting short their walk to their homes in the village of Muenchweiler, and also making it easier for, as I once witnessed, a certain stout frau to leave the base with a few dressed chickens hanging from a waist-rope beneath her skirt.)
***We took a table in the back at Viktor's. The waitress approached. “Zwei biere, bitte!” Brad ordered. I heard the waitress shout what sounded like, “Zwei looven!” to the bartender. It took months and months before I figured out that looven was short for Löwenbräu, the favorite local brew ... a beer which I of course pronounced Low-en-brow.
“Do you belong to any religion?” Brad eventually asked as we talked.
“No. I was raised Catholic but I don't believe that stuff anymore.” I’d read Phllip Wylie. I'd read Aldous Huxley. I'd read a number of free-thinkers, and had fallen under their influence with delight. I saw myself as having finally learned to think.
“Good! I don’t see how anyone with any intelligence could fall for any of that crap. I’ve been reading about existentialism … do you know about it?”
No, I didn’t, and I said so, afraid that he’d be dismayed at my lack.
“It’s a philosophy,” he said. “The basic premise is existence comes before essence … we created god … no god created us. There is no pre-ordained meaning to life. So existence comes first and any meaning to life follows.”
“Is there a book I can get to read about it?”
“Read Nausea by a guy named Sartre … Jean-Paul Sartre. I’ve been reading a book by a woman named Simone de Beauvoir. She’s his lover. They’ve been lovers since back in the thirties but they don’t believe in marriage. The book I’m reading is called Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. She writes a lot about Sartre. I want to go to Paris because she even mentions the cafés they like to hang out in. It’d really be cool to walk in a café and see Jean-Paul Sartre sitting there!”
Simone de Beauvoir! Id caught the name of Sartre’s lover phonetically. It seemed to have rolled so beautifully off Brad’s lips. When he later used the restroom I practiced saying it: Simone de Beauvoir … Simone de Beauvoir.
***I did read Nausea. I liked it but was sure there was a lot in it that I didn't really understand. I wasn't enchanted, but did like to say now that I had read it ... it was, if only in my opinion, an impressive notch on my literary belt.
Simone de Beauvoir, on the other hand, was soon my favorite writer. I read Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter from the library and when I returned it the librarian told me that a second volume of her memoirs, The Prime of Life, had just recently arrived. I read her novels: She Came to Stay, The Blood of Others, The Mandarins. Everything about her fascinated me. I stared at the pictures of her on the backs of her books. I loved her. I thought she had the most perfect life imaginable! I wished to live life just as she was living life ... unfortunately I wasn't smart enough to do that; for starters, I couldn't figure out how to write a novel.
Today, in this country, Simone de Beauvoir is probably best known for her ground-breaking book on feminism, The Second Sex.
|In 1990, I visited her and Jean-Paul Sartre's grave in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.|
My two closest buddies, Eddie from Miami, and Robert from Jersey City, had just recently returned to the States; they'd done their time and were now civilians. I wanted almost desperately for Brad to become my friend. He did. I took the above picture of him on the roof of the cathedral in Milan during a twenty-day leave we took together; we visited Basel, Zurich, Milan, Florence, Venice, and Rome.
It occurs to me now that the clothes he's wearing in the picture could be the very same ones he was wearing the night I met him in the library! None of us had many civilian clothes ... some of us couldn't afford many ... and anyhow we all had an extremely small amount of wall- and foot-locker space.
And so this post is as much about Brad Coons as it is about Simone de Beauvoir. That's okay. He introduced me to a writer with whom I fell in love. Though she fell out of fashion long ago, I still love her. Thus, I owe Brad a lot.