Babette’s Uncle in World War I

Babette’s house was nothing unlike a museum, every wall covered with paintings and historical artifacts.  The rusty rifle over her front door and mysterious military medals constantly aroused my curiosity.  One day she explained several of these which related to her grandfather, a general in the Franco-Prussian War and an uncle who served as an officer during WWI.

French troops in 1919 at the war's end

Babette turns and motions at a small octagonal frame on the wall.  Inside hang three military medals under glass against blue velvet.  She points at the largest in the middle.  I squint to read Republique Francaise 1870 within a wreath of green oak leaves.

“That is my grandfather’s Legion of Honor medal,” she informs me, “and on the right is his médaille militaire, I suppose something like a good conduct badge.  Now, to the left is my uncle’s croix de guerre, from the First World War.  He chanced to be captured within the first weeks and spent four years at Ingolstadt Fortress, a punishment camp for troublesome officers.  But there’s more.  Come downstairs.”

WWI French croix de guerre

We descend and Babette points at the corroded rifle over her front door.

“This is a Model 98 Mauser rifle.  The main infantry weapon of German soldiers in the First World War.  Look at that bayonet!  What a fearsome sight!  See how the breech is shut?  That small lever pushed far left means it is ready to fire.  But it never will again.  The barrel is completely choked with rust.

K98 Mauser rifle

“As a young girl I once explored with my cousin in some forested part of France and we came upon this firearm in some underbrush.  It must have moldered away for almost twenty years by then.  We dragged the rifle back with us, which eventually ended up in some relatives’s basement.  Ages ago they found the thing and I brought it back to America.  Now, come along.”

I follow Babette into her study.  She runs a finger against several oversized books on a shelf, each titled Le Panorama de la Guerre.  I open one at random and can’t help but be impressed.  My ignorance of French proves no impediment.  Stark photographs, melancholy paintings and detailed engravings fill every page.

Le Panorama de la Guerre

“This is a treasure!”  I marvel.

“Yes,” Babette replies, “and it’s quite remarkable how they were put together.  The publisher compiled war news and hired talented illustrators to put out monthly issues, about the size of a magazine.  People would purchase them as they became available with the idea one could have it all bound up for free if you bought the whole set.  Of course, no one suspected it would at last fill up so many volumes back in 1914!”

Babette's uncle, bottom right, in 1914

Babette's uncle, pre-war

She pulls out the first book and extracts a couple black and white photos.  The first is undated and shows a trim middle aged man in military uniform, his dense mustache waxed and jaunty.  By the second, marked 1916,  grayed hairs stray visibly from under his peaked cap.  He now wears a thick wool greatcoat with white numbers on the collar.  The black mustache is no longer upturned.

Babette's uncle in Ingolstadt prison camp, 1916

“This second picture my uncle sent of himself from the camp.  Now, his wife, who possessed a vicious sense of humor, collected these serials avidly.  After the armistice in 1918, she gave them all to him as a coming home present, because didn’t he want to catch up on all the war he missed while interred?  She hounded him to read, so he started, but died from a heart attack, so my aunt said, in bed with one of the books open before him.  She claimed to have marked the page, but I never found it.”

Babette looks at a clock on the wall, mounted next to her giant topographical map of Canada.

“Of course the First World War is almost forgotten by Americans, which in many ways makes sense, as this country only entered during the final period and suffered hardly any casualties compared to other nations.  But at the time it raised such public fervor!  Do you realize here in Portland ordinary people found it intolerable to live in neighborhoods with Germanic names?  And since so many early Oregon pioneers emigrated from German speaking parts of Europe, there were many.  The old streets Bismark, Frankfurt, Karl, even those named after famous poets like Schiller and Goethe, were all changed to more acceptable Anglophone terms.

“One exception was Liebe Street, you know, just a little north of us here.  The City Council couldn’t manage that, since it turned out old Mr. Liebe was still alive and a perfectly respectable member of society.  The fact this word means ‘love’ must have made it somewhat easier for society to tolerate.  I suppose I will never understand depths of human hatred, the compulsion to even wipe away place names that remind people of their enemy’s culture.

“But now is it late and I must retire.  If you like, I will tell you more of my days in France some other time.”

History I

This excerpt begins in the Summer of 1999 after I have moved into my history professor’s grand house.  For the first time she tells me stories from her past.

Dr. Ellsworth, late 90s

Chapter 5:  History I

One evening we sit together around the kitchen table; windows raised to allow warm summer breezes inside.  A decisive Scrabble victory in Babette’s favor lays out before us.  Her lips curve upwards in jubilation.

“You are a little bit curious to learn more of my history, are you not, Wrahs?” she asks, eyes full of intrigue.

I nod, and with casual motions clear the board, not wishing my eagerness to show.

She leans back in her chair.  “Be kind and fetch me some bubble water then.  I will tell you a story.”

I rise and crack open a fresh bottle of mineral water from the supply shelf which contains around twenty.  It fizzes into a glass which I bring over.  She savors it and nods approvingly.

“I will never understand this American obsession with making every liquid they ingest as cold as the arctic.  It can’t be healthy.  You have perhaps noticed the upstairs freezer does not contain a single ice tray?  I threw them away immediately after bringing it home.”

My professor shudders as if a painful memory haunts her.

“At any rate,” she begins, “in 1928 a teenage girl wandered into a hospital in Yakima, Washington.  She was very pregnant and gave birth to a child, quite premature you understand.  The father’s identity she either didn’t know or wouldn’t say.  Afterward, she seemed to show almost no interest in the infant.  And of course, this child was myself.”  Babette beams.

“Well, it so happened a woman named Germaine worked at this hospital as a nurse.  She came from a wealthy family called the Bonnefonts in southern France and married an American man named Robert Brown.  They had no children, but wanted a family.  She fell in love with this tiny baby who nobody cared about.  Once I grew well enough to travel, Germaine snatched me from the bassinet, and they caught the first train out of town.  We traveled by ship back to France, but there must have been some disagreement as Robert Brown disappeared from the picture soon afterward.   Germaine raised me as her own and made every effort to remain undetected.  Of course, the police knew who to look for and there was an international warrant for her arrest.

-The infant Dr. Ellsworth en route to France

“So as a child I always remember unexpected moves.  We traveled most often by train and the sound of rails at night put me to sleep.  Such a reassuring sound.  My mother would be quite high strung and nervous, but as soon as we left the station I could feel her relax.  I have loved trains ever since.  While a young child I discovered model railroads and kept a collection until recently but now my hands are too shaky for things with small parts.”

Babette rises.  “Come to the study, I have some photographs from those times.”

We go to the next room and my professor rummages around the bottom drawer of her small writing desk.  She removes a battered file folder and pours out several black and white photographs.

“Here is Germaine in 1920.”

I take this brown edged portrait and fixate on the image.  A oval faced woman with dark hair tied back and elegant arched eyebrows faces the camera, her expression pleasant, yet calculating.

“She was beautiful.”

My professor chuckles.  “Even yet her charms can affect one.  Now there was someone who knew methods of getting what she wanted from the world.  Not one to cross, that is for sure.    A woman who lived quite a mysterious life.  My adopted mother grew up amidst complete luxury in southern France but somehow ended up with the British Army in 1919 as they crushed an Irish uprising.  Here, this picture is from Mullingar, Ireland, which was a flashpoint of the rebellion.”

I take this with deep interest.  The sepia print shows Germaine in military uniform, her bobbed hair peeking out from under a cap.  She regards the camera seriously and holds a long cigarette holder cocked in one hand.  A cursive caption along the bottom reads ‘In His Majesty’s Service.’

“How on earth did something like this happen?”  I ask, incredulous.

Babette shakes her head.  “My mother would never speak of such things.  She treated her past as a locked a chest never to be opened.  I was truly amazed to find any photographs among her possessions after she died.  If these were preserved as clues or merely out of nostalgia, I will never know.  At any rate, here is one several years later in America of her with Robert Brown and myself.”

-Top right: Germaine and Robert Brown

In this picture Germaine smiles with sheer joy.  She stands next to a careworn man in a dark suit.  He looms over her, almost two heads taller.  The object of her delight is a tiny baby wrapped in white, it’s face down-turned.

“Brown looks quite a giant,” I observe.

Babette nods.  “I never knew the man but he was said to be well over six feet tall.  My adopted mother clearly loved him but never spoke of what happened between them.  Ah, here is the last one I will show you for now.”

She passes me a closer photo, this time just of her mother with the child on her lap.  I blink in amazement.  Though still an infant, this is clearly my professor.  The round head and facial features are unmistakable.  It’s wispy scalp and plump cheeks have scarcely changed over seven decades later.  Germaine gazes into this petulant face with adoration.  I hand it back to Babette.

“So, the Bonnefonts, my adopted family, owned property all over, in Spain as well as France, so I soon spoke Spanish without having to learn in school.  And they had political connections there, you know, of the very best sort, with General Franco.”

Babette pauses in admiration.  “Now there was a talented leader.  He kept Spain out of the Second World War, played each side for every advantage and then remained in power for another thirty years!  Who would refuse to recognize the greatness of such a man?”  She waits, daring me to contradict her.

“But George Orwell is your hero also!” I interject.  In my professor’s library, Orwell’s books occupy a section of honor.  “And he fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War.”

“This is true,” Babette agrees, “yet even Orwell found qualities he could appreciate in the Nationalist cause.  You may read about Catalonian anarchism and it seems quite admirable, but could they have defeated Franco on their own?  Stalin’s communists were the only force organized enough to do so and had they succeeded, I wonder what state we would find Spain in today.”

I let the subject drop and she continues.

“You see, my family understood how to recognize authority and stay on its good side.  That is a lesson some of us haven’t learned yet.”  She smiles pointedly.  The week before I had been thrown out of a downtown newspaper’s office with several other activists while distributing anti-capitalist leaflets.

“Of course, you are absolutely correct to be angry!” she continues, “but being right is no guarantee of survival, and that is what counts.  Do you know who my true hero is?  It is Joseph Fouche, of the French secret police.  He served under Jacobin, Napoleonic and Bourbon regimes in the late eighteenth century.  One might say, ‘Arrest Catholic authorities’ or next ‘Defend the monarchy’ but he did his duty, made sure not to become too compromised by any one side and do you know what, he survived them all and lived out his days in great comfort!”  Babette’s eyes flash.

“So, my mother did all she could to prevent discovery.  Of course, the authorities looked for a kidnapped girl.  Well, clever woman that she was, it made sense to raise me so I could pass as either gender.  She discovered for a little extra money I could be enrolled in Catholic school as a male.  Now, oddly enough among the Southern French, my family wasn’t even Catholic, they disliked the church in fact and thought my mother mad, but it helped preserve her secret.  Come along!”

Babette leads me to the living room and gestures at a large oil canvas on the mantelpiece.  It depicts a grandiose white stone mansion with grandiose circular drive.  The crescent staircase leads to its main entrance behind a large fountain surrounded by flowers.  Seagulls fly overhead.  In the foreground, a round faced child peers through large spectacles.  He is dressed in a blue and white altar boys gown and further back, three adults cluster underneath a tall gas lamp post.  One man in a white shirt stands next to a brunette woman and on her other side, an elderly gentleman wearing some kind of blue uniform strikes a dignified pose.

“Here is the Chateau du Lac, where we often lived.  A beautiful old house, build around 1760 I believe.  This is the Sigean region, quite close to the Mediterranean coast near Narbonne.  As you can see, I enjoyed an entirely high class upbringing.  But even for a member of the bourgeoisie, I experienced quite an extraordinary childhood in rather unusual surroundings.  As I said, we kept close to some of the best families in Spain and traveled there often, but later developed connections with many wealthy Russians exiles as well.”

She sits down on a couch but I stand and examine the painting.

“This is you then?” I ask, gesturing at the youth.

Babette nods.

“I always participated so enthusiastically in the religious rituals.  It’s complete rubbish, of course, but the genius of a Catholic education is that it never goes away.  I would as soon chop off my right hand than abandon mass.  Protestants foolishly never mastered guilt, though it’s such a powerful tool.  You, with your deplorable Presbyterian upbringing couldn’t possibly understand.”

I shrug in acknowledgment.  “The Russians…”

“Yes, them,” she continues.  “Probably the most well known was Prince Felix Yusupov.  You know of him, who assassinated the monk Rasputin in 1916?  He poisoned, shot and finally drowned the man.  I remember sitting on Yusupov’s lap, oh, he had terrible breath and smelled so strongly of cigars.”

Prince Felix Yusupov as a young man

Exodus I

Ross Eliot in late 90s.

Every story has to begin somewhere and I start this one at a point just before my transition to Portland.  A recent college dropout  and industrial roofer, in 1998 I lived in a Seattle U-district boarding house owned by Eric Hilton.  A 2003 Seattle Weekly article titled “Hilton’s Hellholes” gives some idea of the conditions.  Shortly after moving into this cramped space, I noticed a Seattle Times front page headline which read “Eric Hilton: Seattle’s Most Notorious Slumlord.”

“Funny,” I thought, “that name seems familiar.  Oh wait, I write it on a check every month!”

Despite the very real danger of dying in a fire, tenement living allowed me to save enough money that I soon bought a motorcycle.  Not an awesome motorcycle, but still, one that would take me away to Portland where new adventures waited.

1981 Honda Magna 750cc. Mine was smaller and held together with more duct tape.

Chapter Two: Exodus I

 It’s early autumn 1998.  I am twenty-one years old and teaching myself to ride a motorcycle.  The General watches me through his open window upstairs in a dilapidated boarding house we both call home near Seattle’s University District.  A wispy haired Vietnam veteran, he calls out loudly with disappointment as I kill the engine once more.  The machine sputters and almost wobbles over as acrid smoke trails from dual exhaust pipes.  I coast to a halt in newly fallen leaves which spangle brown and orange down the street.

There is no kick stand to my 1981 Honda Magna, so it must be raised up on its center support when parked.   I step on a short metal peg below the frame, bear down and shift rearward.  This rolls the whole back end but requires a certain amount of technique to completely lift.  Nearly thirty tries later, sweat drips down my face mixed with muttered curses.  Bystanders share amused glances as they stroll by.

“You sure you’re doing ok there?” the General yells down.  His creased face smiles with concern.

“I’m fine.”  I reply, somewhat crossly.  I’d hoped this crash course might take place with a smaller audience.

After another ten minutes of effort, I finally heave my motorcycle upright and retreat inside for a break.  It’s impossible to say how many people share this house.  The basement is completely separate with its own entrance.  Our only evidence subterranean dwellers even exist comes when irate thumps penetrates the floor.  Sometimes my heavy boots bother them at night.  The place may be a fire-trap flophouse but at least rent is cheap.

My quarters are an eight by eight foot space built by creative remodelers who partitioned the former main dining area into two bedrooms.  Some past tenant once proclaimed “Julian loves Rachel” in large spray painted letters on the wall and in tribute to their affection, I have arranged band posters and other decor around this graffiti.   From outside, one can see drywall plastered flush against the glass window.  It splits our rooms like bifocal lenses.  I don’t know my prescription but the other side must be extremely nearsighted.  The man who inhabits it I call Mr. Digger-Next-Door.

Through my half of the pane, I view a tiny garden which this housemate maintains.  Garden is an optimistic term, since his plot never produces shoots or other signs of life.  A middle aged man with round shoulders and brown tinted glasses, he wakes early in the morning to spade this patch of ground over and over.  I frequently wake around five am to arrive at distant roofing sites by seven, but after my alarm is frantically switched off, the first sounds I hear are slow, measured digging below the window.  As far as I can tell, this lasts all day long.  He never speaks and after agricultural pursuits, sits in his room with curtains drawn, lights off and door wide open.  Lurking just inside the shadows, he silently watches everyone who walks by.  All I can usually discern are dimly illuminated glasses above a vague silhouette.

In search of lunch constructing ingredients, I open the refrigerator.  It doesn’t smell too bad.  Food preservation in any common areas is risky.  Some tenants identify their jars and containers with names and the occasional admonition “Keep Out.”  Bold permanent marker on my plastic jug of milk declares “OX JIZZ” and so far people have left it alone.

“I dumpstered a whole box of popcorn last night!” the General hollers down from upstairs.  “It’s on the counter, help yourself.”

“Thanks!”  I shout back.

I decide to save the General’s find for later and make a sandwich instead.  Once finished, I return to practice with the motorcycle.  It spent two days parked outdoors with a FOR SALE sign along my route to work.  A friend rode the bike home for me after I bought it yesterday.  He didn’t have time to teach me, but this shouldn’t be hard, I just need more persistence.  A couple hours later I zip around the block with increased confidence and as dusk sets in, make my initial foray onto the freeway.  A short trip, just one ramp to the next, but it fills me with exaltation.  Warm air batters against the scratched windscreen of my second hand helmet.  Despite the hazy view, all becomes clear now.  This is everything I’d hoped for.  This is my escape.

Exodus II


Ross Eliot in 1998

I recently had some of my manuscript professionally edited.  The section from it reprinted below begins after I moved to Portland from Seattle in 1998 at the age of twenty-two.  Relations with my room mate soured and I considered returning north.  Then an elderly French professor of history at Portland Community College named Dr. Ellsworth offered me a place to live in her pantry.  This turned out be a pivotal moment of my life and the beginning of an adventure I could never have imagined.

Ross Eliot with Dr. Ellsworth, Summer 1999

Exodus II

   The next day, June 8, 1999, I catch a bus to Dr. Ellsworth’s house and she shows off my new room.  It is the basement pantry that escaped notice earlier.  We enter through a folding glass door she grandly proclaims came from Portland’s old streetcar line.  I see a long chamber dominated by an immense model train table.   This diorama fills almost half of it with with wide gauge tracks that ring a paper mâché mountain and miniature plastic forest.  At the other end, deep shelves contain enough canned food and preserves to last a family of ten through the winter.  Jars, bottles, and cases stand tightly compressed on every level.  In the middle is a twin bed, dressed with crisp flannel sheets and down comforter.

My professor offers use of her Toyota and I drive it back to the apartment.  Its trunk and rear seats will provide more than enough space for my meager possessions.  Mona sits in our living room, red eyes staring ahead in bitter silence.   After I carry out the first couple boxes, she retreats to her bedroom.  The door slams closed.  Soon her muffled television wails from within.

Dr. Ellsworth’s car takes me away toward Tolman Street.  I park, lug a crate of records in both arms up to the front entryway, set it down and try the door.  It is locked.  I rap sharply.  Nothing.  I ring the doorbell and wait several minutes.  How odd.  Just an hour before the professor entrusted me with her vehicle but not house keys.  Repeated knocks are futile.  I swivel around in frustration and scan over what little can be seen outside the leafy veil that encircles her front garden.

After a moment I hear the door creak open.  Turning back, I see it held ajar and in the gap stands my professor.  Stark naked.  Completely wet.  Flesh mottled and grey.  She blinks at me through thick spectacles.  Neither of us says a word.  I remain stock still, boots welded in place.  A small puddle forms around her bare feet.  The spell breaks as a strident female voice calls out behind me.

“Get inside Babette!  Stop making a disgrace of yourself!  Do you want the whole neighborhood to see?”

I look over my shoulder to see a roundly built woman advancing up the steps.  At this interruption Dr. Ellsworth draws back.  With haste I grab my crate, slip by her into the house and make straight downstairs.  I sit down on the bed and listen as voices murmur above.  After several minutes they fade, but not until much later do I venture back to the main floor and continue unloading my things.  This is no good.  At least Mona never ambushed me without clothes.  If Dr. Ellsworth plans a seduction this will be one brief stay.

A wooden commode is stacked high with gold rimmed china.  I carefully clear the service and find storage for it in the double cupboard below.  This makes room for the old Mac and printer on top.  I line my record crates in a row beside the train table.  There is enough space for several boxes of clothes to stretch along the wall opposite leaving a narrow walkway between.  A large wool tapestry woven with a blocky Aztec eagle design hangs above the bed.  I put up several band posters next to it and pause.  The room already feels comfortable.

That evening my professor, now wrapped in a terry-cloth bathrobe, calls me upstairs.  Pieces of beef are already sliced on the cutting board and her wrinkled hands chop vegetables with a large knife.  There is a can of chicken broth on the counter.

“I am sorry if I gave you a start earlier,” she says, “I was taking a bath upstairs and all of a sudden heard your furious racket and became afraid you might leave so I ran to let you in without thought for anything else.  Some people have suggested my modesty lacks on occasion.  All outrageous lies of course.”

She tips the ingredients into an orange enamel pot on the stove and emits a short ironic laugh.  Delicious smells swirl upwards and my professor taps her wooden spoon against the rim.

“That woman you saw earlier today is my granddaughter.  Until last week she lived upstairs.  We sometimes had our little quarrels, but one day after a terrific row she said ‘“You beast!  I’ll have you committed!”’  Well, I immediately called my attorney to discover if this could be possible and with absolute horror, found out it might, depending on how long a relation lived with me.  That is why I asked her to leave.”

We sit at the kitchen table, bowls of meaty stew before us.  After only two enthusiastic gulps she flings her spoon down with a clatter.  Broth speckles the front of her robe.

“What I would like from you is help with the garden, housework and some other things which are now difficult for me.  In return, you may stay the summer and decide what to do next with your life.  This arrangement will be good for both of us, oui?”

An Apology

The last thing the world needs is another memoir by some overeducated ‘zine writer who thinks they deserve better than a menial life of physical labor until their back gives out.  The last thing the internet needs is a weblog by such an individual who feels their past is so unavoidably interesting that people should make time in their busy schedules to learn all about it.  It is therefore with great apology that I unveil this wordpress page documenting the progress of my upcoming book.

      This project contains a detailed account of my move to Portland from Seattle in 1998 as a young man and the many adventures I experienced.  These involved three years living in the pantry of a college professor who could be described as a French/Nazi/septuagenarian/transexual/atheist/nun and that’s leaving out most of the weird parts.  I intend this page to serve as a source for information about my progress towards publication.  The manuscript is currently 402 pages and about 112,000 words.  The proper website is