Dreux was a wonderful place for a young kid. Our family arrived on the base on Aug 1961 to find it had been placed on standby status earlier that year. As a result, it was a very quiet place with no regular flight operations and a relatively small support contingent to keep everything up and operating. For me, as a 10 year old at the time, it was great! I pretty much had the run of the place. The facilities were in good shape and the base was small enough that everything could be reached quickly on a bicycle. Everywhere I went people were friendly and for the most part, with the shortage of operational activities on the base, everyone was more than happy to spend time talking with you. No wonder I have so many great memories of Dreux. Here are a few stories of the days at Dreux through the eyes of a young guy.
Since we arrived in August, it wasn't long before it was time to start school. That was my 6th grade year and the elementary school was centrally located, so was an easy walk for those of us who lived on the base. Busses brought the kids that lived in the Dreux and Senonches housing areas. Our classroom was on the 2nd floor of the building and, like most elementary schools, we had a single room that was our "home" for most of the day. There were 23 kids in my 6th grade class. The principal of the elementary school was Miss Priestley and my teacher was Mr. Lageson. As is typical in elementary school, Mr Lageson taught all subjects except for French. Everyone took French, and for that class, we went down the hall to another classroom where Mrs. Piwovarick (not sure about the spelling) tried her best to teach us the French language and culture (and, I might add, did a pretty good job of it!). One of the highlights of the week was the bingo game on Friday. In order to get everyone motivated to learn the numbers, we would play bingo with the numbers, of course, being called in French. The prize was a piece of candy which was of special value because not only did it taste good, but the winner got the added satisfaction of letting everyone else (the losers) know what they were missing out on. Mr Lageson lived in Maillebois and invited us all to his place in the springtime for an end of the school year picnic. It was very thoughtful of him and I still recall how much fun it was paddling his little boat up and down the stream in back of his house.
Day-to-day activities at the school were pretty much the same as any regular American elementary school. We had several breaks for recess and either played organized games such as dodgeball or figured out some things to do on our own. There was a playground adjacent to the school with a bunch of see-saws, swings, etc. There was also a large merry-go-round on the playground and one of our really "fun" activities was getting that thing going so fast that kids would literally fly off it.
The school didn't have a lunch room, so everyone was on their own for
lunch and snacks. We brought lunches from home, although those
that lived on base could make it home and back for lunch if they wanted.
The next year (7th grade) our class structure was different. We had different teachers for each subject and had some of our classes in the high school building. The teachers I remember were Mr. Hannon for math, Mr. Shelby for Social Studies, and Mr. Joannais for French. It was during my 7th grade year that the 8th graders boldly challenged us to a baseball game. The ball field was over near the high school and amid much anticipation we gathered over lunch hour one day to find out who was better. As you might guess from the fact that I even bring it up, the young, but mighty, 7th graders prevailed.
One of the really cool things about going to school at Dreux was the field trips we took. During my two years there we visited several chateaux. The Chateau at Anet was built in the mid 1500's for Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of King Henri II. Seemed to me to be a pretty nice gift to give to your mistress. The chateau didn't fare well during the French revolution, but has been fully restored, so was very impressive. Even more impressive (at least to me) was the Chateau de Maintenon which was built for Madame de Maintenon, the second wife of Louis XIV.
Each year we also took a trip to Chartres Cathedral. I'm sure anyone stationed at Dreux remembers Chartres. It is one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, gothic cathedral in the world. The stain glass windows are just incredible. One of the striking things about the cathedral is the approach. It was built on a hill in the middle of town and as you approach from any direction you see the cathedral rising up from the surrounding land as if it's in a world all of its own. Anyway, school field trips from Dreux were indeed something very special.
Dreux had a great community center that included the base library,
snack bar, Teen Club, and arts & crafts center. There was
probably more there, but that's what I remember. I spent quite a
bit of time at the crafts center. It was run by a gentleman named
Lee Burkett who had two great attributes. First, he was immensely
talented (at least from my standpoint) as he could make or draw almost
anything and, second, he was a patient and wonderful teacher. He
would take whatever time needed to do one-on-one or group instruction to
get you started on whatever your interest was. I made pottery,
jewelry, leather items, etc. Everything was there that you needed
and either cost nothing, or just a nominal cost for the materials.
Madame Hoquetis was in charge of the base library. She was an English baroness that had married a French sailor and had gotten a job on the base after her husband had passed away at an early age. She had four daughters and "loaned" one of them, Marie-France, to us as an au pair, with the idea that she would learn English while helping to take care of my sister.
Since Susie was about 2 years old, my parents really appreciated the
help, but we all ended up learning more French than Marie-France did
English. Marie-France was a really sweet young lady and did a
great job of keeping us up to date on the latest in French pop
culture. We got to hear lots of recordings by Johnny Hallyday
(sometimes called the "French Elvis") and Petula Clark (who was one of
the hottest singers in France several years before "Downtown" made her a
star in the US). But I digress. The library was well stocked
and was a fun place to visit.
The Community Center also had a snack bar with a soda fountain. They could "make" a cherry coke for you. Since you couldn't get those pre-made in a bottle like today, they were a specialty of the soda fountain. The Teen Club was also in the building, but was off limits to us non-teen kids. It was really targeted at the High Schoolers, most of who lived in the nearby dorms. In retrospect I can't blame them for not wanting a bunch of junior high (or younger) kids invading their turf, but it sure seemed unfair at the time. After all, they had a jukebox that was on free play all the time and that seemed to be about as cool as it could get.
There wasn't much in the way of organized sports for us kids. We
did have little league baseball, but the main problem we faced was that
there was only one team on the base. Practice was fun, but playing
against your own teammates can only go so far. Fortunately, the
kids at the Senonches housing area had a team as well, so we ended up
with a league of two teams. It was pretty easy to figure out who
your next opponent would be. We also ended up playing the bases'
ladies softball team. The season wasn't particularly long, but we
did get to wear cool uniforms and everyone had a good time.
The Dreux Vikings - the high school - played other schools and it was fun to go out to the games. The football field was fairly close to the base ops building and we would go over on Saturdays to watch them play.
The base also had sports teams. I remember watching the baseball team from time to time. They got decidedly better with the arrival of the Alabama Air National Guard in 1961.
I visited the fire department quite a few times. It was housed in
the same building as base ops and the control tower and always made for
an interesting visit. The firemen were always nice to us and a few
times gave us rides in the fire trucks. Although the base was in a
standby status, the fire department was fully operational and had a
bunch of trucks. They were standard American Air Force fire trucks
with nozzles for shooting foam located just above the cab that could be
controlled from inside the cab. The firemen pulled their standby
from quarters located above the garage that housed the trucks and would
slide down the fire poles in an emergency. There were four fire
poles and they'd let us slide down them when we visited.
Although there were no permanently assigned aircraft that I could
remember, from time to time we'd get some transient aircraft - an
occasional C-119 or C-130. Once in a while the Army would practice
parachute drops at Dreux and that provided a bit of excitement when it
happened. We may have had a T-33 on base for pilot proficiency
training - just a guess - as I used to see one in the pattern fairly
The weather observation station was located on the east end of the runway and was one of the stops I'd make when riding my bike around the base. There wasn't much for the observer to do, so whoever was on duty was more than happy to have somebody come by to visit. He had to make routine observations which would be relayed to the tower and would also update the weather recording with the latest forecast. Anyone on the base could call and get the weather recording which was located at the observation station.
Radio, TV, and Movies - In some respects "growing up" on Dreux had
similarities to growing up as part of my parents' generation. We
didn't have television, so got much of our news and entertainment from
the Armed Forces Radio Network. There was a 50 watt FM transmitter
located at the back of the base theater that relayed the programming
from the AFN France master studio in Orléans (and they got a lot of
their programming from AFN's European HQ in Frankfurt). In the
morning we could listen to Don McNeill's Breakfast Club - a sort of
morning time variety show and the evening featured one or two radio
plays (such as the Lone Ranger, Johnny Dollar, Suspense Theater, etc) in
addition to a lot of programming that was produced by AFN Europe.
So we listened to the same shows that our parents had listened to.
While I enjoyed listening to AFN, one of the problem with a "one size
fits all" radio station is that there was a limited amount of time
devoted to the popular music of the day. The time I was in Europe
was the start of the "British Invasion" in pop music so those of us who
were into music wanted more than AFN had to offer. For that, we
had Radio Luxembourg. Radio Luxembourg broadcast with a signal of
1,300 kilowatts (really big!) on the AM band and could be heard after
dark throughout Europe. Their target audience was the UK where the
government owned BBC controlled the airways. As a commercial
station, Radio Luxembourg was funded through advertising and played rock
music all the time.
The movie theater was very popular and had a different show almost every day. There were two showings every day which typically started with coming attractions and a short featurette or Movietone News - they were still making the newsreels in those days. Also, the base theater had a children's matinee every Saturday morning that began with a serialized show - about a 10 -15 minute short feature that ended in some cliffhanging situation that almost demanded that you come back the following week to find out what happened. Then we got to watch some sort of G-rated (although they didn't really have the ratings in those days) movie. Going to the movie cost me the princely sum of 25 cents - 15 cents for the movie and 10 cents for popcorn. As I recall adults had to pay 25 cents to get in.
The photo lab - I decided one day that I would like to learn to develop my own pictures, so I went into the base photo lab and they were more than happy to accommodate me in my quest. The lab was run by an Air Policeman, A1C Keaton, who explained and demonstrated everything I needed to know about photo developing and turned me loose on the place. You were on your own to come and go as you pleased. The equipment was excellent and all of the materials were provided free of charge. The only thing you bought was the film itself. I spent lots of time over at the lab, learned a lot about photography, and ended up developing all of my own pictures and many of the ones for my family (but only black and white).
Dreux had a Rod and Gun Club that was located in one of the Quonset
huts at the north end of the officers' trailer park. It was a very
active club and had lots of ties to hunters in the local
community. During my time there they built a skeet range (and
later a trap range), the remains of which was still there during my 94
visit. It was located on one of the hardstands in front of
Marguerite 1. I remember going out on weekends to watch everyone
shoot. I also made a little extra money cocking the bird throwing
machines. They had to be manually set, so somebody (11 year old
cheap labor) got the job. I would work the low house and a friend
would work the high house. We were paid 25 cents per round so it
was actually pretty good money. There were quite a few Frenchmen
that came to shoot as well including one (sorry, I can't remember his
name) that was one of the top skeet shooters in France. He seldom
missed a target. My dad used to say that with a blindfold on he
could probably still hit the majority of the targets. After a day
at the range, everyone would go back to the club for socializing.
The French hunters often invited hunters from the base to accompany them
on local hunts. All in all, it was another of many activities that
brought the locals together with those on the base.
Shopping at the Base Exchange - The BX at Dreux varied considerably during the 2-3 years that I was there. It was pretty small and not very well stocked, as I recall (through the eyes of a young guy), when we first arrived, but that changed considerably when the base was brought back to full operational status for the Alabama Air National Guard's stay. For those that wanted more than our little BX had to offer there was the holy grail of PX's - the Bel Manoir shopping center (aka "The Paris PX") which seemed to have everything. Since the base was only a couple hours from Paris there were frequent shopping expeditions arranged by the ladies intent on a more fulfilling shopping experience. Bel Manoir was a true shopping center with a huge PX, snack bar, Stars & Stripes Bookstore, etc. It was located close to NATO Headquarters in Rocquencourt and the large Petit Beauregard American housing area.
Of course, we had a Commissary on base but I really don't remember much
about it. The one thing I do remember, however, was that the
commissary got at least some of its meat from Yugoslavia. The
irony was not lost on me, even as an 11 year old, that there was
something strange about a truck with a big red communist star on it
delivering food to a US installation.
At some point while I was at Dreux, someone decided to allow a shepherd
to bring his flock of sheep on the base to participate in nature's
approach to mowing the grass. I used to go out and talk with him -
just a friendly Frenchman that was happy to have a little company.
From time to time he would give a few commands to his dog that would run
out and round up any sheep that were straying from the group.
The Gas Station and other Car Stuff - There was an AFEX gas station on base where you could fill up at US prices. The French (as with all the Europeans) taxed gasoline very heavily and our gas guzzling American cars needed lots of fuel to keep them going. To keep prices on par with the costs "back home", the US had negotiated with the French government to lower the taxes. This was done through a contract with Esso, and to keep the finances straight you paid for your gas in advance at the BX and were given coupons that could be redeemed at any Esso station. There were three little glitches in this process, none of which was a real problem. First, the coupons were issued in liters, so you had to know how to estimate the amount of gas you needed in liters. Since the minimum denomination of the coupons was 10 liters, if your final bill came to less than some increment of 10 liters the gas station came out ahead. The second little glitch was that not every Esso station would accept the coupons. It had to have a "Quartermaster Approved" sign on the station or you were out of luck. Finally, France in 1962 did not have an overabundance of gas stations in general, much less Esso stations, so when you reached the quarter tank line, it was time to keep a lookout for the next Esso station. We never ran out of gas, but I seem to recall some pretty close calls. Speaking of cars, French cars had yellow headlights to reduce glare in the fog (and there was plenty of that, especially with our proximity to the coast). Americans on an accompanied tour were allowed to ship one car to France, so, during a tour in France, you had to swap out the clear headlights on your car for yellow ones. The cars were shipped in and out of La Rochelle, so you were on your own to go there to pick up or drop off. Another little quirk about driving in Europe was the "green card". To prove that your car was insured, your insurance company provided you with small certificate that included the name of the insurance company, policy number, etc. Since it was printed on green paper, it was called a "green card" and it was absolutely necessary to have at every border crossing. Cars for American servicemen in France were issued special license plates. In the early days, they started with "1CF" but by the time we arrived in 1961 they had switched "2CF" - probably as they had exhausted the 1CF numbers.
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