It was a long time ago, like almost everything else. John F. Kennedy was in the White House, De Gaulle was in the Elyseé, Khruschev was in the Kremlin, and I was in the back seat of a 1961 Renault Dauphine. My father was driving and smoking, my mother was reading the map and smoking, and I, too young to smoke, was smoking by proxy. We were tearing through central France at a dizzying 55 mph or so, on those long, straight treelined Roman roads, our objective: Omaha Beach in Normandy, where my father’s infantry division, the 29th out of Philadelphia, had spent an unpleasant few days sixteen years previously. He wanted to salute a few dead comrades up there. I didn’t care; I was as happy as could be, just looking out the sliding rear window at the passing farmhouses and wheat fields and vineyards and mentally totting up my favorite cars, most of which, quite naturally, tended to be French.
I had a special fondness for the Renault in which I was riding, but a soft spot also for Citroens, especially the sleek DSs, queens of the road back then, that streaked past us, sun-speckled under the green archway of the trees. There was the odd Peugeot 404 or Panhard Dyna or even a foreign car, even German (usually a Mercedes), that could give the DSs a run for their money, but they were few and far between, for in 1961 France was only just waking up to enjoy its newfound postwar prosperity, and suburban houses, and fast cars.
But the old roads ran past ruined farm buildings, too, and villages that seemed oddly deserted in the noonday sun. “Look at that,” my father would say, time after time, as we drove past the inevitable World War I monument, on which beneath the crossed flags and empty helmets there were the names of more soldiers morts pour la France (died for France) than it seemed those little burgs could produce. “Bled white in the ’14-‘18 war, then they tried it all over again twenty years later,” said Dad, embarking on one of his favorite subjects: the perfidy of the generals, especially those from perfidious Albion. (As an Irish-American, he had no difficulty embracing this point of view.) A lecture would cause him to put away his French cigarettes and, after a roadside pit stop involving bread, cheese, and responses to the call of Nature, he’d bring out the pipe, from which dense clouds of bluish smoke would billow, as my mother, who hardly ever ate, poured more coffee from her thermos and chain- smoked her imported Winstons. (Oddly, neither of my parents died of smoking-related ailments.)
I didn’t care about all that—well, yes, I did, but only up to a point. I wasn’t even 10 years old, for goodness’ sake, and the sky was blue, and the air was full of the smells of the rich earth of Burgundy, and—whoosh! There went another DS! The lectures were soon over, and we were back on the road, I silently contemplating the traffic from my rearward perch, Dad preoccupied with other things. Not that he was indifferent to cars. He quite liked them, and insisted on French ones, being as you may have gathered quite the Francophile, even to the beret (although he never desisted in his efforts to mangle the language to death). He was quite good at car-spotting them, too, but on that trip—somewhere in the rolling wine country of Burgundy—he was stumped at first, as was I; then I saw what it was, and so did he, and neither he nor I could believe our eyes. From the vast tree-shaded distances behind us emerged a tiny blue dot that steadily grew until it resolved itself into a) a car moving even faster than those DSs, and b) a very old car, open to the elements, and c) a Bugatti, painted bright blue, with at the wheel a man wearing goggles and a wind-whipped scarf.
“Holy Toledo, that’s a Bugatti,” exclaimed Dad. A 1929 Type 37A, as I know now. Then, I could only gape as the odd, old, and magnificent little blue roadster, of whose sonorous make I had barely heard, swung out into the left lane and effortlessly overtook us, its dashing driver, hair stiff in the wind, briskly giving us a wave of his gloved hand, the car’s engine emitting a kind of placid, steady roar, like that of a World War I biplane, the spokes blurring in the big skinny wheels as he pulled ahead, up a long gradual slope (I can see it now) and gradually back into the right-hand lane. Then, abruptly, the show was over. He shot off to the left, around a tight curve, and vanished into the realm of wonder and memory where he’s been ever since—there, and in my dreams.
Dad’s visit to the 29th Infantry cemetery went off well. The colonel in charge, it turned out, was an old comrade-in-arms, and they spent much of the day reminiscing over whisky. My mother got a good short story out of it, and on our return journey I was on the qui vive for that Bugatti, any Bugatti. I never saw another one, though. In fact, I’m not entirely sure I saw that one, but Dad always remembered it the same way. Mom only recalled an old blue car, without much interest, but she did remember the handsome chap at the wheel.