June 17, 1966 I arrived in Paris. That was fifty-six years ago today. I was 19. I had traveled by train from Brussels to Paris’s Gare du Nord with a couple I’d met on the Norwegian freighter Black Hawk which had carried us and six other passengers across the Atlantic and docked that same day in Antwerp. It was approaching dusk when we arrived in Paris. It was my first and, so far, my only visit to the City of Light. My first recognizeable Parisian sighting was the famous Church of the Sacred Heart (Sacre Coeur) atop Monmartre as the train passed below it. Minutes later, we were under the cover of station’s rail siding. I bid my traveling companions farewell amid the bright, echoing turmoil of the terminal. I don’t recall where they were headed from there, but I knew it was time to part. The man’s name was Les Rabkin, 31-years-old. He and his wife Karen were headed on to immediate points elsewhere, unremembered by me. If they planned to stay in Paris, which, I suppose at that hour, was more than likely, I think I understood that I was excess baggage on their personal journey at that point and I think Les, when he vigorously grasped my hand for goodbye, welcomed my discrete acknowledgement of that reality, though it was probably obvious to them that I was overwhelmed, disoriented and, for the moment, afraid of my surroundings. But it was time for me to set out on my own.
It seems not that long ago — though, in fact, it might already be ten years ago — that I managed to locate and reconnect with Les. He was Jewish, living, I believe, in Seattle, his long-time home, though his prematurely gray-flecked beard and slightly brash manner made him seem less a creature of the Northwest than of the New York burroughs. I say that with affection. I do believe he was a New Yorker, though I may be misremembering.
Les had a long-standing relationship with an international agency that resettled Jews in Israel. That’s how I found him after plugging his name into the Internet. He and his gentile wife Karen, on that day in Paris, had a visa for travel through the Soviet Union. Their adventerous itinerary called for them ultimately to keep on traveling and wind up in Israel and spend several months in a Kibbutz until June 1967. It is for this reason that they were very much on my mind, once back in the States, when the Six Day War broke out in that very month and year. I long wondered about their fate. But I’d taken no contact information from Les and Karen at our parting, as became my subsequent habit with other people I met during that summer of Contental travel. I guess I assumed our train station goodbye was final.
All I really knew about Les and Karen’s marriage is that it was joined at a Manhattan party on the same night they met. They were, in that sense and others, two pure creatures of the epicurian spirit of the 1960s. And Les, jokingly but not without a degree of serious conviction, thought of himself as a “citizen of the world.”
Karen was not a great deal older than me. (I’ve written about Les and Karen in my “essential” post elswhere in this blog called, Continental Summer.) To both her and Les, I seemed a likeable but very conventional late teenager bound for a conventional life — wife, job, children, home in the suburbs. Perhaps it might have been better for me had that been my actual destiny. I suspect I became more of a wanderer than either Les or Karen. But I know both of them very soon wandered away from that impulsive marriage. Les told me that much when we reconnected.
When I found Les, I introduced myself to him and seemed to stir up vague memories of that voyage and subsquent land journey . He seemed delighted to hear from me. First and foremost, upon my inquiry, he told me they were, indeed, in Israel for the Six Day War but had weathered it without incident, though on one occasion, with planes overhead, Less worried whether they were Egyptian or Israeli, and he reported seeing many abandoned tanks in the desert. If I wondered about both their political pedigree of the time, Les shared the fact that their kibbutz was of a very unorthodox, liberal variety and had even assigned a place of honor to a portrait of “Uncle Joe” — meaning Josef Stalin. Small wonder they were eager for their visit to the Soviet Union, though I can’t imagine Karen was all that comforatable in Israel. I could not, during our too-brief exchange, really get a sense whether Les’s liberal politics had modified at all. But he was certainly, given his vocation, remained devoted to Israel and assuring its future.
We had only about three email exchanges, none of which I can locate. But I told him of my memory of sailing away from New York and seeing in the misty distance the famous Ambrose Light Ship that now sits dockside at South Seaport in Manhattan — and that, with my only son, born to me out of wedlock, I had, a few years before, eaten lunch together with the Light Ship just yards away from us. (I recall, with my son, feeling most unconventional and, looking out to sea, thinking of Karen’s assessment of my 19-year-old self.)
Les wrote back that he thought this was a very nice memory. He had re-married, at least once, was currently married to a woman young enough to have a mother still living whom he was going to visit. She might have been living in Florida.
I promised Les I’d go to a friends house and have her scan the pictures I’d taken of us aboard the Black Hawk– for old time’s sake. I think he was anxious to see them. But it happened that on the only day I arranged for the trip to that friends house, she informed me, with the pictures in hand, that the scanner wasn’t working that day. That was galling. I never got around to trying again.
Then, much time passed and there was no further contact with Les — my fault. He’d even mentioned he might get to Boston on other business some day (I was still living near my native Boston at that point) and that we might get together.
At some point a few years ago, I went looking for Less again — may have written, without getting a response. Then I learned that he had died. His picture, quite recognizable to me, was posted with an obituary and tributes from lifelong friends, of which I was not one. If his ex-wife Karen is still alive, I have no way to find her, her last name doubtless having changed, possibly many times. She’s probably long forgotten me.
So — remembering that first day in Paris, June 17, 1966 on this June 17, 2022. May you rest in peace, Les. I so much wish we’d had a chance to share more shipboard memories, share those pictures.
It’s 4:41 p.m. in Paris. Trains are pulling in and out of the Gare du Nord. Many greetings and departures. New memories for summer travelers in a complex and dangerous world far different from the post-WWII hour in which I said goodbye to two practical strangers with whom I’d spent nine tender days at sea.
The light, the days change. Sea changes, all changes….
It is 10:45 a.m….10:46 am….11 a.m…..