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An American in Paris Looks Up Ol' Ben Franklin

By John Gould / October 27, 1995



Ah Paris! Me voici! Some dear friends are Paris-bound, and I began to jot down some things they must not miss. Were I to offer my personal list to guide the American tourist, I would start with the American Embassy. Not to see the embassy, but to have a visit there with Benjamin Franklin. Ol' Ben Franklin was the noblest of American tourists, a citizen vastly underappreciated, and our brand-new republic's first minister plenipotentiary to the government of France.

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Just inside the front gate of the United States embassy compound in Paris, his statue shows him seated with a book, his spectacles advertising his scientific accomplishments, and all so real to life that you will look a second time as if expecting him to speak. You will want to sit by him and ask him if he's heard from Philadelphia lately, and what he thinks will happen next.

Paris has attractions numbering as mosquitoes in a moose swamp, and I suppose our embassy is never the important one. You go there if somebody steals your passport or if you put up a poster at l'etoile and get arrested in violation of the ubiquitous law of 1880 and a little bit. The embassy can be almost as helpful as the American Express offices by the opera, but American Express does not have the statue of Franklin to welcome you rightly to Paris.

Back many years now, we called on Ben one day while some international incident was offering a threat that our embassy might be bombed. In such a possibility, it is the duty of France to give our property protection, and the Army of France (at that time still connected with Charles de Gaulle) was deployed all about the serenity of La Place de la Concorde with everything from howitzers to restaurants on wheels. And right in front of Ben Franklin's main gate was a communications van constantly in touch with all points, including Brookings, N.D.

We could readily see that La Belle France was spending millions of Sioux a minute to keep Ben and his diplomatic associations intact. Best of all, a delegation of Paris policemen was on the sidewalk to intercept us as we approached. Guarding the embassy was not a city duty, and our only guess was that they were there for cosmetic purposes and to lend charm to an otherwise unpleasant chore. They did not speak to us, but did look us over with attitudes of dismay, and we surmised they reported to the army that we were friendly and disposed to trade.

We had no trouble entering the embassy grounds, and the first person we met was Benjamin Franklin. I should add that the Paris police, at that time, still wore their capes, but that ultimate refinement to gracious city planning was eliminated soon after we were there, alas.

Our reason for going to the US embassy was not a lost passport, but to look for a young man from our home- town who was a US Marine assigned to the security guard of the embassy. It was our plan to take him to dinner and have something to tell his family when we got home.

We found him all right. We expected to find some perturbation evident inside an embassy that was surrounded by incipient warfare, but the big door closed on us, and we were in silent halls. Nobody was running about, and there certainly was no gallant marine to stop us with a bayonet and demand to see our zip code. We hesitated a moment before a young lady, who later told us she was from Barstin, asked politely if she might help us.

Intending to relieve her anxiety, I said this was not an emergency, that we had not lost our passport, and that we hoped to find a marine from our home- town in Maine who knew that we were coming. She said she believed he was available and would inquire. Accordingly, in a matter of minutes our friend appeared, and under the circumstances he was not an impressive martial figure. He was in mufti, for real, and eke in his shirt sleeves. The neck of his shirt was open, and his dangling hands were grimy with what looked like oil or ink. He wiped his hands on a cloth before shaking hands.

No, he said that during this emergency, everything had been turned over to France, and at the moment the marines were not on security duty, but he was trying to find a typewriter that belonged in one of the office rooms and now nobody knew where it was. All morning, he said, he had been going from room to room, tipping over typewriters and copying the serial numbers. He smiled as he quoted the ancient Maine adage covering all such perplexities, namely: ''It'll be the last one you look at.'' He also said he hadn't realized until today how many typewriters the US owned in Paris.

So here we were surrounded by peril while our doughty Marine Corps dilly- dallied with clerical inventory and left our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor to the caprice of a foreign army. There was something about it that seemed just right, and since Ben Franklin was on hand I knew everything would be. I urge all Americans who visit Paris to start sightseeing with a call on Ben. Tell him I sent you.

The young marine we sought said he would be delighted to go to a Paris restaurant with us, but he couldn't suggest any particular one. He had been stationed in Paris two years, but so far had eaten only at the Marine mess. The food was pretty good. When he got home-leave he hoped his ma would have a pot of beans. He expected to get home-leave soon. And during supper he told us the missing typewriter had been found.