Most of the time when I think of Poitiers, I picture the great Romanesque churches of Notre Dame la Grande, Saint Hilaire, Sainte Radegonde and the Cathédrale Saint Pierre. I remember taking one of my favorite pictures in the north side aisle of Notre Dame la Grande.
I had been waiting for the aisle to clear so that I could take a shot of the empty view. Some women kept going in and out, spoiling my long exposures, but I just kept shooting, hoping for a moment without intervention. In this shot, an elderly woman walked in, lit a candle in the distant chapel, and moved off. But through sheer serendipity, her movements were quick enough that they did not register in the exposure. This resulted in one of my favorite shots ever.
Serendipity played a role when I lived in Poitiers as a boy, which I have described in previous articles. My father was stationed at the Abbeville Caserne on the hill across the Clain River from downtown, beneath the monumental Notre Dame des Dunes that watches over the city. I went to 7th grade at the American Army school in Poitiers, where my favorite teacher was Mr. Donald Priebe. He taught English with a panache – he called the students “Mister” and “Miss” and was formally polite – and he challenged me as I had never been challenged before. He taught the etymology of words as well as vocabulary. When he diagrammed sentences, he was describing the architecture of our thinking as much as the construction of the words. This jowly, bespectacled and prim man wearing a bow tie was an inspiration to me.
Perhaps because Mr. Priebe was such a challenging teacher, we continually engaged in a war of nerves, but in very good spirits. It was a contest that I think he encouraged and used to push me further and further. One day in class he reviewed a reading assignment from the evening before. I am certain that he saw my furtive look indicating I had not read the selection, because he singled me out to answer the question “And who, Mr. Aubrey, was Eddie Rickenbacker?”
Completely ignorant of the answer, but unwilling to admit it, I blithely answered “A race car driver.” Mr. Priebe’s face took on the long-suffering look that I knew so well and the entire class knew that the Wrath of Priebe would be visited on me. And it was – he promptly assigned me a two page biography of Eddie Rickenbacker, due in class the next day. This was, of course, in addition to the regular assignment.
That evening I glumly went to the library and consulted the trusty Encyclopedia Americana to find out who Rickenbacker was. I discovered that he was a famous pilot, a World War I aviator who won the Medal of Honor, and aeronautics pioneer both in military and civilian applications. But in the midst of the long biography, almost as an afterthought, there was a short mention of Rickenbacker as a race car driver! Salvation! The rest of my evening was spent in a frenzy of research and writing.
The next day in English class, Mr. Priebe immediately called me up to read my paper. Solemnly, I went to the front of the classroom and started. It was not a two-page paper, but an ostentatious six-page chef d’oeuvre, filled with details of Rickenbacker’s career as a race car driver before World War I, including his four competitions in the Indianapolis 500 and being a driver for the Peugeot team. I talked about his Maxwell cars, predecessors to the Chrysler line. I told how he got his sobriquet “Fast Eddie” from those racing days, recounted his first car (a 1905 Ford) and how his first race ended in an accident. I told how he eventually bought the Indianapolis Speedway. During the entire recitation, I kept a completely straight face, despite the open mouths of my fellow students who stared back and forth from me to Mr. Priebe. For myself, I didn’t dare look at him.
Finally, I turned theatrically to the last page of the document and read, “Mr. Rickenbacker was also famed as an aviator in later life.” There was a long moment of silence until Mr. Priebe sighed heavily and said, “Very well, Mr. Aubrey. You may take your seat.” I was a hero at lunch that day, basking in the admiration of my fellow students.
It was the first and only time that I beat him fair and square, all because of the happy accident of saying that Rickenbacker was a race car driver. Sometimes the Gods do indeed smile on fools.