Happy Accidents and the Well-Rememberéd Mr. Priebe (Dennis Aubrey)


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.

North Side Aisle, Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

North Side Aisle, Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

Eddie Rickenbacker in his Maxwell on the Avenue of Palms, during either the 1915 American Grand Prize and Vanderbilt Cup in San Francisco. (February or March 1915)  Image in the public domain.

Eddie Rickenbacker in his Maxwell on the Avenue of Palms, during either the 1915 American Grand Prize and Vanderbilt Cup in San Francisco.
(February or March 1915) Image in the public domain.

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.

	Eddie Rickenbacker and his riding mechanic Eddie O'Donnell in a Mason race car c. 1914  (Image courtesy of Auburn University Libraries

Eddie Rickenbacker and his riding mechanic Eddie O’Donnell in a Mason race car c. 1914 (Image courtesy of Auburn University Libraries

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.

14 responses to “Happy Accidents and the Well-Rememberéd Mr. Priebe (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. they have smiles on me many times…loved reading this wonderful pc and the knock out photo made me go oooh,kathy

    • Thanks, Kathy. I got the idea after replying to a comment from John McKean, who somehow reminded me of this wonderful teacher from so many years ago. Couldn’t resist a quick post.

  2. One of my father’s most cherished moments was when he was seated next to Eddie Rickenbacker and had a chance to visit with him. I can picture Mr. Priebe

    • Helen, I thought of him because of an exchange with John McKean yesterday and this was, of course, a highlight of our year-long battle of wits (half of a wit on my side). The highlight because it was the only time that I actually won by being anything other than a cheeky 13 year old. But he engaged, and that was a big thing for a young boy.

  3. I loved that story. I was never fortunate enough to best a teacher, but I did, on occasion, coax a giggle or snigger from one of the nuns and monks that taught me. When I did, I usually ended up paying for it with a punishment of some sort, because even a moment of humor doesn’t excuse words or actions that run contrary to classroom discipline (at least not in parochial and monastery schools!)

    • Jay, I only bested the teacher through some inconceivable piece of luck. I snatched “race car driver” out of the ether just to be smart. Rickenbacker could have been Saint Bernard de Clairvaux for all I knew. I think that Mr. Priebe let me go on interminably because I clearly stayed completely within the rules of engagement. My report was well prepared and written, and I gave it with a straight face. I’m sure he was smiling inside at how fortune favored the fool on that particular occasion.

  4. Your story of school, confident fabrications and redemption made me smile! I had teachers similar to Mr. P and they gave me the gift of a lifetime…a love of education. Good work, Mr. Aubrey. Two gold stars for you!!

    • Therese, what a joy to see your name this morning. But my fabrication was anything but confident, just a smart-ass response to my ignorance. Correcting that particular personal fault took much longer. But Mr. Priebe knew that fortune had smiled on me and let me have my victory. Thanks for the gold stars, Mrs. Adlhoch.

  5. I had a teacher who would get really upset if you ever mentioned anything that was not in the text book. I was reading years ahead of the grade I was stuck in and finally got fed up with the limits this teacher kept imposing. When called to explain about some of the causes of the American Civil War I launched with what was in the text book, then continued to shoot it all down with what I’d read in a scholarly tome about the real causes of that horrible conflict. The teacher was going to stop me but hadn’t seen the principal stop at the classroom door to listen. I ended up going on for a good half hour before I ran out of material. I didn’t know until the end of the school year that the teacher had tried to give me a failing grade for American History but the principal took a red marker and graded me an A+ just based on what she heard that day. There was also a note from the principal that she was very sorry she couldn’t double promote me as the school system had banned doing that (it was supposedly “bad” for one’s social development).

    • Aquila, serendipity played a role for you as well; how fortunate that the principal was at the door. And how small-minded of the teacher to try to fail you. Mr. Priebe was just the opposite – he knew that I was lucky, but he accepted my small victory with grace.

  6. I really enjoy never knowing what I’m going to get with your posts, Dennis. It’s a pleasant bright spot in my day before I go out and venture into the world. I’m in Marrakech btw, have you and PJ ever been down to Morocco?

    • Thanks, Nathan. It was a fun post, started by an exchange with John McKean. Marrakech – how exotic. PJ and I have never been to Morocco, but would love to visit the whole North Africa region someday. I’ll keep an eye out on your blog to see what you have to say about this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s