(All pictures taken on previous reconnaissance missions)
So, the early-night battle of Saint-Paul De Vence.... the story must be told...
My wife and I were on our honeymoon in the South of France. We had been resting peacefully and enjoying the food and wine. On the next to the last evening of us being there, inside the walls of the elevated city, we sat and enjoyed wine with our evening meal. There at a table near us, just outside the restaurant, under the awning, at a rectangular table, sat a large German family. It was difficult to tell whose children were whose. There were 5 or 6 of them, several women within child-bearing strike range, and one quite rotund patriarch seated at the inner corner of the table, with his back to the side wall, facing outwards towards the small avenue at the outside southern wall of the city. We all sat and watched as the sun went down and just after...
As we sat and drank red wine after our dinner the children began to appear restless, perhaps from sitting too long with such dull adults. My wife and I were the only others in the restaurant, so their attention slowly began to turn to us, one by one and little by little their eyes began to focus. I noticed that one of the young boys had what appeared to be a toy gun. My wife went to the restroom and on her way back she attempted to verbally engage a few of them in their native tongue. They were clearly trained to deal with this sort of thing and responded in genuine childlike confusion. How could an American be speaking fluent German they wondered.... I chuckled to myself , but sat taut in preparation, not allowing the wine to interfere with my judgement. I could feel it tugging at me like a drunk teenager trying to get me to go skinny-dipping... but these were dangerous times, clearly there was menace in the air. Now that the enemy had been confronted directly it was only a matter of time before violence broke out, possibly more. My wife and I were in foreign territory, without backup, though not completely cut off from supply lines, but still without open lines of communication, not nearly enough arms, never enough armament for a situation like this. Why had I been so thoughtless to not bring heavier artillery with me... I had only my hand gun which I stealthily kept hidden in my pocket.
Perhaps they could detect that I was a lone trained killer, a pedigreed assassin, sent on a very specific mission: to guard and defend, at any cost, the southern wall of Saint-Paul De Vence.
Without a word between us my wife realized that it was immediately time to pay the bill and depart, we were jeopardizing ourselves and our mission by staying any longer. We asked for the bill as naturally as if we were reclining on the beaches of Ibiza. The bill came, we paid it without a hint of haste. As we stood to leave the room suddenly grew darker. There was an unexpected tenseness in the air. I could see that each and every child at the table snapped to quick attention and became fixed on our every move. We were in trouble and we both knew it. I kept one hand in my pocket holding the shape of the gun that waited there for action. I couldn't tell if they could see it or not as it was the exact shape and size of my hand, and I did all that I could to make it seem as natural as if it were only that, a hand. I could see on the table that the two boys had some pretty heavy firepower, one of them was a gun as large as an adult arm. I wondered how he carried such a thing, though it was clearly made of some special lightweight material for just this purpose. German engineering....
The three girls sat staring at us without nearly as much malice as their male counterparts, though they each had some concealed article of their own. Who knew what poison trap lay inside any one of those dolls or any other veiled feminine plaything. We had to make our move swiftly and pray that there was no altercation in the next few moments, there was only a handful of steps between us and the avenue where we, at the very least, had a fighting chance.
As we passed the table, my wife in front of me, as cool as Ilsa Lund entering Rick's Cafe for the first time with Victor Laszlo. I turned and nodded to the fat patriarch in the corner, as is the custom, then to each of the women in all of a single second motion. They nodded back, and even smiled. Then we were on the street. We swiftly turned towards the right where safety, a communications depot, and hopefully reinforcement waited. Neither of us could be sure, neither of us expected what happened next.
There was a burst of excited talking in youthful German, the frenzy of childlike expectancy. Then the celebratory sound of chaos. By this time we were already 8-10 meters down the avenue from the restaurant. I coached Ilsa not to turn and look. I held her gently by her arm, but hurried her along, all I could think of now was her safety. There were the sounds of scurrying feet behind us, it was impossible to tell how many there were, but we were clearly outnumbered. The voices rose in a fever pitch of attack. I turned, and in doing so turned Ilsa with me, so that we were face to face with the enemy, looking into the eyes of fate. Yes, we were outnumbered but they were coming at us as if they had no ground warfare or counter-insurgency training whatsoever. The two boys with guns led the charge but they were close together, behind them there were three girls, skipping along, each with their unknown cotton weapons of savagery, though one seemed to be possibly empty-handed. I made a mental note to keep one eye always on her. It was difficult to tell what treachery she had laid in store for us, and what did it matter at this point, confrontation seemed inevitable.
Clearly the two in front meant business and there was going to be trouble. We turned and faced them fully and demanded to know what their business was, and what was the idea of such an accosting. Oh, they pretended not to speak much English then. Though they had not been trained very well in guerilla street fighting techniques, as I had, clearly they had some counter-espionage training.
My wife said a few things to them in German and the girls began giggling. I don't think any of them could have possibly realized how close it came to a shootout right then and there. I would have asked what she was saying, and what their response was, but I knew to keep my eyes firmly targeted on the two ruffians in front with the plastic hardware howitzers. So I kept my cool, but just barely. I'm certain they could detect my eagerness to do battle by the smile at the corner of my eye, a certain surliness to my smirk.
One of them stayed locked on my right hand. I thought for sure that he would ask me to empty the pocket but for now he merely kept a steely-eyed vigil on it, with his finger pressed against the trigger of his cannon. Nobody had raised a gun yet, but now it was the time for some questions. Where were we from? What were we doing here? Were we married? Standard military stuff.
The questioning came to a close and at what I felt was the appropriate time Ilsa and I turned and began to walk back towards our camp, they hadn't even checked our transit papers or passports. I could hear the feet behind us, following. They trailed closely but not too closely. We could hear their verbal transmissions from one to another but neither of us could decipher their meaning. They spoke in some strange German dialect of which Ilsa was not familiar. We both kept ready. These were the times of code.
We made it almost halfway down the avenue towards safety when the first shot rang out. I turned immediately returned a salvo of shots across their entire flank. They were not expecting this, I could see. In the noisy confusion of battle all I could think was that we needed cover and we needed cover immediately. We both ran for it, with me shooting over my shoulder to try and create some.
The sound of battle can sometimes sound just as the sound of glee, and that was what we had chasing us. To the untrained ear it might have sounded as if there were just 5 German children running along a vacation locale at night, eagerly chasing some bumbling Americans, but we were doomed. There was very little cover to be found and the rapidity of the gunfire behind us was increasing exponentially. The sound of gunfire filled the air, both mine and theirs. I knew that I didn't have enough ammo to keep things going at this level so I would let them fire in rapid succession and only return fire when they had ceased, only one or two well-placed and strategic shots. It was all I could do. We were outnumbered, outgunned, outside, and out of wine.... We had to escape.
As we worked our way down the avenue, me providing cover fire for Ilsa to make it to the next doorway, it began to occur to me that they were getting further and further from their base camp. Without knowing exactly what type of artillery those demons were hiding in their dolls I started to surmise that we might actually be able to get them to exhaust their firepower. I kept daringly sticking my head out from behind whatever corner I had retreated to so that they would keep up a steady pace of ricocheting bullets around me. As soon as it would stop I would make a crazed dash for the next available bit of cover. A corner, or a short wall, the base of a statue, anything.
Then I got hit. One of them had snuck up on me so boldly I was unprepared. I stepped out from a doorway to make a run for the next possible place of cover and there he was, standing in the middle of the street laughing, looking right at me, his persuader leveled with the dangerous end pointed in my direction. I saw the flash from the gun and felt the impact all in the same frozen instant. I went to the ground on one knee, turned and got off one round that luckily made him flinch just long enough for me to roll towards a car that partially blocked his view of me. I was trapped, with nowhere safe to run, up against the proverbial wall.... Where was Ilsa, oh God, where was she... please let me know that she's made it away safely. My life had only one purpose now, to do whatever it took to ensure her escape. I stared up into the starry sky, lifted my leg, and gently farted. My wound was not so bad. It was serious, yes. But I could still giggle at a fart, and that meant, as anybody knows, there was still life left in me, and fight....
As I lay there and looked further down the avenue I realized that indeed Ilsa had made it all the way down to the city gate, where the cannon was pointed so tellingly outwards. I looked at where I had been hit in the arm. It was only a surface wound but it was bleeding, or was that just some red wine? I couldn't tell and there was no time to take chances. I jumped up and started retreating to the next doorway. Only this was no doorway. When I reached it I realized that this was an avenue leading back up towards the peak of the southern wall, far behind enemy lines. I shook my head at my luck. I was astonished that they had left their rear flank so unprotected. I could still hear them up there, their barbaric screams of laughter filling the night air, still the occasional sound of celebratory gunfire in the distance.
I ran for it. I booked up that dark avenue knowing that this was not only to survive but with some luck, for full victory. I ran as quietly and as quickly as I could. If this dark passageway occurred to them before I made it behind their lines then I was trapped, and fatally doomed. I knew it. It was death or glory only. The rhythm of my running became a prayer for Ilsa's safety, with each secret step I deepened my pact with whatever god might have been listening at the time, anything. By the time I reached the top of the hill and the outer entranceway to the tunnel road I turned and then suddenly I was a god... Each of them was there with their backs to me, still looking off into the darkness, giggling their curses towards us, basking in their assumed victory.
I opened fire.
The explosion of disbelief from their garrison was immediate. I had them cut off from supplies, had effectively isolated them from their base camp, and was now eliminating them as skillfully as a sommelier dismisses cheap wines at an all-night bordello. The bullets rang out like fireworks. The anguished cries of defeat rose from their two primary soldiers, their worthiest adversaries. Had it not been their final moment of doom the sound could have easily been misunderstood as laughter. Easily.
But no, there was no laughter ringing out on the southern wall of St. Paul De Vence that night. Just a group of soldiers who strayed too far from their camp, and very likely, from their orders. They paid the ultimate sacrifice. It is only a shame that they didn't live to learn from their mistake, laid low by the hubris of power.
And then of course there was us, the lovers, united in battle, but still apart, neither knowing the fate of either, nor the combined fate of us both.
Once I had secured the area and relieved the fallen of their arms I took off on foot as stealthily as was humanly possible. Across the cobbled stones the sound of my feet and the light of the moon became one with the pounding of my heart. I pitied those fallen for their cause, but that is how things go. It was my cause now that awaited me, and I ran to her. It was daybreak when I found her, half-asleep in a village garden, surrounded by spring, but very much alive and eagerly awaiting my return. She gently nursed my wine stains back to health there.
We prepared our departure. Our mission complete....
That is the true but little-known tale of the battle for the southern wall of Saint-Paul De Vence, Spring of 2010.
Communique' fin.... or something like that...
- Rick Blaine, freedom fighter.