Until 1966, the NATO base in Châteauroux, France, was home to a huge supply center, aircraft repair unit and 8,000 Americans.
More than 40 years ago the American military left this town in central France, but Harry and Joe stayed on.
The two Americans had been here because France was a member of NATO and Châteauroux housed the largest American base in Europe, a huge supply center and aircraft repair unit with about 8,000 Americans and 3,000 French civilian employees — cooks, chauffeurs, barbers, accountants, carpenters.
But in 1966 de Gaulle decided that France, which had survived two world wars with the help of soldiers from Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, could stand on its own militarily, so he withdrew France from the military side of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and told the Americans to leave.
For many here in Châteauroux of the older generation, the years at the NATO base were the good old days, with well-paying jobs plentiful at the base and splotches of color — as off-duty Americans sported Hawaiian shirts and tooled around in their brightly colored Chevrolets and Oldsmobiles — in the dreary grayness of postwar France. About 450 weddings were celebrated between American servicemen and Frenchwomen in City Hall.
Of course, not everyone welcomed the Americans. Communists and Socialists regularly smeared walls with “U.S. Go Home.” But now, as President Nicolas Sarkozy leads France back into the bosom of NATO, some are wondering hopefully whether those years might be coming back.
If the Americans returned, “it would not disturb me,” said Sophie Bara, a woman in her 40s who works for a government agency, understatement marking her voice. “They’re talking about it.”
Even today, however, the Americans are not entirely gone. In January, 1952, Joseph Gagne, a native of Augusta, Me., who had landed on the Normandy beaches, got wind of the plans to build a base here. So together with his French wife, Jeanine, he opened a hamburger restaurant, Joe from Maine, in narrow Rue Ledru Rollin. Joe died this month at the age of 86 in a local hospital, but his daughter Annette still serves up hamburgers, hot dogs and Tex-Mex dishes six days a week.
“The customers are now French, though G.I.’s who served on the base back then continue to come back, or their children,” said Annette, entertaining a visitor between meals under a faux-Tiffany lamp that read, “Schlitz on Tap.” “When Dad opened in January of 1952 the French didn’t know what a hamburger was,” said Annette. “We made our own ketchup; we got spices on the base.”
Beneath the restaurant is a vaulted stone cellar, about 30 feet square, now used for storage, where American airmen once quaffed endless amounts of beer, chain smoked and danced with French girlfriends. The vaulting is covered with their carved names. “Benny. Tom. Fagan.”
Harry leaves an even bigger mark on the city. In the 1960s a local entrepreneur, Paul Picard, the owner of a baked goods business, was impressed by the strange square white bread that the American servicemen ate. Like other Frenchmen accustomed to long, crusty baguettes, Mr. Picard had never seen anything like it, yet he thought it offered possibilities.
So he visited bakeries in the United States to learn how it was baked, then returned to France where he essentially re-engineered Wonder Bread. To give it an American flair, he called it Harry’s American Bread and decorated the packaging with the stars and stripes of the American flag. No one can say who Harry was, probably just a name that sounded American.
Though the base closed too soon for Mr. Picard to sell his bread there, it soon became a hit with the French. Now Harry’s huge baking plant outside Châteauroux bakes about 130 million loaves of white bread and other bakery products a year. That is about one-third of what Harry’s produces at other plants scattered across France. Its six bakeries spread across France make it the largest producer of packaged baked goods in the country.
Mr. Picard is now retired to a chateau in the region, where he collects vintage racing cars; his company is owned by an Italian food multinational. But the factory here with its 400 employees, plus another across town, makes Harry’s the second largest employer in the region. The leader, an auto parts company, is shedding jobs fast because of the auto industry slump, so Harry’s will soon be No. 1.
“He was a visionary,” said Jacques Laurent, 42, the plant manager, describing Mr. Picard. White sandwich bread, he concedes, is “secondary in France,” where only about 7 percent of the bread market is sliced sandwich bread. “The French eat baguettes,” he said. Still Harry’s continues to churn out new products, many with an American flair, like Doo Wop, a snack for kids, and a crustless white bread for children who won’t eat the crust. Harry’s bakes hamburger rolls for Quick, a local competitor of McDonald’s, though not for Joe From Maine, which bakes its own.
Châteauroux, with its 66,000 people, has never been in a league with Paris, Versailles or Chartres. It has some charming back streets but no soaring cathedral, and its oldest church, St. Martial, is opened to visitors only by appointment. Its modern town hall has the charm of an automobile inspection station. When the writer Edith Wharton visited Châteauroux while touring France in 1906 she described it as “undeniably disappointing.”
Still, in recent years the rising tide of the French economy lifted Châteauroux, and now the crisis threatens to shake it. The city’s mayor, Jean-François Mayet, muses about what the return of a NATO base might bring. The landing strips built by the Americans in 1951 are still there, and Châteauroux’s airport does some business with freight, aircraft repair, pilot training and charter flights.
“Let them come, though things are no longer the same,” Mr. Mayet said. “The presence of the airport could be useful. There is a place for the Americans to come to.”
For others, though, the American period will always remain the golden age. Last year, Michel Blanchandin, 74, who worked on the American base straight from school operating an I.B.M. punch card machine, gathered with about 150 other former employees to form an association, to keep alive the memory of those years. Some members still drive old Chevrolets, Mustangs and Cadillacs.
Could the Americans return? “No,” he said, “the context is not the same. There is no cold war.” He thought a moment, then added, “If they came, we’d welcome them.”
Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/27/world/europe/27france.html