Friday, December 4, 2015

A SHORT (but true) STORY

Octagon Soap meets Chanel No. 5

It was early morning on June 6, 1944 and the drone of airplane engines over-filled the London sky. The D-Day invasion of mainland Europe had begun.

"The sky was black with planes," Capt. James Elias would later reminisce, "you could hardly see the heavens above them." He was now four years removed from his teaching job at a one-room country schoolhouse in rural Central New York State. And he'd seen a lot of the world since he enlisted. It was supposed to be a one-year stint. Six months in, Pearl Harbor happened, and he was stuck for the duration. 

At first he was assigned to the infantry, slated to go to the Pacific Theater. Then, by a stroke of luck, he was sent to officers' training in Georgia. Now he was attached to an army intelligence unit, living in an expropriated London mansion. But the mainland invasion would change all that.

Just two months after D-Day, Jim Elias found himself ensconced in a beautiful villa on the outskirts of Paris, in a place called Le VĂ©sinet. The majestic stone buildings and homes had recently been abandoned by the retreating Germans, and surprisingly bore no signs of war. Jim's duties, as detachment commandant, were to make sure the men in his unit were taken care of so they could efficiently pore over the latest reconnaissance photos to select the next day's bombing targets. 

Another one of his duties was to find sources of supply that the quartermaster corps didn't provide. The way of the military, as every veteran knows, was to mindlessly stock a surplus of things they had and to do without the things they didn't. Jim's trading instincts, handed down through his Lebanese peddler forebears, came in handy as he scrounged for needed materiel, even on the local black market.

One of the items Elias' unit had in abundance was Octagon Soap. Well known in the States, the soap was a favorite of the armed forces. It came in large, octagonally shaped bars that were used for bathing and cleaning just about anything. When used for laundering clothes, shavings were added to a tub of water and the clothes scrubbed on a washboard. Jim found himself literally awash in Octagon soap—with dozens of boxes stacked high in a storeroom off his billet's kitchen. 

Capt. Elias couldn't stop thinking about his English girlfriend back in London, his first love. With Christmas approaching, he was on the lookout for a nice gift for her. He heard his men often talk about the quality of French perfume, a subject Jim knew nothing about. He was sure nobody back in his hometown knew about French perfume either. After asking around, he was told that there used to be a Chanel factory nearby but it had closed once the war began.

Nonetheless, Jim found the shuttered plant and figured it wouldn't hurt to inquire. He knocked on the large wooden door, and when the entryway opened a crack, a diminutive young lady peered out. "American," she exclaimed in her heavily accented English. "Yes," Jim responded. "We closed," came the curt rejoinder.

After a tortured conversation peppered with lots of hand gestures, Jim got across that he wanted some of this perfume he'd heard so much about, and wondered about the cost. "What you have?" the lady asked. It took Jim a few moments to understand. "What do you want?" he replied. Before the lady answered, Jim suddenly remembered the boxes of soap back at headquarters. "I'll be right back," he said.

Capt. Elias knew what he was about to do wasn't sanctioned, but he also knew that the citizenry treasured American products. Wherever American troops went, the locals besieged them with pleas for candy, nylons or even gasoline. What was one box of Octagon more or less to the Army? Jim rationalized. They could never use up all the soap they had. 

Elias soon returned to Chanel with soap in hand. The perfume lady was ecstatic and Jim thought he might get a couple of vials of the scented liquid in exchange. By comparison, the expensive fragrance was worth much more, but the naive lad didn't appreciate the relative value of ordinary soap to these nationals. In return for the case of Octagon, the Chanel lady gave him a small cardboard box of No. 5 perfume. When he opened the container back at his billet, he found two dozen little bottles of the precious liquid packed tightly inside. He now had a really nice present for his lady.

Jim's girlfriend had been exchanging amorous letters with him, sporadically delivered across the English Channel, as soon as she got his APO. He'd been at his new station for less than two months when he got a note that brought shocking news—his sweetheart was pregnant! The young captain's mind raced back to their farewell tryst and he had to admit that he had been careless in those last passionate moments. In his defense, he was thinking this could be the last time he would ever see her. Now he began worrying about what he should do and soon decided he had marry the girl and "make an honest woman of her." He also knew he must arrange her passage to America so his parents could take care of his new family. It would not be a simple task but one he felt he must undertake as soon as possible. Jim confided his predicament to his CO and he was granted a ten-day leave. He quickly told his driver to get ready for the trip. 

Soon the duo and their duffle bags were headed to the port of Le Havre, where a ferry could be found to take them to Southampton. Elias' driver navigated the Jeep down to the shoreline where the yawning ramp of the ferry beckoned and they were soon on the choppy Channel headed to Southampton. 

Jim's first task on arrival in London was to arrange a marriage to his surprised girlfriend. He found a magistrate who could perform the ceremony, and once they were officially wed, the groom set about arranging for a ship to send his wife to the States. The American military transport offices were staffed by English nationals, mostly young ladies who were happy to be gainfully employed during these trying times. They were in charge of scheduling wounded GIs for travel to America where they would get additional medical treatment and/or discharge. They also had a quota for 150 civilians—which included the wives of servicemen.

Elias approached the desk where two young ladies held court and inquired about sending his new wife to America. "There are certain restrictions," said the cute gal with a lovely accent. "And the next available berth would be in March." 

"How about a pregnant woman?" Jim asked. "Oh, my, no," came the pert reply, "we have no facilities or personnel for that." Jim realized that time would be working against him so he had to get his bride on the next available ship, and March would be too late.

The anxious soldier fingered the No. 5 in his pocket. He was now quite experienced in dealing with the intricacies of bureaucracy. He furtively produced two bottles of the perfume to the smiles and "ahs" of the two ladies handling his case. It now seemed that his wife could have a berth after all, for a January sailing. But the pregnancy hurdle remained as his bride would be a barely concealable five months pregnant by then.

After solidifying the arrangement, Jim went on a quick shopping trip to find a wrap that would sufficiently disguise his wife's circumstance. In a furrier's shop he found a beaver coat that he could have for just two vials of Chanel No. 5, a bargain he thought (as did the merchant) and he hurried off to present it to his pleased bride.

The reports coming back to Paris about the successful journey of Mrs. Elias to the New World pleased Jim no end. And when he finally got back home two years later, he delighted in telling the story of the soap and perfume to family and friends. There was no need for embellishment, the story spoke for itself.

Coco Chanel never knew the role her valued creation played in Jim Elias's life. Neither did the Octagon soap people—the ones who were initially responsible for starting this whole episode.