The Barksdale Pigeons

It was the singing that brought Tammany Bazanac out to the porch. She was used to hearing the soldiers singing, but she never had heard a tune so odd and voices so, well, foreign as these.

As the olive drab canvas covered trucks, white five-pointed stars on their doors, rumbled past Madame Sabine’s Rest on the road from Shreveport to Barksdale, Tammany stood on the porch to see what new flyers might be visiting Madame’s house some upcoming weekend. But instead of the usual pink-cheeked farm boys or earnest college men, Tammany saw faces she’d only seen before in the laundry where her Maw-Maw would take her Paw-Paw’s shirts for washing and his collars for starching down home in Alexandria.

The talk among the locals started that same day.

The people in town were suspicious of these Asian men who arrived in Shreveport in the Spring of 1943. After all, this was a military town, hard by an important United States Army Air Force training field. And hadn’t those slant-eyes pulled a sneak attack on just such a facility at Hickham Field on December 7, just two years ago?

The fact that these young trainees were from the Nationalist Chinese Air Corps, sworn enemies of the Japanese who had invaded their land, was lost on some of the residents of Sh. To them, someone who looked like that was not to be trusted. And when the sirens would sound, the thought that a sneak attack from inside Barksdale Army Air Field was never far from their minds.

After about twenty years of it, the people of Shreveport had grown used to the various roars of the fighters and bombers that raced or thundered over town as they took off or landed from Barksdale. They never quite got used to the wail of the siren, which didn’t mean to seek cover from an air raid by enemy bombers. Rather, these sirens coincided with a column of black smoke rising above the base, the town and everyone’s consciousness, as another training aircraft crashed, carrying from one to ten young souls to violent death.

Each day, all day, the skies around the northeast portion of Louisiana would fill with flocks of olive and khaki camouflaged aircraft bearing the USAAF’s white star on the dark blue circle. On weekends, though, it was the town that would fill with white boys in olive and khaki. They were like pieces of crusty white bread cast casually around the streets for the young women of Bossier to attempt swooping up. Each was intent in getting her talons into an officer in this weekly battle before another girl bagged the same young hero for herself.

Hence, the American flyboys christened the local girls The Barksdale Pigeons.

Many a local girl had captured her piece of the white American Dream over the years, by one means or another, because white bread was the only item on the Barksdale Field menu.

That was until 1943, when the Barksdale became home to training squadrons from the Free French Army de l’Air and the Nationalist Chinese Air Force. That also marked the spark of the first civil war battle in those parts since the Rebs whipped the Yanks during the Red River Campaign in 1864.

When Sous-Lieutenant Hertienne joined his comrades in a stop by Madame Sabine’s Rest one weekend, he was stunned to hear his native tongue being murmured or moaned from behind the doors and curtains of Mademoiselle Sabine’s carnal cafe.

“Ohh, chér…” he’d heard at one end of the hall.

Ca c’est bon, lover,” Hertienne heard from the other.

The accents were strange, but that was definitely French being spoken in paid-for rapture by some of the girls who worked for the Madame.

“Did these girls learn le français just for us?” he asked Sabine in the smoky front sitting room of her establishment.

Mais, non, cher,” she said in her own odd accent. “Deez girls just speaking dare own language. Many of us here are Cajuns from downriver and we still speak some of the mother tongue from our borning up in Canada. And where in France are you from, cher?”

“I am not,” Hertienne said.

Pardonne-moi, chéri?”

“From France. My family is from Tonkin in Indochine.” Hertienne said.

“Isn’t that near Shreveport?” the Madame said and laughed her roof-rattling laugh that always brought every eye in the place on her, which was her intent.

But the Rest’s door then opened and who walked in ripped attention from the Madame like the wings off a Stearman trainer pulling out of a 200 mph dive. Standing in the doorway were three Chinese flyers who had heard that Madame Sabine’s was a place where anyone could be shown a good time, if the asking price was paid. And they’d just been paid.

“Well now, looky here,” the Madame said, cutting the silence with her entrepreneurial will as much as her brand of mercenary Southern hospitality.

“Been waitin’ to see if any you China boys would show up here someday and now here you are. Come on in, boys, come in. We serve any of our valiant boys who dare in the air, ‘cept maybe dem Tuskeegee boys. Dis house still have some standards, even in a war,” Sabine said.

Hertienne observed the arrival with a disdain born of his upbringing on his father’s rice plantation and then as a junior colonial government official in Hanoi. He’d also seen the increasing Chinese influence on the Tonkinese population, including the influx of Communists, before the war began.

“I do not like these Chinese,” he whispered to his friend Bizot. “They are seeking to set fire to an already smoking pile of yellow reeds, no better than the Japanese or Nazis.”

While two of the Chinese airmen were of average height for a European or American flyer, the third was smaller, wiry and Hertienne thought had an edge to him he’d seen before.

“Come in, boys. Allez, allez,“ Sabine said, movng toward the door and extending her hands wide as if to hug all three at once. The smallest of the three moved first.

In fluent French he asked if Madame Sabine had any problem serving Chinese flyers.

Non, non, cher. As I said before, we are here to show you valiant boys southern hospitality with a spicy Louisiana charm all our own.”

Hertienne heard the airman speak French and immediately had him pegged as Tonkinese, perhaps from the western reaches of the Red River Delta.

Tammany, emerging from the kitchen, heard it, as well. She was at first confused by these men, their physical features, including color, as well as the confidence with which they approached the Madame and introduced themselves and established rules of engagement for their evening entertainment.

Tammany thought, ‘Cepting for his eyes and hair, that China boy could be one of ol’ Aunt Thelma’s boys back in Alexandria. And that was true. Because Tammany came from a mixed race family purer than the gumbo of so many Louisianans. She was what was known in the South as a high yellow, classified as black according to the nefarious one-drop rule, despite having primarily white European ancestry. With her pale olive skin, black curly hair and light hazel eyes, Tammany was quite in demand by some of Madame Sabine’s regular clientele who preferred a more exotic-looking companion. That included Denis Hertienne.

Tammany walked right past Hertienne to stand with the Madame, smiling her most beguiling smile and batting her thick lashes drawing even more attention to eyes that didn’t need it.

Bonsoir. Je m’appelle Tammany. Quel est ton?” she said.

“Good evening, Mademoiselle Tammany. I am Lieutenant Dinh Hien Chien,” the young Vietnamese flyer replied in barely accented English.

“Oh, I heard your speak French before, so I thought…”

“Vietnamese, French, Chinese, Tagalog, English and a little Dutch. I went to university in California, but I also given an excellent early education by the Jesuits in Hanoi,” Dinh said with a smile.

“Oh my, oh my. And what do I call you, cher? I think we’re going to get to know one another better for the month or so you’re here in Bossier,” Tammany said.

“Lieutenant Dinh will suffice for now, Miss…? I’m sorry, I missed your name before while I was becoming entranced with your stunning eyes.”

“Tammany. I’m Tammany, Lieutenant Dan.”

“Dinh, like ‘ja-know that pretty girl?’ without the ‘oh’ on the end.”

Hertienne was suddenly at Tammany’s elbow.

“I believe we had a date set for this evening, Tammany, non?” he said, stepping between and Dinh.

“I’m no one’s private property, Denis, not even the Madame’s. I am in her employ and take on companions as I see fit. And tonight I see fit to entertain, Lieutenant Dinh.”

“You would lower yourself to sleep with a…”

“Stop right there, Denis. Of all the people in this house right now, the one maybe most like me is this gentleman. And I would prefer it if you talked to the Madame to find a new girl if you insist on insulting our other guests,” Tammany said, her eyes flashing almost amber in the yellow glare coming from the old lampshade.

“What’s da ruckus here, Tammany? I’ll not have one of my girls talking in dat tone to a customer without damn good reason,” Sabine said, her own tone serving notice who was allowed.

“I was just ‘splaining to Denis that I’m nobodies property here. That I can choose who I take back to my crib, unless you choose otherwise. An’ I hope you would accept my decision tonight, Madame Sabine,” Tammany said.

”You want to be with dis China boy,” Sabine said, nudging Hertienne from between Tammany and Dinh.

“I would, ma’am. Just to wish one of our newest neighbors a special Madame Sabine’s Rest bon temps.

“I see,” the Madame said. And she did, seeing tammany’s earnest interest in the Vietnamese pilot.

“If I may, Madame,” Dinh interrupted. “I don’t wish to get the lovely Miss Tammany into any trouble with you my first night visiting your lovely house. I will accede to your authority, of course.”

“You are a silver-tongued devil, aren’t you, honey?” Madame Sabine said.

“Marguerite? Would you please come entertain Lieutenant Hertienne this evening, ma chérie?” Madame Sabine called to a dark-eyed Creole girl lounging near the bar.

“Excusez-moi, Madame, Mademoiselle Marguerite, but I believe I shall return to the base. Bonsoir, Tammany.” Hertienne said. “Thiếu úy, tôi sẽ được nhìn thấy bạn trên cơ sở,” he added as he brushed by Dinh’s shoulder.

“Yes, Lieutenant. I look forward to our meeting again…on-base or wherever you’d prefer,” Dinh said.

Shortly after Hertienne slammed the door leaving Madame Sabine’s, Tammany Bazanac, leading Dinh Hien Chien by the hand, quietly closed the door to her room.

An hour later, lying together in Tammany’s bed, Dinh said, “Why did you come over to me as you did, especially since the dashing French officer seems to think you have a mutually exclusive relationship?”

“Do you mean why’d I take a shine to you when Denis thinks I’m his girl and his alone?”

“Yes, exactly,” Dinh said and chuckled.

“‘Cause you reminded me of someone I used to know.”

“I do? A Tonkinese engineer from the Red River Delta not only in the United Stares, but down in Louisiana? If anyone doesn’t belong someplace, it is me here. And who is this person of whom I remind you?”

“Me,” Tammany said, kissing Dinh. “You’re not from here, I’m not from here. You’re yellow, I’m yellow. Looked like your Chinese buddies didn’t quite accept you, using you for your language skills. The girls here, the they only accept me because I draw more Johns they can nab, maybe even for a husband. Even a whore can be a Barksdale Pigeon.”

“Oh, the Army officers warned us about them, like they were bloodsucking bayou bats.”

“Well, they kinda are,” Tammany said. “And now here’s another thing I only just learned. You’e from the Red River in your country and I am from the Red River of the South in mine.”

“Those are some pretty logical reasons, i would have to admit,” Dinh said with a smile and a hug.

“Oh, there’s one more thing.”

“What’s that, Tammany?”

“When I laid eyes on you I got the dribbly shivers.”

“The drib…”

“Yeah like this.” Tammany took Dinh’s hand and pulled it under the covers to touch her.

“Ohhhh… of course. Those dribbly shivers.”

Dinh slept with Tammany several times over the next few weeks, but his visits stopped abruptly, which coincided with a renewed interest in her from Denis Hertienne.

“Tammany, would you please see to Monsieur Denis’ needs tonight?” Madame Sabine said one evening.

“But…”

“I don’t think that sweet China boy’s coming back, ma chérie.”

“How can you say that, Madame? That boy, he loves me. And I…”

“Now you stop right dare, Tammany. If I taught you one ting in diss life, it’s not to get attached to any one John,” Sabine said. “Especially one who’s only here for a couple months. An’ dat boy’s not gion’ home to Kansas, chil’. He goin’ halfway roun’ da world, first to fight an’ den to live. If he survive the first part.”

Hertienne stood nearby wearing an expression more smug than his usual superior air.

“An’ what are you doin’ looking’ like the cat that swallowed the canary, Lieutenant?” Tammany said.

Hertienne said, “Oh nothing. I warned you to stay away from his type. Lazy, untrustworthy. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a Japanese sympathizer or a…”

“A what, Denis? A brilliant young man, passionate about ridding his country of oppression? A threat to your interests?”

“Tammany, enough. You take the Lieutenant to your room and show him a good time. We’ll talk about diss later. Now bouge ta queue, move your sweet little tail in there now,” Madame Sabine said with distinct finality.

“Yes’m, come with me, Lieutenant,” Tammany said, taking Hertienne’s arm and walking to her room, where she performed her services in a most perfunctory manner.

“What is wrong with your, girl?” Hertienne said, lying atop Tammany, who gave up her body to him, but nothing else.

“I am paying for a bit more enthusiasm, Tammny,” Hertienne said, pinching Tammany’s breast.

“Ow, that hurt, Denis. stop that or I’m calling Madame.”

“I doubt she would do anything, especially now that the FBI is watching the house,” Hertienne said.

“The FBI? What are you talking ‘bout?”

“I told you, Tammany, I wouldn’t be surprised if our good Lieutenant Dinh is not only a poor pilot, but a communist, as well.”

“How do you know this, Denis,” Tammany said, wriggling out from under the Frenchman.

“Oh, I don’t know. He just the look of one of those scum who tried collectivizing my father’s plantation and raising hell with government officials from Saigon to the Chinese border,” Hertienne said with the hint of a smile.

“Wait a minute.” Tammany said. ”The Madame mentioned something about the FBI watching the house. What’ve you done, Denis?”

Hertienne handed her a $50 bill and said, said, “Ah, Tammany, I do so enjoy your childlike nature. You remind me so much of a Vietnamese girl fresh out of the country and into the fleshpots in Haiphong.”

“What have you done to my Chien, Denis?” Tammany said, her voice rising and her eyes welling up.

“Well, I might have mentioned to the authorities that we might have a Communist sympathizer and sabotaging fifth columnist on base. Then I told them about the slant-eyed pilot who might crash his plane into something symbolic. Lives could be lost.”

“You didn’t!” Tammany said, turning her back to Hertienne at the side of her bed.

“Oh, but I did, Tammany. By now that mongrel is being placed in a cage in New Orleans where he belongs.

“I love that man. Denis how could you?” Tammany said.

“I was not going to be usurped in your heart by some little yellow mongrel.”

“Denis, you’re not in my heart. You are only in my bed and that only because Madame Sabine ordered me to do so.”

Hertienne slapped Tammany with the back of his hand and she fell onto the settee in her room, .

“This is how we deal with persistent rebelliousness by our colonial charges,” Hertienne said.

“And this is how we deal with arrogant and abusive ‘chillin,’” in Louisiana, Sous-Lieutenant Hertienne. “Dinh has more integrity and courage than you ever will.”

And tis is how we deal with

“He’s barely out of the Stone Age, Tammany.  This is how we keep such rebellious children in line,” Hertienne said.

With that, Tammany calmly said, “And this is how we deal with those who deserve rebellion, Denis.” She pulled a short, thin blade of a knife from the hidden pocket beneath her pillow. She slashed it down Hertienne’s face and pushed it into his neck. She screamed, “Madame!”

Sabine and her bouncer burst through the door and Hertienne lay choking on his own blood.

“He was choking me, Madame. I knew he was going to kill me for being with Dinh. I had no choice but to defend myself.”

“All right, all right, cher. You get yourself cleaned up and Raoul will take care of the Lieutenant. Quick get yourself down to my room.”

“Yes’m,” Tammany said and rushed out into the hall wrapped in a bloody sheet.

“Raoul, introduce the Lieutenant to the hogs, would you?,” Sabine whispered discreetly. “We want no word of this going beyond these walls or the hog pen. You do understand, eh, cher?”

A week and a half later, Dinh Hien Chien walked into Madame Sabine’s Rest after seven days incarceration and questioning by the FBI in the Crescent City.

“Dinh!” Tammany squealed, jumping into his arms when she saw him.

That same week, base authorities reported a Free French officer had disappeared from Barksdale. The FBI investigated and found a secret radio and code books hidden in a false bottom of his equipment trunk. They further determined that Sous-Lieutenant Hertienne was actually a Vichy spy sent to infiltrate and disrupt Air Corps training and communications by any means.

Three weeks later, Tammany and Chien were married by the Catholic chaplain on base. This further made her not well-accepted by the girls at Madame Sabine’s. But that didn’t bother her when she moved to San Francisco. And eventually the girls missed her faintly mulatto honey drawing military bees to their beds. She also gave them hope, proving her theory that even a whore, a high yellow one at that, could earn her wings out of Shreveport as a Barksdale Pigeon.

I’m afraid I missed Day 16 of my May story-a-day challenge. Couldn’t be helped. And I found the prompt for Day 17 to be not as inspiring as I hoped. So I reached back to an old prompt I kept from Canadian writer and writing instructor Sarah Salecky. It was a very simple one, though produced this gargantuan (and still quite rough) first draft story. The prompt simply said to write a story with the title The Barksdale Pigeons. My historical knowledge and imagination took it from there.

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