Ron Cohen
Ron Cohen

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Posted 07.15.15
Near Washington DC


[EDITOR'S NOTE:] This is an excerpt from Ron Cohen's forthcoming memoir, "Of Course You Can Have Ice Cream for Breakfast: Love Letters to My Grandkids". Cohen retired after four decades with United Press International and Gannett News Service, and is the author of the award-winning "Down to the Wire: UPI's Fight for Survival."

A Toast to Fifi

Every July 14, Bastille Day, I raise a glass of vin ordinaire to Thelma V. Allen.

"Fifi" Allen was my West Orange High School French teacher in the early '50s. How great she was did not register on my hormone-clouded brain until 15 years after I left her classroom, having compiled a perfect three-year D average.

Mlle. Allen was a passionate Francophile. Each summer as soon as school was out she and her sister flew to Paris to recharge batteries sapped from her valiant efforts to pound idiomatic expressions into behaviorally challenged teens.

Fifi was an haricot vert with legs, 6 feet-plus and prodigiously skinny. A walking Tour d'Eiffel, she affected a stern and serious demeanor. Yet, in those rare moments she wasn't hissing "tessez-vous" (shut up) to the class stinkers (me), traces of a smile might crinkle the corners of her mouth.

Speak English in her class and be slapped with a nickle fine -- a fortune in the days of 50-cent allowances and 3-cent Juicy Fruit gum. At year's end she cracked the kitty and introduced us Philistines to the wonders of pate, baguettes, gateaux.

Soon after I graduated, Fifi survived a suicide attempt, a leap from her second story classroom in the imposing Gothic redoubt that was West Orange High. I was convinced my classroom antics had been the final straw.

I got my first inkling of Fifi's imprint on my sub-conciousness a decade later when, on holiday in Europe, I discovered that I understood Parisian French better than I did London English; I could order escargots, gigot d'agneau, and pommes frites -- and stand a decent shot the waiter wouldn't double over with laughter.

But it wasn't until 1970, a full 15 years after I walked out of Fifi's classroom for the last time, that I truly learned how lucky I had been to have her.

I was working for United Press International in New York, and flew to Montreal one weekend to give the UPI reporters a break from an exhausting two-week-old story threatening to overwhelm them.

The FLQ, a band of separatists determined to split French-speaking Quebec from the rest of Canada, kidnapped the senior British diplomat in Montreal, James Cross; then Pierre LaPorte, the Quebec labor minister, disappeared amid ransom demands that included a half-million in gold and safe passage to Cuba.

It was a huge story. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, invoking Canada's Emergency War Measures act, declared an "extreme crisis."

With the Montreal staffers badly in need of a respite, I flew from New York and was alone in the UPI bureau shortly after midnight on Sunday, Oct. 18, 1970. Suddenly the music on the desk radio turned solemn, funereal.

Uh-oh. I dial the phone number of the Quebec provincial police on a list of contacts that bureau chief Terry McGarry had provided.

"Bon soir," I say, pretty much exhausting my French vocabulary. "Do you speak English?"

"Non, monsieur."

Crap. Sunk. I have no choice but to employ my straight-D high school French.

"Monsieur Cross? Monsieur LaPorte?" I plead, struggling to mimick Fifi's nasal whine.

"LaPorte e mort," she replies, in a poetical sing-song, then unleashe the cascade of French I had been dreading.

To my amazement I find myself almost able to keep up, furiously translating her rapid-fire French into my reporter's notebook. LaPorte's body had been found stuffed in the trunk of the car used to kidnap him; he had been strangled by the chain of his religious necklace. No arrests. No sign of Cross. The manhunt continues.

When I had enough for the breaking news story, I cry "Merci! Merci!", spin my chair to the teletype machine, and pound out one of the year's biggest stories, an exclusive for UPI's world subscribers. Then I phone for reinforcements -- the Montreal staffers, who were, in fact, actually fluent in French.

It is nearly noon before I can catch my breath. But even as I bask in UPI's big scoop, I know who really had been responsible for my linguistic heroics.

I typed a thank-you letter to Mlle. Allen, thanking her and saying that her old nemesis had learned French "malgre lui" -- in spite of himself. I mail it to West Orange High requesting it be forwarded -- if, indeed, Mlle. Allen still were alive.

A few weeks later, I answer the phone at home and hear a familiar nasal twang:

"Monsieur Cohen? C'est Fifi." So she all along had known of our nickname for her. Of course. How foolish to suspect otherwise.

She had retired years ago, she says, and lives alone -- her sister is dead.

When she answers my knock 15 minutes later, even the darkness of the hallway outside her door cannot conceal our mutual tears.

In the ensuing months we talked by phone frequently. When she felt up to it, I would visit her, climbing the stairs to the tiny third-floor flat where inexpensive but colorful prints of Paris landmarks were her only concession to a teacher's pension.

Over vin rouge and fromage, I apologized for having been such a jerk. When she felt comfortable enough to talk about her suicide attempt, she scoffed at my fear that I had in any way been responsible. Despair at the knowledge that her retirement was fast approaching had been building for years; that it crested in my senior year was mere happenstance.

I was surprised when Fifi told me she had known all along I was not really a D student.

"If you had studied harder and not been such a 'fou' in class, you could have easily climbed to a C-minus," she said, smiling at her own joke.

And that's why she had not been surprised to learn about my language heroics in Montreal. After all, who would know better than she what a terrific high school French teacher I had?

I visited her occasionally for two years, and kept in touch via holiday cards after my transfer to Washington.

One Christmas there was no card. I knew I had lost her.

So each Bastille Day I raise a simple, four-word toast:

"Merci, Fifi. Je t'aime."