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Pilot at a Wailing Wall


Paul Ebeltoft Sr. would have celebrated his 87th birthday yesterday. He was a well-known figure around Dickinson, and today we bring you a story he wrote of an experience he had in WWII.

“It was D-Day plus an eternity, 1944. My squadron was moving from its temporary base in northern France to whatever I could find in Belgium. I flew close behind the 1st Army ground advance searching for a useable airstrip or something that could be made into one. A field like a coffee stain on a frayed green carpet passed under my wing. I banked hard, came around, and in a moment bumped to a stop on Belgium soil. The makings of a runway were in that little plot. It needed fewer trees – but more of everything else. Where could I find billets, kitchens and hanger space? The Belgians would have to help me if our planes and boys were to base here.

“I discovered ancient homes clinging to the empty rib-cage of a shelled-out church. People, as old, battered and war-weary as their homes, scowled as I passed. The clang of tailgates and armor had replaced their steeple bell for so many years that a single young American didn’t raise many hopes. ‘Find Monsieur Ayers,’ some whispered. ‘If he’s still alive, he might help you.’

“I will never forget his address, 21 Rue de Calvare. A woman answered my knock. Her relief that I was American improved her understanding of my terrible French. ‘Yes! Come! Monsieur Ayers is in the basement.’ The ring of steel on stone echoed as I followed her down swaybacked steps.

“At the far end of a vaulted room, a handsome, elderly man was ineffectively using a mason’s hammer on a formidable stone and concrete wall. He was dignified, resolute and overdressed. His white mustache and blue beret were speckled with flakes from the wall. In the amber glow of kerosene lamps, he reminded me of stiff-collared ancestors I had seen in albums of tintypes back home. Stumbling over both rubble and the language barrier, I explained that my squadron needed help. ‘Later,’ he replied in flawless English. ‘You are a young man. Help me with this and then I will help you.’ He handed me the hammer.

“Blow followed blow. First came some wood – then a frame. Finally, I had torn down enough of the wall to expose a door. In a fog of concrete dust and kerosene smoke, Monsieur Ayers pulled keys from his pocket. A rusty lock gave way. A shove on the door from me, a scramble over the ruins of the wall, and we were in. He raised his lamp.

“Racks of wine bottles lined the cobwebby, cool walls as far as his light traveled. Chateau labels under dust as thick as a courtesan’s make-up winked at me in the moving lamplight. Jeroboams and magnums lay like lovers on wooden pallets. Crates of untasted treasure were stacked profligate at the feet of a 25-year-old airman from the plains of North Dakota.

“Monsieur Ayers broke the spell. ‘I built this wall when the Nazis came, covering the only door to my wine cellar. As the occupation stretched into years, it became my Wailing Wall. Many the nights I wept here knowing that my past life was a meter away, but beyond my reach. I will cry no more. Like this room, like Belgium, I am free again. Now, it is time for me to help you.’ Then he paused, looked at the dusty bottles and smiled. ‘But first, we will test one bottle.’

“Monsieur Ayers was as good as his word. He provided the best facilities for us since landing in France, and together we made many trips to his Wailing Wall to liberate another bottle or two...”

You’ve been reading a memoir by Paul Ebeltoft Sr. He lived in Dickinson, where he passed away January 13, 2005.

Source: Paul Ebeltoft Sr. with Paul Ebeltoft Jr., “A Meeting at the Wailing Wall,” 2004 (unpublished and slightly abridged)

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm