Ken Smith

Glimpses (Courtesy of the French Secret Service)

I was walking across a French cathedral town with another American, a tidy, slender stranger from the youth hostel. The president of France was scheduled to hear a symphony in the cathedral later that day. Along one of the main streets a few people waited to catch a glimpse of his motorcade, so the American and I waited, too. Soon motorcycles with little flags and flashing lights approached at highway speed, then black cars with black windows, and more motorcycles with flags flapping followed right behind. In the one of the cars the president of France sat behind dark bulletproof glass.

My buddy opened his backpack and pulled out an immaculate white sock, which surely had never been worn. There was a mysterious lump at the bottom of the sock, and the motorcade was nearly upon us. While there were certainly people here and there along the boulevard, if you had asked me, I would have said we were alone on our stretch of sidewalk.

But before my acquaintance could slip his hand down into the white sock for the thing that was hiding there, from nowhere two sturdy men in street clothes grabbed him and muscled him by the arms and took away the sock. I could see the lump more clearly now—something the size and shape of an apple, perhaps, or a hand grenade. One of the men—secret service, I realized—reached into the sock and extracted a silvery-gray object, the fellow’s fancy little camera.

In those few seconds, the motorcade zipped by and disappeared down the road. The camera was back in the hands of my youth hostel buddy, too late to use, and by the time he turned to me and said “What was that?” the secret service men had vanished. In 1981, a year marred by terrorism, this was my glimpse into the pattern of the world.

That evening in the cathedral, I considered the little bomb that could have been lurking in the sock. I thought, also, of two US Marines I had seen guarding the American embassy in Paris, each man as serious as the machine gun he held in his hands. There was a magical passage in the Berlioz Requiem where four brass bands join the orchestra and the symphonic choir, each playing from different parts of the cathedral, different points of the compass, and all the layers of music weaving together in the air. The composer’s meditation on human frailty, the fine stonework soaring above us, the patient apprenticeship of all those musicians, the attentive hearts of the audience members, the secret service and the embassy guards, the heavy weapons and the will to use them, the dead who bore witness beneath the cathedral floor, the kaleidoscopic glass that filtered sunlight each morning into the shapes that speak of God: No single one of these was enough to explain what I glimpsed that day or heard that evening. We were, all of us under the stone arches, all of us under the arc of moon and sun, we were all of us meaner and richer than any name I could have given.

Over the last ten years,  Ken Smith has written and recorded nearly one hundred radio essays like this one for broadcast on WVPE, the NPR affiliate station serving the parts of Michigan and Indiana close to South Bend. His work has also appeared in dozens of MFA worksheets and hundreds of blog entries, and the bio line on his Twitter account says, "Teacher, writer, blogger."

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