A Novelty with Nungesser
At this point, Eugene Bullard was mostly out of action...until the next world war, that is.
But before we move onto other events, there was the story of the restaurant he went to with Nungesser around this time, which gives insight into both the character of this man who painted on his aircraft "All blood runs red," and the regard in which top aviators in wartime France were held.
It was the place of rendezvous for many of the French aviators, especially the well-known aces. I had met Nungesser many times in Paris when I was a student pilot, and he said he had seen me once or twice in Paris at the Elysee Montmarte, and I believed him. I was glad to go about Paris with the great aviator, Nungesser, one of France's best fighter pilots at that stage of the war. He introduced me to the owner of the little restaurant mentioned - Chez le Pere Lebas. I was the first Negro pilot they had ever seen and that made me a novelty. Being Nungesser's companion and knocking around with him, whenever we met, was a real treat for me.
The first time that Nungesser took me to the little restaurant he didn't warn me what to expect. And may I say, truthfully, that though I have traveled to many countries and been in cabarets all over Europe and the United States and North Africa, including the Casbah of Algiers, Kabaks (or public houses) in Russia, and in honky-tonks in Harlem, I have still to find a place that was anything like Chez le Pere Lebas.
Customer Relationship Management at its Finest
He describes a place with half again as many people as seats, no air conditioning, and a crowd waiting to get in. There was so much smoking going on it appeared from outside that the place was on fire. And the restroom, when it wasn't actually in use, made one more seat for someone waiting for a table.
When you were lucky enough at last to be admitted, you were met at the door by le Pere Lebas himself. He would curse you out in a loud voice and call you dirty names. That is the way he received everyone - officers, aces, ladies, stars, and boxers alike. This kept the crowd inside laughing until closing time.
When a table space was free at last, you were sure to be obliged to step onto and over some other table to get to it. Perhaps an officer with many decorations and a beautiful stage star, wearinig a fortune in jewels, would have to stand and leave their places while you walked across their table to reach a little spot where you might squeeze in - and after a long wait, get something to eat.
Bullard said he could not explain why the place was popular.
The first time that I visited le Pere Labas I was with Nungesser. He knew what was going to happen, but I did not. The moment we walked in - and I say walked in, for Nungesser never had to stand in line or wait any place - because everyone seemed to think it was some sort of honor to give his place to him. This first time that I ever visited le Pere with Nungesser, as always, the moment he entered, voices rang out from all sides: "Vive Nungesser. Vive la France. Vive l'aviation francaise," and then there was applause.
When Everyone Starts Laughing
At that point, Labas showed up and greeted Nungesser with an insult to Bullard which is not necessary to repeat here. Bullard "went mad."
By this time, the place was in an uproar of laughter. I wanted to fight anyone and everyone because everyone was laughing, and I thought that it was for real.
When Nungesser saw that I had been hurt, he and other officers made me understand it was a joke and that he had planned it and no one had any intention of hurting my feelings and that le Pere spoke to everyone the same way. I was told that if Nungesser was not my friend, he would not have brought me there or always invited me wherever he was invited or went.
I then asked to be excused for wanting to fight at once, not knowing that the whole thing was a joke. I explained that in the Foreign Legion we were taught that a battlefield is wherever you are attacked. And as I thought I had been attacked, I lost my temper. Now after realizing it was a joke, I felt somewhat like a fool. But what could I do?
That same night I became known to people who I am sure would have never heard of me if Nungesser had not played that silly joke on me. In the end the whole crowd turned out to be so nice I wished there had been a hole in the floor so I might have crawled into it.
Read more about Bullard in his biography Black Swallow of Death - if you can find this out-of-print-but-really-needs-to-be-reprinted classic!