Are you Superstitious?

By Victor Dial

This event occurred on Friday the Thirteenth of May, 1967. Superstitious beware!

My wife Alix and I were living in a little village near St. Germain-en-Laye, a half-hour drive
to the west of Paris. We had a nice house with a lovely rose garden, and even a small orchard
with pear and apple trees. We often had weekend guests, happy for fresh air and greenery. The
month of May is generally nice, and has a lot of holidays which the French stretch into ponts
– three- or four-day weekends. This was one such weekend, and we’d invited Christian and Ella
from Brussels, and Nancy and Charlie from London to stay with us. We also invited two other
Parisian couples for dinner. As Alix was expecting in about two weeks this would likely be our
last chance for a little recreation before the baby arrived. It was a pleasant evening, so we
decided to eat outside and enjoy the view of the skyline of Paris, the Eiffel Tower, and the
sunset. Bliss.

We were midway through our first course when I noticed that Alix was missing, and went inside
to check on her. She was in our dressing room, hurriedly packing a bag: “time to go!” she said,
adding something about broken water. Not really understanding the significance of this, but
rising at once to the occasion, I called the Clinic in Versailles, and told the lady who answered
that Alix’s labor appeared to have started and that we’d be arriving in about 20 minutes. I asked
her to ensure that everything — whatever that meant – was ready for us. I also told her to alert
the doctor. The lady told me to drive carefully, that there was plenty of time, and promised that
everything would be fine. Don’t worry, she said, and again, drive carefully. She kept repeating
the same thing — plenty of time, don’t worry. Did I sound panicky? Or did she?

The household mobilized to get us on our way. I was behind the wheel of my large 4-door Ford
Granada, Alix was in the passenger seat, and Nancy (Alix’s best friend and maid of honor) was
sitting in back behind Alix. We were no more than five minutes from the house when her
contractions seemed to increase in intensity and frequency. Alix had put her feet up on the
dashboard, and Nancy was holding her hand as best she could. Alix announced that the baby
was coming. I said “Yes, darling, but we’re not at the Clinic yet!” and, “please wait, it’s not
much farther.” Polite cajolery didn’t seem to be working so I tried something harsher: “Keep
your bloody knees together!” “I’m trying to!” she cried. I drove as fast as I dared at night on an
unfamiliar road, but the baby was moving faster than we were. Alix was crying out, but I tried
not to look, and concentrated on the road ahead.

Moments later the baby arrived. In what must rank alongside Willie Mays’ as one of the greatest
clutch catches of all time, the baby plopped right into Alix’s waiting mitts. Talk about sang
froid. Faced with the reality that we were not going to make it to the Clinic in time, I stopped
the car to assess the situation. We were on a little-traveled road in the Forêt de Marly, half way
to Versailles. What to do? I got out and ran around to the passenger side. Make sure the baby’s
breathing! My God, do I have to slap it on the back? Wrap the baby in swaddling clothes! What
are swaddling clothes? Get help! Emergency, we have a new-born baby in the car! These
thoughts and many others flashed through my mind.

First things first, I told myself, though not necessarily in that order. The baby was born
breathing: she (it’s a girl!!!!) started crying on her own accord when she fell into Alix’s waiting
hands — were they too cold? For whatever reason, this was a problem I didn’t have to deal
with, thank God. Next, wrap her in something. As I was pondering this, Alix ordered me to give
her my shirt: “quickly, rip it off” — so in a show of strength, I ripped it open, and to hell with
the Brooks Brothers buttons. Get help! We were in the middle of nowhere. Maybe, though, an
OB on his way home would be driving by. Alas, no such luck. The first car that stopped was
driven by a young voyeur, definitely not an OB.

I spied the lights of a little house/cabin maybe 100 yards away and raced over to it. I barged in
willy-nilly on an elderly couple sitting quietly in their living room enjoying the warm summer
evening with their doors and windows wide open, watching TV.

I realized later what a sight I must have been. A crazed foreigner with no shirt (although still
wearing a tie), erupting into their house announcing incomprehensibly: “my car has just had a
baby in the wife – I need a…..knife” (for cutting the umbilical cord, an idea that had popped
into my head at the very last second). Too startled to refuse, the little old lady disappeared into
the kitchen and returned with a butcher’s knife which I grabbed, and sprinted back to the car. I
wondered if I’d have the nerve to cut the cord. Maybe Nancy could do it. Or maybe the OB just
passing by would do it. It turned out to be moot. When I got there, Alix, cool as a cucumber,
and serene as only a new mother with her baby in her arms can be, asked me “where’ve you
been?” and then, “what on earth are you doing with that knife?” and, “drive us to the Clinic,
it’s only a few minutes away.” I was only too glad to drop the knife, I didn’t want to cut the
cord anyway.

Running around to the driver’s side, I caught sight of the little old lady, hurrying toward us with
a big bowl of hot water and towels. She must have figured out what I’d said. But by now the
die was cast — we’d decided to carry on to the Clinic — so I sped off with a brief wave of the
hand. In spite of Alix’s calm I was certain every second counted; a matter of life and death. The
drive seemed endless.

Miraculously, I didn’t have an accident and I didn’t get lost. What a relief to pull up to the
Clinic with the baby still alive! Salvation! I raced up the front stairs and rang the bell. No
answer. RingRing. Still no answer. RingRing, PoundPound, SHOUT, RingRingRing! At last
the heavy door opened. I imagine the impression I made on the nurse was a little unnerving: I
was still bare-chested with tie, and possibly even more incoherent. She told me to calm down,
that everything would be fine, that there was plenty of time — the same idiotic phrase she’d
repeatedly used on the phone a lifetime ago. She was young and appeared even more
inexperienced than me, if you can believe it.

I grabbed her by the arm and pulled her down the stairs to the car so she could see for herself
that I wasn’t just another lunatic father-to-be. She gasped audibly at the sight. It turned out that
this was her first night on the job, and when I asked her to fetch the doctor she blurted out that
she was all alone, and that the doctor, like all self-respecting Frenchmen was away from Paris
making a pont. In spite of my explicit instructions, she hadn’t called him, perhaps believing her
many own reassurances (plenty of time, all will be well). And anyway, he was in the south of
France.

We carried Alix and my little girl, still attached to her mother by the cord, up the stairs to the
front door of the Clinic (what a crazy idea to have stairs leading to the entrance of a clinic, I
mused). We took her into the labor room, and gently laid her on the bed, whereupon the nurse
regained her composure, and, I’m pleased to say, took charge of the situation. She started by
ordering me out of the room, a command I was happy to obey.

Sometime later, I once again marveled at Alix’s composure under pressure, and her phenomenal
sense of hospitality. When she’d been cleaned up and had had a wee rest, I went in to see her
and our baby. She said that she was feeling fine; that she was in good hands; that our little girl
was perfect; that she was tired and needed a little rest; and that — had I forgotten? — we had
seven guests at home, who hadn’t even finished dinner. Who was looking after them? What
about little Minter, our two-year-old son? He’d be worried. My duty was to go home now, and
take care of them.

Now that is class.

Epilogue:

  • We named our baby Elisabeth Montgomery Dial. Elisabeth was my mother’s first name.
    Montgomery is Alix’s maiden name. Sadly, my mother (called Lisa) passed away in
    1963, never having seen any of her grandchildren – she would have had four. While my
    daughter prefers to be called Elisabeth, she graciously allows me to call her Lisa.
  • Lisa (and Shamus, her gifted husband-surgeon) has given birth to three beautiful
    children. An accomplished mother, she’s also a talented MD with three board
    certifications. They live in a lovely house in a nice part of Baltimore; Alix lives on the
    Main Line; Nancy in Blue Hill; and Ella (Lisa’s god-mother) in Lausanne. Christian
    and Charlie have passed away.
  • Once things had settled down Alix and I went looking for the place where Lisa was born
    – we wanted to thank the couple whose evening I had so brutally disrupted, and Alix
    wanted to look for the missing buttons. But the night had been dark, and our memories
    were a little dim: sadly, we never did find the spot. Alix and I eventually consumed the
    bottle of Dom Perignon we’d hoped to share with them.
  • Important! The next time you deliver a baby, you should know that you don’t
    necessarily have to cut the umbilical cord right away, you simply apply a tourniquet,
    using something like a string or a shoelace. No need for a knife!
  • Check the bill from the Clinic carefully. Ours had the nerve to try to charge me for use
    of the Labor room – we used the front seat of my car for that.
  • “What’s that you asked me?” “Yes, I accept that Alix also deserves credit for the
    successful outcome.” “Yes, I admit that there may have been one or two rare instances
    when in telling this story over the years I may have under-played her starring role, and
    just possibly, maybe, perhaps, unwittingly, unintentionally, mistakenly, in error,
    inexplicably, over-played or otherwise have exaggerated mine. However, I assert that
    while I may not always have mentioned that Nancy was in the car, I’ve never failed to
    acknowledge that Alix was there too.”

Looking back, I find two ways to look at this event. One is to see it as high-risk drama,
extremely scary stuff. I was, I admit it, utterly terrified throughout. I had no idea what to
do, and I absolutely believed that if we made the slightest mistake the baby was doomed.
This feeling promptly shifted to euphoria once mother and daughter were safe.

The other way to see it is as comic from beginning to end. My improvised and unscripted
Basil Fawlty-esque ineptitude must be worth a laugh or two. It may be a sign of maturity
that owning up to my incompetence of the moment doesn’t embarrass me — it just brings a
big wide smile to my face.

Don’t be afraid of Friday the Thirteenth. You see? Good things can happen whatever the
date.

Victor Dial
Gstaad, January 22, 2020
victordial@bluewin.ch

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