An ill-fated bottle of champagne

During Harold Lincoln’s service in World War II, he spent quite a bit of time in Epernay, France.

He has a few bad memories from the town, but mostly good ones.

The 361st Special Service Engineers, of which Lincoln was a member, turned an old factory there into a hospital.

One day, as he was walking past the place, he noticed that a portion of the shutters over one window was broken out. He took a peek inside.

“I don’t know why to this day, but I went over and looked in there,” Lincoln said. “It was the autopsy room. They had a GI laying there and he was split wide open.”

“I never looked in another one again,” he said. “That was enough for me.”

He became a regular customer at the Pharmacie Hinglais.

“There was a pharmacy in Epernay,” Lincoln said. “This Mr. Hinglais, the pharmacist, he spoke English.”

“I had this camera and he could get me the film,” he said. “I went in there and got film all the time.”

He became such a good customer that the owner invited him over at war’s end.

“A few days later they had a big parade,” Lincoln said. “We knew this parade was coming up. I was in getting some film.”

“When the parade is over, he said, get about six of your buddies and come over,” Lincoln said. “Up along the side of the building was a closed-in stairway. He said, ‘Go up there.'”

“We got up on top there, and oh boy, the nicest darn roof garden you ever could look for,” Lincoln said. “They had bottles of 1937 champagne and lots to eat.”

“We went to leave there, they gave each one of us a bottle of champagne,” he said.

Lincoln took care of that bottle. “I put it in a box, put straw and everything around it,” he said. “I’m taking that home. My wife and I were going to have that when I got home to celebrate.”

Before he went home, however, Lincoln was sent to the other side of the world. He took the crate with him. During travel, he packed the box in the middle of his clothes in his duffel bag.

“We were down there in the Philippines… in tents,” he said. “I had the bunk right at the end.”

“It was a real hot day,” he said. “We had the sides sorta open and the sun was shining in on an angle,” Lincoln said. “I was laying there in the bunk and all of a sudden, ‘Boowoowoom!'”

He heard an explosion. “I knew it was something under my bed,” he said. “The bottle of champagne had blown up. All of my clothes were full of champagne. I never did get it home.”

Still, the loss of that particular champagne didn’t mean he didn’t celebrate.

“That didn’t deter us,” he said. “Every New Year’s Eve we always had a bottle of champagne.”

Decades later, Lincoln returned to Epernay with his son and grandson. They didn’t stop at the hospital he had been a part of building, but they did go to the pharmacy. “I went to see him,” Lincoln said. “They were at their summer home and I didn’t get to see him.”

The Pharmacy Hinglais is still located at 2 Place Hugues Plomb, Epernay, according to a Thursday morning email from Solange Lane of the Epernay Tourism Office.