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Memorial Day II

26 May 2008

I wandered into the churchyard at St. Etienne-a-Arnes a couple of years back, where my great-great uncle had perished in October 1918 during an assault on Blanc Mont by Texas’ 142nd Infantry and some others.  The odd tractor drove by, oblivious to my moment.  The driver was in his own moment, wrapping up a day of planting or plowing something or other.

A French family noticed my curiosity and invited me across the street into their bullet-riddled basement to show where the Germans had set up their radios.  The matriarch, surely in her 80s or 90s, was out back along the rivulet, pulling shallots or weeds out of her little garden.  One of my great-great uncle’s comrades had probably died on that very spot.  Maybe he had died there himself, entangled in the razor wire the Germans had threaded along the hedge, an easy mark for the sharpshooter up in the church belfry or a German 77 over on the ridge.

I drove back to Reims in silence, the alternating cemeteries of white monuments and black monuments – good and evil, no doubt – pestering me with the monotony of death.

Over a 25cl Leffe or two and a slice of quiche that evening, I pondered what I had seen in the craters and pockmarks at Somme-Py and Blanc Mont.  We don’t remember that battle much anymore.  Somebody’s ancestors died there.

The next year, in a snowy Normandy, my mom and I picked our way around the disintegrated concrete slabs that were once the Nazi fortifications on Pointe du Hoc, where Rudder’s Rangers had scaled the cliffs on D-Day.  (Rudder was later to become president of the university where I spent 9 years of first Tuesdays of the month listening to the three buglers playing Taps.)  Then we drove over to Pegasus Bridge and tried to imagine how a Horsa glider could get that close and disgorge its troops without being immediately shredded by the guards’ machine-gun fire…to say nothing of six gliders.

In a smoky brasserie in Bayeux that night, a glass of Medoc helped me see the pictures on the wall more clearly.  There aren’t many shops or cafes in Normandy or the Champagne without a story to tell of The War to End All Wars, or of the war after that.

It occurs to me that I may have some of the Normandy trip out of sequence.  Endless headstones.  Every front yard a killing field.  It has a way of sharpening the senses but dulling the wit.

One day, I will walk whatever is left of Nagasaki.  We saved lots of Allied lives there.

Surely what we did was what Jesus would have done, wasn’t it?


2 Comments leave one →
  1. 26 May 2008 10:28 pm


    But then again I was reminded today as I viewed with my children and grandchildren the C. S. Lewis’ inspired movie, “Prince Caspian,” that we can’t know what would have happened but we can influence what will happen.


  2. 27 May 2008 7:42 pm


    Sometimes weirdness is refreshing (and maybe not far from the truth?). Check out this url when you can:

    If you haven’t left France yet, go to Paris and check out this: Bon appetit!



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