I stepped off the train from Paris. A little over two hours earlier I arrived at St-Lazare station and headed northwest. I had no itinerary, no agenda, no car. I looked around train station in Caen, and immediately spotted him. Standing in the corner, quietly, amidst the throngs of people, was a man. He was close to 80, I’d say – mid-70’s, perhaps, but certainly no younger – and he was wearing a soldier’s uniform. I don’t know if there’s anything more poignant in this world than an old man in a soldier’s uniform. His blue stiff hat perched atop his head.
I smiled at the man as people with backpacks and briefcases, milled around him, everyone rushing somewhere, everyone sipping a coffee, train station announcements blaring from the speakers. He carried a sign in one hand; his finger clasped an old tin in the other.
As I first walked past the man, tossing him another smile to add to the collection of smiles other people had tossed him. And then I realized that I couldn’t stand knowing, for the rest of the day, that I’d walked past this tall, proud soldier without stopping. I poured over my guidebook, I looked for an information booth, and I kept wondering how long he’d been standing there. I turned back, and reached for my wallet, realizing almost simultaneously that I didn’t have any small bill Francs or coins. Irish pounds and Dutch Guilder coins mixed together among my coin purse, “I’m so sorry,” I said, sheepishly in my halting French. “It’s all I’ve got. It’s just change.” And this man, this soldier, he looked up and he beamed at me. He beamed. “Well, that’s just what I need!” he replied, holding the tin steady as I tried to stuff my coins in, maneuvering them around the crumpled bills. He sounded like anyone’s grandfather, like anyone’s father with his thick French accent. It embarrassed me how grateful he sounded; how pitiful my contribution was. Who knew what this man had done, whether he’d lived in trenches, flown airplanes, missed his wife, watched his friends die, and what was I doing? I was gallivanting through Europe: young, blithe, and unconcerned.
I wish I could tell you I said something more than merci. I wish I could tell you I said something pertinent and poignant and appropriate. But all I said was thank you. I’ve never forgotten the man.
I’ve always been fascinated by war, the people who experience it, the scars the land bares, and the way it impacts history. When I was younger it was the Revolutionary War, and after my first trip to Austria & Germany it was the Second World War that I was interested in. When J and I went to Vienna a few years back, we discovered a WWII museum on the outskirts of town and spent the better part of the day exploring the artifacts, pouring over the wall maps, and endlessly discussing what if. During our courtship we drove through the Pennsylvania countryside, stopping at Gettysburg National Military Park. The rolling green hills, the dew on the grass made us pause and remember the bloodshed that happened among the trees.
I am captivated by cemeteries. The serenity; the peacefulness; the stillness. Most people visit France and see the Eiffel Tower, drink wine in the Loire Valley, sun-bathe in Nice, but I was drawn to the D-Day beaches of Normandy. After a series of bus rides, a long walk with a few wrong turns, I found myself at Omaha beach. There were rows and rows and rows of white headstones of Christian crosses. I walked silently through the cemetery, passing only a few other people, even though it was June, thus the beginning of the tourist season. The cemetery overlooks part of Omaha Beach, and is high upon the cliff with a breathtaking view of the English Channel. It was still, sort of quiet, a restfulness. I walked through the rows reading and repeating out loud the names on each headstone before moving on, noting how young these men were that summer of 1944. As I looked out among the gravestones, feeling the cool breeze on my face, and smelling the salty air, I silently said a prayer, thanking the soldiers whose ultimate sacrifice gave me my freedom.
For this Memorial Day, I hope against hope that all your men and women are safe, all your brothers and cousins and husbands and boyfriends and friends. I hope you hug them a little harder, smile at them a little longer, love them a little more fiercely, just for the fact that they are here.
*”I Stand Before You” written by Roger J. Robicheau.