Passports 3: Passing Through the Fields of Death

We left Paris on a crisp bright May morning.  This was the only day-long excursion we booked in advance.  We were going to visit Mont St. Michele in Brittany.  The trip would take us four hours one way, in a northwest direction to this 850 year old Abbey mountain.

Our route took us through the hills of Normandy, north and west of Paris.  This was the precious ground, the holy ground that over a million Allied troops were to fight for in the weeks after D-Day.  It all looks so gentle and peaceful since those times, 70 years ago, when the troops headed to liberate Paris.  It took them two months to reach this city.  It took us just hours to pass through.  We wanted to visit the beaches, Omaha, Juno and others on another excursion but found the cost too prohibitive.  So, we simply passed through to make a more affordable trip to this beautiful Abbey.

The photos that are inserted below were shot from the bus window.  They are not the best quality…how could they be when you’re moving so fast along a motorway?  But these fields, hedgerows, stone farm houses and small villages were not picturesque in 1944 like they are today in 2014.  No, each hedge, each small field experienced death and conflict.  The Germans were defending the French soil.  The Allies were intent on freeing France from the tyranny of Nazism.

The very soil that now grows the famous Normandy apples trees, feeds the cows that provide the succulent cheese…were all fertilized by the blood of an occupying army and the blood of an army of liberation.

I look out the coach window and try to put myself in the head of a GI who was lucky enough to make it past the deadly sands of the landing beaches.  I tried to visualize myself crawling, walking and slogging my way south to Paris.  I tried to tap into the collective memory of any one of the thousands of soldiers who saw the same sun that I was seeing…the same clouds that I was watching…the same stone buildings that were still standing.  I tried to go back in time to be that lonely, frightened, homesick young man.  Then the thought came to me that, perhaps, if by some twist in time, I became that soldier…would I make it across the next patch of green pasture? Or, would I feel a sudden pinch in my temple or chest…fall to the ground, and watch the blue sky bleed away into the whiteness, leaving a child, widow, mother and father to grieve for me back in America…and honor me when the flags come out?  Yes, when the flags are put on the vet’s graves, by tradition on May 30,  the day before my birthday.

The coach lurched and I found myself balancing my iPad mini on my knee.  I turned away from the fields of death, now so very beautiful, said a heartfelt prayer for those who made it to Paris and eventually home, and for those who did not.  They are still here, under one of the countless white crosses in the American Cemeteries around Caen.

I went back to my solitaire game.  I was in the present moment again.

But, was I? Really?





Alternate Endings II

Sometimes life is like a box of chocolates,

You just never know what you’re gonna get.

–Forrest Gump

ACT 1–Mary arrived in Chicago and settled in with her sister, Gladys.  Gladys had never married but she was often in the company of a girlfriend, Monica.  Very few men were present in the world of Gladys.  This began to trouble Mary.  Things like this just didn’t happen in small towns.

Small towns.  Mary’s thoughts often returned to the gentle landscape of the village by the river where she had lived her life so far.  The buildings along North Michigan Avenue became monolithic monsters to Mary.  There were too many people…and these people didn’t really know each other very well.  Gladys had many acquaintances, but no real friends, with the exception of Monica.

Mary thought about Ron.  She wondered how he had been getting on without her.  For a time, Mary thought about filing for divorce but now she was having second thoughts.

After six months of trying to find a quiet place in Chicago that resembled her hometown, Mary made the decision to go home.  Not only did she miss her friends and the simple shops along River Street, she also missed Ron.  What had she been thinking?  Why did she leave behind the young man who loved her since childhood?

Mary bought a one-way ticket for home.  Gladys was too busy chatting with Monica at the Union Station cafe to pay much notice to Mary.

They parted.  Mary’s sister would always be her sister, not her best friend.

Her best friend, she now understood, was Ron.

Ron stood on the platform of the Erie-Lackawanna station, clutching a recent telegram.  He looked to the west and heard a distant train whistle.


ACT 2–Gary ate sand that June morning on the beach of Normandy.  He never thought of his own safety when he did what he thought should be done.  He never thought of his home or mother.  He didn’t have time to think about anything except to gain ground and help his comrades.

Tiny grains of sand were still lodged under his fingernails when they lowered his casket into the hallowed ground of Arlington National Cemetery.

His mother clutched a medal.  It wasn’t a Purple Heart, it was Distinquished Service Cross.


ACT 3–Mavis sat in the waiting room of St. Basil’s Hospital.  She could hear the beeping of the respirator.

Three months later, Mavis and the love of her life, strolled along a snowy avenue in a small New England Town.  She paused to drop an envelope into the post box.  It contained a check made out to Kerry’s Funeral Home.  The next morning, fresh flowers would be placed on her husband’s grave.