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If It’s Two O’Clock, It Must Be Bayeux

July 15, 2017

Road trip!

During my time in Normandy, I needed a rental car in order to visit some of the more remote villages I had on my list.  This was my first time driving alone on foreign soil, but (naively) I’d always felt up to the task.  For some inexplicable reason, I had been under the misguided notion that I could find my way through the French countryside simply by using old-school road maps.  I clung to this belief in the weeks, then days leading up to the “Time in the Car” portion of my summer journey, and staunchly fended off the international smartphone data plans which would provide me with satellite navigation.

It was only when I was picking up the car at the Rouen train station that doubts began to creep in about how I might manage reading an unwieldy paper map while simultaneously driving, and I was beginning to suspect that this road trip could (and probably would) end in any number of disastrous ways.

Thankfully, there was a guardian angel looking out for me somewhere because, by some act of Providence, the rental car assigned to me came equipped with a built-in navigation system.

Now, it was set up to deliver instructions in French.  But, summoning every last bit of French I could remember, I managed to work out from the car manual how to get my navigator speaking to me in English.  And not just that, but I had my choice of what kind of accent my navigator would have – either British English or Australian English.  Without pausing to dwell on the “oversight” of there being no American English option, I selected the Brit because he sounded a bit like a butler, which made me feel rather elegant.

The rental car itself was a Renault (this being France and all), just spacious enough for me and my luggage.  Its exterior color was an unmissable “rouge clair”, which translates roughly to “screaming red” in English.  Not even the most retina-burning shades of fingernail polish could rival the car’s neon glow, so the pressure was on for me to get through my road trip without putting any nicks in the paint job.

It had been in Claire the car that I had visited St. Valery-en-Caux, and then Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery.  After an afternoon spent on the hallowed sand and soil of the D-Day invasion, I was emotionally spent by the time I was in the car and on the road to Bayeux, which was my next destination and stopping point for the night.  God bless that navigation system, for it made quick work of my journey, and delivered me without incident to my hotel in the center of the city.

Stepping through the hotel’s front door, I instantly fell head over heels for the place.  Housed in an ancient building – a converted something-or-other – the hotel was a sublime mix of medieval architecture and swinging modern furnishings.  My appointed room was huge, with three tall windows and a fireplace.  The bed was modern groovy – padded white vinyl with some sort of remote-controlled colored lighting effects built into the underside of the frame.

(It would turn out, unfortunately, that I would never figure out how to work the remote, and in the end I would be too tired to pursue the matter.  Oh well.  I wasn’t cool enough for the bed anyway.)

As soon as I dropped my bags, I hit the streets of Bayeux, and it was love at first sight there, too. Creamy yellow sandstone buildings, ancient, narrow cobblestone streets, a gorgeous cathedral.  It was one of the prettiest cities I had ever visited.

If Bayeux wasn’t already wonderful enough, I discovered walking around town that when it came to restaurants, I was spoiled for choice.  It took a while, but finally I elected to have dinner at a place where I could have some of those delicious mussels in curry sauce.

It was a cozy place, with the tables quite close together.  To my left, there was a French couple who were very polite and very patient with me as we exchanged a bit of small talk in their language.  On my right side was a German family complete with two adorable dogs, one of whom put his paws in my lap and gave me kisses. The family was friendly and we were able to speak a little as well, in French — a second language for both of us.

After my day on the Normandy coastline – the French soil where that watershed battle between Americans and Germans known as D-Day had taken place – Bayeux had brought me back to a happier time: now.  The French, the Germans and my American self all enjoyed our food and wine together, and there was only friendship amongst our tables.

It was just what I needed to reaffirm that goodness and the human spirit can – and always will – prevail.

After a heavenly sleep that night, in the bed that was way too cool for me, I was ready the next morning for a day of balls-to-the-wall sightseeing that would make any “12-countries-in-6-days” tour company proud.  I hit the ground running, starting with a hot-footed trek through the Bayeux Cathedral.  While perhaps not as storied or famous as Notre Dame or Rouen, it is exquisite, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, and worth every moment of the eight and a half minutes I spent touring it before heading onto the next stop, which was a biggie:  The Bayeux Tapestry.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this iconic piece of needlework, especially what sort of reaction I would have to it.  Like most people, I find that when something is historic, legendary, and altogether a huge deal, it’s a real roll of the dice whether or not it can live up to one’s expectations, and what sort of response it will elicit.

Take the La Brea Tar Pits, for example.  One would be lead to believe, simply from Bugs Bunny’s insatiable quest to see them, that they would be “all that”.  Not so.  As many of us have learned upon making that pilgrimage, it’s really a pretty serious letdown.  Yes, the Tar Pits have geological significance (luckily for everyone’s sake, I can’t expound on what it is).  But, for me at least, the whole thing looked like nothing more than a pond with a cloudy black puddle in one corner.  I found myself more excited over a random pool of tar that had broken through the asphalt in the parking lot.

As for its power to inspire awe, the Bayeux Tapestry seemed a bit iffy, and so I prepared myself to be underwhelmed.

Happily, I found the tapestry to be both exceptionally beautiful and interesting, impressive in its scope (but who wouldn’t be dazzled by 68 meters, or 230 feet, of intricate needlework), and I applauded not only its artistry, but marveled over the amount of effort it must’ve taken to produce the piece.  I was so taken with it, in fact, that I even lingered over the tapestry for longer than the allotted fifteen minutes I’d given it – to the point of robbing myself of precious time in the gift shop – before I headed out to where Claire the car was waiting to get on the road to Falaise, our next stop.

As I steered Claire out of Bayeux, I got it into my head to switch the accent on the navigation system from British to Australian.  I was now on Day Five of my isolating Time in the Car, without even Cornelia and Emily to keep me company.  After St. Valery-en-Caux, I had veered off their path, with every place I visited a detour I had designed for myself.  These were my travels.  I was on my own, and wouldn’t meet up the girls again until I returned to Rouen.

Seeing as how I’ve always had a soft spot for Aussies, I figured it would be nice to have someone from the land down under keeping me company as I drove.  With just a little bit of imagination, an Australian navigator could perhaps start to feel like a companion, almost-kinda-sorta like having a boyfriend in the car, riding shotgun and sharing the journey with me.

At first, it was nice.  But soon, I began to feel like my Aussie boyfriend wasn’t so much navigating, as he was telling me how to drive.  Which I really didn’t care for.  Whether it was something about the accent, the voice of the speaker, or just my imagination, it really seemed as if the Aussie was second-guessing my driving.  He began to irritate me, and I grew increasingly annoyed with him each time he told me to turn here or stop there.  It wasn’t long before I had to pull Claire over to the side of the road, and go back to my reliable British butler/navigator.

Still, we made good time to Falaise.  The town of Falaise is famed for its statue of William the Conqueror and his predecessor Dukes of Normandy.  Being a descendant of William the Conqueror – one of many, many millions of descendents – this visit to my grandfathers’ statue was a sort of mini-pilgrimage.  Leaving Claire at the first certain parking space I could locate, I made my way through town over to the square where the monument stands.  Just a few steps away, there was a mammoth castle which perhaps needed exploring.  I took a few minutes to study the figures who encircled William the Conqueror, as well as the Big Duke himself, before making a start towards the castle entrance.  Thankfully, cooler heads quickly prevailed and I chose instead to blow it off.  After all, I’d already done a cathedral, a tapestry and a statue today.  And I can take only so much culture before “museum legs” set in.  That’s what Cornelia and Emily call it.  They suffered from this affliction during their travels as well.

Plus, I still had miles to go before I slept.  So I hustled back to Claire the car and got on the road to Combourg, a neighboring town to Mont St Michel, which I would be visiting the next day.

Full disclosure:  I stopped at a McDonald’s on the way to Combourg.  Yes, in France.  I was in France, with all of that fabulous French food, and I went to McDonald’s.  In my defense, I need say only this:  Coke with ice, free wi-fi, and a respectably clean restroom stocked with toilet paper.

And a parking lot for Claire.

It had been a hectic day, but I managed to make it to Combourg while it was still afternoon.  Combourg turned out to be a handsome little town. The hotel I had booked turned out to be quite nice, with an unexpected sort of New England feel to it, and I managed with half-French, half-English to communicate with the staff.  I was finding that as time went by, at least I wasn’t including as many Spanish words in my sentences as I had been early on.

This was my third town in six hours.  Not normally the way I travel, but sometimes a full-on, hardcore tourist day is called for.  I got to set my own schedule and go anywhere I wanted to.  And it was all made possibly by Claire and my navigational butler (with help from the overbearing Aussie as well, I suppose).

 

Photos:

Above:  Looking up to the statue of William the Conqueror from the base.  In the foreground is William Longsword, his great-great-great-grandfather.

Below:

Top Row:  The Villa des Ursulines, second from the left (my room spans the three windows on the second floor); my way cool hotel room; no, it’s not a movie set, it’s Bayeux.

Bottom Row:

An imposing bit of the Bayeux Cathedral; the Cordeliers’ Gate, part of the ramparts surrounding the city of Falaise (Claire the car can be seen waiting outside the gate); photo-op with some of my kin (a small hint of the massive castle can be seen to the right of the statue).

People Places

Know Where You Stand: In the Footsteps of Heroes

July 14, 2017

Le quatorze juillet, or the 14th of July.  French Independence Day or, as we Americans call it, Bastille Day.  Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough, after being blasted out of their beds by celebratory cannon fire, spent their Bastille Day in 1922 on a remote hillside near St. Valery-en-Caux waiting for the big gun to stop firing.  In the evening, they attended a fete along the seaside promenade, where they danced with the locals into the wee hours.  It proved to be one of their favorite memories from their summer abroad – their own “Summer of Independence”.

Ninety-five years later, there was no cannon fire to roust me from my sleep, and there didn’t seem to be any activity in St. Valery to suggest that there was to be a party on the promenade.  So I felt perfectly fine about stepping out of the girls’ footsteps, leaving St. Valery to celebrate without me, and spending my July 14th with the American heroes who gave their lives so that French independence could still be celebrated today.  Offering a brief apology to Cornelia and Emily for pulling them away from their fun, I invited them to come with me, even though where I was going didn’t exist during their travels, or even when they penned the book in 1942.

I would be taking the girls with me to June 6, 1944 – D-Day – and the beaches of the Normandy invasion. 

My first stop:  the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer.  I began my visit with a tour of the museum, which was a moving experience from start to finish, yet there is one thing which stands out in my memory above anything else:  In a display case captioned, “What They Carried With Them”, along with personal items and some tins of rations, there were two copies of Armed Services Editions of books.

In an earlier post, I shared the poignant story of the Armed Services Editions, pocket-sized copies of classics and popular books which were distributed to American troops, and how they contributed greatly to the morale of the soldiers, offering them an escape from the war.  Our Hearts Were Young and Gay was one of the books selected to be sent to the troops and, remarkably, would end up figuring in a story from D-Day.  Recounted by Private Robert Healey, who had taken part in the Normandy invasion, the anecdote involves his return to Omaha Beach the day after D-Day, where he came across a fallen soldier, arm outstretched, and how just a few feet from the soldier’s hand was a copy of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  That tiny footnote in history is the main reason I wanted Cornelia and Emily with me for this part of my journey.

Spotting the two ASEs in the display case, I didn’t register what the books’ titles were.  Just them being there meant so much to me – they certainly didn’t have to be copies of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. Those books had been important to a couple of the young men who crossed that day.  I just prayed that the books’ owners weren’t beneath any of those headstones outside, but I feared that it was what the books’ presence signified.

Leaving the museum, I found outside that the day couldn’t have been more beautiful – sunshine with a light breeze and an occasional puff of a white cloud drifting across the sky.  But even its loveliness couldn’t ward off the heart-wrenching sadness of the cemetery filled with American soldiers.

Though I had steeled myself and braced for the hit, I wasn’t prepared for the scope of what I was seeing, and I felt as if my breath had been knocked out of my body. 

Containing the graves of over 9,000 soldiers, the cemetery is located on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach.  Its gently curving hillside slopes so that you can’t see an end to the headstones which mark the resting places of the soldiers – the crosses and Stars of David seem to go on forever.  A painful forever.

It is worth noting that the grounds of the cemetery are captivatingly beautiful, and immaculate.  A place worthy of honoring these greatest of heroes.  For a time, I walked in and out of the rows upon rows of grave markers, stopping occasionally to read them.  There were boys from every state.  Some had been killed that very first day, June 6, 1944, while others had died days or weeks later from their injuries.

I felt compelled to walk the perimeter of the entire cemetery, around each of the four corners, in order to pay at least a passing visit to every grave.  In the far corner, away from any nearby visitors, I cried for the young men who had died and then remained so far from home.  I cried for their lost potential, and for the pain their families had to bear.

I thanked them for what they had done.  They had fought for the most noble cause in human history.  They stood up against the greatest, most far-reaching evil the world had ever seen, and they saved us.  I told them I was so sorry they had to do it.  And I said a prayer and a blessing for them to rest in peace.

And then I remembered the soldier who had died on Omaha Beach with the copy of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay next to his hand.  It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment, but I suddenly understood that he was somewhere in the cemetery, under one of the headstones.  Now my visit had become personal, about one young man in particular who had lost his life on June 6, 1944.  I wished that I could have known which headstone was his, and who that young man was.  But, really, he was all of them.

The day was slipping away, and there was still Omaha Beach to visit.  I only wished that I had allowed more time, and could have visited everything there was to see in this area teeming with history.  I would just have to come back again.  I was glad to have that on my to-do list.

It was a short drive from the cemetery to the beach, and soon I was making the turn onto the “Rue de la 1st Division”.  When I arrived, there were still loads of people out enjoying a day at the seaside, in the water and relaxing on the beach.  I parked at the top of a hill near the memorial to the 1st Division, and then walked down to the obelisk honoring those heroes.  Stopping there, I said a prayer of thanks to those young men who truly, literally, stared into the guns, unflinching and unrelenting.  Near their memorial stand remains of Nazi bunkers, where German soldiers mowed down those Americans as they tried, and eventually managed, to advance.  Seeing those bunkers got my blood up, and I spit on one of them on my way down the hill to the beach.

As I took my last steps down the slope and started towards the water, I met up with a golden retriever who was wandering around some old bit of bunker sticking out of the sand.  I stopped and petted the sweet fellow, then walked a few feet on, where I waded into a shallow pool made by the low tide.

Looking out at the Channel, it didn’t take much effort to see the landing crafts, and the soldiers coming towards shore.  I could feel them around me, running past me in the sand, and almost hear their voices and the noise of the guns, almost smell the smoke. They are still there.  Those brave young men invested too much of their souls into this place to just dissolve into the past.  I asked myself, what must the soldiers think of all these people here now, who are so carefree and unaware of their enduring presence on this sacred ground?

But then it occurred to me that perhaps – just maybe – this is the best way to heal the wounds of the past.  We move forward in joy, in peace, and in hope, filling the beaches of D-Day with laughter again.  Picnics, flying kites, playing in the water, soaking up the sunshine.  Hopefully it brings those soldiers some comfort.  It is what they would have wanted for themselves and their families.  Perhaps in its way, it is a tribute to the soldiers’ sacrifice.

After a while, I turned and looked back across the beach to the hillside, deliberately choosing to keep myself in the present moment.  I couldn’t bring myself to envision the young men attempting to cross the beach, some of them losing their lives, with the smoke and gunfire all around.

That young man with the copy of Cornelia’s and Emily’s book had fallen somewhere here in the sand where I now stood.

Fighting to remain in July 14, 2017, I focused on the families enjoying the beach, happy and relaxed, basking in the beautiful day.  And I watched delightedly as my golden retriever buddy made the rounds, saying hello to everyone he encountered.

Before I left, I wrote “Thank you” in the sand.  I wanted to make sure that the soldiers knew, even by my one little gesture, that they were remembered.  And with that, I put on my shoes and climbed back up to the memorial, taking the same hill those brave young men had taken.  It was my very humble way of honoring their courageous efforts and their fight.

Though my experience on this day was a world apart from Cornelia’s and Emily’s July 14th, my Bastille Day had proved to be one of my favorite memories from the entire journey.  Just like their Bastille Day had been for the girls.  Funny how it all comes around to that marvelous, strange synergy.

And I was glad I had asked Cornelia and Emily to come along with me.  Though their travels and their book pre-date this watershed moment in history, they are tied to this place by the soldiers who read, and were hopefully cheered by, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  Still, on this day, my focus wasn’t on the girls or their book, and I didn’t follow in their footsteps.

Instead, I walked in the footsteps of heroes.

 

Photos:

Above:  The grave of a “A Comrade in Arms known but to God”.

Below:

Top Row:  Along with their cigarettes and rations, soldiers carried ASEs to D-Day; fresh flowers of remembrance for a soldier on the seventy-third anniversary of his death.

Bottom Row:  A bright and beautiful boy enjoying the day; looking across what must’ve seemed like miles of open terrain.

The title for this post comes from photographer Seth Taras’ iconic ad campaign for The History Channel, “Know Where You Stand” (below is one of his images from Omaha Beach, otherwise known as Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer)

Things

When “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay” Went to War

June 29, 2017

The pocket-sized Armed Services Edition of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay

And now, a brief timeout from my travels to share a bit more of the story surrounding Our Hearts Were Young and Gay

In December 1942, when Cornelia’s and Emily’s book was published, America had been at war for over a year, and the country was galvanized to not only supply the troops and arms needed to defeat Germany and Japan, but to support in any way they could the soldiers fighting on those fronts.

A number of New York’s largest publishing houses had formed the “Council on Books in War”, as a response to reports that had been coming out of Germany for almost ten years of state-sanctioned book burnings.  The Nazi campaign to obliterate any literature they deemed “un-German” was so pervasive that it is estimated, by the end of the war, Germany had destroyed over 100 million books.

The Council on Books came up with a plan to supply American soldiers with books, not only for entertainment and to boost morale, but to fight against Hitler’s “war on ideas”.  Working within the severe paper rationing restrictions which had been in place ever since the US entered the war, the Council designed small paperback versions of popular books which could be sent overseas.

Printed on magazine paper, the books, known as Armed Services Editions (ASEs), could withstand damp weather conditions and rough handling better than traditional books.  They were lightweight and cut to the exact measurements of a soldier’s uniform.  Smaller books were designed to fit into a soldier’s pants pocket, while larger books fit exactingly into the shirt’s breast pocket.

Beginning in September 1943 and continuing until 1946, the Council printed and the US government supplied over 123 million copies of 1,227 different book titles to the troops.  The selections included both fiction and non-fiction books, with genres ranging from history to humor, thrillers to romance, great works of literature to current bestsellers.  Instantly, they became widely popular with the troops, as Molly Guptill Manning explains in When Books Went to War:

“… Armed Services Editions… were everywhere:  servicemen read them while waiting in line for chow or a haircut, when pinned down in a foxhole… They were so ubiquitous, one sailor remarked that a man was ‘out of uniform if one isn’t sticking out his hip pocket’… Books of humor made them laugh when there was nothing funny about their circumstances.  Tales of life back home transported them to the places they missed and hoped to see again.  By reading, the men received the closest thing to a respite from war.”

“With books in their pockets, American GIs stormed the beaches of Normandy, trekked to the Rhine and liberated Europe; they hopped from one deadly Pacific island to the next, from the shores of Australia to the backyard of Japan.” — Molly Guptill Manning

Having spent five weeks at number one on the New York Times Bestseller List at the beginning of 1943, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay was selected as one of the titles to be printed in the second series of books being sent to the soldiers in October 1943.  Emily would write to the Council on Books to thank them for the honor, stating that she and Cornelia were more proud of the Armed Services Edition than of being chosen as a book of the month.

And do you know, as it would turn out, this sweet, funny story of two girls traveling to Europe in 1922 would be such a hit with the battle-hardened GIs that it would be reprinted and sent to the troops again in February 1945?

What’s more, there would be, not just one, but two anecdotes which would emerge from the war about the ASE version of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  The first was recounted by Private Robert Healey, who had taken part in the Normandy invasion.  On returning to Omaha Beach the day after D-Day, he came across a fallen soldier, his arm outstretched, and just a few feet from his hand was a copy of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.

On the other side of the world, a similar story would come from Saipan, by a Captain J.H. Magruder, who wrote to the Saturday Evening Post about coming across a fallen marine with an ASE sticking out of his pocket.  The book was Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  This incident would later be taken up by Hollywood, and fictionalized in the John Wayne movie, “The Sands of Iwo Jima”.

It’s astonishing that, with over 1,200 different books distributed to the soldiers, there should be two of these accounts involving Cornelia’s and Emily’s book and, as far as I could find, no similar anecdotes about any of the other ASE titles.

Especially given that, on its surface, Cornelia’s and Emily’s book seems like an odd choice to send to the soldiers.  But then again, in between those most-welcome, laugh-out-loud moments, the book must have also served as a reminder of better times, of what the boys were fighting for.  And the lively, lovely England and France that Cornelia and Emily had captured was very much worth fighting for, a world very much worth saving.

Which is what those young men did.  We can never thank them enough for that, but we can try.  Thank you, boys.

It’s amazing where a story can take you.  When I started out to follow the journey of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, I was completely unaware of its compelling connections to World War II.  I use the plural “connections”, because there is a strange flip-side to this tale, which involves that mysterious trip to the Bletchley Park archives.

I will divulge the rest of that story in my next post.

 

(With many thanks to Molly Guptill Manning, author of “When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II”, for telling this little-known story.  Many of the details I’ve included here are taken from her beautifully written book.)

Left: A first edition and an Armed Services Edition, both complete books.  The pocket-sized ASE is 3/4″ thick.

Right: A display case at the American Cemetery in Normandy, captioned “What They Carried With Them”, containing copies of Armed Services Editions.