I remember years ago when I was living in Washington D.C. waking up on a Memorial Day morning (okay, fine afternoon…it was the afternoon, judgers) and deciding to take a walk down the National Mall to all the memorials. It was an odd decision for me to go by myself as I am a social creature by nature, but for some reason I bucked the trend this day and headed out the door solo. I knew that it would be crowded but it was a beautiful day and it seemed like a nice gesture to go and pay my respects.
Now, I had been living in Washington for a while at this point and it certainly wasn’t my first time visiting the memorials but for anyone who has ever gone, you know, every time feels like the first. Walking through those beautiful and haunting structures always makes my heart ache while, at the same time, instilling in me a profound, sometimes overwhelming, sense of gratitude.
This particular Memorial Day I found myself blinking back tears as I slowly made my way through the throngs of people at each memorial, veterans embracing each other, families laying down flowers, tourists giving silent “thank-yous”.
Slowly, I walked through the Vietnam Memorial, reading names and trying to think about each one of those men…boys…men? Even at that time I was older than so many of them had been. There were people everywhere, having hushed conversations, taking rubbings of names, holding each other’s hands. It is funny the things you notice, how sometimes your brain seems to shine a light on something or someone in the midst of a crowd. “Why them,” you wonder later, “why did I notice that particular thing?”
To my right there was a man with a young boy, maybe 5 or 6 years old. The man was crouching down and asking the boy, “do you see that name, do you see it?” The boy shook his head and his Father picked him up and placed his hand on the name etched into stone. Small hands traced the letters, fingers fitting into the grooves.
“Who was he,” the boy asks his Father.
The Father takes a beat as he holds his child in his arms, both of them looking at this name.
“He was my friend,” he says.
The simplicity of that statement devastated me and even now, nearly a decade later, I can still remember it and feel the power of those words.
It has been an interesting feeling for me, living in France over the past 2+ years. History is so alive here, stories, tragedies, wars, are all so much more tangible in daily life. In every village there is a Memorial for WWI and often the newer names that were added such a short time later during WWII. You can hardly turn a corner in Paris without seeing a plaque reminding you of what happened on said spot so long…yet not so long, ago. In Grenoble, there are reminders of The Resistance everywhere and just down the street from my apartment is a memorial for twenty such men who were lined up and shot on its place just a few short months before the end. I think about those men a lot. Did they live in my neighborhood? Were they from the mountains? Were they from other countries? I read their names and I think, “You were someone’s friend.”
I spent much of my life hearing stories of wars, of sacrifices people made, of horrors that people lived through. One of my Grandfathers fought in the Pacific during WWII and was on the U.S.S. Franklin when a Japanese pilot dropped bombs that blew the ship in half. What an odd sensation it must be, to live your life knowing that you just happened to be standing on the right half of a ship one day. My next-door neighbor, a Jewish German lady, had stories as well but only told them to me in our last conversation before she died. My Great-Grandfather had been in France during WWI and was here when the Armistice was called* and my other Grandfather was here during WWII, fighting with Patton in the final years of the war. How many friends they all must have had!
I think about myself living in a country that two generations of my family fought for. I think about the friends I have made here…did someone from my family, long ago, help yours? Did someone from your family provide a meal or shelter to a young man whose arms I would later run into as a little girl? I recently discovered that I have a dear friend here whose Grandfather also fought with Patton; he was in the French military in North Africa. The chances that her Grandfather and mine ever met are slim to none; they were in different theaters…but still, still, there seems something so beautiful to me that these two men who did something so scary at the same time, fighting for the same thing, for the same commander should have grand-daughters who somehow stumbled across each other in this large and cumbersome world, grand-daughters who became friends in the very place that they and their many friends shed blood for.
I like to think of these two young men, to imagine it. Maybe at a field hospital, maybe some point during leave, or if there is any likelihood at all, maybe in Paris after it was all over…
I can see it in my mind, streets crowded with loud-talking soldiers, jubilant French running and embracing one another, hands being shaken, backs being slapped, streets flowing with champagne and wine and sheer unbridled…finally, unbridled…joy.
A young French man sits alone in a café amidst all the insanity. Somewhat awkwardly, an American soldier approaches him.
“Bonjour,” he says in a horrible accent. “Sorry, that’s all I got.” He is sheepish but friendly.
The French soldier gives him a smile. “This is okay,” he responds. “I have English.”
“Would it be alright if I join you,” the American asks him. “My buddies are off god-knows-where and this place is packed and I don’t know a soul. I just want to get a drink.”
“Bien sur,” says the Frenchman before correcting himself, “Of course.” He holds his hand out as the young American falls like a sack of potatoes into the chair.
The American holds out a pack of Lucky Strikes to the Frenchman who takes one with a smile.
The Parisian waiter comes over and asks what they would like. After a discussion about what is available they decide on a beer and a glass of wine.
“Boy, I’ll tell ya,” the American says. “I’d do just about anything for a Jack Daniels right about now!”
“Jack Daniels,” asks the Frenchman.
“Tennessee Whiskey. Tennessee, “continues the American, “That is where I’m from.”
The Frenchman nods.
“What about you,” asks the American. “You from Paris?”
“No,” says the Frenchman, “South of here, near the mountains.”
The American nods silently, they are both thinking the same thing, wondering what he will find when he returns home. The waiter comes and sets their drinks down.
“Ah,” the Frenchman says, smiling. “Nothing can be too bad when there is a drink in your hand, eh?”
The American laughs and slaps the table, “Ya got that right!”
The knock each other’s glasses.
“A toast?” The Frenchman asks before continuing, “To old friends…”
“And to lost friends,” the American add solemnly.
“And to new friends,” the Frenchman says, giving the American a nod while signaling the waiter…clearly they would be getting another drink.
I like to think that they talked the whole of the evening, sharing stories, swapping tales of home and happier times, that they shook hands when they parted, glad to have spent the night with a new pal, walking off into the darkness…never guessing that two generations later their blood kin would be doing the same thing one random evening on a side street in Grenoble.
That’s what I like to think.
This post is to all the friends – the lost, the found, and the loved. May we be ever grateful.
* This is the post referencing WWI: https://breadispain.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=167&action=edit