Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the month “November, 2019”

Freeway Free in France: the other national cemeteries of Normandy

20190605_093503docWe are all familiar with pictures of the American Cemetery in Normandy, with its rows of white crosses stretching into the distance.  I had not known that the United States was the only combatant in World War II which offered families of its dead an option to repatriate their remains for burial in the US.  The nine thousand plus graves at the American Cemetery are only a third of the fallen.  These are those soldiers who had no family, or whose families lacked means or desire to hold funeral rites at home, so they preferred to let the government bury their dead.

Soldiers from other countries were buried near where they fell. There is a cemetery for Commonwealth soldiers in Bayeux, with tombstones rather than crosses.  There is a Canadian cemetery near Caen.  And, most ironically, there is a German cemetery. at LaCambe, also near Bayeux.

The German cemetery is quite different in look and feel from the rows of white marble favored by the victors.  One enters the cemetery through what seems like a large arch, but once inside, the spacious entrance gives onto a small room with a memorial wall on one side and a listing of the cemetery’s occupants on the other. Exit into the cemetery is through a narrow and low door.  The symbolism, we were told, is that the soldiers entered the war as a group, but died individually, one by one.

The central feature of the cemetery is a tumulus which contains the remains of mostly unidentified German soldiers, topped by a black lava cross and two human figures, one of Jesus, the other of Mary.  Scattered around the grounds are groups of black crosses, some slightly larger than others.  The individual graves are marked by brown plaques laid flat in the grass, each bearing the names of two German soldiers, with their dates of birth and death, and sometimes merely the inscription “Ein Deutcher Soldat”. The plaques are made of German clay.

In school we learned Rupert Brooke’s elegy “The Soldier” which begins

If I should die, think only this of me:
      That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
France has ceded the land which contains the World War II cemeteries to the respective nations which maintain them.  (Thus President Trump acted as host for ceremonies on D-Day at the American cemetery, arriving first and greeting French President Macon and his wife as guests.) It is sobering to realize that this corner of France will be forever Germany, peacefully coexisting in death with its former enemies.
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Freeway Free in France: Tales of War in Bayeux

20190604_154859docBayeux was the first French city to be liberated by Allied Forces.  Troops marched into the city on a street bordered with cheering townsfolk who waved French and American flags, and offered kisses from happy young women and fresh baked treats from older ones.  The Germans evacuated so quickly that they had no time to organize a defense, so the most of the medieval structures remained intact.

20190604_134313webWe first stopped at Bayeux Cathedral, with its mix of old and new stained glass, its ornate Gothic verticality, its mystic paintings decorating the crypt beneath the alter.  The apse was decked in French tricolor, British Union Jacks, Canadian maple leafs,  and American stars and stripes.  Behind the altar there was a large concert band practicing for Prince Charles’ visit the following day (Wed. June 5).  This was a truly excellent brass ensemble, plus some woodwinds and tympani.  The sound reverberating through the cathedral was thrilling.  One piece was “The Spitfire Overture” and another, appropriate for a visiting Brit, was the lovely, noble main theme from “Jupiter” from “The Planets” by Gustav Holst.  My partner, a music-lover with bad knees, stayed in the church for the whole rehearsal while I wandered around the side chapels and lower levels.

20190604_145313webRight across from the cathedral is an old store front set us as a Lace Museum, with lovely examples of the prototypically Breton/Norman craft.  Unfortunately, I have since read that the Lace Museum is in danger of being closed, as it is funded by the city of Bayeux and patronage has been light.  So don’t forget to stop in!

Just down the street is a more modern museum of Breton arts and crafts, housed in a former bishop’s palace, with lovely landscape paintings, more lace samples, and a well-stocked gift shop offering post cards and booklets about the medieval city, its role in World War II, and its artistic heritage.

20190604_161740webOf course, Bayeux is most famous for that other artifact of war, the Bayeux Tapestry, now displayed beautifully in a circular museum which allows the entire 200 feet of  embroidered cloth to be shown, accompanied by an audio commentary provided through headsets to each visitor.  (This device not only fills you on details a guidebook may have overlooked, but it artfully keeps the visitors moving forward as the audio commentary moves forward to the next panel.  No pause button. ) Notice the way the borders complement the action, with dead and dying soldiers, archers, and mythic beast bordering the action-packed cavalry sequences.  The Bayeux tapestry is like an early graphic novel, with leading characters easily identified by distinctive dress or hair, and scenes of ribaldry aleternating with the diplomacy and bloodshed.  Definitely a Don’t Miss!

Freeway-Free in France: Ceremonies (LATC July 3, 2019, for our Veterans)

20190606_102633docI had the good fortune to be among the 12,000 + invited guests at the 75th anniversary ceremonies commemorating the D-Day landings in Normandy.

All 12,000 + guests were brought in by shuttle buses from staging areas in nearby towns (except for the VIPs, like Presidents Macron and Trump and their supporting cast, who arrived by helicopter). The security lines were long, but we passed the time checking out the helicopter arrivals, and applauding the mostly wheelchair-bound, heavily be-medaled D-Day survivors as they wheeled past on the way to the VIP tent.

20190606_114147cropWe were among the last 4000 to arrive at the American Cemetery, and the stage and podium seemed several football fields away in the distance.  But giant Jumbotron screens gave us close up views of Air Force One (both jet and helicopter) and its occupants as they landed, and of President Trump’s ceremonial greeting of guests President and Mrs. Macron onto what is considered American soil.

When we took our eyes from the screens, we looked out over a sea of white crosses, each decorated with a  American and a French flag,  stretching beyond the audience area for even more hundreds of yards. So many dead buried in tidy rows, as if drawn up for a regimental parade. An occasional Star of David marked a grave instead of a cross. A rare cross with gold lettering indicated a Medal of Honor recipient. An occasional soldier is “known only to God.” It seems right that all the soldiers are equal in death, except for those singled out for their valor.  The son of a US President has the same marker as an unknown soldier.

Before the speeches, national anthems were sung.  During the speeches, 12,000 people listened quietly.  President  Macron thanked the veterans who were present in English, and presented four of them with the French Legion of Honor (including air kisses on both cheeks).  President Trump told stories of the heroics of two D-Day soldiers, then turned to shake their hands personally on the stage.

Afterward, the ceremony continued.  We heard taps played by a distant trumpet, followed by a 21- gun salute, delivered by three mighty howitzers aimed out over Omaha Beach. Five fighter jets flew over in the missing man formation. A platoon of other military aircraft filled the sky, emulating the flocks of fighters and bombers on D-day.  Finally, a second squadron of nine jets, trailing red, white, and blue contrails, roared across the sky.20190606_130439doc

The whole event was both humbling and satisfying.  We had paid appropriate homage to those who fought for us, and in doing so honored those who are still fighting.

Our French guide had told us that, in France, the D-day landings are never referred to as an invasion.  Instead, they were the forces of liberation. Tomorrow, if this piece is published on schedule, will be Independence Day.  Let’s celebrate our own liberation with due ceremony, while remembering those we owe it to.

[Article first published in the Los Altos Town Crier this summer;  still appropriate as Veteran’s Day approaches.]

Freeway Free in California – Adventures up the Empty Coast – Day 2 (continued)

IMG_0251docThe weather was perfect: warm, no fog or wind, as we left Hearst Castle.

We meandered up Hwy. 1, ooh-ing and aah-ing alternately at the gorgeous scenery and at the huge scars on the hillsides marking the winter landslides of several seasons. South of tiny Gordo men were still working to clear a large slide – the influx of workers must have been a boon to the intesnsely cute Whale Watcher’s Café which dominates the one-block town.

Fountains of invasive pampas grass flaunt their rusty pink plumes all over the scarred hillsides. It’s clear that they have gotten the jump on native vegetation, but one must be thankful for any roots that will hold back more landfalls. Not encouraging to start the trips with a sign saying “Rock Slide area – next 60 miles.

We snuck into the Los Padres National Forest’s Plaskett Creek Campground despite the signs saying “Campground Full,” and ate sandwiches and chips we had bought at the Hearst cafeteria/deli. The group camp, with a beautiful ocean view, was deserted at midday, except for a group of grackles generaled by jays which hovered ever closer to our crumbs. Then after our lunch, only about 500 yards further down the road we saw a sign for “Beach and Picnic Area”. Our lunch tasted better for being illicit, though.


20191002_125717docFurther up the road there was an even bigger slide, with an obviously temporary one-lane road perched nervously across the new ground. But it was fascinating to watch the big diggers roaming and scooping  atop huge mounds of dirt and stone. And that road remains a marvel of impossible engineering, spectacular vistas, and a maddening plodding pace behind the inevitable road boulder, often a “Rent-Me-RV” whose first-time RV driver is scared to death of his rig and the road.  And they won’t pull out to let the long line of vehicles behind them to pass, which is the law, or, if it isn’t, there oughta be.20191002_132921doc

And finally we made it to Big Sur, with its redwoods, its fire-scars, its resorts both humble and ostentatious nestled in the piney woods.  Only another hour of gorgeous scenery to go before we hit the traffic and tourists of the Monterey Peninsula.  It’s been a great ride.

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