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“…My Americans”

June 6, 2010

NOTE: This is a reprint of a blog I was inspired to write in 2008. I wanted to reprint it for the Anniversary of D-Day. I’m kinda proud of it. I hope you enjoy it as well.

My eyes open to my dimly-lit bedroom as sunlight just begins to appear on the horizon. I awake before my alarm clock sounds, as I seem to do on this day every year…D-Day, the 6th of June. I dress for the bitter chill of the morning and go to the kitchen to prepare my lunch. Although I’ve made my special sandwiches on other days…”comfort food”, they call it…I always make sure that I have extra sandwiches to enjoy on this day. While the sunrise still peeks through the trees, I step out the front door, locking it behind me, and make my way through the streets of Colleville-sur-Mer, France to the place where others sometimes call my second home…the American Cemetery. As I solemnly walk through the gated entry I look out along the expanse of white crosses that cover the lush green grass…I pause, draw a deep breath, and exhale slowly. Then I smile and whisper to them:

“Hello, my Americans.”

And on this day…this very special day, this very important day…I remember again.
I was a little girl when the Germans first came to my tiny French village; I was too young to remember then. I do, however, remember how scared all the adults were in those days. I remember that not a day went by that I didn’t hear wailing or screams in the distance…not a day went by where I didn’t see a woman crying silently…or a man hunched over with a look of sad despair etched upon his face. I remember the starving, the struggling, the rationing of food, water, and other personal and household items. I remember the mud and the smoke, the rats and the bugs, the gray skies and the rain…a rain that never seemed to cleanse away the grime, the filth, or the sadness. I remember my little brother always being sick, always being weak….and my Mama always crying about him while he slept. I also remember the screams of terror whenever somebody shouted out “The Germans are coming!” and the running to hide in our homes whenever those men…those scary men in the gray uniforms…marched down our street. I used to watch them from behind the wooden shutters in my room; my mother wouldn’t let us play outside when they came to our village. It became almost a routine…well-rehearsed, frequently practiced: somebody would yell “The Germans are coming!” and everybody in the village would immediately stop what they were doing and run to their homes, whereupon there would be a cacophony of doors and window shutters slamming followed by an eerie silence. Sometimes you would hear screaming or shouting…sometimes you would hear a noise from a pistol or rifle (even at my age, such knowledge was common for us children)…then eventually somebody would sound the all-clear and the people would return to the outside.

It was also common, whenever the Germans visited, for one of the children in the village to be crying because something terrible had happened to a parent or older sibling. For several years, for most of my childhood, I knew of no other way to live.

Then came that day in early June. For days and days, we saw lightning flashing and thunder booming from the Normandy coast to the Northwest of our village. Day and night, those sounds echoed in the distance. Everybody was scared and remained in their homes for days. Many times, we would hear the call of “The Germans are coming!” but we never ventured outside during those few days…and the Germans mostly passed through without incident. When the thunder and lightning finally stopped, the people…hesitant and cautious…returned to doing our outdoor chores and the children returned to playing in the streets. We never played in the grassy fields outside the village; inviting as it was, we knew it was unsafe to venture too far from our homes in case somebody called out “The Germans are coming!” And that morning seemed to be no different, as one of the older men of the village suddenly ran down the street, shouting out to the rest of the villagers. But it wasn’t the same as all the previous times: all of the times before, the warnings would come from the East and the people would immediately rush to the safety of their homes. This time the old man came running from the West…he was breathless and struggling to be as loud as possible…and there was something that resonated differently in his voice…something that seemed as different in my heart as it sounded in my ears.

He was saying “The Americans are coming! The Americans are coming!”

My first instinct, as it was with all of the other children, was to immediately run home and hide again…but this time my Mama came rushing out of the house, grabbing my hand as she met me, and pulled me alongside her as she and all the other adults in the village ran to see these “Americans” that we had been warned of. I couldn’t understand it at first…everybody was smiling, everybody was cheering, many women (and a few men) were even crying tears of joy, not sorrow. Men began to swing their caps over their heads, women began to collect the few flowers that still grew in our grim village into bundles, and parents pulled their fearful children close to them, as if to keep them from running away. Some children were even borne aloft, lifted onto their Papa’s shoulders like my sick younger brother was, and encouraged to cheer for these approaching “Americans”. When I finally could see them, as they walked up the road to our village, my fear wasn’t dispelled. They were dressed in similar uniforms…green, though, not gray…and they seemed dirty and tired. They seemed cautious and angry, their rifles pointed in our direction as they approached…but the adults in the village only cheered. They were not running away from the Americans…they were not afraid of the Americans.
It was then that a feeling came over me, a feeling that I had never felt before. It was as though somebody had cut a tight string that was tied around the heart in my chest, then poured warm, soothing water over my whole body, then covered me in a soft blanket and cradled me. It was the feeling of relief and elation that resonated through the villagers that swept over me, overwhelmed me. With a thrill in my heart and a tightness in my throat, I ran down the street to see these “Americans”, these strange men who inspired such jubilation and happiness, up close.

The first one I saw seemed to stand twenty meters tall. He stood in the middle of the street, a formidable giant of a man, and shouted out demands to the others soldiers behind him, sometimes pointing to particular houses or streets as he spoke. Instantly upon speaking in that booming voice of his, two or three American soldiers would immediately run in that direction. He was ordering them to do something…and they did it…quickly. His voice bellowed as he spoke and, for a moment, I felt the cold grip of fear creep up my back and squeeze my chest again…until he saw me. He turned his massive head towards me and his grim, intimidating eyes softened. Then across his face, a face that seemed chiseled from rough stone, the sweetest smile spread from one ear to the other…then he looked back to his fellow soldiers and shouted more orders to them in that same powerful voice. I stood there, next to that giant of a man…a man whose presence could scare away the trees…I stood next to him without a trace of fear. I felt safe next to him. I knew he wouldn’t hurt me. I knew he would protect me.

He was my American.

The next one I saw was a quiet, gentle looking man who wore round spectacles on his nose. He was a doctor of some kind, and he sat in a chair next to a table, and many of the adults either lined up to see him…or brought their children to see him…and this American would bandage their wounds or would treat their injuries. He also treated my sick younger brother. He gave some kind of medicine to my brother as my Mama kept saying “Merci, Merci” to him. As they left, my brother seemed to smile brighter than I had ever seen him smile before. The color of his face didn’t seem the same ashen, pale that I always remembered. There was almost a glowing pink to him…a healthy pink. I knew then that my little brother was going to get better. I knew that the doctor/soldier had cured whatever was wrong with him. I knew that my brother was saved by that American.

He, too, was my American.

One American was helping provide food for the children of my village. We stood in a line as the soldier sat on a stool next to a table and gave each of us special sandwiches. I watched mesmerized as the soldier would take a thick slice of bread and spread a heaping spoonful of peanut butter on one side. Then he would pick up a sharp knife in one hand and a large block of chocolate in the other. As a smile played across his face, he would watch the reaction of the child before him as he used the sharp knife to scrape chocolate shavings on top of the peanut butter sandwich he had just made. The American would playfully look at the child in front of him in mock scrutiny, then he would smile at the child and scrape just a little more on the bread. Then he would pick up the slice of bread, thick with peanut butter and a small mountain of chocolate shavings, fold it in half, and hand it to the child. He made each child feel as though they received just a little more chocolate shavings than all of the other kids…even me. And it was the best tasting sandwich I have ever had…ever!

A sandwich…that my American made for me.

I remember the day that there was somebody shooting into the village streets…a “sniper” they called him…and my friend and I were hiding, terrified, behind an overturned wheelbarrow in the street. An American soldier came running up to hide as well and sat down next to us. I saw that he was younger than any of the other Americans I had seen…almost boyish…with red hair and freckles on his nose and cheeks. I also saw that he was scared…as scared as I was. He was breathing hard and his eyes darted back and forth, as if he was frantically thinking about what to do…then he turned and looked at me. His panic seemed to melt away as he looked at me, and he smiled as he reached across with his right hand to brush the hair from my eyes and to touch my cheek. With his touch, I was no longer afraid either. He motioned for me to duck down and cover my ears as he positioned himself to shoot back at the sniper. For the next few minutes, there was loud cracks of rifles and shouts from all around me, but as I lay there curled up on the ground…my eyes closed, my hands over my ears…I was not afraid.

My American would protect me.

There was the American who led a group to help rebuild the run-down house of an old lady down the street. He was a massively built man, like a bull that stood on two legs. He looked strong enough to be able to lift the entire country of Germany with his own two hands…and hurl it into the ocean. When they had finished, the old woman cried tears of joy and said “Merci…Merci” as the mighty American soldier wrapped his muscular arms around the frail old woman and hugged her with gentleness that I could not imagine coming from so strong a man.

My strong, but gentle, American.

Then came the news that the Americans were leaving; they had to continue Eastward. Everybody in our entire village gathered to say our farewells to them. As they were leaving, I pulled a pale pink flower from out of a nearby garden…a small, withered flower…and ran towards the Americans marching away. The closest one was an American who I had only seen from a distance; he spoke French and spent most of the time talking with the adults about the villages to the East. He saw me approach and stopped. Tears welling up in my eyes, I offered up my flower to him. He knelt down, placed one hand on my shoulder, pulled me close, and kissed me on the forehead…and as he stood up again, he took the flower from me and inserted it into the netting of his helmet in the way I would wear a flower in my own hair. He then winked at me, smiled, and returned to his marching.

My American…wearing my flower.

As the Americans marched further and further away, I turned towards my tiny French village and the people who had gathered to see them leave. Many of the adults were wiping tears from their faces, as were most of the children (myself included), but their faces weren’t the same as usual; there seemed to be a light…a spark…a kind of hope in their eyes and on their faces. It was as though something that had been dead inside of them was alive again…alive and vibrant. Even the village itself seemed brighter and more alive than I had ever seen it before. I saw it…and stood transfixed for several minutes as I realized it. I saw it, and felt it, everywhere. I even felt it in myself. These Americans came and helped us…they saved us…without hesitation, without question, and without any compensation. We owed them so much for what they did for us…and I didn’t even know any of their names. I turned back again to the Americans, to shout out one last “MERCI!”…as hard and as loud as I could…for everything they had done for us. For me.
But they were too far away now for me to even see them anymore.

My Americans were gone.
I never saw any of them again.

It’s almost noon now, and I’m sitting on a bench, surrounded by a sea of white stone markers, and eating my lunch: thick slices of bread with peanut butter and chocolate shavings. A momentary break from my chores to enjoy the flavor of my special sandwiches, my “comfort food”, and to think back on those men who meant so much to that little girl. That little girl who grew to be the old woman I am today…who now volunteers to help maintain those white stone markers at the American Cemetery.

As I pull the weeds from around one of the thousands of markers, I look at a marker and ask myself: are you the towering American who smiled at me as he barked orders to the others? Are you the bespectacled American who helped treat my sick brother…who, because of you, went on to live a long, healthy life?

As I wash the bird droppings off another marker, I look at the marker and ask myself: are you the American with the sandwiches of peanut butter and chocolate shavings? Are you the young American who was scared as I was, yet still protected me from the shooter?

And as I clean up the mess from yet another bit of anti-American vandalism, I look at a marker and ask myself: are you the burly American who could throw the entire German nation into the ocean? Are you the French-speaking American with my flower nestled in your helmet?

And I smile as I know the answer: Yes…to every single one of them.

I wonder if any of you are actually buried here. I wonder if any of you made the ultimate sacrifice for us so many years ago. I hope not. I hope all of you returned home to America and lived long, happy lives. But I will never know…and that is why I’m here. Even though my old bones ache with the effort of keeping the American Cemetery as beautiful as possible, and I tire easily from the efforts of a long day, I do so with the greatest pride and gratitude. Whether you are here or not, this old woman will do her best to return the favor to you…for all that you did for us. For me.
You can rest now…for I will take care of you…

…my Americans.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 7, 2010 2:40 pm

    I thought Xian is a Chinese last name, no?

    Just curious.


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