The Early Years: My Nine Months in France

When the big green Merc pulled up in front of our new home in Etain, the plan was that we would be living in France for the remainder of my father’s three year tour, the “standard” time military personnel with families when assigned to an overseas location. As it turned out, we were there for only nine months or so.

I was older now, about 12 years old, and I was quickly enrolled in the American school, now my ninth school system since I first began Kindergarten in the early 50s. The worst part of going to all the different schools was that I was always either ahead or behind of the current school system I was attending. It was crazy!

France was an interesting time for me. Once again it seemed I had unlimited freedom on weekends and during the summers. Also that summer we went to many different sites around Etain and Verdun – sightseeing is not the right description, the visits were more like history lessons that books only hinted at. It wasn’t so much that we visited museums; the visits were to locations that had significance, human impact, places that shaped the future, for good or for bad. some of the places we visited had a deep impact on me and the emotions and images from those times are still with me to this day – they will never go away. They have remained with me either because of the beauty or the tragedy of each visit. That a 12 year old remembers events on such criteria is something I don’t quite understand.

While we visited many places, the one that stands out the most is the <;;;;;a href=”“>;;;;;Trench of Bayonets; and the <;;;;;a href=”“>;;;;;Ossuary; near <;;;;;a href=”“>;;;;;Fort Douaumont; not too far from Verdun.

The day we visited was overcast and cool. As we walked around the area my father would tell us some of the history of what happened in WW I during the <;;;;;a href=”“>;Battle of Verdun;, how horrific the battles were, the importance of the area, and how many casualties there were. Ever since I received my first library card in England before we arrived in France, I read voraciously and particularly liked reading about the history of how the United States was formed and also liked reading about European history from the medieval ages on. Reading about WW I was something I could not tear myself away – I don’t know why but I could not stop reading about it.

So, when my father was narrating while we were walking around the memorial, his words, coupled with my scant knowledge of WW I history, made the events of that time come alive to me, gave me a better understanding of what had happened near Verdun. When I saw the Trench of Bayonets while my father was telling the history I sensed the horror and fury of those times, felt the mountain of mud cascading into the trench from the unrelenting bombardment, burying the French soldiers for all time, leaving only their rifles visible above the mud.

Before we visited the battlefields and the Memorial, my friends and I would roam all over the countryside on the weekends and during the early summer. And, we knew that there was danger still in forests and fields from all the briefings the military would give everyone upon arrival and periodically during the year. As Verdun was the scene of prolonged sieges, battles, and bombardments in WW I, there still remained much unexploded ordinance in the countryside and forests leftover from that era. It wasn’t an idle threat or warning as every so often unexploded munitions would be discovered in the area and the U. S. Army Explosive Ordinance Team (EOD) would be dispatched to the site for proper disposal.

During the summer my friends and I would explore the forests around us to see what we could find. In our forays we found old pillboxes and bunkers; piles of machine gun links; an occasional rusted, bent rifles; and rusty helmets with jagged tears in them. The one thing we never came across was any bones in all the times we roamed the forests.

Whenever any bones or skulls were found in the forests or fields they were taken to the Ossuary built in the 1930s for their final resting place. While we visiting the memorial and surrounding area that day, my father took us to the Ossuary to show us what is was and what was in it. He explained what an Ossuary was and why it was here near the memorial. He then took us to a corner of the building and there, in a window barely above ground level, all you could see was skulls almost to the top of the window. It was very sobering as you realized that there were so many skulls there, that each skull was a person at one time. In many ways it was more sobering than when we walked amongst the graveyards around the memorial and all you could see in all directions was thousands and thousands of white crosses in all directions. These are scenes that are burned in my memory and I’ve often thought over the years that everyone in the world should visit places like this to see what the horrors of conflict are – perhaps it would give pause to the conflict of the world we live in.

There were good times as well. I took a music class – not to learn to play an instrument but to learn about the various types of music. While I didn’t like everything I heard I took away an undying love of Beethoven’s music and it’s still with me to this day. I had my first crush in Verdun, a senior who had a beautiful voice, dark hair and blue eyes. She was kind to me and would talk to me when we watched the football games. The military also provided shuttle bus services to the various American housing areas and we would ride the bus at night talking to each other on many nights. I also rode my first moped there and when I told my parents that I had rode one and wanted one of my own, I received a curt response of NO and not to ever ride them again. Of course, every chance I got I was out in the country side riding a friend’s moped.

The tension between my parents was getting worse and the more I could be out of the house the better off it was for me. I didn’t know what was going on but it was not good. One day in the late fall when I came home, my mother told me that my father was very ill and had been taken to the hospital for observation. I expected him back within the day and was unhappy when that didn’t happen. Soon my mother told us that he was not getting better and would be in the hospital for a while longer. As I was the oldest of the three of us, she took me to the hospital with her from time to time. Each time I saw him he was worst than my last visit. One day my mother said we had to go to the hospital right away as my father’s condition had worsened. When we arrived, I was shocked at what I saw. My father had lost weight, so much weight, he was very gaunt, delirious, and we sat there for a while talking to him, hoping he would hear us. Then all of a sudden, he became coherent, looked at my mother and me and said “hi, how are you” and then just as quick, he was delirious again. He died later that day at 37 of leukemia.

Before he was hospitalized my father had produced some radio shows that had become popular over much of France and other areas on the continent. He had produced a jazz show featuring New Orleans style jazz what had a huge following. When it was announced that he had passed away, my mother received condolences from hundreds and hundreds of people.

Soon after my father passed away, we went back to England to visit my grandparents one last time at 5 Minute Drive, Hayes, Middlesex and then boarded a Lockheed Constellation for the flight home. In an earlier post I described that we had arrived in Europe via a ship and departed on by air. I also mentioned in that post one of my first photographic moments when I saw the sun setting between two cloud layers.

On arrival in the U.S. we went to New Orleans to stay with my father’s grandparents for the funeral. As we didn’t know how long we would be there, I was enrolled in school there, my tenth school system, until we left for Albuquerque.

Next: The journey to New Mexico

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