Honors English ¾ O
19 October 2015
A Series of Coincidences
A man ninety-four years of age strolls into the dining room. His hair is white, with a piece in the back sticking out that refused to be tamed by the comb. Dressed causally, but well put together, he finds his seat next to eighty-one year old Bertha Bailey. Being the “Mayor” of the Willows Retirement Community, it is the man’s job to welcome any newcomers, usually by an invitation to dinner.
“Hello Bertha, don’t you look just lovely tonight,” greets the man as he makes himself comfortable.
“Why thank you Harold. You look rather spiffy yourself,” responds Bertha, her large pearl necklace swinging side to side at the sudden motion.
“Why thank you,” says Harold. The waitress soon comes over to the table of two, taking orders. “The steak diner please,” requests Harold. “With extra potatoes,” he added.
“Sure thing Harold. And you for you Madam?”
“I’ll take the caesar salad,” ordered Bertha.
“Those will be out in a little bit,” says the waitress with a smile before moving on to the next table.
“So how has the move been? A little chaotic I’m sure?” inquires Harold.
“Yes, very chaotic. My brother came over yesterday to help me unpack some boxes. It was quite fitting, being Veterans Day, and him being a veteran and all. He served in the Vietnam War you know.”
“Did he really?” says Harold. Bertha nods, her shimmering necklace bouncing vigorously. Harold continues. “I happen to be a veteran myself. Served in the second World War.”
“Really? I’ve always been fascinated by World War II.”
“Well, then I have a story for you…”
I didn’t really want to be there. No one did. Most of the guys I was with were drafted. The days upon days of training were long and tiresome, but we needed it. Most of us weren’t soldiers. I met one man who was a teacher. Another was a musician. I had worked for a printing press company. A lot of the boys didn’t know how to fire a gun, never mind use one in battle. What exactly they were training us for, no one knew. At least no one of my rank. I was an infantry soldier, just like the thousands of others, American and Canadian all shipped to this bomb-devastated country. Some days were nice, the golden rays of sun glinting off officers’ badges, nearly blinding you as they pass. Others weren’t as nice, with muddy boots being a burden when you have tons of wiped out men filing into the barracks, but luckily the pounding rain blocking out the squeaking of old cots at night. Whatever the weather, the buzzing of airplanes above was a constant reminder of where I was, and why I was there.
We had just arrived at the barracks, a relief from the thick fog outside. The concrete walls of the borrowed British building we were staying in didn’t do much to keep the chilly spring air out, but at least we stayed in a building. Many of the thousands of soldiers that recently arrived in Great Britain had to stay in tents, and didn’t have the privilege we did of sleeping in cots, even if they are run-down, with holes in the stained sheets.
Just as I had finished taking off my boots, two harsh knocks come from the direction of the door, followed by the creak of the door opening on rusty hinges. A man walked in, and squinted at the sudden brightness of bare lightbulbs, coated with dust. Diverting his eyes from the light, he surveyed the room.
“Anyone here play the clarinet?” he asked the room full of tired men, surprise visible on their faces at this question. I snapped out of my confusion, and raised my hand. I played the clarinet. I fact, I had mine with me.
“Are you any good?”
“Umm…yeah. Yeah, I guess I’m pretty good,” I answered, not wanting to sound cocky, but also not wanting to be overly modest.
“Pack your stuff, you’re coming with me,” the man stated. He waited for a second to watch me start packing before he exited. I put my boots on again, and jammed everything I had with me into one big water-resistant bag, carrying my clarinet with me separately.
A few guys–including Mike Brown, a soldier from New Hampshire who I had become well acquainted with– murmured farewells to me as I left, but most were too tired to show much emotion. I found the man standing just outside of the building, the only thing visible in the darkness and fog, besides a few glowing orbs of light a few hundred yards away. He saw me, and started walking towards one of the lights. His boots squeak on the wet grass, the only sound in the abandoned area. As we approach the light, a rectangular shape became visible. The fuzzy circle of light took a more defined shape, and individual bricks of the building could be made out. Already I knew this building was much nicer than the one I was staying in.
We entered the building and followed a hallway, turn left, right, and left again, until we arrived at a large room with an semicircle several rows deep of chairs, with music stands to accompany each. A man was working at a desk piled with papers. Looking closely, I noticed that these papers weren’t your ordinary documents, they were sheet music. The man at the desk turned around to face us, removing his reading glasses.
“This soldier here says he plays the clarinet. He’s all yours now,” informed the man who brought me here. He gave me two hard pats on the back and left.
“So you play the clarinet?” asked the man at the desk, his woolly mustache moving with his lips.
“Yes, sir,” I answered, trying to sound confident.
“Do you have one with you?”
“Put it together and play me something,” he took a sip from a beat up mug of what I’m assuming is coffee, and turned back around, not having any need to watch me assemble my instrument. I dropped my bag, and started putting my clarinet together. The glossy black plastic slid easily over the cork, and I was surprised to see that despite the long journey, my reed remained unchipped. This whole time I was scouring my brain for a song I knew well, but would be enough to impress the man I assumed was the band conductor.
I decided on one, and fingered the first few notes as I went over them in my head. The conductor turned around, and seeing me ready, motioned for me to begin. Throughout the entire song the band conductor’s face never changed. I wasn’t sure how to take this, but tried to stay focused and keep playing. My tongue vibrated against the reed, the different positions of my fingers directed the air this way and that, the outcome of notes adding together to form the song I’ve known for years. Playing my clarinet brought me back to my home in Worcester, Massachusetts, where I was first introduced to music. For the first time homesickness started to hit. I stopped thinking about Worcester, and attempted to play with a difficult balance of passion, with enough to make the song sound good, but not enough to divert my attention.
I finished the song, and glanced at the conductor, not sure if I should play more. “What’s your name?” he asked, his face expressionless.
“Harold Gurwitz, sir.”
“Welcome to the band, Gurwitz,” he said, a smile broke his stoic expression.
“I’m not sure I understand sir,” I said, confused by his sudden enthusiasm.
“The regimental marching band. We need a clarinetist, and you just filled the spot.” I opened my mouth to ask something when he seemed to be done, but he cut me off. “Before you ask, that means no more training, kitchen duty, guard duty, you name it. We practice here, eight in the morning and four in the afternoon. Don’t be late. Barracks are down the hall, fourth door on your right,” he turned back around to his work.
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” I turned to leave, but turned back around. “But, sir? Am I still technically a part of my company?”
“No, Gurwitz. You’re part of the band now.” I hesitated, processing this.
“Oh, okay. Thank you, sir.”
“It’s Conductor Chamberlain.”
“Yes Conductor Chamberlain, sir.”
And that was that. I was part of the marching band. For two months we rehearsed two times a day. It felt good to be back to playing my clarinet daily, but wondering of our purpose here dominated my thoughts. For these two months we still didn’t know exactly why so much of the American and Canadian military was in Great Britain. Chamberlain was the one who finally told us the plan, right after a four o’clock rehearsal on June 4, 1944.
“Before you all dispersed, I’ve been told to inform you with the invasion plan,” announced Chamberlain. We all stopped, captified. The invasion plan. We had all guessed we were here for some type of invasion, but were clueless on the details.
“It’s called Operation Overlord. We’re sending in troops to the beaches of Normandy, hoping to break Hitler’s wall, and start the process of liberating Europe.” Silence. No one said a word, but we were all thinking the same things. So this is why the sudden increase of soldiers in Great Britain. So this is what we were training for. So this is why we couldn’t be told anything. Questions also swarmed the band members’ heads, the biggest one being, where do we play into this? The answer was soon to follow.
“Being in this band, you men are no longer a part of your previous Division. If all goes according to plan, you will be sent over after the day of the invasion.” More silence. “You’re free to go now, we’ll keep you updated.”
Max, a trumpet play from Missouri, was the first of the band members to break the silence. “Sir? When is the invasion to take place?”
“Tomorrow,” answered Chamberlain. He had explained the invasion with so much authority that I had fallen under the impression that he had known about it for the past few months. Despite this, the slight tremble in his voice as he said “tomorrow” proved that he had just been informed as well. Everyone’s spirits dropped the rest of the day. We all had so many questions, but who to ask? Conductor Chamberlain lead the band, not the army. He knew just as much as we did at that point, and there was no way to talk to General Eisenhower. We would just have to wait.
June 5, 1944
I looked outside through the tiny window with smudged glass and a broken screen to see what the weather was, but the rain drops masked everything outside. Rain drops. It was raining, rather hard, actually. Water slid swiftly down the glass, only to be replaced by more. I didn’t know much about amphibious invasions, but I had enough common sense to know that bad weather wasn’t a good sign, and I was right. We were told at morning rehearsal that the invasion had been postponed. Another day passed of waiting and wondering.
June 6, 1944
Rehearsals were canceled for the day. There was no way to get the entire band to focus. We spent most of the day huddled around a radio that announced updates of the invasion. By one in the afternoon, Omaha beach was beginning to be secured. How many men had died that day, I wasn’t exactly sure. Hundreds if not thousands. We all felt some guilt. If I wasn’t in the band, I would have landed on Omaha beach with the rest of my guys.
We practiced for thirteen days after the invasion. I tried to give it my best effort, but everyone was really just going through the motions. With most of the military on mainland Europe, staying in Great Britain felt like being stuck in time, with every day repeating itself over and over again. We needed something new. Something that in some way, big or small, had us contribute to the war effort instead of sitting around in an abandoned building playing our instruments for an army that was–literally–an ocean away.
The fourteenth day was different. We packed up our belongings and rode in army trucks to the nearest port. This was the day for us to be sent over. The boat trip across the English Channel was short, but felt like an eternity. I couldn’t stop thinking about my former company. I wanted to see them, or at least know if they were alive, but so far I had not met anyone who could have answered my questions.
The shores of France drew nearer, and make-shift allied tents and vehicles could be made out. The day was warm and sunny, ironically a perfect beach day, but the mood aboard the ship was anything but. I realized as I approached a continent dominated by Nazi forces where I was. War. Not just any war, World War II. There was never any real danger training in Great Britain, but even though Normandy was secure at D plus fourteen days, the risk of death and actual combat was all the more real.
We had gone across the English Channel in a cargo ship delivering K-rations and other supplies. The ship docked at a temporary floating dock in deep water, so the band and I were sent to the shores in row boats. These row boats appeared to be a little worn. They were very scratched up, and something written in black paint curved around the side. The paint was chipped and faded, so the words or numbers were identifiable. Seeing how much they dipped when the first person got into them, I became skeptical on the safeness of the boats. Not having any other choice, I threw in my bag and hopped in like everyone else. Thoughts of my company came back. How many were still alive? Would I get to see them? They made for a very anxiety filled ride.
Luckily, the ocean was calm and the waves small, making for an easy ride to the shore. The sun beat warmly among the golden sand of the Normandy beach. It would be a perfect scene of a beach day in France, but the signs of war made it just the opposite. Busy allied soldier activity could be seen everywhere. White tents dotted the landscape like stars in a dark winter sky. Bulky cargo ships drifted around in the water. Debris from burned and blown up Nazi bunkers was scattered along the edge of sand and soil. And the rocks. Water lapped around the bottom, but this almost motionless water was tinted red. The fighting happened fourteen days ago, and yet signs of the incredibly large causality numbers lingered. I started to feel nauseous, despite the calm sea. Could that be the blood of men from my company? I hoped not, but had no way to know for sure.
We got to shore, and a soldier that looked to be no older than twenty approached us.
“Are you guys the band?” he asked. Chamberlain (kind of like the leader of our “platoon”) was the one who answered.
“Welcome to Omaha beach,” the soldier said, stretching his arms out as to welcome us and show that we were in fact, at Omaha beach. “Follow me,” he gestured for us to follow and started walking up the hill towards the rest of the army. I ended up walking next to him, and saw this as an opportunity to ask questions.
“How did you know we were the band?” I asked.
“Well I was expecting you, but you’re pretty clean. Obviously not men ending their shift at the docks.”
“Are you part of the First Division?” I asked.
“I was, but after they found out that I speak German and French they took me out to become a translator. I came here the day after beach was secure. They said that if all went well, we’ll need some French and German speaking soldiers, so they didn’t want to risk me getting killed. I felt guilty, and offered to go in maybe the fourth or fifth wave if they wanted to reduce my chance of death, but they only wanted me going once the beach was secure.”
“I’ve heard that Omaha has the largest casualty number out of all the beaches. Is that true?”
“Yeah. Some companies got seriously wiped out. I was talking with one guy, Mike Brown, he said his company of two hundred twelve men was decimated to only thirteen alive and uninjured.”
“Mike Brown? From New Hampshire?”
“Yeah I think that’s what he said. You know him?”
“Yes. That was my company.” I had been with those men for just under two years before I was taken out to join the band. That meant I would have been with those men during the invasion, and with thirteen alive and uninjured, would have died. Wasn’t it just two months ago I had been on the same schedule as those men? Waking up early, going to bed late. Joking with them whenever an officer wasn’t looking. Sharing the cafeteria food, and making fun of each other’s “cooking,” which was considered taking food out of cans and heating it up. That led to descriptions of our all time favorite meal, as well as stories of home. Now most of them were dead. Guilt started to set in with the same forces of a New England snowstorm. It came slowly at first while I was still comprehending everything. I wasn’t sure of it all yet, but soon enough the guilt piled on more heavily, obscuring every thought. Unable to think of anything else, the words “I should have been with them” repeated themselves over and over again, taunting me to the extent of feeling nauseous again, now on land.
The translator sensed the emotional storm I was going through, and didn’t say anything more. We reached a series of seemingly unoccupied tents on a hill overlooking the ocean.
“You’ll be staying here for the time being. I’m just the guy who was supposed to bring you here, so someone else will tell you when you’re leaving and where you’re going. I’m guessing you’ll be heading towards Belgium, but I could be wrong,” he looked at Chamberlain. “You’re the conductor?”
“Yes,” Chamberlain replied.
“Come with me. We’ll find out what exactly the plan is for you guys.” Chamberlain followed the translator, leaving the rest of us to find something to do. With so much activity around us, we all felt like we should be doing something to help. That was a downside of being in the band. You didn’t do anything when you weren’t not playing, even if extra hands would be of use somewhere. We settled on a game of cards to busy our minds and our hands, but had to take turns, only having a couple decks.
Chamberlain came back alone about forty minutes later. We’re heading that way,” he said pointing north east, “to Belgium. We leave tomorrow. Everyone should get a good night’s sleep. It’s going to be a lot of walking.”
The rest of the day dragged by slowly. Not having much to do, we were all eager for a time when it would be reasonable to sleep. The last light of the sun could be seen faintly as I retreated into my tent (shared with four other men) for the night. We start our journey through Europe tomorrow. Emotions poured over me, excited, but also scared. I had not had any training in two months, and didn’t feel ready to face any unexpected Nazis. Despite the shouts of soldiers, beeping of vehicles, rumbling of tires on the rocky terrain, squawking of seabirds, and the bellowing of approaching ships, I drifted off into a deep, well needed, sorrow, and guilt filled sleep. I thought of my boys as I fell asleep, remembering each and every two hundred twelve of them. Besides these memories, one thought took up of most of my brain’s capacity: a clarinet saved my life.
⠂~ ⠂~ ⠂~ ⠂
Stavelot, did they say? The names of the towns we passed through had all become a blur. Some of them–being French–I couldn’t even pronounce. I could only remember this name because it was the one we were supposed to be stationed at. It had been a few months since D-Day, and the easy going days of being in the band in Great Britain were long gone. We were no longer the clean group of men as described by the young translator, but a group of filthy, exhausted soldiers, tired of hiking across France, and now Belgium.
An allied soldier greeted us and directed us to an old brick building, abandoned since the beginning of the war. A faded sign reading Marche’s Tannery stood out, although faded, against the old maroon bricks. This explained the horrendous smell of the inside. This building was used for tanning leather, leaving a most unpleasant scent. A flute player gagged loudly as he entered.
“You can’t expect us to stay here?” exclaimed Chamberlain to the soldier.
“Sorry, but there’s nothing I can do about it right now. I can see if anyone else can do something about it, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to stay here for at least one night,” replied the soldier, apologetically. Realizing that there was nothing we could do, we found spots to sleep, and did our best to cover our noses and breath through our mouths. The loud noise of everyone breathing heavily echoed throughout the building as we fell asleep in the quiet, and newly liberated, town.
⠂~ ⠂~ ⠂~ ⠂
The next day brought better news. Twenty-eight local families had heard of our inadequate sleeping conditions, and offered to house soldiers (two to each house). Irving Fasman (a skilled trombone player) and I arrived at the house we were to stay at that evening, after we had finished our duties. It was small, but cozy. Warm golden lights glowed through pink floral patterned curtains. Shiny green ivy wound its way around the door and windows, and even up the brick chimney. Being mid fall, smoke puffed out the chimney in clouds of gray, swirling into the sky before disappearing. Irving knocked on the door. We both held our breaths, nervous yet excited to see who answered.
It opened slowly, the warm light flooding out onto the cobblestone walkway. A middle aged woman appeared. An apron with splotches of flour on it was tied around her, and her light brown hair was tied neatly into a bun. A smile stretched across her face at the site of Irving and I.
“You must be the American soldiers! Come come, you must be exhausted. I will get you some food,” she said in a French accent, gesturing for us to come. Orange flames squirmed in the fireplace, explaining the smoke from the chimney. The lady’s husband was there to greet us.
“Welcome American soldiers!” he said as I closed the door behind me. “I am Antoine Lemaire,” said the man, reaching out his hand to be shaken.
“Harold Gurwitz,” I said, shaking his hand.
“Irving Fasman,” said Irving, doing the same. At that moment the woman entered the room carrying a large plate of food in each hand.
“This is my wife, Juliette,” introduced Mr. Lemaire.
“Please sit down boys,” we do as she said, and get handed a plate of food each. I’m afraid I stared at it for too long. A steak the size of my head was the focus of the dish. It was dark brown, tinted pink inside, and oozing red juice that spilled into the side dishes. Freshly cut French fried potatoes were piled together, crispy and warm with a fluffy white inside. Spindly green beans laid in rows, snuggly tucked against the steak. I had been living off of K-rations and canned foods for the past few months. This was a meal that had felt years away, but was now sitting right in front of me.
While I had been slobbering over the meal–fit for General Eisenhower himself–Mrs. Lemaire had gone and come back with two glasses of water.
“I have other beverages if you want,” she said kindly. “Just tell us if there is anything you boys need.”
“This is perfect,” Irving remarked.
“We can’t thank you enough,” I added.
“It’s us that should be doing the thanking,” insisted Mr. Lemaire. “If it weren’t for you, Nazi soldiers would still be roaming Stavelot’s streets.” The sound of a creak from a squeaky floorboard came from the doorway behind Mr. Lemaire, and two small heads poked out. Four big blue eyes on heavily freckled faces stared at Irving and me intently. “Francine! Raymond! Come here,” instructed Mr. Lemaire. A little boy with dark hair like his father’s bounded from the doorway to his father’s side. The girl, who is a little older, came slower, but made it eventually to the other side of Mr. Lemaire. She had the hair of her mother. Pale brown, on the verge of blond, but not quite. The boy’s eye darted back and forth quickly from Irving to me., while the girl’s eyes stayed fixed on me. After about five seconds they shift to Irving, then back after the next five seconds, continuously repeating this pattern.
“These are our children, Francine and Raymond,” said Mrs. Lemaire proudly. Irving and I smiled at them as Mr. Lemaire continued.
“Francine, Raymond, ces hommes vont être rester avec nous.”
“Sont-ils les Américains papa?” asked Raymond in French, tilting his head up to address his father.
“Oui, ils sont Américains.”
“How old are they?” asked Irving.
“Raymond is two, and Francine is four,” Her gaze hasn’t been on anything besides Irving and me this entire time.
“We kept them up to be able to meet you two, mais je pense qu’il est temps d’aller au lit,” said Mrs. Lemaire, the last part about going to bed directed towards the children.
“Bonne nuit Américains!” shouted Raymond saying goodnight before running from the room. A second or two later his heavy footsteps were heard from the staircase.
“Francine, peux-tu dire bonne nuit?” asked Mrs. Lemaire.
“Bonne nuit,” she said so quietly that it wouldn’t have been known she spoke if it weren’t for her lips moving. She left in the direction of her brother, but her footsteps were much lighter, judging by the delicate thuds that came from the stairs. For the next hour we visited with the adults, telling them about ourselves, and hearing stories from them of living in a previously Nazi controlled town. Knowing that we had a long day tomorrow, Irving and I went to bed after thanking the Lemaires for their hospitality.
“The dinner was delicious,” I told Mrs. Lemaire.
“Oh it was nothing. My sister and brother-in-law own a farm, so we get fresh meat and vegetables every day,” responded Mrs. Lemaire. She showed us to our rooms. We each got a freshly made bed, the sheets the whitest I had seen in a long time. The pillows were twice as big as the ones I have had maybe two times since arriving in France. I fell asleep fast, tired like every other day, but well fed at the same time.
⠂~ ⠂~ ⠂~ ⠂
The days that followed felt like a vacation. We ate dinner together in the dining room every evening, and ate well for breakfast too. The language barrier between the children and Irving and me was proven to be less difficult that thought. We played with toy cars with Raymond (who continued to call Irving and me “les Améicains,” despite knowing our names), and Francine started to warm up to us. She seemed to like it when Irving and me played duets on our instruments. It became a nightly routine.
For two weeks we stayed with the Lemaires. They treated us like family, making the day we had to leave especially hard. The army was pulling us out of Stavelot, and moving us back into France. We felt bad that we didn’t have anything to offer the Lemaires as a thank you gift, but they said that what we and our country were doing was enough. Eight blue eyes, two of them teary, watched us as we walked away from the house on the cobblestone path. I heard one last “au revoir Américains!” before the army truck came by, picking us up to send us to the rest of the band. The Lemaires waved at us as we drove away. I never saw a single one of them stop waving. They must have waved until we turned the corner at the end of the dirt road, watching us disappear, seemingly forever.
⠂~ ⠂~ ⠂~ ⠂
The next few months were a blur. We were tossed around from place to place. It got especially complicated and confusing after the Battle of the Bulge, which occurred one week after we left Stavelot. I had heard about the Nazis destroying the Belgian towns they forced the allies out of, and was unsure if Stavelot was one of them. After hearing about the Malmedy Massacre, I prayed every night that it wasn’t.
The months of cold weather and snowy conditions were dreadful, but before I knew it, I was discharged from the army and sent home in 1945. Upon my return home, I immediately wrote a letter to the Lemaires. A week passed with no answer. Two weeks. Three weeks. A month. Two months. Three months. A year, with no answer. There was nothing I could do, but promise myself to never forget the kindness the Lemaires showed, even in the middle of such hard times.
⠂~ ⠂~ ⠂~ ⠂
“How remarkable,” says Bertha, in awe over Harold’s story. “So you never heard back from them? Do you think they made it through the war? Did you do any research to find them after you didn’t get a response from the letter?”
“I did everything within my power to contact them, but had no luck. But that’s not the end of the story.”
“No, it isn’t. I got a strange letter last year that appeared to be from Europe, specifically Belgium.”
“Was it from…?”
“Yes, it was from the Lemaires. Raymond’s son, Serge Lemaire, actually. He had found the letter I sent seventy years ago in a box, along with pictures of Irving and me in his grandparents’ attic. Apparently the family survived the war, and Francine and Raymond are alive to this very day. Serge invited me to Stavelot, and with the help of my daughter Sharon, a reunion was organized. Sharon went with me on the trip, and we went on a river cruise along the Albert Canal, and visited London, Brussels, and Amsterdam, but the highlight of the trip was seeing the Lemaires again.
I didn’t recognize them at first, but how was I supposed to? Raymond was now seventy-two years old, and Francine was seventy-four. Antoine and Juliette Lemaire had long since passed, but it was still wonderful to see their children and grandchildren. Francine’s light brown hair was now a pale gray, short and curly. Raymond’s hair was a darker gray, and was much wispier than before. I remembered them as children vividly, but they didn’t remember me. Of course they knew I had lived with them, because their parents never stopped talking about me (said Raymond), but they didn’t remember playing on the floor with trucks, or dancing to the music of my clarinet. For them, it was like meeting someone new you had never met, but had heard so much about.
They welcomed me as if they did remember me. Once again, the language barrier wasn’t a problem. They had learned a few more words in English, and I had learned a few more words in French. We were easily able to fully express how excited we were to see each other again. They said that in the midsts of reading the letter I had sent seventy years ago, the envelope had gotten mixed in with other papers, and was either thrown away or lost, the return address being lost with it. This was the reason they never responded.
Serge it turns out, was intently fascinated by World War II. He lived in Malmedy, which was where I met up with them. We visited the museum the Bastogne Barracks, where I was given a plaque to honor me for serving in the war. I smiled and took it, but thought that there were many more better deserving soldiers to take the honor than me. Little did I know I would be given more honors for my service the next day, honors that I didn’t think I deserved.
⠂~ ⠂~ ⠂~ ⠂
We went to Stavelot the next day. Serge had planned for the Lemaire’s old house to be the first stop. It was uninhabited, but still standing, Serge told me. We arrived, and I was the first to walk up the cobblestone path, now covered with moss. No light beamed from the windows this time, and no homemade curtains shielded the inside from the outside. The ivy had grown to drape of the windows, and the door swung on rusty hinges as I opened it. Sunlight spilled into the house when the door opened. The kitchen was bare, the fireplace empty, and dust coated every bare surface.
I wandered around, making my way up to the room where I had slept in. It was just an empty room now, but I could easily remember where the bed used to be, along with the bureau, and rocking chair in the corner. It had all been removed. I lost track of the time as I went back in time. Serge was the one who brought me back to the present.
“Harold, we have to be downtown in an forty minutes for the ceremony and parade,” he said softly. Ceremony and parade? What did I do to deserve a ceremony and parade? But I follow him, because I’m sure it’s seen as rude to refuse to go to a parade in your honor.
We left the house, the house that gave me a warm bed and good food in the midst of one of the greatest conflicts of all time. Antoine and Juliette may have been gone, but I can feel their kindness and hospitality haunting the abandoned house. I turn around, and take one long last look at the house, before I’m taken away, once again, from the place that gave me so much when there was so little to go around.
⠂~ ⠂~ ⠂~ ⠂
The day passed quickly. I went to the office of the burgomaster (mayor), who awarded me with a shimmery silver key to the town, a medal commemorating the Battle of the Bulge’s fiftieth anniversary, and a certificate to thank “the GIs of the allied forces to have liberated the town of Stavelot on September 12, 1944 and driven back Nazi hordes during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.” Everyone was taking pictures, making me feel foolish, but honored at the same time.
By then the parade was soon to start, so we found a spot along the main road of Stavelot. Cars zoomed by, and marching bands of various ages could be heard from the other end of the road. Confetti was thrown, kids rode decorated bikes, but what really struck me were the flags. Belgian flags were of abundance, but there were just as many American flags. The red white and blue balanced out with the red yellow and black.
Everything came together as I saw the flags flying behind the various vehicles. I was not the one being celebrated, all of the American and other allied soldiers were. I was given an honor to the GIs of the allied forces, not Harold Gurwitz. These Belgian people were truly grateful for everything the allies did for them, and thanking me was there way of thank everyone who served.
Immediately I felt like I had another, much larger responsibility. I represented all the allied soldiers who died in World War II, including those in my company. Instead of feeling sorry for them, I should have honored them, and done more to thank them for their sacrifice. I was blessed to receive the honors in their names, and now planned to do my best to stand for the men in my company, as well as the thousands of brave men the people of Stavelot wanted to thank for everything they did.
With that thought in mind, I went back to focusing on the parade. And as an antique car drove past, I watched the three thick stripes of the Belgian flag, and the stars and stripes of the American one, ripple in the wind, and disappear down the street, and around the corner, flying together.
“Incredible. All of it, incredible,” says Bertha, breath taken by the story.
“Yes, it was quite an experience,” responds Harold. The two sit in silence for a moment, their dinners of steak and caesar salad long gone, and coffee cups now empty. A moment of silence passes.
“My my, look at the time, I better go. It’s been a pleasure having dinner with you Harold.”
“The same for you. Enjoy the rest of your evening.”
“Thank you, you too!” Bertha leaves the dining room, her necklace’s swinging synced with her strides.
Harold shuffles out of the dining room as well, thinking about the evening. Bertha is right, it really is an incredible story. But why? What makes it incredible? A lot of what happened was just a coincidence. But then again, Harold thinks, everything truly is such a series of coincidences.