Three of us, all Pennsylvania boys in our 20s stationed with the U.S. Army in central Germany, were planning an extended leave, the military version of vacation. It was the fall of 1971 and our original thinking tended toward the party cities of Europe. We considered Paris again, Amsterdam or the South of France. Visions of bikini-clad film starlets danced in our heads.
One benefit of military service is the recognition that not all authority is meant to thwart our good times; sometimes it is meant to protect us, preserve us, arm us with the knowledge and skills to survive in difficult or life-threatening situations. As a result, we were open to the advice of my unit’s senior non-commissioned officer (NCO), who touted the idea of camping our way along the French side of the English Channel. He spoke of the beauty of the beaches, the friendly reception afforded to visiting Americans, and insisted that it would be the “vacation of a lifetime.”
The vagabond possibilities appealed to us: no reservations, no set schedules or itinerary. We set out with our cobbled-together version of would-be-hippie, army surplus camping gear. Our vision of ourselves was sort of Kerouac-type, free-thinking world travelers, bent on tasting and enjoying the flavors and sights of a foreign culture — our own belated Magical Mystery Tour.
The trip would turn out to be brim-full of those flavors and sights. My memories of those days in Northern France are full of visuals of spectacular beaches and seascapes, rustic and elegant architectures, wonderful wines, seafoods and pastries, and a vibrant and passionate people. All of that, though, became a mere backdrop to the emotional experience we found in Normandy and Brittany.
Having camped our way along the Channel, we felt we were grizzled, intrepid explorers, but it’s certain that our white-wall haircuts, vehicle, equipment, and halting French phrases identified us as exactly what we were: American GIs on holiday.
Clues surfaced in the warmth we felt from waiters, shopkeepers, and the strangers who offered directions or recommended local options. The seachange of our tour first became obvious in a Brittany tavern, perched on an ocean cliff, nearly empty of patrons in the mid-afternoon sun.
We made friends quickly with the barkeep and his family, who served us local beverages and tossed together a lunch from a kitchen that was probably not really open at that hour. We had hardly begun to munch our plates of fruit and cheese when the place began to fill up. In the next 20 or 30 minutes, more than a dozen customers arrived, filling the barstools and cafe tables. They all greeted us, often in English, and talked to each other with the familiarity of old friends and neighbors.
When we inquired with the barkeep about this sudden influx, he explained that word got out that there were American visitors and that these customers had stopped by just to see us!
Doubtful and uncomfortable at first, we were quickly overcome by the sincerity of our welcome as it came across in charming requests to “practice my English,” informed questions about the Yankees, Pennsylvania, our service and families, and, it seemed, all things American.
The hospitality was nonstop. Toasting and well-wishing was nearly overwhelming. When we remarked on this, one of our new acquaintances explained.
“But, of course!” he said. “You are the Liberators!”
We pointed out that it was our fathers, not us, who had played that role. He acknowledged that, but saw little difference in befriending the sons of the men and women who had freed France. Had our fathers been there that afternoon, they would have been the focus of these endless toasts. In their absence, however, toasting with their sons would do just fine.
The fraternal feel of that afternoon was about to snowball into an unexpected emotional experience as we moved further along the coast.
Continue to Part II.