Friday, May 25, 2018

The Last Reunion

“God does not show favoritism." ~ Acts 10:34
Few 92-year-old, white-haired men are seen as celebrities.  But Eddie Stafford was treated like a rock star from the moment he returned to Normandy with several of his D-Day comrades.  They were some of few remaining survivors from the 1944 invasion that claimed 10,000 soldiers (Allied and Axis) on a single day.
D-Day survivors have been returning back to the sites where they fought in the war, retracing their steps across the beaches, down country roads, and across fields where cattle now graze.  But this trip was probably the last reunion because the men are all in their late 80s or 90s, and few are now able to make the trip.
For Eddie, this pilgrimage would complete a story begun long ago.  The last time he saw France it was under attack, ravaged by bombs and gunfire.  For him the prosperous farms and tidy villages of Normandy today seemed like a vindication for the sacrifices and hardships they endured as young men, proof that peace can flourish after the horrors of war.
On the last evening of their visit, their French guide took them to a local bar after a long day of touring.  The crowd seemed friendly; old friends catching up, most of them men about the same age as the US vets.
They spoke German.
A heavy silence erupted as the veterans found seats.  Anxious eyes glanced around trying to escape eye contact.  Some shifted uncomfortably in their seats grasping sweaty under the tables.  Others shuffled their feet against the cobbles of the bar floor, nervously tracing the outlines of each brick.
Whispers swirled throughout the small space.  Things were about to get interesting.
Ever since the war, American television depicted Germans as savage, dull-witted and violent.  But Eddie knew that these too were decent hard-working men doing their duty for a country they honored and loved.  He was no better, no wiser, no smarter; and just as simple to manipulate.
Eddie rose from his chair and hobbled across the room like his leg had fallen asleep.  The shrapnel he’d received from that December bombing run had never fully healed.
He introduced himself in English and struck up a conversation, the exact contents of which he’d never reveal.  But soon enough, everybody in the room was talking to each other and sharing stories.
The Germans talked about what it was like to be young and terrified that the next bomb was going to land on them.  The Americans told them what it was like to be young and frightened as they flew amid fierce anti-aircraft fire.
For those men, Americans and Germans alike, their war finally ended over glasses of beer in a French bar, more than seventy years after the armistice had been signed.
“Now I understand the meaning of our lives, the loss of comrades so very long ago.  So to you who have answered duties siren call, may God bless you my soldiers, may God bless you all.” ~ Lewis Millet (An Old Soldier’s Prayer excerpt)