La Varde 1944 – Opa’s Last Stand

Why does the death of my grandfather, a man I never met and my father hardly knew, fascinate me?

War is no light matter, we are all touched by it. I have been touched by it. My family a casualty of it.
War is a part of my history.

To bring war out of the history books, out of the television, the newspapers, out of one’s imagination, out of my imagination, I felt a need to retrace the final days of my grandfather’s life.

When my older brother mentioned he was going to France to find Opa’s grave, I had to go along. I wanted to make my history, my reality. I wanted to see and feel the place where the battles of Normandy freed a continent on the souls of so many men. I wanted to own the small fraction of that piece of history that was my heritage.

Opa in WWI.
Opa the soldier in WWI.

 

I don’t know much about my grandfather. He was born in Meerane Saxony Germany in 1897, a town near the Ore mountains. My father shared with me that my grandfather’s family came from many woodworkers. Some say this region is where many Western Christmas traditions came from: the Nutcracker, Christmas pyramids, and arches, and the famous smokers. He had served as a young man in WWI and received an iron cross for bravery. He was a musician and violin maker. He moved to the Netherlands during the Great Depression where he met my grandmother and settled in Den Hague. It was in Den Hague that he opened a violin shop. And it was here in February of 1943, when my father was only eight, that he was drafted at the age of 45 into Hitler’s war.

Opa the violin maker.
Opa the violin maker in Den Hague.

I wrote in a previous post, that my grandfather was in an anti-tank division stationed in the Netherlands until June 1944, when his company 657 panzerjager were sent to Normandy and deployed in St. Lo area.

In that previous post, I also stated we thought there was conflicting information about the location of my Opa’s death. A document my brother received from the German government said he died in La Varde, which my brother translated as Fort La Varde near St. Malo in Brittany.  A letter received by my step-great grandfather, in 1948, from a comrade who was with Opa at the time he died stated Opa died in a foxhole near St. Lo.

Well the mystery still remains, but I think my brother has found the best answer and that is in a small hamlet called La Varde on the Cotentin peninsula near St. Lo. This was the location of a battle located in the marsh surrounding the Taute river. Americans, under General Macon, were making their way towards St. Lo and discovered a small German stronghold on the hamlet of La Varde. American troops sludged through knee deep mud, threw grenades and fired rifles towards the ill prepared Germans in the late summer afternoon of July 17th, 1944.

La Varde, France
La Varde, France
Opa’s last stand, La Varde. La Varde is a small black box right of center.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My grandfather was killed instantly when a piece of flying shrapnel from a grenade sliced it’s way across his neck and through his jugular vein. He was in France for less than a month. It was probably his first experience in combat.

His body would lay in the muck of that marsh for a few days, until the fighting stopped and the dead could be collected and brought to a proper burial place. Opa’s last stand.

Or was it…

As I walked along the beach near Fort La Varde, the morning we were to visit his grave, I said a little prayer for my Opa. I wanted him to know my brother and I wanted to pay our respects, to say thank you for his sacrifice and to let him know that his legacy continues. I think he was tickled we were there and  we were thinking of him, a person we never knew. Opa, it will take more than war to break the bonds of our family! Thank you Opa!

Last family picture.
Last family picture, my father is the seated little boy.

 

Saint Lo Seventy Years later

Disclaimer: I have been using the wordpress app on my iPhone for the blogs while on my trip. It is a pathetic application with no way to save a draft so I can work on it on my kindle after posting pictures. WordPress needs to understand that writers like all artists need a sketchbook and publishing straight away is not the best option!

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Saint Lo was mostly destroyed by allied bombing in June of 1944. It was a German stronghold due to its location. We went there hoping to find a museum with more information about the war but were intrigued that the town has chosen not to have a museum with any of this history.

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The original Saint Lo sits atop a hill and it is this area that received most of the bombing. There is a huge placard, if you will, announcing what happened in June 1944. Perhaps the city itself tells the history best?

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The rebuilt Norte dame cathedral is the only relic of the bombing. Can you tell which parts survived the bombing and which are new construction?

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The newer buildings lack the beauty of the previous buildings. The aura of the town on the cold windy and rainy day we were there wasn’t the most vibrant. Although on our way back to the car we spotted a true testament of how time heals.

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A carnival filled with laughing kids.

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The importance of remembering history is not lost on our current leaders. A sign outside a newsstand announces that Obama will visit Normandy this year.

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A grave matter?

Wednesday was the chosen day.

We packed our father’s ashes to drive them to their final resting place. The grave of his father. A reunion 70 years in the making.

From the shores of the English Channel near Fort La Varde, the last location my grandfather was stationed, we drove inland 130 kilometers towards the town of Marigny.

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A drive through the French country side in winter. The green hills, the leafless trees exposing mistletoe, the submerged agriculture fields, the blowing wind and the squalls of sideways rain and sleet. Bucolic? Not so much.

After hours of driving, at the mercy of Seri the GPS, short for “are you serious?” we finally arrived at our destination.

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The Marigny Cemetery for German Soldiers is nestled between farmland. Without the signs announcing the Cemetery one would think it was another field. The flags of Germany, France, and the EU are only visible once you arrive.

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Many of the soldiers here were originally buried in other smaller grave sites around Normandy. Their final burial place more deserving for these poor souls. Boys, men and the elderly forced to fight in a war whose end would not benefit them.

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Thousands of soldiers memorialized by small plaques, some with two names. Trios of crosses made of basalt dot the cemetery. Understated symbols of peace.

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Block 4, row 19, grave 737
It was easy to find.
Private Fritz Reuter August 4, 1897 – July 17, 1944.

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A final resting place for my forefathers. A place for descendants to visit. Proving the resilience of a family and the human spirit.

Are you $hi##ing me… the preparation continues

Mexican bathroom
Mexican bathroom at ecoresort in Tulum.

Three hours of pure hell. I arrived home from work, just in time to begin ingesting 2 liters, one liter at a time, of a prescription laxative. The flavor and texture was a cross between a rancid lemon and frog slime fresh from a bog.

For two hours I had to endure drinking this stuff, eight ounces at a time, every fifteen minutes, with a pint of water in between each liter. Some jokester of a pharmacist named the product MoviPrep, and no this isn’t a prep for a stint as a Hollywood actor. The last three glasses, the last liter for that matter was a force to be reckoned with. I figured that I was done when I almost hurled the MoviPrep out my nose, gagging at the rancid lemon/lime slime.

the solution
Polyethylene glycol solution plus some other chemicals AKA MoviPrep AKA rancid lemon/lime slime.

After an hour of shivering and feeling like my gut was about to explode the movement was finally going to happen. I sat on the toilet for a few minutes, feeling my intestines gurgle with the 2 liters of MoviPrep. I passed the time reading a magazine, Cooks Illustrated. Why? Because it was what I grabbed as I crossed the kitchen towards the bathroom. It was a great distraction from my reality, learning a few cooking techniques I could try once this hell was over.

As I experienced the movement, I was reminded of a trip to Mexico or was it Peru. It was one or both of those places where I got diarrhea so bad I pooped liquid. EEEWWWW! Yeah, I know. Well that is what I was experiencing now, self prescribed diarrhea minus the cramping. Yup, you read right, self-prescribed… Well a real MD had to prescribe MoviPrep and he will conduct the procedure too, but all of this, was my idea.

You see I’m only 41, about 10 years away from when I’m supposed to have a colonoscopy. But my aunt died of colon cancer and a good friend just died of colon cancer a month ago and she was only 45. I called my insurance and they assured me that they will cover all preventative screenings after age 22. I had to have a consultation with my physician prior to this adventure, but that was the only thing different than if I was 51 and doing this for the first time.

I’ve gotta go to bed, I’m as exhausted as one feels after defecating their entire gut contents. I’m not sure what’s left, but the instructions say to ingest a lovely 10 ounce jar of Magnesium Citrate, lemon flavored nonetheless, at 10:30 am tomorrow morning. I have a feeling going to work tomorrow morning is going to be an interesting part of this adventure. Here’s to the next movement.

Be the change you desire…

sun set

Lately I have been reminded about my limited time on this planet.

The reminders have been blatant, smack you in the face, kind of events. A friend committing suicide, another friend dying from colon cancer and my mother’s journey to rid her body of cancer.

My heart aches and my mind reels into motion, what can I do differently?

Questions abound…

Am I doing enough?

Am I serving my purpose?

Am I eating right?

Do I have cancer?

I had my annual mammogram, and now I am scheduled for my first colonoscopy. That was the easy part.

The hard part is reconciling my accomplishments, reconciling where my life is currently and looking at the map of my life and figuring out if I need to take a different route to get to where I need to go in the future.

My heart aches and my mind reels…  I do not want their deaths and their struggles to be lost – there is a lesson in there for me to learn from… I peer into my soul and see that I can do more…

I can help others!

I can teach others!

I can share with others my humanity! We all hurt, we all struggle, but it is through this strife that we can emerge anew.

I have learned that death is not an end, it is the beginning of something new, change is not bad, it is good – Really good.

Take some time and peer into your soul – sit quietly in a park, under a tree or by the water. Where do you want to go? Who do you know you can be? See your potential.

Now go on and be the change you desire.

Talking to strangers…

Do you do it?

When?

To ask for directions? To order at a restaurant? To the grocery store clerk? To buy or sell something?

image of author taken by stranger at brew fest
A lovely stranger took this picture.

I admit, I don’t usually strike up conversations with strangers, I’m still a little shy about it and… yeah scared. The times I have spontaneously erupted in conversation with a stranger has had surprising results.

Sometimes we are thinking the same thing about a certain situation happening around us, like waiting in line at a brew fest. Sometimes we are both feeling the same thing, like nervous about the turbulence during a plane ride (ever wonder why people erupt into conversation as an airplane descends, after being silent for the entire flight?). I have had 5 hour conversations with strangers, learning that we both work in the same industry or have something interesting to discuss (I once convinced a person from a right leaning state that the worry about climate change is the rate of change – that some species – perhaps most – will not be able to adapt to this change fast enough to survive. It was great to see this person have an “aha” moment.)

These conversations are like one night stands – never to talk with the person again, despite exchanging business cards or email addresses. But what is left could be a lesson, a feeling of interconnectedness with a greater thing called humanity, or it could be a reminder that there are many people out there that are afraid of interacting with other humans.

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Mt. St. Helens with Castle Lake, a lake created by the landslide post eruption.

My most recent encounter was yesterday as I was visiting Mt. St. Helen’s National Volcanic Monument. I was reading about those that survived and those that did not survive the eruption. Fifty-seven people lost their lives that day, at least that is the known number. As I finished reading one placard, about a family who was camping about 13 miles from the volcano and escaped harm because their campsite was behind a hill (they still had to hike out, through hot ash and over fallen trees) and was moving to the next, I caught the gaze of a gentleman who was behind me and gave him a simple smile, acknowledging the emotion that we were sharing. He said to me that the family I just read about survived because the campsite they originally wanted to go to was already taken. “Oh really?” I replied,

“Do you know the family?” I asked.

“No” he said. “My daughter was one of the campers in the other campsite and she did not survive.”

“Wow.” I said. Not knowing how best to respond, my heart sinking at thinking about the tragedy the day the volcano erupted 32 years ago.

He continued to share that she was camping with 6 other people, two died, two were severely injured and two walked out. She died when a tree fell on the tent she and her boyfriend were in, she was only 21 years old.

imagining the destruction
A simple visualization of how much of the mountain was blown off the day Mt. St. Helen erupted.

His story accentuated the feelings of awe and wonder I was already dealing with. I told him thank you for sharing his story, placing my hand on his shoulder, a gesture of love and acknowledgment of our shared humanity. I asked him what her name was “Karen Varner.” he replied. “There is a memorial for all that were killed, on the other side of the hill.” he said, pointing in the opposite direction I was headed.

I didn’t make it to the memorial, but the entire area is a memorial to the amazing forces the Earth has within her and to the humanity that loves her, fears her and idolizes her.

Talking to strangers can be a transformative experience, a scary journey, with unknown treasures at the end.

A bed of roses…

Death.

No matter how hard we try, we just can’t get away from it. Nope, sorry, you too will die, your spirit will leave your physical body and go…  wherever spirits go when we die. So why do you ignore it? You know… Death?  When someone you know or love is consciously dying because they are terminally ill or they are on life support after a tragic accident – why are you afraid? Why don’t you know how to act? to feel? What to say?

uncle danny 1987
Uncle Danny with cousin Nick, 1987, photo taken by author.

When my uncle Danny was consciously dying, having been diagnosed with AIDS a year or two earlier, I visited him for 3 weeks during the summer of 1987 in San Francisco. I was 16 and in denial, how could he be dying? He was full of life, was an amazing chef, funny, caring (he had started school to become a nurse when he was diagnosed), handsome and most of all I loved him more than any other person in my life. He was my father figure, since my relationship with my biological father was not so great. He was the person who asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, what I wanted to study in College, how I was feeling, he was actively engaged in my life. So how could he die when I was beginning to go through a period in my life when I needed him most?

Author and her uncle
The author and uncle Danny summer 1987.

I was selfish, “Uncle Danny, can you move back to Chicago?” I asked one morning during that 3 week visit, I  wanted him to be closer to me. “Honey” he said. “I am going to die here.” Despite my shock at his answer, I appreciated his bluntness, I respected that he was a man who didn’t mince his words, he told it like it was.  During those three weeks I was with him, the last time I would be with him on this earth, I tried with all my might to squeeze everything I could out of every day. I was  hyper-conscious of his impending death, I tried hard to cherish every moment with him, thinking this could be the last time. Despite being a warrior against death, I still had a weird hole inside of me, one that somehow couldn’t be filled with the fresh squeezed orange juice he gave me every morning. Nor with saying “I love you Uncle Danny” every night before going to sleep. I was scared that when he wasn’t around, who would care about me like he did? Who would listen to me?

The day I had to get on a plane back to Chicago, I knew it would be the last time I would see him. I tried pushing that feeling aside as I gave him that last hug before walking down the jet-way. That walk down the jet-way was the longest walk of my life, I was all too conscious of what was happening, my heart breaking with every step I made towards that plane. The worst was I couldn’t just break down and cry, I was in public for crying out loud. I had to keep it together, if not for me, for my uncle, whose eyes I did catch when I did one of those “last looks” the kind that turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt – the kind that tore an even greater hole in my heart as I saw tears welling up in my uncle’s eyes.

Journaling saved my life. My uncle recommended I start journaling after a phone conversation soon after I returned to Chicago. He also suggested I look into applying to a university I had never heard of before, called University of Chicago (my future alma mater). A few months later during a cold Chicago winter morning, I awoke abruptly, got dressed and went for a cold walk along the shore of Lake Michigan before anyone was awake. I took a long walk, eventually ending up at a local catholic church, St. Joseph’s. I was not raised religious, but I felt a need to light a candle for my uncle and say a prayer. After an hour or two I finally went back home. As soon as I walked in the door, I heard my mother on the phone, confirming what I already knew, he had passed away.

My grandmother was with him that morning, and later that year, I would share my story with her and she would confirm that at the moment he took his last breath, was the same time as when I woke up.

Author and grandmother 1971
One of the first images of the author and her grandmother, 1971.

My grandmother, Elivira Rosa Silva was born 95 years ago in Preston Cuba, where my great-grandfather worked in the sugar cane fields of an American company. She died 5 years ago, just shy of her 90th birthday in San Francisco, CA. Although she was old she had been full life: a former beauty queen, she cared about her looks to the very end, she loved eating well and sneaking a cigarette every now and again. She gave up her independence, reluctantly, about a year before her death.

On Valentine’s day 2007, I tried calling her at the nursing home. When the nurse said she wasn’t available, I called my mother to see if she had spoken with her. “No” she said. I called again the next day and still no luck, so I called the receptionist. After trying to locate her, the receptionist came back to the phone and said, “Your grandmother is not here.” I responded, “Is she in the hospital?” “Yes.” she replied, not able to give me anymore information than that. I called all of the hospitals near Alameda, CA and finally found my grandmother in the CCU of a hospital in Oakland CA. After talking with her nurse, I was able to talk with her doctor. “You are the first family member I have had a chance to speak with” the doctor said. He went on to explain to me that she had several infections in her body, her kidneys were not in good shape and her heart was bad. I asked what her prognosis was and he said 50/50. I hung up the phone and made a reservation for early the next morning to fly down to Oakland.

2005 author with grandmother
Last image of the author together with her grandmother, 2005.

I had to convince my mother that “this was it” that if she didn’t get her butt on the next airplane to San Francisco that she would regret not being there during her mother’s last days on this planet. My mother was letting her anger at her mother get the best of her. Thankfully she did get on an airplane.

I have consciously danced with death on a bed of roses, smelled her heavenly scent and felt her prickly thorns in my heart. Death opened my heart to experience life, raw, naked, intensely. So why would I want to fear this part of my natural life history as a human? Why would I want to miss out on witnessing the amazing transition from our current dimension to another?

I will be there with you as you die. I am not afraid. I consciously walk towards death every day and I have never felt so alive.