We're not lost, Sergeant, We're in … France

Setting out the monuments, Normandy 2014

As the touring season starts, the battlefield guides in Normandy turn to one of the hardest tasks of the year, pulling the monuments out of winter storage and setting them back in place for the touring season.

The crew starting in the wee hours of the morning at Vierville

Each year in the fall, the guides and some volunteers painstakingly remove each of the monuments from the battlefield and place them in storage for the winter. Paul Woodadge related to me on our first visit, during the 65th anniversary in 2009, “In 2003, we’d forgotten to put the Walter Mitty Leadership Memorial into storage and it got all knackered up. The artist had passed away, so the Mayor of St-Nulle-Part-Terre-sur-mer sent it to China. What came back didn’t look quite the same.”

Chinese Peace Memorial

The Walter J. Mitty Leadership Memorial

Noted author Kevin Hymel spent the first hour of our work talking at great length about the storms that ravage Normandy in the winter. If you haven’t heard him play the roles of Eisenhower, Montgomery and Group Captain Stagg in telling the story of the invasion, you really haven’t had the full Normandy experience. Someone whispered to me that Stagg actually did not have a cockney accent, but no one ever stops Kevin, because it’s simply hilarious.

The day starts early, with groups meeting each sector of the battlefield for a long day’s work. Professor John McManus told me while he sipped his coffee this morning and rubbed his sore hands, “It really is one of the great unknown tasks performed by the guides. I’ve been coming for several years now, since the physical contact with monuments really brings home just how difficult the invasion was for these young men.”

Up and down the coast, as well as inland, crews are lugging, tugging, and sometimes carrying monuments back into place. At mid-morning, Dale Booth led the team at La Fiere, ably assisted by Russ Littel and his wife Kate Deyermond, plus my wife Melisssa. As he was wiggling the bas-relief back into place, he reminded me that “many hands make for light work.” Indeed, this year seems to have drawn the largest contingent of helpers in recent memory. All the hard work does come with some unforgettable moments, such as Bob Sabasteanski had the year he got to help Major Howard drag Pegasus Bridge back into place.

Dale Booth adjusting the map at La Fiere. I tried videotaping the movement of this from storage, but they needed my help carrying it.

We finished in mid-afternoon, so I was able to sit with Joe Muccia over a glass of Calvados and pen this little note to bring you all up to date on the project. Melissa is enjoying her Pommeau and our dear friend, Tom Soah has a wee dram that he’s nursing.

I got started in the monument re-placement business back in the 1990s, when Tom Desjardin called on volunteers from the Gettysburg Discussion Group to roll those monuments out of storage every April. Following their lead in Normandy, “Le Poisson d’Avril” as they call their group, trudges out in the night in the last few hours of March, to be ready for the 1st of April.

Many thanks for reading and may you enjoy your own “poisson d’avril” today….

Denzel Washington at the Fisher House

I’d seen on Facebook a great photo of Denzel Washington down in San Antonio with several soldiers. There was an urban legend attached to it, but what Denzel did for the Fisher House was almost as good as the legend.

Our friend Kate managed the Fisher House here at Walter Reed when we met her and her husband, Russ, so we got to see what they’re like. The Fisher House provides a “home away from home” for military families while a loved one is hospitalized for illness, disease or injury. Sometimes, soldiers in rehabilitation have their families stay for months, which they would never be able to do otherwise. One of the great things for Kate and Russ was that many famous people would come by for events or just to thank the soldiers for their service. This meant that Kate and Russ got to meet a lot of those folks – Kate even appeared in an episode of Kathy Griffin’s “My Life on the D-List”.

In the urban legend, after visiting the Fisher House in San Antonio, Denzel Washington asks, “How much does it cost to build one of these?” Given the number, Denzel pulled out his checkbook and wrote a check for that amount. Great story, but a bit of an exaggeration. Just like me (perhaps the only similarity between Denzel Washington and myself), he doesn’t carry a checkbook around with him. However, his reputation for generosity is well-earned and he did, in fact, send a substantial check to help sponsor the Fisher House. Cary Clack of the San Antonio Express explained of the six-figure check, “It wasn’t enough to build one facility, but went a long way toward helping to build one.”

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