Today’s journey opened the next chapter in a story that began for me more than thirty years ago. The summer after my second grade year my friend Jason and I got to spend a week with my grandparents. They were both retired and had a house on a lake in Missouri.
One day Jason and I were sitting in the living room with my Grandpa when Jason suddenly asked him about the war. Everyone knew that my grandpa was a bomber pilot in World War 2. We even knew he was shot down over France, captured, and held as a prisoner of war. But he never talked about it. Not once. Not to his own children, and not to his grandchildren. I suspect he never even talked about it with his wife. But that day the circumstances were right. Jason’s innocent question opened a door that had been locked for a long time. He sat us both down and told us everything.
Soon, the rest of the family found out that he had told us. Slowly everyone encouraged him to write it down. He began to do so, but unfortunately he died just a few years later. He had completed a memoir that began the day he took off on that fateful mission on June 2, 1944 and covered the time until they arrived in a POW camp. It is just a few days, but the story is powerful and almost unbelievable.
Today, my family and I journeyed back to his crash site in Villers Saint Paul. While my journey back was not as hazardous as my Grandpa’s, it was both unlikely and miraculous.
This morning we were to catch the 9:10 direct train from Gare du Nord to Creil. Upon arriving in Creil, we would catch the 10:31 bus to the Villers Saint Paul town center, arriving at 10:44. Just in time for the Liberation Day ceremony.
It was raining this morning when we set out. Nine of us, all traveling together. A motley collection of Americans searching for Pain du Chocolat on our way to the metro. First one metro, then another. We arrived at Gare du Nord and followed the signs that looked right. “D” line, RER to Creil. But the “D” line didn’t go to Creil. The train to Creil was a TGV and was leaving in 5 minutes, three floors up. And we didn’t have tickets yet. So we hopped on the “D” line anyway, knowing it would get us closer. Maybe we could catch a bus or a taxi later.
The end of the line was “Villiers-le-Bel.” Still quite a way to Creil. Another train came along that was going a little farther. We hopped on and made it to “Orry-la-Ville-Coye” which is a lovely French town just outside of Chantilly. According to Google maps, it’s about 24 kilometers from the end of the train line and the crash site. I didn’t see any taxis. Others went to find a bus schedule. It’s Liberation Day everywhere in France, and nothing much was running.
As we were exiting the train station, we saw a beautiful weimaraner (large grey dog) come through the gate, followed closely by his person. Later, as we were standing near the bus stop, the man with the dog overheard us and said “I can take four or five.” He didn’t even know where we were going. Me, my wife, and my two kids hopped into his Volvo wagon (with the dog happily panting in the back). He had to run by his house and get his phone, but very quickly he was off!
Villers Saint Paul is a small town. Our benevolent driver hadn’t heard of it. I figured if he could get us to Creil, that would be a definite improvement. He was charming and colorful the entire way. His profession was wine, something any good Frenchman would aspire to. He had just dropped his daughter off at the station and his wife was out of town. Since it was a national holiday, he didn’t really have anything going on anyway (at least that’s what he told us.) As he sped through Chantilly on our way to Creil, he asked if we wanted to see the castle. I figured we were running late anyway, so why not?
Pictures don’t do justice to this incredible sight. At our first glimpse, the four of us simultaneously went “Wow.” Our jaws dropped. Then he said “Oh, that’s the stable for the horses. The castle is farther down. It was raining and I snapped this from the car, but it really is a breathtaking sight.
Once we made our loop past the castle, our driver gunned it toward Creil. He expertly sped through the roundabouts, beeping his horn a the appropriate times. I don’t recall there being any fishtails or power slides, but I did see the speedometer hit 140 km/h (about 85 mph). When he wanted that car to go, it WENT.
As we got into Creil, there were signs for Villers Saint Paul. We followed them, then followed some more to the town center. A small crowd was gathered in the square and I glanced at the clock in the car. 11:07. Even with the detour around the castle, we were only a few minutes late. And they held the ceremony for us. Our new friend helped us out of the car, refused any form of compensation and wished us well.
This man’s generosity, kindness, good spirit, friendliness, and fast car can do a lot to restore one’s faith in the human race.
Continued in part two…