Strangers are friends you haven’t met yet.

It had taken a lifetime but he finally stood on the coast where, fifty years prior, a young man, his father, had waded ashore, fear in his heart and a gun in his hands. The surf ate up the beach, paused and retreated, dragging bodies to and fro. The young man struggled as his backpack weighed him down and the sea, slowing his progress, threatened to overwhelm him at any minute. The noise was deafening as the big guns from the ships off-shore, rained fire and death on the cliffs in front of him. Jets of water exploded all around as a hidden gunner zeroed in on him. He finally took his first steps out of the water. The soft sand sucked at his boots and his footprints disappeared as soon as he made them. Bullets rent the air around him and sprays of sand followed his every move. He took his last step and fell face down, clutching his chest, pain and astonishment on his face. Ed was weary. He had not enjoyed his trip here in the least. Things had gone badly the minute he had landed. To his surprise, the plane’s captain had announced that their gate was occupied and they had taxied around the airport tarmac for, what seemed like hours. Finally, they had stopped. He looked out the plane’s window and saw that they were in the middle of a construction site! The doors opened and all the smells of a working airport engulfed the cabin. His eyes watered and his throat closed up. The crew herded them off the plane down a rickety ramp into an articulated shuttle bus. The few seats inside were quickly taken and he found himself sandwiched between two rotund chattering matrons and a foul smelling businessman who looked like he had been sleeping in his clothes for weeks. They were delivered to an anonymous gate and, flanked by armed policemen, unceremoniously escorted to an empty waiting room. When the last of the passengers finally filed in, a thin middle-aged woman, in an ill fitting uniform, made an announcement. Her voice probably carried to the first row and, from his vantage point, she looked like a mime. Amid loud complaints, she repeated her announcement at the top of her lungs. This time she managed to reach the third row. One of the policemen leaned over and said something to her. She listened then shrugged her shoulders and left with the policeman. They did not return. Information trickled to the back of the room where he stood. They were to wait, someone would come and take them to their luggage. Eventually someone did come. He discovered one of his two suitcases had not made the trip. After filling out countless numbers of forms, he eventually found himself outside the airport waiting for the bus that would take him to the train station. The traffic was beyond belief! Never had he seen so many cars and trucks crammed together on one road. The bus crept along at a snail’s pace. He didn’t mind too much. The seat was comfortable and he caught some much needed sleep. It was dark when the bus pulled up at the station. The driver shook him awake: -“Monsieur! Monsieur! Vous êtes arrivé! Monsieur! You have arrived!” Bleary eyed, he stepped off the shuttle bus and oriented himself. Wandering through the station, he eventually found the ticket counter. The good news: he was able to buy a round trip ticket in a sleeper compartment. The bad news: The train wouldn’t leave for another three hours! He checked his suitcase at the baggage claim and went looking for sustenance. It had been a long time since his last meal. He was directed to a restaurant on the main concourse. With his limited French vocabulary and lots of pointing, he managed to order food and drink. He waited and waited and waited some more. Finally just as he was going to leave, with a flourish, the waiter placed his order and his bill in front of him. the meal was unremarkable, the bread stale, the drink, flat. He paid the bill with some crumpled notes he fished out of his pocket. He hoped it was enough but he could wait no longer. He retrieved his suitcase and walked to his platform. The train waited patiently, huffing and puffing. He showed his ticket to a conductor who pointed into the distance. He trudged along. More inquiries and more walking. The train awoke. Men banged on the bogies, brakes hissed and wheezed, people rushed and still he
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walked. Waving his ticket, he asked again, dolefully. To his great pleasure and surprise, he was told he had arrived. They helped him up and took him to his cabin. To say it was tiny would have been an understatement but he no longer cared. He threw his bags on the floor and after washing up in the minuscule sink, he collapsed on the berth. Sleep took him immediately. A loud banging awoke him. He sat up and wondered where he was. The banging resumed. He staggered to the door. -"Billets, s’il vous plaît!” -“Huh?” -“Votre billet, Monsieur! Your ticket, pleeze” He handed it over. The conductor examined it, punched it and returned it with a hearty: “Merci!” When asked, the conductor informed him they would arrive at 6:07, the next morning. He closed the door and sat down. He suddenly felt hungry. The pamphlet they gave him at the ticket counter informed him there was a dining car. He washed up, shaved and changed his clothes. He felt much better as he went looking for dinner. The rest of the trip was uneventful. At the small train station he hired a car and got directions that took him to the coast. The surf still ate up the beach, paused and retreated. He wondered if this was the beach where his father had met his fate. It was hard to be sure. He looked at the grainy photos he held in his trembling hands. They were enlargements of a few frames from a 16mm black and white film. The first one showed the LST with its door splashing in the sea. The next one showed three men running for cover. The next was a close up of a scared soldier. He clutched his rifle and fear distorted his features. This is when his mother had screamed. She had pointed at the television and tried to speak. As the flickering image on the screen had clutched his chest, she had fainted. It took a long time to get a copy of the film, even longer to get a precise account of how his father had died. Now he was here, fifty years later. He had hoped to come earlier but life had chosen otherwise. He had hoped to come with his mother but death had chosen otherwise. He studied the fourth photo. It showed a long view of the beach. At the water line, three fuzzy black forms lying on the beach. One was his dead father. In the distance, towering cliffs shook under the assault of shells and bombs. He could not be sure. the film was taken up on the bluff and he slowly worked his way up the footpath. He tried to imagine what it must have been like under the withering fire of the besieged defenders and among the shells that fell all around and killed indiscriminately. He shook his head: it was beyond imagining. Checking the photo as he climbed, he came to a flat spot in the path. This looked like the spot chosen by the army cameraman to shoot the last frames of the film. He surveyed the scene. The cliffs looked just like other cliffs that dip their feet in the sea and the beach was not quite right, not wide enough and too short. He would have to continue his search. He went back down to the beach. As he reached it, he saw a man walking towards him. Even at a distance, he could tell this was not a tourist. The man looked to be in his sixties. He wore baggy pants, a faded wool vest with some missing buttons, over a once white shirt. A brown cap sat at a jaunty angle over a weather beaten face. A yellow brown cigarette butt hung from his lower lip and bounced as he spoke to no one in particular. He had a well worn canvas bag in one hand and punctuated his monologue with the other. Clutching the photo, Ed went to meet the man who, seeing Ed, stopped and waited. “Pardon, Monsieur!” “Oui?” “Parlez-vous anglais?” “A leetle.”
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“I am sorry to trouble you but I am looking for a beach.” The man stared at Ed with a quizzical look on his face: “A beech? But, M’sieur, you ARE on a beech!” “What? Oh, I know. What I meant was, I am looking for a specific beach.” He shows him the picture. “This is the beach that I am looking for. Do you know it?” The man asks to see the photo and Ed gives it reluctantly. The man looks at it closely. He turns around and surveys the beach and the cliffs. He makes small clucking and sucking sounds as he examines the photo again. He hands the photo back: “I know this place.” He says with a smile. “You want I take you?” “If it is not too much trouble, I would appreciate it.” “Très bien, let us go! Eet is not far!” He points the way and they set off. They walk with only the surf and an occasional gull overhead breaking the silence. After a time, the man asks: “Why you look for this beech?” Ed is surprised and doesn’t answer right away. Finally, he says: “It is where... my father died!” “Votre père? Your Father? How he die on the beech? He drown on, how you say, vacances, holiday?” “No, no. He was killed in the war, on D-Day.” “D-Day? Le débarquement?” “Yes, D-Day: June 6, 1944. From what I have been told, he was among the first to be killed. See.” Ed shows him the picture. The Frenchman looks at the grainy picture and slowly removes his cap. He gently places his hand on his companion’s arm: “Toutes mes condoléances, M’sieur. I very sorry. Your father, very, very sad.” “Thank you. It was a long time ago.” “Still. Lose one’s father, Zat is ze worst. I too lose my father in ze war.” “My sincere sympathies.” “Merci.” They walk in silence once again. Each man reflecting on his loss. They walk up the path, round a small outcrop, over a small hill and down towards a new beach: “I called Henri, Henri Vergès.” He points to a roof in the distance. “Zat my house, see?” He shades his eyes and spots a dark roof. Smoke drifts up from the chimney. “Yes, I see it. My name is Ed, Edward White.” He extends his hand, “I am pleased to meet you.” Henri grabs the hand in a strong and frank grasp: “M’sieur Edouard, ze honor, he is mine. Pleeze, come. Ze ocean, she is coming in.” He turns and with the fleetness of foot gleaned from years of walking this path, hurries towards the beach below. Ed follows more carefully. Henri is already surveying the beach when Ed joins him: “Pleeze, M’sieur Edouard, I see your photo again, yes?” Ed hands the photo to him. Henri takes it reverently and studies it closely: “Oui, oui! Zis eeze the same beech. Look, ze cliffs and ze, how you say, ‘shapp’ of ze beach.” “Shapp? Oh, shape! Yes, I see. You are right, Monsieur Henri!” “Mais, bien sûr, I live here since always. Come, come!”
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He walks quickly to some rusting metal beams sticking out of the sand. The sea assaults them relentlessly. Henri stops and points at them. “M’sieur Edouard. Look, zeeze metal theengs there. Same as on your photos. Look, look!” Ed looked at the photos and, in the background, he saw the large, metal anti-tank obstacles, known as “Czech hedge-hogs", that littered all the beaches of the infamous nazi “Atlantikwall”. Fifty years of wind, sand and surf had eroded them to jagged, corroded nubs, barely two feet tall. On the photo, his father stood frozen in front of one. Ed looked up. Ten paces in front of him was where his father had fallen. Tears welled up in his eyes and he sat down heavily in the sand. He was overwhelmed by the moment. He wrapped his arms around his knees and pressed his forehead on them. Henri stood at a respectful distance, cap in hand and head bowed. Time passed. Finally, as a wave licked the tips of Ed’s shoes, Henri tapped Ed on the shoulder: “M’sieur Edouard! We must go! Ze sea, she is coming in! Come quick, vite, vite!” With Henri’s help, Ed slowly rose to his feet and let himself be led away. He did not know where he was going and found he didn’t care. Henri led him up the path to his house. It was a low stone building with a red tile roof. It sat in the lee of a hillock, protected from the constant wind. Only two high, small windows, one at each end, faced the sea. On the other side, the front door was a massive affair of oak and wrought iron. It was flanked by two large windows on each side. Henri turned the large ring that served as a handle and the door creaked open. He ushered Ed in and quickly followed. The door closed with a loud bang. The sound reverberated throughout the house. It was dark inside and Henri motioned to his right: “Pleeze, M’sieur Edouard, zat way.” From that direction came a high, lilting voice: “Henri? C’est toi, Henri? Henri, is that you, Henri?” “Oui, la mère, c’est moi! J’ai amené un invité! Yes, mother, I’ve brought a guest!” “Un invité? Qui donc? A guest? Who?” Henri pushes Ed down the hall and they end up in a large and bright kitchen. At one end, a short, thin woman is busying herself at a large cast-iron stove. Feeling awkward and unsure, Ed stands there and murmurs a sheepish: “Bonjour, Madame!” The woman turns around and almost drops her spoon. She stammers: “Bonjour, Monsieur..., Monsieur...?” Ed struggles to remember the words. Henri comes to his rescue and in rapid fire French, explains everything. He turns to introduce Ed. In a flash, Ed sees Madame Delarue, his high school French teacher glaring down at him. He swallows hard and squawks: “Pardon, Madame, je m’appelle Ed, Edward White.” She welcomes him and invites him to sit. “Ah! Eh bien, bienvenue, Monsieur, asseyez-vous, je vous prie!” Henri goes to an ancient cupboard with a monumental hutch. He grabs a bottle and two glasses. He pours the pale yellow liquid into both glasses and pushes one towards Ed. Ed looks at the glass quizzically. Henri sees his look and tells him: “Eet is: Calva, Calvados. Eet is, I not know English name, like apple juice. Strong apple juice. Very good. I sure you like!” He raises his glass: “A nos pères! To our fathers!” He drains his glass and quickly refills it. Ed swallows his own. It brings water to his eyes and warms him as it goes down. It smolders pleasantly in his stomach. Henri has already refilled the glass and proposes another toast:

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“A not’ santé! To our health!” The second class goes down a lot smoother and he can taste and smell all the apples that were sacrificed to make this Calvados. Henri is about to refill his glass a third time when Madame Vergès stomps over and, with a look that states unequivocally that they have had enough, she snatches the bottle from Henri’s hand and puts it back in the cupboard. He winks at Ed and shrugs his shoulders. Undaunted, Henri gets up and goes into a small dark room in the back of the kitchen. He emerges moments later with a bottle of wine. He uncorks it and sets it down on the table. Ed is at a loss for words. Finally, he tells Henri: “Thank you, Monsieur Henri, I think I should be going, it is a long walk back and a long drive back to Caen. Thank you for your help and hospitality!” “Go? You cannot go! You must stay and eat dinner!” “Dinner? Oh, no, I couldn’t, I don’t want to put you out.” “Put you out? Qu’est-ce que ça veut dire? What mean: put you out?” “I don’t want to trouble you, put you out.” “Trouble? Non, non! Eet is no trouble. Dinner, he is ready!” He turns to his wife, “Hein, la mère, le dîner est prêt, pas vrai?” She shoots him a look that seems to say that dinner is NOT ready but she holds her tongue and merely nods her head. “Zere, you see. Not any trouble! Here, drink some wine.” They chat as Madame Vergès loudly bangs pots and pans on the stove. At one point, Henri goes over and talks to her. Ed can’t make out what they are saying but he sees Madame Vergès’ face slowly lose its scowl. When Henri is finished, she comes over and wringing her hands tells him: “Oh, Monsieur Edouard! Excusez-moi, je ne savais pas! Restez dîner, je vous prie! Je suis vraiment désolée! Toutes mes condoléances! Votre père! C’est bien triste. Oui, vraiment triste! Excusez-moi encore, vraiment, je ne savais pas!” Ed stands and, although he didn’t understand everything she said, he knows she is apologizing and offering her sympathies. She looks sincerely pained and all he can say is: “Merci, Madame. Merci beaucoup!” She bids him sit with great deference. Soon, a steaming plate of mutton stew with mounds of potatoes, lima beans and diced carrots is placed in front of him. Henri cuts him a slab of warm, home baked bread and fills his glass once again. Madame Vergès offers seconds then thirds but, although he is sorely tempted, he refuses in his best French and as she insists, he shows her how his belt is cutting into his waist! They all laugh and she relents. He tries but cannot refuse cheese. Henri tells him: “It not a meal if zere is no cheese! Not in France!” He tries a small piece. It is the best camembert he has ever eaten. It is incredibly smooth and fairly melts in his mouth. To her husband’s surprise, Madame Vergès returns the bottle of calvados to the table and pours a glass for Ed but gives only half a glass to her husband. She corks the bottle and keeps it by her side. They have a few more and Ed decides it is time to go. He tells Henri. Henri will hear none of it: “You cannot go! You are our guest. You must stay. Anyway, all is ready! Please, I show you!” Ed protests weakly to no avail. Henri will not be swayed. He leads him down the hallway. Ed feels the effects of the Calvados. He steadies himself against the rough plaster wall. Henri seems unaffected. At the end of the corridor, Henri shows him the ‘guest’ room. It is small and cozy. A narrow four poster bed sits in the corner. A huge down comforter covers it. Next to an ornate night stand sits a small arm chair with lace antimacassars on the arms and the back. A thick wool carpet covers the faded tile floor. On the comforter, Madame Vergès has

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laid out a striped nightshirt and there are some worn slippers at the foot of the bed. Madame Vergès brings towels and shows him the facilities down the hall and how to operate the light switches, that have to be turned clockwise to work. When all is said and done, they bid him goodnight and retire to their own bedroom. Slightly tipsy, Ed sits in the chair and can’t help but be amazed at all that has happened since he first met Henri on the beach. He prepares for bed. The nightshirt is a bit tight but it is incredibly soft from the thousands of times it has been washed. The sheets are the same and smell of lavender and sunshine. The bed is cold when he gets in but it warms quickly as he snuggles under the comforter. Sleep comes promptly for Ed but Henri and Madame Vergès talk late into the night. The next morning, shortly after dawn, Henri slips out and heads for the village. It is less than a mile away and he hurries. If what he and his wife have decided is to happen, he must catch Monsieur le curé before he leaves the rectory. Ed is awakened by a knock on the door. He opens his eyes and wonders where he is. Wherever this is, it is dark. Slowly, his memory returns. The knock comes again accompanied by: “Monsieur..., Monsieur Edouard, réveillez-vous, le déjeuner est prêt. On vous attend!” The words swirl in his head. Slowly, meaning comes: ‘wake up, breakfast is...something, we wait!’ The thought of breakfast, especially coffee of which he feels a great need, spurs him to action: “Oui, oui! D’accord!” It has the desired effect and he hears Madame Vergès walk away. He gets out of bed and shivers. Even though it is summer, the room is chilly and he dresses quickly. He struggles with the large wooden shutters and the morning sun rushes into the room, warms his face and assaults his eyes! His headache seizes this opportunity to develop shooting pains at the base of his skull. He staggers back into the room and heads towards the bathroom, dark spots dancing in front of him. He splashes frigid water on his face and neck and the pounding in his head abates somewhat. When he is done he walks slowly to the kitchen, trying not to make any sudden moves. Madame Vergès greets him as he walks into the kitchen. He answers softly and she tells him to sit. “Café?” She asks. “S’il vous plaît! Please!” “Avec du lait?” Lait? Lait? What is lait? He searches vainly for the meaning. She shows him the bottle of milk. “Non, merci. Sugar?” She doesn’t understand. He sees the sugar bowl on the table and picks it up. “Sugar”, he says. She nods: “Ah, du sucre! Shuggar?” “Yes, sugar!” She brings him a large bowl of steaming coffee. Just the smell wakes him up. He puts a few lumps of sugar in the bowl and stirs. The grating noise is more than he can stand and he stops. He takes a sip. It is strong, very strong! It chases away any remnants of sleep that remained. His headache eases. Madame Vergès brings over toasted slices of bread and a pot of butter. He spreads the marvelously unctuous butter on the warm bread and takes a bite. Pleasure assaults his taste buds and he is suddenly ravenous. Madame Vergès brings some preserves to him and urges him to try them. “Je les ai faites moi-même!” “Ah, oui?” Something, ...myself. They must be homemade like everything else he’s eaten so far. He tries some on the bread as Madame Vergès looks on. It tastes even better than the butter.

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“Très bon! Très, très bon!” Madame Vergès smiles and returns to the stove. He has been so busy stuffing his face that he only now realizes that Henri is not here. He wants to ask Madame Vergès but he fears his French is not up to the task. He slowly assembles a sentence in his head: husband, what is the word for ‘husband’? Well, ‘Henri’ will work; now, how do you say where? It’s a short word... où, that’s it, où! He is still trying to work it out when Henri shows up: “Ah, bonjour, M’sieur Edouard! Bien dormi?” “Bonjour! Sorry, I didn’t understand.” “I say: Good morning, you sleep well?” “Very well, thank you. Please, would you tell Madame Vergès that her breakfast is marvelous!” Henri does so. Madame Vergès smiles again and does a little curtsy. Ed rubs his stomach and smacks his lips. They all laugh. Henri pulls up a chair and Madame Vergès brings him a cup of coffee. Ed refuses any more food and thanks Madame Vergès profusely. Henri waits till he is finished then asks: “We go, now?” “Go? Oh, yes.” Ed gets up and walks over to Madame Vergès. He shakes her hand and thanks her yet again: “Merci beaucoup, beaucoup, beaucoup, Madame Vergès! Thank you very, very, very much!” “Il n’y a pas de quoi, M’sieur Edouard. Je vous en prie! You’re welcome, think nothing of it!” Ed follows Henri and they walk out the door where Henri stops and waits. Soon, to Ed’s surprise, Madame Vergès appears, a black shawl on her head. She closes and locks the door and together, they head out. At the point where the path forks, again, they stop and wait. Ed wonders what they are waiting for and asks Henri. He answers: “Monsieur le curé is coming. Do not worry, he will be here quick, we wait not long!” Ed wants to ask who this Mr. le curé is but before he can, Henri points into the distance: “Les voila! Zey come, see!” Ed peers in the distance and sees a small procession coming towards them. It is led by a young boy wearing a white cassock and carrying a tall crucifix. Behind him, another boy is carrying an ornate bible. Dressed in a black frock with a white prayer shawl draped across his shoulders and sporting a round black hat, a priest follows the two boys. A dozen men and women of all ages bring up the rear. The procession reaches them and stops. Henri and Madame Vergès greet the priest reverently. He then extends his hand to Ed who shakes it. “Bonjour, Monsieur, comment allez vous?” “Bonjour! Father. Bien, merci. Et vous?” The priest nods and, with a loud: “Allons-y! Let’s go!”, he motions to the boys and heads off for the beach. Henri takes Ed by the arm and pushes him behind the priest. He takes his wife’s arm and they follow Ed. Madame Vergès gives a brief greeting to the others who are waiting patiently and the procession resumes. They wind their way down to the beach. The tide is out and the beach is huge. Ed can see many metal beams sticking out of the wet sands. Henri leads the priest to the appropriate spot and they stop. The boy with the bible turns and faces the priest who opens the book solemnly. He finds his spot and motions to Ed to come stand beside him. Henri, cap in hand, and Madame Vergès stand to Ed’s right. Slowly the rest of the procession forms a semi circle around them, facing the sea. Ed whispers to Henri: “What’s going on?”
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“It is for Monsieur, votre père. For your father!” Ed is stunned! He wants to say something but the priest has begun. He spreads his arms wide and in a clear and somber voice, reads from the bible. All assembled bow their heads and when he stops reading, the crowd answers him in unison. Again he speaks and stops and, again, they answer. The priest then intones a doleful litany. When he is done, he blesses the site with holy water and bows. He closes the book and turns to Ed. Someone takes a picture. Shaking his hand in both of his, the priest says: “Toutes mes condoléances, Monsieur et tous nos remerciements!” Ed is at a loss and Henri whispers: “He say: Condolences and thanks. Answer: ‘Merci, Mon Père!’” Ed stammers: “Merci, Mon Père!” “Je vous en prie, mon fils! You are welcome, my son!” He gathers his robes and the two boys and heads back to the village. One by one, the people walk to the blessed spot and place a small bouquet or a flower on the sand. They shake Ed’s hand and thank him. When the last person has left, Ed, tears in his eyes turns to his hosts and asks: “Why this ceremony? And why is everyone thanking me?” “You give us wonderful gift at great sacrifice to yourself!” “Gift, what gift? What sacrifice?” “Through your father, you give us, all of us, freedom and Ze blood of your father is price of zis freedom. We never forget! As long as we live, we never forget! Thank you, M’sieur Edouard, thank you for honoring my home. We always remember you and your father.” He shakes Ed’s hand warmly and Madame Vergès gives him a peck on the cheek. She leaves. Henri leads Ed back to his waiting car. They walk in silence, Ed clutching one of the bouquets to his heart. They come to end of the path and stop by Ed’s rental car. Henri asks sheepishly: “M’sieur Edouard, I ask, how you say, favor, yes?” “Of course, anything!” “Ze photo of Monsieur votre père, your father, you give to me, yes?” Ed hands all the photos over. Henri picks the one where Ed’s father is fighting the surf and hands the others back. “I place this photo next to photo of my father. Zey would have been friends, I think.” Ed has no words to thank Henri, he tries to say something but Henri raises his hand, grabs Ed by the shoulders and kisses him on each cheek. “Goodbye, mon ami, my friend. If you come to France again, tell me. We spend more time together, yes?” “I would like that. I will come back. I promise! Au revoir, Henri, mon ami. Thank Madame Vergès again, for me.” “I will! Safe voyage, mon ami. Adieu!” Several months later, a letter arrived. It was from Henri. Ed opened it. It contained a single photo. It showed the beach, the priest, Ed, Henri and Mme. Verges. On the back, Henri had written: "Merci encore, mon ami!” Thank you again, my friend!

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