Calvados on My Mind

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When visiting one of the factories under my
control in Belgium, I decided to revisit an area of France that I had
not seen in decades. A friend and I drove from Brussels to Dieppe to
view one of the most controversial battlefields of WW2. This—although
not a personal memory—reminded me of the mainly Canadian force that
attacked this town in the face of what was an almost suicidal
cross-channel raid. The gun emplacements, which still stand on the
bluffs overlooking the beach, were truly some of the most formidable of
any faced by allied troops in WW2.

Leaving
Dieppe, we turned inland a short distance to view what to me is one of
the most colorful and welcoming regions of this so regionally differing
country. This area to the north and east of La Havre holds
unforgettable memories for me, as it was here that I first set foot in
France in WWII. Loaded in very large trucks we were taken to one of the
so-called Cigarette Camps—in this case Old Gold. The camp was located
on the outskirts of the small town of Ourville.

The
people in this part of Normandy—with its open and unplowed fields
separated by orchard after orchard of apple trees—work in much less
hospitable conditions than their compatriots in Provence, for example.
Near the English Channel, the country is much colder in winter and even
in summer is subject to the vagaries of weather patterns caused by the
conflicting currents and air streams over the channel. People here,
however, are among the friendliest in all of France. We arrived in the
camp in the middle of the night in a very cold drizzle, found a bed in
one of the large tents already established, and expected very little in
the way of a friendly welcome. So it was a very pleasant experience the
next morning to have my good Cajun friend from Houma, Louisiana start
talking to a local girl, who had been riding a bicycle down the road
toward the town of Ourville, in his evidently understandable French.

We
were invited to come to the home of this young lady that evening to
meet her family. In the military, you never pass up such an
opportunity! The evening came and we walked with her to her parent’s
home in the village of Cleuville. It was a very small place of about a
dozen scattered homes but with a beautiful, though small, parish
church. In the farmhouse of her parents, with the cattle and horses
stalled in one part of the large and obviously old structure, there
also resided mother, father, three sons, and two daughters—one being
the young woman who had invited us. We were treated as family from the
first moment.

The evening’s
entertainment was the playing of a card game that allowed one or the
other of the family to look at our hands and take any cards they wanted
until one of them had won. Obviously not a group one would gamble with
for money. Snacks consisted of a large round loaf of homemade bread
that was cut by passing it around with each of us being furnished with
a large knife. We would hack off a hunk of the loaf and smother it with
fresh butter, which was heaped in a bowl set in the middle of the round
kitchen table. Oh, and the light was by lanterns hung over the table.
We were also served a beverage that I had never before heard of, let
alone tasted: Calvados.

Putting
before us a large glass with a cone of raw sugar in the bottom, the
beverage was poured over the sugar and allowed to melt this bit of
sweetness. The liquor was not served from a bottle but from a pitcher
that was filled from a tank attached to the kitchen stove. To this day,
I do not know why the Calvados was kept in this fashion. And to this
day, I have not forgotten my first taste of the fiery liquid. For the
next two weeks, we spent all of our free time with this family.

We
discovered the daughter we had first met was the postal carrier for the
area around Cleuville. On her daily trip into Ourville for the mail
pickup, she wore on her neck a leather collar to denote she was on
official business and we were not allowed to stop her or talk to her as
she rode by. We also found out that the family were caretakers for the
village church. We helped them clean it every day we could. They were
also caretakers for a very large mansion that belonged to a family that
had escaped to England and had not yet returned to France; we also
helped them clean this building. Our two weeks with this family, before
entering combat, was a fine introduction to the kind of friendly
welcome we were to find in all the farm areas we were in throughout the
war, even in most of Germany.

When
my friend and I came back to this village that I so well remembered,
all of these memories returned. I went to the old farmhouse and knocked
on the door but was met by a person totally unknown. It seems the
family had all gone elsewhere, as is the way, after the father and
mother had died. I did visit the church and it was, as always,
unlocked, although still served by a traveling priest. The mansion was
occupied, but by whom I do not know. We stopped at a small inn which
lay between our old camp, Old Gold, and the village, and it still
looked the same as it had back when. We raised a glass to our memories
of the region and to the family who had shown two soldiers such
kindness.

James T.
Walsh holds degrees in both business and law and has traveled the world
as an executive of several international companies. He fought in the
86th Infantry division and spent a year in Paris with the USO. After
the war, he married his high school sweetheart and together they’ve
raised five children. The couple now make their home in Arizona.

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