Calvados on My Mind

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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