Disclaimer: Adult language is present in this post. Proceed with caution…
By: C.L. Sill
I arrived in Carentan, France on a train from Paris at just after 9:00 a.m., July 25th, 2012. On the way there I had watched out the window as the city slowly transformed into rolling countryside that looked strangely like Eastern Nebraska. As we moved closer to the coast the hills flattened out and the hedgerows and orchards became infinitely more beautiful.
My stomach was in my throat. In the last month and a half I had flown across the Atlantic Ocean, worked illegally in a Berlin printing factory, drank the greatest beer in the world with the greatest friend I’d ever known and climbed the Eagles Nest from the very bottom.
Yet nothing could possibly trump the feeling of pulling into the station at Carentan, stepping down off the train and knowing I was actually in Normandy.
I’d dreamt about it since I was 14-years-old. Since my aunt lent me a copy of Band of Brothers and unknowingly lit the fire that would become the passion of my life.
I’d made it, and I knew what was first on the agenda. Omaha beach.
Those of you not familiar with the layout of Normandy, Omaha Beach is a pretty good distance from Carentan. About 35 kilometers. There are no sources of public transportation in Normandy, and since guided tours are for pussies the only logical option was to rent a car.
I was 21 at the time and my friend Brian was 24. So obviously we had spent all our spare money on Becks, Döner and Lucky Strikes in Berlin and thus had no scratch for a rental car.
We did however notice a few spare bicycles in the garage of our bed and breakfast. After vigorous protest from the B&B owner Judy, she agreed to let us use them at no charge. She warned us you couldn’t get to Omaha Beach and back in one day. We assumed she didn’t know what the hell she was talking about and headed east on two wheels (each).
They were wide-tired, grey mountain bikes. The brakes only sort of worked and their seats were as wide as a ruler. The clasp on my seat in particular kept working itself lose and sliding to the lowest possible setting. So I end up with knees hitting elbows, riding what basically amounted to a child’s bicycle.
(Note: I am just a touch over 5’4”, so it takes a bike too small for your average 12-year-old girl to qualify as inadequate for me. It was that small.)
We stopped less than an hour into our Tour De France in Isigny-Sur-Mer. We stumbled across a street fair with food, art, and loads of berets for sale and decided it was time for something to eat. A turkey sandwich on a baguette was the cheapest thing on the menu. It was around 11 a.m.
There were only two more stops on our journey to Omaha. The first was Point-du-Hoc, where we spent about an hour climbing through the remnants of bunkers and shell holes where rangers had taken cover 68 years earlier. The next was at a small orchard and farmhouse just east of Ste-Pierre-du-Mont. There was a sign out front that said Calvados and cider.
Being the borderline alcoholics that we were, it just had to happen.
We bought a small bottle of Calvados and a very large bottle of hard cider. We were told to let the cider chill for 2 hours before drinking, so we parked in a hedgerow on a dirt road just outside the farm and downed the entire thing.
As ridiculous as it may seem, this was one of my favorite parts of the trip. Here I was lying back in the tall, wide-stemmed grass of a Norman hedgerow, looking at a field of grazing dairy cattle drinking local cider. I wondered if nearly 70 years ago a 21-year-old GI from the 29th Infantry might have been resting in the exact same place, sipping on liberated cider from that very farm.
We made the remaining ride to Omaha in great spirits. The cider had rejuvenated us and the closer I got to the beach the more determined I was.
We locked our bikes to a tree near the parking lot and walked toward the beach. My pace quickened as I came closer to the entrance. To our right you could just make out a remaining bunker cut into the top of the cliff. We walked through the parking lot, took a big right turn and saw Omaha beach, a four-mile stretch of French coastline where 2,000 Americans had given their lives in a single day.
It was the end of July, around 85 degrees and sunny. The beach was absolutely packed. Families making sand castles, old men in bathing suits playing some sort of strange game with what looked like metal softballs. There was a hamburger stand.
I felt this rage build up inside me. I’d seen an old man sob like a child as he told me what he’d witnessed on this beach in 1944, and these Frenchies were on fucking vacation.
Brian, apparently as stunned as I, didn’t say a word as we walked down the beach. That was fine with me.
It wasn’t until we were nearly to the other end of the beach that I began to realize my mistake. This place had been a beach long before it became Omaha beach. The great-grandparents of children playing in the surf were probably taken here by their parents before the war. We invaded France to give it back to its people.
I realized those GIs had died in part to allow these people to have a day at the ocean on summer weekends.
With my resentment toward the French temporarily sidelined, I prepared for what I knew would be the most emotional part of the day. The cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. Overlooking the east end of Omaha, it is filled with the graves of 10,000 WWII casualties.
We walked up the narrow path from the beach to the edge of the cemetery. The gate was closed. It was around 5:20 in the evening. The gate was only about two feet high and I saw several people still walking around. We hopped over and approached a small group of men sitting on the stone fence that surrounds the cemetery. They were English and were there for a military ceremony. They told us the cemetery closes at 5 p.m. Before we even had time to process this a very skinny, stereotypical Frenchman with a trashy mustache and beard approached us.
He spoke not a word of English but got across very quickly that we needed to leave. Neither of us spoke French, so our pleas did nothing to change his mind. We had ridden all the way from Carentan, walked 4 miles down the beach and were now turned away from our ultimate goal. We would not have the chance to come back. I was on the verge of tears.
As we slowly made our way back to the entrance one of the Englishmen pointed out the curator of the cemetery, who was standing not 40 feet away. He was an American.
I’ve never been able to remember his name, but if I did I would send him a Christmas card every year until the day I died. We approached him, told him our story and waited for his reply.
“Where you guys from?” he asked.
“Well I suppose I’ll make an exception for a couple of guys from Nebraska.”
He handed us a program he’d found on the ground and told us we could stay as long as we wanted, within reason.
The scruffy Frenchman stood nearby, looking defeated.
We spent the next hour in a field of white crosses, walking on grass that would put any golf course to shame in complete silence. We were the only people there.
I was standing in the presence of the bravest men to ever walk the Earth, men I held in higher regard than God. Yet I could see no other human being as far as I looked. I felt everything and nothing. Numbed by the reality of 10,000 citizen soldiers, invisible.
My mind was still in the clouds as we made our way back to the miniature gate, which the curator had left open for us. I closed it, turned around for one final look at the cemetery then headed down the trail. We got no more than 20 feet before I heard an American voice call out to us.
“You guys enjoy your visit?”
I turned and looked, it was a different American. He was older. Gray-haired and heavyset with a very angry look on his face. Not knowing he was being sarcastic, we responded in kind.
“We did, thanks so much,” I said.
“Well I’ve got bad news,” he says. “We’ve got you on camera trespassing on federal property. You need to come up here.”
You’ve got to be fucking kidding me right? I didn’t say that of course, but could this day get any weirder? I’d just spent an hour on an emotional rollercoaster and was still processing the thought of walking through of all those graves filled with kids my age, some younger. Now I’m about to be brought up on charges for trespassing?
Our pleas for mercy went over much better with the overweight American than they did with the bearded Frenchman. We explained that we had in fact been given permission to stay after hours, and the man eventually backed down. He let us go.
My head was spinning at this point. I needed Calvados. We had plenty. After a few pulls I straightened myself out and with unknown names on white crosses still running through my head (Anderson…Smith….Hall…Niland) I made my way back across the four miles of beach.
We unlocked our bikes from the tree as the sun was setting. Judy’s head popped into my mind.
“You can’t make it to Omaha Beach and back in one day.”
Well Judy, you got us there.
We rode 24 kilometers without stopping. Past the farm with the cider, past Point-du-Hoc, past every random hedgerow that looked exactly the same as the last one. We eventually made it to Isigny-sur-Mer at around 10 p.m. It’s at this point that I’ll mention we hadn’t eaten anything since 11 a.m., the last time we were in Isigny. And we had only drank about a bottle of water a piece out of a bathroom sink at Point-du-Hoc, plus the bottle of hard cider and around 3 shots of Calvados. And we were sunburnt as hell.
There was one restaurant that still had its lights on. We walked in and were immediately turned around. They were closed. We were 7 kilometers from Carentan and our B&B. About 5 miles. We had no choice but to get back on the bikes and keep going.
5 minutes later we were on a narrow road between two hedgerows. No traffic and no streetlights. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face let alone Brian who was about 20 feet ahead of me.
It was everything I could do to make my legs work. They were somehow still going in a circle, taking me closer to my queen sized bed at Judy’s place.
Then all of a sudden they weren’t.
I passed out, went face first into the ditch on the side of the country road. Brian kept riding, he hadn’t heard me crash and burn.
He tells me it was around 10 minutes before he realized I wasn’t behind him, turned around and went back to find me sprawled out in the ditch. I was sound asleep. He woke me up and after another 10 minutes of reasoning with my incoherent brain he got me to stand up. I couldn’t ride the bike, so we had to hoof it.
We saw one light far off in the distance. Carentan? Definitely not. It was a small farmhouse with a few out-buildings. We put one foot in front of the other and just barely made it there before we both had to stop. I collapsed below the light and stared up at the bugs fighting for space underneath it. Brian decided we needed some food, immediately.
Brian is somewhat of a language junky. He speaks fluent German and Spanish, and at the time was working on both French and Russian (he’s getting pretty good now). On the bus to Paris he had messed with a French iPhone app and had apparently learned one word. “Bread.”
He left me lying underneath the dim streetlight like a wino in a Brooklyn alley and knocked on the farmhouse door. It was a short conversation.
I have to admit if a sunburnt, dirty, smelly Frenchman knocked on my door at 11:30 at night and said “bread,” I would probably slam the door in his face too. So I don’t blame the fella for doing exactly that.
(Although I picture him doing it with the little French smirk that they get as they’re trashing someone else’s painting or taking a sip of cheap wine. Yes, we know it’s not as good as yours, get over yourself. And shave your chest for Christ’s sake.)
By this point I was completely delusional, murmuring nonsensical fraises about Escargot and the Chunnel. Brian was trying to get me home, asking simple questions to keep me talking. I had moved down (or up?) the babysitting rungs from wino to 3-year-old.
He pulled me to my feet and made a joke about never having kids. Then we walked out from under the yellow glow of the lonely streetlamp, heading west again.
Into the breach. The home stretch.
We got back to Carentan just after 1 a.m. I actually managed to ride the last half-mile or so. I very distinctly remember talking about chocolate cake, which made my mouth water. I hate chocolate cake.
“God-damned Judy,” I thought. “Should have warned us.”
We unlocked the back door of the B&B and I headed straight for the kitchen. All I could find was a measly cup of orange juice.
I woke up the next morning, sad to realize there was actually only one queen sized bed in our room and I was sharing it with Brian. Could have sworn there were two last night.
We threw back the covers and checked our maps. 35 kilometers, that’s almost 22 miles one way. Plus four miles down the beach and four miles back.
That’s 52 miles. Combine that with no food and a decent amount of alcohol and you get a pretty rough morning.
But this was Normandy. Immaculate villages by the sea made entirely of stone and more history in all directions than I would ever see again. This was my dream trip. We had a day and a half left and we were burning daylight.
We went downstairs for breakfast and were cutoff in the hallway by Judy. She instantly began giving us flack for coming in too late.
“I told you so,” she said.
Ya no shit Judy.
We went out back to smoke in the garden after breakfast. There were the bikes, just staring at us. I wanted to destroy mine, find a piece of pipe and just beat the hell out of it. But I didn’t. I finished my Lucky, put on the backpack and grabbed the bike by it’s ridiculously uncomfortable handlebars. We pushed them to the street and turned northwest.
“Ste. Mere Eglise,” I said, then started to pedal.