“Push me on the swing!”
It was a huge swing made from two telephone poles. Henri Levaufre worked for the telephone company as an electrical engineer laying lines in Periers, France. I imagine that is where the poles came from. At the age of eleven I could stand upon the swing seat and pump it until the swing was horizontal to the ground causing slack in the lines. It didn’t matter that it was a significant fall to the ground. Sometimes I could implore the oldest, teenage son, Christian to push me so I could remain seated and reach otherwise unattainable heights. They would try to stop me as I came pummeling through by catching me in a blanket stretched tightly from one side of the swing to the other by his younger brothers. “Me pousser su la balancoire Christian! S’il vous plait!” Please I would beg. Most of the time Christian would fold and push me – this handsome young Frenchman who I adored.
It was 1969 and we were there to visit Henri who was just beginning to host American veterans of the 90th division. The 90th was the division that liberated that particular area in France when Henri was 13 years old. I visited them twice, once with just my parents, and once my older sister Maureen accompanied my parents and I. Maureen was married at the time but had never been able to travel as a child. (Maureen celebrates her 50th wedding anniversary in a few weeks.)
My father was a decorated WWII veteran who was a medic in the European theatre. He was also at the invasion of Normandy Beach on D-Day. During my father’s funeral in which the usual military delegation attended, there wasn’t any roll call as they usually do. I was told he was the last survivor of the 90th division WWII vets.
Henri has devoted his lifetime to honoring the lives of soldiers on both sides of the battles beginning with the Americans. In his mapping out of the fox holes and battles of that area, he found pieces of artillery and other debris, including German remains and dog-tags, making him an instrument in bringing closure to the questions of a family whose son had been missing for a very long time. When we visited he had a small museum in his basement. From what I understand that was the beginning of a much larger public museum now.
Henri has since been to the US many times and honored by former president Reagan, as well as a long list of honors including the official 90th European representative. I know my father continued to see Henri over the years, but for the most part that was kept a secret from me due to the family dysfunctions between my separated parents, and estranged brothers. No information was safer for all concerned – or so they thought.
As this blog goes along with the book project I am writing about my life of healing from trauma, childhood memories are a part of that healing. I often think about my fathers reactions to situations and his probable case of traumatic stress as many WWII veterans and civilians must have dealt with. There are so many stories of the children of WWII veterans who remember harsh discipline and anger in the 1950’s and 60’s. Maybe unresolved traumatic stress was a culprit. Maybe not. Maybe just fallen humanity.
Today, in thinking about my father, I found myself looking up Henri. I discover that he has written a book and I ordered it from Amazon. I saw my fathers name mentioned in the book and want to learn whatever history may still be available to me; I want to learn more about the 90th division as a part of my heritage and the heritage of my family. I pass that history on to my son Elijah who served in the Air Force, my son Levi who is getting ready to join the Air Force, and my son-in-law who was regular Army, now full time National Guard. It is a family legacy I am proud of.
You can see or order the book here:
As a result of looking up Henri’s name, and a little further digging I was able to find him and begin a dialogue with him via email, now at 82 years of age.
Sadly, my father died just two months prior to the books publication which means the men who fought for the liberation of Perier would never see the book that honors them. The way of most heroes – they never know they are heroes until after their death.
So today, my blog honors the men of the 90th division who lived and died for the cause of freedom; and to Henri Levaufre, who made a difference in showing them all that what they fought for had a greater purpose, and that they will never be forgotten.
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” John 15:13
Note: I hope I can take David to meet Henri someday soon while he and his lovely wife are still there to greet me; and to see the places that so deeply influenced my father, my family, and a nation.