Our family arrived in France in 1965, just twenty years after the end of World War II. In the tense context of a still ongoing Cold War. With American servicemen deployed on bases and military installations situated on the outskirts of French cities. All over Europe for that matter.
We were there because our parents were liaison missionaries on behalf of our denomination. Part of their ministry was serving the spiritual concerns of troops stationed at some of those bases. Camp des Loges outside of Paris, in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, being one of them.
As a young boy I remember the Chapel at Camp des Loges. Fascinated by the way the sanctuary adapted to Catholic, Protestant and Jewish worship services. A crucifix, for the Catholic Mass, was prominently displayed on the wall, above the communion table. When the Protestants used the space, a drape was pulled to cover the crucifix, and a cross was placed on the communion table. For Shabbat services, the drape was still drawn and now the cross on the table was removed.
The Armed Forces Hymnal in the Chapel pew racks was just as utilitarian. One book with three sections. Catholic, Protestant and Jewish. Each of these three sections containing the appropriate anthems, scripture readings and liturgies of the faithful. Patriotic hymns scattered throughout. Arranged to inspire, uplift and prepare the souls of soldiers willing and ready to face peril and their Maker.
In the wake of President de Gaulle's 1966 decision to withdraw French troops from NATO and his ultimatum for U.S. forces to leave the country, Camp des Loges was swiftly decommissioned as the headquarters for United States European Command. Our family was present at the official closing ceremonies on March 14, 1967. This base and many others across France were vacated within a short period of time. Leaving behind empty infrastructures of military installations. Reflecting the ending of an era and, at that moment, a decisive shift in an increasingly tenuous alliance with the French.
But there were other United States infrastructures from even earlier eras that remained in France. Known by the names of Aisne-Marne, Brittany, Epinal, Lorraine, Meuse-Argonne, Normandy, Oise-Aisne, Rhone, Somme, St. Mihiel, and Suresnes. Burial grounds for American soldiers who fought and died there in World War I and World War II. With row upon row upon row of grave markers in regimental formations. Evoking memories of when the world was saved from the brink.
Our time in France was also at the height of another American struggle, the Vietnam War. Anti-war and anti-American sentiments were running high amongst a new generation of French citizens. Perhaps in part because of their nation's own, then relatively recent entanglement in the Indochina conflict.
Which made the encounter so much more poignant. An older French gentleman, at random, approaching the American couple from Texas. Reaching out with gratitude for the sacrifices of U.S. military during World War II, liberating the nation and freeing Europe from the unimaginable horrors of that time. My parents, standing in proxy for the fallen American soldiers in those few minutes. As a grateful citizen of France remembered the ultimate price paid twenty some odd years earlier and thanked the Americans profusely.
Fifty years have now passed since Camp des Loges and the U.S. military installments in France were vacated. Alliances have come and gone, and come again in this span of time. But the tending to the graves in those American military cemeteries on French soil is a perpetual commitment of our nation.
As should be the minding of the business of Memorial Day.
I've noticed some interesting articles and posts this year. Calling readers away from the mostly secular and seasonal associations of the holiday, back to the solemn origins of the Day. Shedding light on its inception as a commemoration of the hundreds of thousands slain in the Civil War. Sustained since then and for the most part as a national day to remember all American soldiers who have died in combat. Explaining how this Day is different in intention and observance from Veterans Day, when honor is paid to all who have served in the United States Armed Forces. And different from Armed Forces Day, when current members of the military are recognized and celebrated.
So what is the business of this Day, but to recall, reflect, recount, remember. And possibly to restate, realign, renew and recover.
Perhaps to learn a lesson from the configuration of the Chapel at Camp des Loges with its structures of utility and systems of unity. Devised so that diverse experiences of faith and divine mysteries of life could intersect. Especially for soldiers commissioned in the face of eternity.
To understand that alliances once paid for by their blood, sweat and tears can become fragile and tenuous as time goes on, and as the memories fade.
To meditate on the meaning of the regimental arrangements of the military cemeteries. Where spent and scattered lives are placed in row upon row upon row of linear witness and testimony.
To know how to be stewards of the message of these lives surrendered on behalf of struggle and strife.
To consider the purpose of perpetual hindsight, that takes all these disparate parts and somehow seeks to make sense of it all.
For at least one day out of the busy business year. To take seriously our task. Of minding the business of Memorial Day.
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