(Originally posted June 6, 2018) I should be packing. My flight to France and Belleau Wood and Eben leaves in a few short hours, and
there is laundry strewn across the bed and I can’t find my phone charger. The cat, anxious and high on his new catnip toy, is trying to kill me by placing himself directly in front of my feet as I race up and down the stairs. I have coffee to grind and portion out (I have made myself indispensable to Mr. Dorau by making his coffee for so long that he can no longer make it for himself), and heaven knows my footwear, all of it, is hopelessly clumpy and unfit for fashionable France.
And all day, in the bustling churn of my brain, there has been another track playing, one that sticks in my throat when it rises above the noise. Today, beginning at dawn, just twenty-six years apart, young men from Newburyport, Amesbury, Ipswich, names we would all recognize – ran headlong into a hail of bullets. One hundred years ago, it was Belleau Wood, the first large-scale engagement fought by American troops in World War I. Clifton B. Cates described the scene in a letter home. “It has been a living hell. We were shelled all night with shrapnel and gas shells. … It was mustard gas and a lot of the men were burned.” Over one thousand marines died that day, more than on any other day in marine corps history to that point. Eben Bradbury was there on June 6, and for five more days after – passing through scenes of unspeakable carnage as the 55th marine company grappled with German machine guns in the tangled, smoky brush. It must have been other-worldly for a kid who had only ever been as far from home as New Hampshire.
In 1944, it was Normandy. My grandfather (Dad’s dad) Robert Uhlig, landed at Utah Beach with the 4th Infantry Division. He was a machinist from Waltham, a first-generation German-American – the son of Herman Fredrick Uhlig. He ran ashore with the sons of Puritans from Newbury. I was talking last night with my friend Margaret Powell who (a brief aside), is in the market for a middle name, since her parents failed to give her one. Feel free to submit suggestions here. She is reading The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan, and amid the laughter and silliness of our visit, she teared up whenever she thought about what would be happening in the morning to these young men. It had never occurred to me that Belleau Wood and D-Day began on the same day, or that they were so close together. I have walked the fields of Belleau Wood, held its iron-red soil in my hands, and know its terrible places like a nightmare from my childhood. Just twenty-six years later, other boys, other soil, but still…
Time becomes a slippery things when history becomes real to you. Eben is long dead – he would be long dead even if he had lived a long and happy life. My grandfather is long gone, along with the phalanx of great-uncles with their stories from Okinawa and Iwo Jima and the Ardennes. Their experience was real, though, as real my cursing stumble down the last three stairs as the cat ran under my feet. We are having very different June 6ths, me and Eben and Grampy Uhlig, and I am feeling them all right now. But I really must pack.