(Originally posted June 8, 2018) I arrived in Paris yesterday (Thursday) afternoon after very long sixteen hours of delays and flights and grumpy Norwegian Air employees, none of whom were actually Norwegian, as far as I can tell. My grandfather held the Norwegians to an impossibly high standard, as he believed they were the best people on earth. After a lifetime at sea, he felt fully qualified to pass judgement on an entire population based on the behavior of their citizens in port cities during the middle of the twentieth century. My Norwegian Airlines experience would have disappointed him terribly, and he may have re-assessed his entire hierarchy of nations. Suffice it to say that after a seven hour flight without a drop of water, morsel of food, or iota of kindness, I arrived in Paris famished and irritable.
Cynthia, a professional photographer and my dear friend, had been in Europe for a week, and as I wandered, bleary-eyed and parched, past the Hertz car rental station, she saw immediately that what I needed most was a warm hug and a full gallon of Scottish Highland water from the Marks and Spencer kiosk. Never have I been so glad to pony up for imported boutique water.
Cynthia and I have traveled together before, though never alone, and not for an extended period, and this is a deeply personal mission for me. I hoped that she was ready for the duller parts of the journey – the pouring over maps and letters and talking to a headstone. I need not have worried. From the moment we popped into an impossibly adorable Citroen to a scant fifty minutes later when we turned the car to face the long, rose-lined drive to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, she was all gasps and open eyes and full, beautiful investment in the mission.
We rolled up the manicured drive, the imposing memorial chapel towering over the headstones ahead of us, and then, unable to face the walk to Eben’s grave (row 7, number 84), we sat next to the car and tucked into some sandwiches Cynthia had brought along. And then the cops came. You see, we were sitting directly under the “no picnicking” sign. As a sturdy, bearded guard approached and I tried to hide my sandwich under my shirt, Cynthia popped up with a confident “bonjour”, and five minutes later, Simon the Breton was our new best friend. As we sat chatting with Simon, who spoke little English to our little French, two young men made their way hastily across the parking lot. Something about their approach was definitively American. There is an openness about Americans abroad, a wide-eyed optimism and friendliness that is attractive and familiar. A big, open-mouthed, smiling “hi” came from the smaller of the two, and five seconds later we had ascertained that he was from Salem, Massachusetts, and he was there with his buddy, a marine, who wanted to drink from the Devil Dog fountain in town. Simon the Breton had the key, and they had fifteen minutes to get to the fountain and back before the cemetery closed and Simon locked the huge iron gates and I lost my chance to say hello to Eben on my arrival day, but we weren’t going to miss the chance to visit the fountain in the company of a marine.
The German army occupied the tiny hamlet of Belleau until forced from it at the end of June, long after Eben Bradbury was gone. During the battle that eventually drove them out, a German soldier is said to have referred to the marines as fighting like “devil dogs”, and the name became a point of pride as it remains today. As U.S. troops cleared Belleau of German troops, they came across a fountain on the estate of the former Countess of Belleau, featuring a cast iron head of a snarling bulldog. This fountain is revered by the marines, who are said to live ten years longer if they take a long drink. Our new friend reverentially unlocked the gate, we all said “I can’t believe I’m actually here” a dozen times, and he drank long and hard from the cold, clear water of the fountain. I asked if I could take a drink, and since we had managed to share a tiny bit of our story with him, he agreed that we were on a worthy pilgrimage as well. It was an honor.
I was up to my elbows in the fountain when we all realized that the cemetery was about to close. Simon was locking the gate as the Citroen whipped around the corner and up the drive. We returned the key to the fountain, and begged to be allowed to have two more minutes to visit Eben. We had come so far. Simon gave a us a less friendly look, but gave in, and we stashed the car in the lot and ran toward the long curved rows of white marble headstones at a brisk trot. I remembered exactly where he was buried – I was sure of it. I went right to the spot, but he wasn’t there. A William Wood was in his place. The field began to swim before my eyes. Could I have come to the wrong place? Did they move him? Cynthia was running up and down the rows like a border collie on a flock – “this one, over here, this one?” A lone bugler began to play from the steps of the chapel. The flags were lowered, and I was exhausted and hot and dizzy and I couldn’t find Eben.
The last bugler’s note hung in the air, and I realized that I would have to wait until tomorrow to see “our boy”, in whom we had all invested so much. As I raised my head to apologize to Cynthia, she was in a full setter point in front of Eben’s grave, just a few stones down. “He’s here”, she whispered, like she didn’t want to scare him away. “And they just played Taps for him”. I smoothed the stone, traced his name with my fingers, told him how much I had been thinking about him, and how many people remembered him. I told him I was sorry I couldn’t stay, but I would be back tomorrow. I wish I could say that finding Eben’s grave made me happy. In the end, it’s still a story of suffering and loss, of the soft, precious body of a young man against murderous machinery. But we all need rituals, touchstones, remembrances. We all need to drink from our sacred fountain. For me, that marble cross, so long as it is visited and he is remembered, is a measure of immortality, and I will do my best to find it on the first try next time, until I know the way by heart.
The gorgeous photographs here were taken by Cynthia August, www.cynthiaaugust.com.
The silly selfies and blurry bits were taken by me.