Jolt, bounce, jerk
The moment the plane landed on French soil, my heart went into my throat and tears welled up in my eyes. No one on that cramped plane from Dublin to the Charles de Gaulle airport was tuned into the magnitude of that moment. This was it. It was real.
I was “over there.”
I wanted to squeal, I wanted to cry, but I settled for grinning and sniffling quietly to myself. (I’m even tearing up as I write this).
You can read about a place. You can watch films about a place. You can even write about a place. But until you’ve been to that place, it can’t become a part of you like France and World War I did during my 12-day journey over there.
Some of the actual journey reflected what the Choctaw soldiers went through, with stark exceptions. Saying farewell to my mama (we are inseparable). Leaving from Fort Worth. A country girl traveling overseas for the first time. Not able to speak the language of the country you’re going to. The Choctaw soldiers had the benefit of being with thousands of fellow doughboys. But I had the benefit of knowing I wasn’t heading into a war where I might be killed with those fellow doughboys.
After getting off the plane, I made it through the crazy CDG airport, saw French soldiers patrolling the platform at the TGV train station, and was so relieved to find my travel mate, Tiajuana Cochnauer.
The first week I spent feverishly trying to make contacts at the American Battle Monuments Association (ABMC), searching for a guide who could help us explore the battle sites. James S. Bertelson, Assistant Superintendent at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, came through with a list of guides in the area. One by one, they weren’t available. And then I received an enthusiastic response from a gentleman named Roger Cook. Not only did he speak English (with a brilliant Welsh accent) and could expound on little-known stories in the area, he offered to tour us around for three days in his 1997 blue Renault Mégane Cabriolet. With the top down.
Back to that first week, while in Reims during the National Association for Interpretation (NAI) conference where Tiajuana presented, I visited the 13th century cathedral and touched the WWI bullet holes and shell damage. Inside were photos of further damage, including the angel statue’s missing head. I sat inside the coolness for awhile and felt the history of French kings being crowned there for centuries.
I went around and down the block to the Carnegie Library, another connection to WWI.
In the middle of that week, I had my first taste of trenches.
As part of the NAI conference, they had day-long tours from which to choose. Though I wasn’t attending the whole conference, I did opt-in to join the WWI battle sites tour that covered the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, Belleau Wood, and the Chateau-Thierry Monument.
One of the first things that struck me in France was the presence of America, especially monuments and cemeteries from the First World War. All through our trip, I truly appreciated help from the great folks at the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), like Constant Lebastard, our tour guide for the day.
The American cemeteries and monuments are kept in immaculate condition by the ABMC.
Belleau Wood and the U.S. Marines
The Marines took these woods after bloody combat that included the infamous “wheat field.”
For me, these woods are where I stepped foot in my first trench.
It was a shallow depress, possibly a communication trench. But it gave me chills to step down into a life-sized, full color, honest-to-goodness WWI trench.
And then there was the hillside pocked with giant shell holes.
It actually didn’t occur to me until I began writing this that dashing up the hillside covered with leaves and shell holes may not have been the brightest thing to do. I had read plenty of warnings about “staying on the path” and not picking up unexploded shells in books and on websites.
I’m a very cautious person. I don’t do risky things. It’s just that in that moment of seeing the shell hole riddled slope and being at the back of the group where no one paid attention to my antics, and me wanting to get the full sensory experience, I tramped up, in and around the holes and took in the view from up there. It felt too much like the woods of East Texas I grew up running through with my brother when we were kids, getting scratched up by briars and watching out for old barbed wire.
It didn’t occur to me until weeks later that I could have gotten a real sensory experience if there had been live shells underneath my tromping feet. We don’t have those in the piney woods of East Texas.
I have no idea if there are unexploded shells in Belleau Wood. No one in the group warned us to stay on the path, but still…
Then there was the Chateau-Thierry monument that can be seen from miles away. Amid many of the American divisions, it recognized the 1st Division, the one Sergeant Otis Leader served in. He was the only Choctaw Code Talker not in the 36th.
We had the privilege of seeing the new visitor center before it opened to the public and even got an insider tour underground to the center of the monument.
In the new visitor center, I was thrilled to see these familiar faces:
That was all the time I had to explore WWI history in the Reims area that first week of bunking in the dorm-style room with Tiajuana for the conference, eating cafeteria food and McDonald's.
With reservations made at a little hotel in Dun-sur-Meuse (the friendly owner spoke English!), Tiajuana and I set off in a rental car for parts unknown…
And didn’t get very far.