At this time of year, I always think of the visit I made to the American Military Cemetery at Thiaucourt, France, Southeast of Paris. The cemetery is in the center of where the Saint-Mihiel salient battle occurred in World War I.
At first blush, it’s very austere, pristine, and spit-shined. 4700 American soldiers are buried here, all of them heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice. Black wrought iron gates emblazoned with the American Eagle open onto a quiet, stoney world where you’re just a guest among the fraternity of the dead who’ve earned their place.
The markers are precisely lined up in a straight line fore and aft. The silence is broken only by a lawn mower, making its rounds between crosses and stars of David. An elderly Frenchman with an enormous brush goes from marker to marker, caressing each one from top to bottom to deter any acid rain, while a group of workmen sweep up the grass cuttings and leaf debris. In many ways, the cemetery is like an outdoors barracks, under 24-hour inspection from an unforgiving master sergeant who expects not a corner out of place in these tidy beds. Its presentation is overwhelming, and its formality unforgettable. It is these soldiers’ final stop after their last gasp.
On the visitor counter lies a large registration book. Reading it stabs one’s emotions, as most of the messages are very personal. One that stands out in my memory is from a Midwestern woman who lost her father in the battle. She’s been here before, but this is her last visit, as she’s dying from a terminal disease. Her dad was killed in an explosion in the fields nearby, and she never saw him again after he left for France, but she still feels his presence in the mustard-colored tips of the flowing grass. In her illness, it gives her great comfort to be here. Her words are filled with both the sadness of his fate and the joy of remembrance – touch, feel and smell. He was her father, and you only get one; she loved him as only a daughter can. She says she leaves feeling empty, as there will be no one left to fill her place, but she knows she’s done her best to keep his memory alive. She feels he’s not alone here, among all his other dead comrades and friends. “I love you, Dad.”