Players:The Captain, The Bride, Nancy Grade, Erich Grade
C/B: "All right, we're on our way to Prague!" We had purchased tickets East by rail and were very enthusiastic about it. This would be our first trip as a couple to another country, excited much.
EG: "Hey the airman who was going with me to the flyover had to fall out, wanna come with?" The characteristic nonchalant tone belied a greater trove...
C: "Hell yes!" Emphatically the captain replied, realizing the fantastic opportunity to be a part of an event rather than just a tourist. The squadron had been tasked by USAFE(USAir ForcesEurope), to control several flyovers for American cemeteries on the upcoming Memorial Day weekend. The captain hadn't signed up because he and the bride were stateside with some other business, like marriage or something. "Controlling," is like ATC or tower at an airport and our task was to have a flight of fighters hold outside the cemetery, synch up and then give them the, "sic 'em," to go and amaze the crowd with a spectacular honor to our lost comrades buried below. Our particular target area was St. James Cemetery, Brittany, France, where some 4,410 American soldiers are laid to rest. Their landing sites of Utah and Omaha beaches lie 45 klicks Northeast. But not all interred there are soldiers, many are from the then, Army Air Corps, (before the Air Force came about in 1947), bomber and fighter crews who overflew the cemetery under much different circumstances 63 years ago. For the Captain and his comrade this had a certain significance.
C: "Huhrah-aw-huh, (French onomatopoeia), we arrre naw en France!" "Ze speed limit is now down to 130."
EG: "No way man, c'mon this is France, we have a German license plate, we can just steamroll over this country!"
C: "Oui-Oui!" And swiftly the heroes are flashed by a roadside speed camera, "welcome to France indeed, dammit." The path was through most of North France to include, yes, Paris, which sucks for traffic even if you're like 50 miles South on a bypass. We saw trucks that had our Lord and Savior on them that some how seemed to transcend the traffic and really, "haul some Jesus." The tolls to get through the area are equivalent to the GNP of the Falkland Islands. We kept a careful eye on all such expenses because we were on TDY(temporary duty), orders and would be re-reimbursed for this trip. Erich is also the finance guy for the squadron so it is a great success, a free tour through the North of France. After we exited the highway and coursed like whitewater kyakers through a hundred roundabouts, around 1 AM, we reached the Lion d' Or restaurant and hotel in St James, France. The matri-dee was a sign posted for us to go inside and find our rooms. After a code was punched in, we entered the soup-smelling (not in a bad way), French sized hotel.
Highlights of the tour include:
Geography-the church is essentially set upon a pinnacle of rock and has to be supported on its sides by massive cut-stone emplacement and buttresses.
Snobby (aka: City-French) Guide- Yeah, but they give a hell of a tour.
We descended the monolith and headed to the X to drop off souvenirs. Luckily, we were not there for the two times a month the area floods with tides, or we would have been stuck on the island. This afforded yours truly to escape the tourist companions and run a lap around the windswept, sandy shores of the fortress. This counts as the Captain's first official run in France! I was compelled to take several pictures of the ever-beautiful, afternoon sun-smooched bride out there.
Following the run we all ate at a supposed four star restaurant where the only thing four star was the price. Erich, a serious foodie, was ecstatic to try the local delicacy of lamb and when it was served like a slice of cafeteria-turkey and a can of beans, it looked like his heart was broken. The food sucked, straight up and lesson was learned not to eat in the tourists traps. To ameliorate his honor and heal some wounds, we stopped at a winery on our way back to St James. Still in that far-cast fleece of afternoon stretched golden upon the abbey you were struck supernaturally by its beauty. Not like unicorns and leprechauns, but in the way that human hands could craft such an iconic setting. It is no wonder pilgrims have travelled to this site for 1400 years.
Evening starts with mysterious fluid poured into stumpy, port-style glasses and wine, when the captain and the bride meet the Grades for drinks at the restaurant below the hotel.
NG: "Here drink this, it will sting your lips!" The vile local brewed concoction in reference was known as, Calvados, a twice distilled, once satan blessed, brew crafted from apples and evil. Brewed by local French wizards I think. Eagerly Msr. Didirot looked on to capture the exact moment the Americans would wince, however the bride destroyed all paradigms he had by downing the beverage like a true champ and smiling afterward. My hero. We shared some wine and went out on the town for culture. Yeah, that sounds great and all but in small town France, much like small town anywhere, everything closes early. We hit two or three small pubs that were actually hotel bars and didn't play music as that would awake the guests. Sadly, most of our interaction was with old bartenders or chefs.
We had until 1430 to be in place for the flyover. A trip somewhere was necessary-St Malo stood out on the map. A magnificent walled sea-side fortress of a city, this area shed a whole new light on Northern France. The sky cleared and wind abated to reveal a serene resort quality beach, beset with emerald fading to blue lapping waters. The city walls were impressive, about two car lengths across on top. The city itself had an organic quality where every available space was filled with Gothic architecture and buildings fitted tightly inside like a hermit crab inside a conch shell. Outside the walls the beach, smooth golden sand, sub-fortresses on surrounding rocks and tidal pools abounded. There was no where near enough time to explore this amazing town and to you reader, we swear to return.
This is it, the reason to read this whole piecemeal word salad, thanks for staying on until the end, I promises to make it worthy.
We join our heroes departing Lion D' Or with their radio kit, (100lb box of equipment), descending stairs. Suddenly met by locals armed with cameras and and each with a glass filled with Calvados trying to hand us the vile drink.
C: "Uhhh, merci, we gotta go..." a drink glass apiece was given to our free hands and a young girl dressed in a white robe appeared with a bottle of hell.
Msr Didirot: "Merci, mes amis bouivoins calvados, c'est le femme communion."
C: "Dude Grade, they say we have to drink or they'll kill us."
EG: "Well, if we have to...," just then the young girl celebrating her baptism set to pour a shot for Grade. She then proceeded to pour a full glass of evil for yours truly. With quick action defining the captain, he shot down the crazy-the locals gasped as if he had eaten Mont St Michel itself. Grade found courage and downed his. "Vive le France," our heroes shouted and away to the X. We set up in the tower and it was rad. The gale winds blew with a ferocity reminiscent of a certain day 63 years earlier. Our timeline began with fighter takeoff in Spangolem AFB, Germany. Monitoring our freqs we counted away while below hallowed veterans gathered and the ceremony began. Conditions grew bleak as the window approached, rain to the South, East and North with winds charging from the West. Fighters (3xF-16), checked in...
Strut 1: "Reaper01-Strut01 checking in as fragged."
C/EG: "Strut-Reaper tgt area clear, push at five after."
Strut 1: "Copy."
The view from the tower was amazing, the North was an impressionist painting of rain strewn landscape. East and South were the dark belly of a leviathan wrought with anger and ferocity through thunder and gale. West, though was idyllic laying a sheet of sunlight upon the cemetery, and also the flight path for the jets.
Strut 1: "Strut Pushing."
Then the fighters shot out of the East sky over the cemetery and blew the crowd away with the roar of three single engine F-16s. Our job was done and we now listened to the speeches by dignitaries, priests, Rabbi's and generals until the colors were retired. We had the best seats in the cemetery.
Sunday night we had a seven course gourmet meal. There are too many descriptions to go into here, suffice to say the main course and dessert were on fire, literally. The whole meal + 2 bottles of wine only cost $80 per couple-unheard of!
Trying to avoid Paris to escape Northern France only slows you down. Champagne in champagne is worth slowing down for though.