Wednesday, February 5, 2014


St Ouen de Breuille, France - 1944

Snow today this winter of 2013-14 in Santa Fe. To be greeted enthusiastically since local falls have been scant this year and the area is experiencing continued severe drought. But in these so-called Golden Years of advanced age when I can no longer shovel the huge drifts on the north side of our home and gallery entrance -- and hired help never do removal to my standards -- I can't help but wish that the moisture was rain here in the city, snow restricted to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains where the skiers would love it and from where the spring runoffs benefit all of us here below.

A sun-lover, I not only think but dream of warmer climes during the cold months, envying the snow birds headed south, remembering long bright days in the Yucatan, in Greece, southern Spain, the Amalfi Coast. Once while on burnished sands under a palm tree on an island beach of Oahu, I considered whether the citizens of Hawaii were the wisest of all Americans. Blessed by the sun!

As boy and teenager, after-school and Saturday jobs frequently meant working in the cold -- assisting an uncle at his stall in open Broadway Market, peddling pendants and pins at football games in Oriole Stadium, hawking Christmas ornaments for a merchant of same in downtown Baltimore. Hadn't it sometimes felt invigorating then, and did the aversion to winter wait until senior years. Ah, no, one is fairly certain when it all began.

There'd been many days and nights when we'd not had quarters, were bivouacked in a wooded area near the French-Belgian border. Foxholes and pup-tents, continuous heavy snowfalls, knee-high drifts to slog through, meals from canned tins while sitting on frozen stumps or the ground; all fires, even cigarettes, banned because light might attract strafing Wehrmacht planes or snipers. Attempts to sleep while shivering in full uniform during nights upon the frigid turf. Consumption of confiscated calvados by those who "liberated" it did little to warm. I'd been alerted by a medic that my toes were developing frostbite. On a hill above us was a deserted chateau, off limits because its approach had been mined by German soldiers before they'd abandoned it during their retreat. More than the lure of a seductive woman, it offered sheltering embrace and warmth if it could be won.

The soldier beside me in our shared pup-tent uttered profanities through chattering teeth about our unit's inability to move forward, seek cover in appropriated farmhouses. I barely heard him, aware that numbness was claiming me, that though bombs and shelling had not struck, the cold winds were hissing Casualty. When I managed to sit up, my tent mate, alarmed that an attack might be underway, fearfully demanded "What?"
"I'm going to the chateau."
"You can't. It's mined, Off Limits. Orders."
Never one to risk the Brig by disobeying Orders, or to voluntarily seek peril to life or limb, survival instinct determined that the landmines were less a threat than oblivion in the snow. I crawled out of the tent and started up the hill.

Stakes and colored ribbons had been set into the ground by US Army Engineers ascertaining where the mines were buried. I inched slowly, cautiously forward, uncertain of every step. No thought of turning back -- moonlight silhouetted that chateau on the hill, a lighthouse at the end of this immense rough sea of white. A sudden noise behind me broke the silence. Turning apprehensively to look, I saw my tent mate crawling on his belly. Luck was with us. Either the engineers' markings were absolutely correct or most of the mines had already been defused, and we arrived safely at the chateau. Easy to gain entrance, despite boarded doors and windows and signs posted by lawful owners and our army that the property was Off Limits.

Mostly devoid of furnishings, the salons and many rooms of the multi-storied abode held clear evidence of recent Nazi occupation. With found candles, we observed obscene crude drawings scrawled hugely on walls, empty bottles cluttering floors, even a few personal items left behind by soldiers in hasty withdrawal. Chairs had obviously been sundered for use as firewood in the grand salon's large fireplace, and by collecting scattered remnants we soon were standing before blazing, healing warmth. My comrade's canteen proved not full of water but calvados he'd been hoarding, its scalding intake a wondrous flow through innards too long wracked by chill. I found a rug or coverlet made of sheepskins and laid it on the marble floor fronting the fireplace. Stripped of wet uniform, warmed by fire that burned through the night, the war went away for a while in blissful sleep.

There was no Disciplinary Action the next morning. Instead, I saw a few of our Headquarters' officers and non-coms being led up the hill by engineers with mine detectors monitoring their advance. Obviously, our absence had been noted and smoke from the chimney indicated where we were. Once inside the chateau, no officer or the First Sergeant questioned me. They began a thorough inspection of the stately structure. Before the day was over, a road had been cleared to the chateau, army trucks arrived with gear and furnishings -- desks, filing cabinets, field switchboards and phones, cots -- and the building was officially requisitioned as Battalion Headquarters.

That was there not here, then not now. Comparing reaction to winter's cold that time in that place to Santa Fe today is pointless. The mind insists that New Mexico's known a mild season, been spared the onslaught of arctic air which has plagued much of the nation. Granted. But the body argues. Then was youth, now is old age.


jaima chevalier said...

Loved this, Drew.

jaima chevalier said...
This comment has been removed by the author.