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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Memorial Day With A TWIST

Contributed by Michael Linn Jones

About two hours drive north of Paris there is a small village; la Neuviille-Houssett. Not far from this village is a farm, dissected by a small lane. This is old country, originally civilized by the Romans and witness to centuries of the horror of warfare. Across the lane from this farm is a Cross, with a small retaining wall holding a bronze plaque.

The monument, standing about 15 feet high, looks out upon a rising field, facing a hillock where on a cloudy night in 1944, an American bomber crashed at nightfall. The aircraft split in half, and all the crew were ejected. Local men dragged the men away from the flames. They were carried to the farmhouse. Three men survived, and the other four died. One was a young man from West Virginia. He died on a kitchen table, with Last Rites being read by a local priest. Aware of the fact that the dying man was Protestant, this priest did not care; a man of God performed his duty. This particular priest turned out to be the kind of man who did a lot of things not expected of him.

The West Virginian in question was the bomber's tailgunner, a SSgt. Wetzel Kimball. Several years before he had fallen in love with a girl from Jackson, Tennessee named Camille Owen. Camille had to accept the loss of her husband, a common experience in those days.

The village priest, Father Heroux, dedicated himself to bringing closure to the families of the dead airmen. In 1946 Fr. Heroux raised the funds necessary to erect the original Cross, at the same site where it stands today. He travelled to the U.S. after the war and met Camilee and other family members of the crew.

In 1948 Camillle opted to have her husband's remains returned to the United States from his resting place at Epinal in France. He was finally laid to rest in Hollywood Cemetery in Jackson, Tennessee.

In 2001, the local people of la Neuville-Houssett learned the details of the old Cross along the farm lane. Without government involvement or support, a huge amount of money was raised, and the result is what you see in the photograph. It is, if I may say so, as much a testimony to the gratitude and good hearts of good people as it is a remembrance of dead soldiers.

Near the southern border of the Netherlands is a small town named Margraten. Nearby is an American cemetery from World War II. Please watch this short video; it'll only take a moment of your time. It's important that you do so because within the clip is a short mention of the fact that the people of that area regularly visit the graves of the 8,000 men buried there.

What the video does not show is that following World War II, and also 9/11/2001, a system of "adopting" American graves took place. These people waited their turn to have "their" American to lay flowers upon at every American holiday, such as the 4th of July, Thanksgiving, and so on. They WAITED to have the opportunity to express their thanks to men who died long before many of them were even born.

Camille Kimball never remarried. She died a widow in 2003. After 59 years, she and her husband were finally reunited at the Hollywood Cemetery in Jackson. The love of one person for another can be most powerful, and in this case stretched for decades.
The story of the Kimballs is an interesting and poignant one. But you don't need to dwell upon them. In any city or town in this country there are cemeteries, and in each of them lies some man or woman who served us up gifts that we love but take for granted.

Sad to say, yet I'm proud to say, certain human beings in France and the Netherlands do not take these gifts for granted. It is part of their tradition that whatever frustrations they may feel in trying to figure out Americans, their gratitude is more than just talk. They walk their walk and, as in the case of Margraten, compete to do so.

Perhaps without knowing it, they are simply responding to the request of a dying Captain Miller in "Saving Private Ryan." He said, "Earn this. Earn this day."

If people an ocean away can do this, why cannot we start a similar tradition? On this Memorial Day, before you go off to your well-deserved rest or fun, take a moment to do something you've probably never thought of doing. Pick up some flowers...anywhere, it doesn't matter. Find the grave of a veteran and do no more than say "thanks."

You'll have a whole year to think about what you've done to earn that gift.
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