WE HAVE RENTED A RENAULT, MY FATHER, MY MOTHER AND I, AND ARE MAKING haste through rain-washed Norman countryside toward Omaha Beach. My infant daughter sleeps in a car seat in the back; my father, uncharacteristically expansive on this blustery morning, is telling about how Allied reconnaissance flights flew up and down over these verdant coastal farmlands 50 years ago.
"They knew every square inch of these beaches," he says. "They knew some of them were sand, some of them were shingle and some had cliffs, but what they didn't know about, and why not I don't know, were the hedgerows."
I try to look at the terrain without running off the road. The dread hedgerows of June 6. Centuries-old walls of root and earth, trees, shrubs and vines sprouting out of the top, they border every cultivated field around here; anyone could see why they made for so much trouble during the invasion we have come to contemplate. Nine thousand British, American and Canadian casualties by the close of business on that first day of Europe's liberation.
The rain has stopped when we pull into the American cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, but a special-effects wind sweeps fiercely up from the Channel. Under sullen, early spring skies, the grounds are of a heartbreaking sweetness and mesure . Little signs urge "Silence and Respect" in English and "Picnicking Forbidden" in French. The only sound is the wind raking the pines.
My mother stays in the car with the sleeping baby. Not far from the graves, my father and I come to a small, tidy house where records are kept of those buried here. A young Frenchwoman helps my father search for his friends from basic training. He finds Joseph Woodbury, from Michigan, and one Willy Preiss of Georgia, who went airborne when my father didn't.
"Willy Preiss. . . . We used to talk about politics." He recalls that they had read some of the same books and shared progressive views.
"Then he joined the 101st Airborne, and I didn't see him for about a month," he says. "I finally ran into him in London. He was on furlough, on his way to a movie. He said he liked the Airborne. Glad he signed up."
The Frenchwoman invites my father to sign a log of veteran-visitors, and we step back outside and return to the car. We say nothing.
FOR 15 YEARS AS A REPORTER, I HAVE MADE A LIVING BY JUST LISTENING TO people: a Red Army general in Kabul, a Senderista in a Peruvian dungeon, earthquake survivors in a broken, flaming metropolis. . . . I am permitted to ask such people more or less what I want. The arresting thing about this work is not how hard it is to get people to open up, but what a chore it can be to get them to give it a rest. And yet for all the notebooks filled with anecdotes and confessions, there is one "subject" I haven't listened to, haven't penciled in for an hour of Q&A;, haven't wanted to confront at all. That is my father.
He is an intensely quiet man, a journalist's nightmare, really, someone who answers questions with a straight-up yes or no and then shuffles off into the substantial acreage of his private preserve of thought. He was an insurance-claims examiner whose dislike of the work he did for 40 years would be hard to overstate; a dour, card-carrying Grant Wood Calvinist, an elder of the Presbyterian Church, no less, and one who really means it, to judge from his tithing; and a tree-farmer who has all his life been most content alone, in an unheated shack in the piney realm of northern Wisconsin, feeding on sardines, Wonder Bread and a cup of Swiss Miss brought to a boil on a Coleman stove.
My husband likes to say Thomas Edward Williams is wired to an invisible Walkman: "If taciturnity were an Olympic event, your father'd make it to the medal round, no question."
"Surely the Serbs will come around after a whiff of the grape!"
"I bet the Blue Jays take it in six!"
For years, I have accepted my father's grand apartness as just the way things are with him. I never cared--or is it dared?--to look beneath the smoother surfaces. But when he turned 72 recently, the silence began to grow unsettling. I was seized by a sense of something left undone. There are no gut-spillers in my family, but I began to think it far better to address certain yearnings now than pack around regrets later.
And I knew that there was only one solvent for any decent conversation with him--the Second World War. On this topic, my father is not just willing to talk, he can turn positively garrulous, even with perfect strangers. I once stood by in astonishment as he buttonholed a man with an English accent in a Hong Kong bus queue. He was Of a Certain Age, and my father decided to see whether the fellow felt like discussing what his war had been like.
My father is anything but a war-lover, but in the years since his return in 1945 from occupied Germany to Wisconsin, his beloved trees, his desk job and my mother, he has made himself an accomplished amateur scholar of this war, his war. How many other little girls would bike home from their flute lessons and find their father curled up with Marshall Zhukov's memoirs?
"What did you do in the war, Daddy?"
I had never bothered to ask. Neither had my brother, or either of my sisters. All of us had other demands on our attention, I suppose--like "Gilligan's Island"--and enough teen-age foolishness to keep us from wondering what the last generation had seen, and whether it might not hold something for us.
In any case, I had only the most notional sense of what my father's GI life had been all about--he had not seen any action, he was a clerk, something to do with Operation Overlord, the planning for D-Day. Now I wanted to know just what it was, and why those times seem to mean so desperately much to him, even five decades later.
Could his great, mysterious silence be traced to the war, to some transformative moment of awfulness as he soldiered in 1944 and 1945 from southern England to Normandy, and finally to Berlin?
Suddenly, things seemed to come together to provide a father and daughter convergence--half-century observances were pouring down on the consciousness of all but Europe's dead and addlebrained--and I was moving to Berlin. It was probably impudent to ask the Second World War to serve as the backdrop for a big-time, last-chance exchange with my father, but that is what I decided to do. We would retrace his wartime route, and at some point he would begin speaking and I would finally know my father. I gathered my courage and phoned Wisconsin: Could we meet for tea at the Connaught in London and take it from there? I knew he'd say yes. And not much more.
IT IS RAINING IN LONDON, A GENTLE SPRING SHOWER THAT KNOCKS THE apple blossoms off dripping black boughs. We have loaded the baby stroller into the back of a boxy taxi and are rolling through the streets of Belgravia to a place called Norfolk House. I had not yet found a good baby-sitter in Berlin, so I brought my 10-month-old daughter along. My 2-year-old son stayed behind with his dad.
My father is indeed happy to have an excuse to return to Europe. And he has come for our recherche equipped with two copies of an essay on his wartime-London experience, something he'd written in response to an American historian's call for reminiscences. I had known nothing about this exercise.
From the manuscript I learn much about my father. By the time he was a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, the Nazi writ extended in Europe from Norway to Crete, from the outskirts of Leningrad to the boot of Italy. He was ready to enlist in the army air corps, until he learned he was colorblind. He tried the Marines but was sent away as underweight. So he joined the Army, figuring he would be commissioned. The Army had other ideas. It made my father a rifleman and after much to-ing and fro-ing on trains and trucks, he found himself in Halifax's harbor aboard the Mauritania, a British Merchant Marine vessel, which duly weighed anchor for England. In Liverpool, he learned that he was being sent to London to work for something called COSSAC.
More trucks, more trains and, finally, there is my father, all of 21, in an office just off Piccadilly Circus, now the keeper of the keys to a filing cabinet that, he is told, houses the master plans for the invasion of France.
Out of nowhere, certainly without having asked for it, he has a secret clearance. It will be his job to copy the Normandy plans as needed and to sleep on a cot next to the files, a carbine beside him, ready to defend the contents against any intruder. The code-name COSSAC would soon change to Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. SHAEF was doing business, for the time being, out of Norfolk House.
Very big-deal stuff for a Wisconsin game warden's son who'd seen little of the world. And what's this about the Marines? I came of age at a time when the blood-and-guts Marines were having a nasty go of it in Vietnam, and the news of my father's attempt to go the "Full Metal Jacket" route makes no sense, given his demeanor.
"Well, the Marines had the reputation of an elite fighting group," he says. "I thought if I was going to be a fighting man, I might as well live up to my potential."
A fighting man, my quiet father. Wasn't he racked with fear and, um, loathing as he boarded the Mauritania? Again, Vietnam drove my thinking; I cannot redo his climb up the gangplank without great shuddering.
"No, no. I was glad I was healthy and able to do something. I don't think anybody had any idea of what combat was really going to be like."
"Well, they never do!" offers my mother. "I think that's why we keep having so many wars. One generation can't pass its experience with war on to the next."
Indeed. As we roll through the streets of Belgravia, my father calls out the names of churches, art galleries and office blocks, telling which ones had been hit by the Germans, finding the place where he had picked up the bomb fin he'd later bring home for a souvenir. He remembers that the Tube stations would fill up at night with Londoners too frightened of the Luftwaffe to sleep in their own beds. And that homeowners spaded up their front yards and planted wall-to-wall Brussels sprouts.
I crane this way and that, trying to take hold of what he must have felt as a youngster. But to me, Belgravia is little more than a tony district in post-Thatcher London. No craters, no scorched facades, no Brussels sprouts.
But then, maybe my mother has it right: One generation can't pass on its experiences to the next, at least not in a simple morning's cab ride through the rain. I think of my husband, a former Marine turned cameraman in Vietnam. During the 1980s, he taught at Duke University and found that none of his smart, young-and-happening students had ever heard of the Tet Offensive, much less Khe Sanh, Ia Drang Valley, Hill 943. This was a glum business for him, and now I wonder if my father feels the same way, having flown through seven time zones at my urging, to tell me how life went with him long ago, and probably suspecting that I couldn't wrap my brains around much of it.
His children came of age in a time of popular skepticism--what could they understand of a man for whom the war years were the richest of his life? Perhaps my father had remained silent out of self-imposed courtesy; no one seemed interested anyway.
We climb out of our taxi at St. James Square, across from a building enveloped in scaffolding. Sing to me, oh Norfolk House, oh SHAEF, oh Ike, oh Dad. We pass under the scaffolding and walk through the doors to encounter an imposing security station in the lobby. My father flashes an ID card from 1944 and says his office used to be on the third floor, but the otherwise friendly guard is unimpressed.
The building was remodeled at the beginning of the 1980s, he says. The owners offered the original fittings--desks, chairs, sconces--to the American Embassy, but there were no takers. Now the London branch of AT&T; is precisely where PFC Williams cranked out copies of the Normandy invasion plan. "People don't know what an important place this was," the guard concedes. "They think it (D-Day) was all planned in pubs and clubs and places like that." We are free to go up for a peek, he says, but my father sees no point.
"WHAT WAS BUSHEY PARK?" MY MOTHER ASKS. "IS IT A VILLAGE?"
We are sitting motionless on an elevated stretch of the Tube line that goes to the suburb of Richmond, becalmed by a massive power failure. We are trying to get to a onetime encampment outside London, a place with a Beatrix Potterish name, where my father was stationed just before D-Day. SHAEF moved there as the bombing of central London intensified. In his essay, my father reports that SHAEF had gotten a captured German map, with a menacing X over Norfolk House.
"No," says my father. "It's just a big park. You'll see."
"Did you live in tents?" my mother asks.
"No, wooden huts."
End of conversation.
I am impatient with the delay and with my situation: My aging parents have schlepped their suitcases in and out of taxis and across terminals, and here we are in London, with the same old "Could be" and "We'll see." Must life with my father always be a game of 20 Questions? If it's this much work to find out that he lived in wooden huts, how will we ever be able to talk about the personal, about feelings ?
But of course I don't say this. Instead I ask about buzz-bombs, which I had heard my father mention. Here is what I learn: They were something the Germans dreamed up in 1943. Crude precursors of the cruise missile, they were powered by gas motors. The motors were supposed to cut out over London and the bombs would dive. But, my father says, they sometimes didn't dive--they kept gliding along to come down somewhere else.
"Once I heard one cut out overhead while I was standing about as far away from a shelter as that roof over there," he says, pointing at a garden shed. "I dove into the shelter just when it exploded. It made an impressive bang."
All right! Now we're clicking. I fix on the shed. It looks unnervingly far off, even for a 21-year-old who ran the half-mile in high school. And as I stare at it, I remember an afternoon of my own five years back, when I traveled closer than sound judgment really dictated to Jalalabad, a besieged provincial capital in Afghanistan. I heard a MiG coming in for a run and dove for a ditch. My escort estimated that the bomb hit 150 yards away. It made an impressive bang. Yes, yes.
The Underground jerks to life. Our plan is to meet an old friend of my father, Susan Hibbard, at the Richmond Tube station and continue by car to Bushey Park. She was the secretary to the British head of planning and operations for SHAEF, and her job was to type the plans for the invasion that my father then duplicated, filed and guarded with the carbine. On the last day of the war in Europe, she typed the Allied-drafted instrument of surrender, signed at Rheims.
Mrs. Hibbard is a charmingly turned out woman with high English coloring and a rise of white hair, who apologizes that she has been stuck in traffic. Bushey Park turns out to be an endless expanse of grass planted with rows of trees--horse chestnuts, my father notes--and a pond with a statue in the middle and a herd of tamed deer. My father leads us over to where he thinks the enlisted huts once stood. We find a small monument, but the inscription commemorates the army air corps, not SHAEF.
But Mrs. Hibbard has brought an envelope stuffed with the past, hang the monument makers--a SHAEF insignia from her uniform, newspaper clippings, pictures of my father in uniform. I stare at the pictures while they laugh about the good gone days. Mrs. Hibbard mentions that one evening, a few days into the Normandy campaign, her boss announced that the evening's dictation would be of plans for a British retreat. She must have looked horrified, she says, because he told her, "Don't worry, we have to have a plan for everything."
"I was 17 years old and I was in the middle of everything," she laughs.
I try to remember what I was doing at that age, but immediately think better of it.
ABOARD THE P&O; FERRY, plying the Channel to Le Havre on our way to Normandy, we encounter head-winds and rough seas; the trip takes 7 1/2 hours.
At least the weather gives us a feeling for the misery of the invaders, making their way across on the hellish evening of June 5. The ferry's evocative pitching makes my father talk about the hallowed beaches. Many of the Allied soldiers who spent the night crossing the Channel were wrung out by the time they made their horrific wadings onto shore.
"I'm glad we don't have to rappel up a cliff under machine-gun fire at the end of this trip," he offers. I smooth my daughter's hair and try to picture my father making the famous assault at Pointe du Hoc--a 100-foot cliff, three companies from the 2nd Ranger Battalion scaling a sheer wall of rock to an incantation of German bullets--but find this difficult to do, since if he had, I probably wouldn't be here. There were 225 Americans at Pointe du Hoc that morning; only 90 were alive at day's end.
My mother does her needlepoint and dozes, the baby wants to crawl and doesn't understand why she isn't permitted to. My father continues to talk quietly. He doesn't know, he says, why he was plucked out of the infantry and assigned to the safety of a copying machine. He does know, however, why he didn't reach Normandy by parachute. When he first arrived in England, recruiters from the 101st Airborne came and made a pitch.
My father was tempted, but something stopped him, something his own father had passed along to his only son. A Wisconsin doughboy, my grandfather saw his share of trench life in France 25 years before. Some of his friends volunteered for a tank unit. Tanks were new on the armaments scene and wretchedly designed for human cargo. Most of my grandfather's more adventurous friends were either killed or maimed. My grandfather advised his son to stay clear of the razzmatazz units until all the bugs had been worked out.
I think about how my grandfather's war stories literally saved my father's life. I have no warrant at all to think that my little son, now all flaxen hair and cornflower eyes, will never be hustled aboard a Mauritania of his own. And I have no reason to think he'll luck out like my father, and get tagged for a job in which you come in for a bit of low cost glory and have an almost-splendid time of it. Perhaps somewhere in the flat delivery that is my father's storytelling style, there is a fateful phrase or sentence that will protect my son. I try to listen more closely.
THE PROPRIETRESS IN A SMALL restaurant in Paris, on the Boulevard Montparnasse, is so eager for warm, paying bodies that she opens early at the sight of us. My father, who doesn't speak French, is eager for me to tell her that he made it to Paris during the war.
This has happened time after time over the course of our travels. My father spots someone who looks as if he or she might be old enough to remember--or even some who don't--and makes me tell them who he is and that he was there in liberated Paris. Sometimes he pulls from his wallet a 50-year-old two-franc note--"occupation money," he calls it--and shows it off.
" Soldat! " exclaims the owner after suffering through my recitation in cast-iron French. She holds up her arms as if gripping an assault rifle and sprays the room with imaginary bullets. Then she asks to hold the baby.
In stores, on the street, on the train to Versailles, I see him reaching for his wallet with that worn two-franc note. And usually there is a disappointing, blank-faced reaction. I feel badly for him each time and wish I could understand why he keeps wanting to try.
But one day, success! We stop at a Paris grocery store for fruit. My father and I go into our usual routine with the elderly cashier and the bored, teen-age help. My father produces the occupation money. There is moment of incomprehension, and then the woman breaks into a smile.
" Il etait un des anciens soldats ," she tells the kid, "He's one of the former soldiers."
My mother whoops, thinking the woman has called my father an "ancient soldier." But the teen-ager understands and actually seems impressed, interested in studying the worn bill.
"Good job!" says the old woman, and the teen-ager gives a thumbs-up.
I AM NOT THE ONLY DAUGHTER trying to find my father in the commemoration of a war. A new German friend, an East Berliner, is the daughter of a Luftwaffe veteran who flew bombing missions over London when my father was on the ground with his file cabinets. After the war, Petra says, her father was so sickened with everything having to do with the Third Reich that he joined the Communist Party and became a minor functionary of the German Democratic Republic. When the East German regime collapsed, Herr Falkenberg slipped into a severe depression.
Petra hoped to bring her father around by taking him and her mother on a trip to London. She picked London without thinking of his Luftwaffe service, and was alarmed to see him spend an afternoon staring at the Thames from Westminster Bridge, brooding.
Herr Falkenberg, like my father, is 72 years old. Like my father, he has lived a life of quiet office work since the war, pushing paper for Karl Marx instead of Adam Smith. Like my father, he has delegated most family matters to a bustling, sturdy wife. Like my father, he has never met a combatant from the other side. Petra and I arrange a lunch in Potsdam.
I don't know what to expect. But it couldn't be easier, it seems, for these two to be chummy across a restaurant table. Herr Falkenberg instantly recognizes my father's two-franc note. "Occupation money!" His eyes are on the sad side, and yet he laughs, delightedly, at my father's accounts of Army screw-ups.
After all these years, my father gets the chance to ask a German about that map of London with the big unfriendly X. Did the Luftwaffe know where Eisenhower's office was?
There was no particular strategic plan, says Herr Falkenberg, sad again. He and his crew just flew up the Thames estuary and launched the rockets whenever they could and got out as expeditiously as possible.
"When we started out, there were 15 crews," he says. "At the end, only two had survived." A bit of fellow feeling for the men who bombed London? How very odd. Yet here in this attractive Potsdam restaurant, a little beer, wine and much translated goodwill carry the day. My father becomes expansive--more so with this former enemy then he has been with me, but what the hell. The baby is passed from lap to lap. Photographs are exchanged. Herr Falkenberg has brought along a tattered we-regret-to-inform-you letter sent in error to his parents.
"A lot of us are very lucky to have survived," he says.
The old gents make affecting toasts. The daughters trade winks. Children of loving but remote fathers, each has sought some sort of--well, what? Let's say it's a smoothing out of certain family things. In bringing off this handsome little scene, each of us hopes to take home something for ourselves about our fathers, about life.
And what do we have? At least a mild sense of completion for me. There has been a seemliness to this meeting, this breaking of bread with a former enemy. Something has fallen into place.
But damn it all, there's some secret handshaking going on between these lodge brothers of history, a code Petra and I can't crack. The daughters are outflanked.
IT IS LATE AFTERNOON AND my father, my husband, my son and I are climbing the "hill" behind the Charlottenburg flat we have sublet. It is a strange hill, this one, rising abruptly out of the east German plain. It is in fact a Trummerberg , a "rubble mountain." After the war, where to put all the bomb-blasted bits of urban Germany? Most large cities targeted by the Allied air command have been left with these burial mounds. Birch groves cover the slopes of this one; hobbyists fly stunt kites on the top and there's a ski run down the western side.
My son chirps and runs on ahead. He wants to climb the steepest parts, and he wants grandpa to come with him. This talkative little boy has attached himself to his quiet grandfather. He isn't put off by four-word answers to questions of exceptional scope and cunning. He is excited to think that grandpa was in the war--whatever it is a 2-year-old conceives war to be--and runs on with toddler-chat. Airplanes! Helmets! Guns!
"Yes, grandpa was a soldier," I tell him. "But grandpa was a lucky soldier. He didn't have to fire his gun."
And how lucky, indeed, my father was. He has been allowed the happy satisfaction that, in his own small way, he helped rid Europe of German fascism. Maybe things took on a dull cast after the return to Wisconsin--the teeth-gritting work at the insurance company, the small-town upbringing of four children. But that was all right. He's had a good time of it, he says, planted 80,000 trees by hand--each of his grandchildren has been treated to a grove. Yes, a good time of it--that's the plain English of my father's story, and it is left to me to say so. For his part, I think, he has always understood that to run on about such good luck was sort of rude, like eating peas off a knife.
So: I "talked" to my father. What have I learned? Something I should have known all along: Life doesn't work out like Italian opera. No outpourings, no neat conjunctions in the final act. Still, my father's glad he made the trip. He says they'll be back in the fall, when it's too cold in Wisconsin to do much with the trees. Next time, he asks, how about dinner with that nice Luftwaffe fellow?