D-Day celebration in Provence

Sunday, 30th of august 2009, Marseille

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Today’s celebration takes place in front of the monument commemorating the liberation of Notre Dame de la Garde, a Sherman tank code-named « Jeanne d’Arc », destroyed on the 25th August 1944 a hundred meters from the Basilica…

 

 This time I wake up much earlier and get ready to leave my hotel room an hour before the ceremony starts. At least at yesterday’s commemoration, I knew what to expect as long as I had the precise program. But today, I’m a little bit unaware of what is going on. The only thing I know, “hence not knowing anything” as Socrates would say, is that the ceremony starts at 9.30 a.m, and there will be a Te Deum in the Basilica at 11.30…

 

So it’s 9 o’clock, and here I am, driving the car, helped by the GPS, very close to Notre Dame de la Garde, and it is steep, very steep; quite an impressive slope I have to say. What it must have been for the Tirailleurs and the Goumiers (French North African infantry), moving under a hail of enemy bullets… Arriving early this time, I park in one of the Basilica’s parking lot and walk towards the square where the ceremony takes place.

Something’s strange… I don’t recognise a single person I was with yesterday, and I wonder:  » They will certainly come in a few minutes « . But officials and VIPs are arriving one after the other, a guard of honour from the French Foreign Legion is at attention, then the veterans and the public, but for the time being, no news of  » my  » Admiral, Louis Arnaud and his spouse and some of the people with whom I had lunch yesterday. So the ceremony starts and all of a sudden I have a deep feeling of emptiness, tiredness: what am I doing here? I feel more like a stranger to all of this. That’s quite strange, this ceremony is almost the exact replica of yesterday’s, moreover I almost feel nothing at all, no particular emotion, and not a lot of interest for what is said and what is happening. Then resounded in my ear my grandfather’s words, what he said to explain his absence at the celebrations, besides getting tired very quickly:  » If it is to hear again a  » thousand time heard commonplace speeches « , waiting hours for VIPs… no, I’d rather stay home… « 

 

This is exactly what I feel at this precise moment. Moreover, I have a feeling that people here are bored and kind of stressed, and they are here because this ceremony must take place anyway…

So it’s 10 a.m and I tell myself:  » Well, I think I’ll drive back to the Var county (south east of Provence), join my grandparents and, period ! « …

 

I must add that at this moment I have a feeling of bitterness, as well as disappointment, I’m alone and I think that I was wrong coming here today.

 » … I was wrong « , thought I… but I was mistaken, and the response was soon going to arrive and make me live one of the most unusual, moving and happy moments I have experienced in my whole life.

 

So here I am, grabbing my phone and calling Louis Arnaud’s home to know if he’s coming here today or not. His wife answers and very kindly explains to me that because of the intense and tiring day they had yesterday (and I do believe her) they preferred not to come to the 9.30 celebration in front of the Jeanne d’Arc tank…  « On the other hand, Louis will be present for the Te Deum service in the Basilica, and he’s looking forward to have you by his side and lunch with you in the restaurant ».

 

 « Well… » I’m not yet fully convinced…  » OK, I’m staying !  » I turn back, and now I’m facing the Basilica which stands ahead, majestic and huge, about 300 yards from me, overlooking Marseilles, 600 feet to the very top. So I start walking towards it when suddenly something attracts my attention… Not something, but someone I should say: an old man I had noticed half an hour before, just before the ceremony. Sitting in a wheelchair, a very long and impressive beard, an immaculate white suit, many medals on his chest… And yet he’s no longer in his wheelchair which is simply abandoned at the bottom of the stairs and he has already started to walk towards the Basilica, only helped by his two crutches. He has not been allowed on one of the buses booked for the standard bearers and the veterans, because they are completely full. He then took the decision to go, by himself, up to Notre Dame de la Garde. Dressed in his white suit, he really makes me think of Jesus on His last way to the cross. The comparison might seem daring but, regarding his precarious balance, his slow stride as well as the length of his journey, this is not that exaggerated. Then I said to myself:  » this is not possible, this poor man not only is by himself, with no one to help him, but he’s also starting to ascend the – at least – 400 steps to reach the summit high above « 

 

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Notre Dame de la Garde Basillica

 

Of course at once, I head towards him, and quickly catch up with him:  » Sir, would you need a little help? « 

« It is very kind of you, sir » he replies, « I would be grateful… »

At least he’s realistic…

I go down to take the wheelchair back and push it up the path adjacent to the stairs, which unfortunately ends soon.

 We start to chat, I tell him I’m an emissary,  » sent  » by someone from the  » Veteran Group « … in other words, from the 5th RCA (5th African Cavalry Regiment)… He recalls having met someone named Kast, but doesn’t remember when and where…

 Fate comes to my rescue for the 1st time: a forty year old man comes to me instantly and spontaneously offers to give me a hand. We both take a handle of the wheelchair and push it along the path. But there we have the first problem: the steps. Until then, the progression has been relatively easy as long as it was practicable for wheels… and now, there are just several hundreds steps to get to the Basilica… God, in those conditions, this is quite a distance ! I decide to halt for a minute and take a decision with my new friend. I suggest to go back to my car, then to pick him up and drive him directly to the entrance of God’s house. His smart reply : « But you are going to loose your parking space for sure, and you won’t be able to attend the Te Deum… »

 … mmmmh he’s got all his mind this veteran… he’s right… To be really sure, I’m going to the parking lot only to realise that effectively, it was vast and deserted at 9.00 a.m, but now packed with cars. There’s not a single space left. Bad news! I’m heading towards a vehicle from the local police, and despite my knock knock on the window, the two policemen do not seem to have the time to answer this poor citizen that I am. All right then, I go back where I left my veteran. He’s still there, chatting with a lady. I don’t really know what they say to each other, but I can see that he’s starting to get a little bit impatient sitting on his chair. And so the lady brings him to me and leave. Then came the second little help from heaven. I have an idea: the Police !

 

  » Madam, please, Madam… ? « 

  » Yes, good morning?  » (saluting)

 « Here’s the story, I’m here with my great uncle, yes this man over there. You have to understand, he landed and fought in Provence, 65 years ago almost to the day… He absolutely wants to attend the service in the Basilica, but it’s impossible to bring him with my car and he’s in a wheelchair… « 

 

 « Don’t you have a pass for disabled person in your car, sir ? »

 « … well unfortunately… no… »

 

 « All right, please wait a minute… Stéphanie! Stéphanie! This young man is here with his great uncle, a veteran, why don’t we bring them to Notre Dame? »

 At this precise moment, the veteran arrives in his chair and observing my negotiations with the police (thinking they refuse to help), starts to express his unhappiness:

 « This is a shaaaaame, I’m telling you, this is a shaaaaame ! « 

 and the two policewomen to reply:

  » Don’t you worry Sir, we will take you there ! « 

The veteran calms down at once and answers:

  » Aaah, you are so adorable Madame, thank you very much! « 

I was going to leave my veteran and try to get to Notre Dame on my own but then the police officer says to me:

  » We bring him over there but on the condition that you come with us to help him… « 

Jump start number 3 ?…

 She could not have said it better… I settle the gentleman on the front passenger’s seat, then fold the wheelchair while asking the owner firstly how to do it, and secondly his first name that I don’t even know… quite strange for a nephew, isn’t it?

 

 “By the way, what is your name Sir?”

 « Gaston! Gaston Bautista, I’m 91 years old, and I belonged to the 83rd engineer battalion, 3rd DIA (Algerian Infantry Division), 1st French Army. I have fought here and personally helped to hoist the French flag after we took the Basilica, 65 years ago… « 

 Well… that’s something !

 So here we get in the police car (a Utility Vehicle with a large trunk) and then we witnessed a funny moment: the policewoman, out of spontaneous generosity, also take a pregnant Asian woman and her 3 years old daughter in the van. The little girl, literally terrorised by the uniforms and these strangers, doesn’t want to go in the van at all. After some difficult moments, Stéphanie takes over. She picks up the little girl, puts her in my arms and says:  » that’s enough, no more tears ! There you are, sir, sit her next to you « . And here is our little party, in a police vehicle, the officer driving, my  » great uncle  » close to her, the Asian woman and her daughter at the back of the car, rotating beacon on to make the little girl stop crying.

 As for me? I laugh and smile to myself !

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Gaston Bautista and the French policewoman

 The car drives up the hill, which I insist, is very steep. I suddenly realise that we were far from reaching the top with Gaston… After a couple of minutes ride, we’re almost there. But there is still one last test. We have to find the lift which will bring us to the Basilica’s square. It’s high time, it’s 11 o’clock !

 

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Bullet holes on the Basillica’s facade

 Gaston keeps on complementing Stéphanie, and tells her :  » You are adorable, thank you, thank you so much !  » Warm handshakes, last goodbyes and here comes little help # 4. A woman, observing me handling the wheelchair with difficulty, spontaneously comes to us and says that she’s a nurse and helps me prepare and push the wheelchair on which a delighted Gaston sits.

 We quickly find the elevator which brings us, slowly to the Basilica’s square, quite high above. The doors are open, we push the chair again nearing the entrance but have to slow down, so amazed are we by the scene: dozens and dozens of frustrated people are waiting in front of Notre Dame’s gate… impossible to get in…

  » Come on, let us in please! « 

  » Ladies and gentlemen, we regret to inform you that there’s no more room inside the Basilica… « 

 … just as the nurse, Gaston and myself arrive. The nurse says farewell to both of us, and here I am, trying to keep a low profile, facing all those lovely people, while pushing my « great uncle’s » wheel chair… and just like the Red Sea parting, the four gate keepers respectfully step back, allow us through, saying with great respect:  » you are welcome, Sir « , while opening the gate to the holy place for us. Another door, another keeper about to block the entrance but seeing the veteran, the medals, the chair and the guy pushing, quickly opens it.

I guess that was the 5th little help from above…

We’re in the place ! We’re standing on the right aisle and while I intend to stay at the back, it’s so crowded anyway, I realise that Gaston would much prefer to be closer to the altar. OK then, let’s go, I go all along the right alley and find a pretty good place about seven pews before the altar where Gaston can settle. I put his crutches against a wall, pick up his white sun hat on from the floor… it’s 11.02 !

 We made it ! But I’m dripping with sweat… At this precise moment, while I’m still standing up, I slowly turn my head left to see with great surprise and joy my grandfather’s good friend, mister Louis Arnaud, sitting three feet from me. He smiles at me, reaches to shake hands, which we do warmly, and simply shows an empty seat, next to him on the pew, for me. Mr Arnaud to my left, Mr Bautista to my right. And we’re almost on time… Chance? Coincidence would you say? I’d rather say that was Heaven’s 6th wink.

 The Bishop asks the congregation to stand up for the Eucharist, so Louis Arnaud asks me to give Gaston a hand. Thus, each time the crowd stands up, my « great uncle » does the same, despite his old age. So each time, I stand up, pick up his crutches and give them to him, take the sun hat lying on the floor, hold his right arm and adjust his medals. I then observe that this 91 years old man and myself, 30, are the only ones all dressed up in white and therefore must not be unnoticed… While the collection is taken, I see him looking for his chequebook to give something for the church, but he has no pen, me neither and after searching in vain, he gives up… I think God will forgive him…

 The service is fine, moving, giving a message of hope. A Te Deum is quite a special service, which deals with a special event. Needless to tell you which one… A little before the procession, we went for the communion, a very important moment for every Christian. I feel like I’m a little bit « away », I’m not the real me and it’s a little bit hard for me to analyse this particular situation I’m in, as if everything is a little bit unreal. About 45 minutes ago, I was going to leave and go back to my grandparent’s… I might be the only « young » man here at this moment, however I feel I am at the right place and let’s not forget it, I have the honour of representing my grandfather and he’s here with me. I have his two military dog tags on a necklace, I can feel his presence. By thoughts, I feel close to this generation. Very close to my grandma’s as well, because each time I think of one of them, the image of the other appears… and why not say it, I feel close to God. I believe in Him, and I’m certainly not here by chance… chance… does it exist? I don’t think so. At the end of the service, the bishop invites every « officials, military or civilian, and the veterans to sign the Basilica’s Golden book ». Naturally, Gaston is invited, and before going to the lower level, he takes time to chat with his acquaintances. At this moment, a few people come to me, and ask if Gaston is my grandfather. I don’t see any more reason to continue to pretend and don’t want to, anyway, so I answer “No, I just met this gentleman about an hour and 15 minutes ago… I thought he needed some help, and I helped him…”

 Do you realise that without me, he would never have been able to get in time in the Basilica, but as for me… without him… I would have never entered either! He was my guide with « no legs », I was his « blind man », holding him on my shoulders.

 

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Gaston Bautista and myself

Monday 31st of August 2009, 

 24 hours later… I’m sitting at a table with my parents in their garden, near Paris, and I recount to them the last 10 days I’ve spent with my father’s parents. Weather is gorgeous, we’re having lunch outside. My memories are still vivid so I summarise the commemoration, and tell them about this holy Sunday in Marseille…

  » … so here I am helping Gaston Bautista to walk down the stairs and then we got into a large room with many officials, civilian and military, bishops and veterans etc. Seeing me coming, Louis Arnaud starts to speak and explain to a part of the audience who I am and moreover whom I represent. Itseems to me, but I could be wrong, that my presence here as well as the help I gave Gaston, have been much appreciated by the people from another generation. The guests sign the book one after the other and the Bishop invites me to do so. Its not without a certain pride that I take the pen and write my grandfather’s motto:

  » Sunday 30th August 2009. Go forward, time and again. Signed: Pierre Kast « 

 Sunday afternoon 30th August ; we all had lunch together in the Basilica’s restaurant. At my table, only veterans involved in the liberation of Toulon, at the next table, only the ones who fought in Marseilles. And I must say I heard a lot of memories and anecdotes from everyone. The lady on my right, Louis Arnaud’s cousin, Medal of the French Resistance, had a lot to say. Member of the Resistance at the age of 17 in the Savoie region (Alps), she volunteered to become a nurse in field hospitals until the last campaign in Germany, where according to her, what she saw was « very tough ». There were also more joyful moments when for example we sung  » Le chant des Africains  » (the Africans song) which I didn’t miss this time (this song was written in 1943 by Captain Felix Boyer, when the French Army – newly recreated by the Americans in the French territories of North Africa – was looking for a song that would represent its spirit and esprit de corps…) Unfortunately for me, the day before, I had arrived a little bit late at the ceremony where they sang this song. Then came the stories from everyone about their long and exciting lives. Then they had a long and intense discussion about the pictures displayed in my grandfather’s memoirs, showing his Sherman tank, put out of action by a German 88mm anti tank gun. While enjoying a cigar with Mr Sorgensen, former ambassador of France in Sweden, he told me that when he was in Germany in 1945, one of his tank’s shell had bounced off the frontal armour of a German Panther which was less than 80 yards away. He had to approach very close and knock it off with a German bazooka the same night (the enemy tank had been abandoned previously the same night… let’s say that was better).

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Mr Sorgensen

 

After prolonged farewell to Mr Arnaud, his cousin, his grandson with whom I had a very good contact (and who was unable to get into the Basilica because of the crowd), his friends and of course to my veteran who, with a big smile, kept on yelling to everyone: « here’s my grandson !!! Providence sent him to me !!! »

 I take the car back, it’s almost 4 p.m and I’ll have to go back to Paris tomorrow, I now have to drive back to my grandparent’s home. It’s crazy how happy I can feel.

 Back at the house, I need some time to summarize everything I’ve experienced in those last 48 hours. I feel good, I did what I had to do, and I tell my grand parents my week-end. My grandpa follows the conversation pretty well (his hearing has deteriorated), he laughs when I tell him the  » lie  » to the policewomen, gets serious when I talk about his friend Louis, and smiles while listening to my mission report, helped by my grandmother of course. I tried to share this unique experience with them… and I think I succeeded…

 These will be  » his  » last commemorations…

 By the time I’m writing these lines, on Thursday 18th February 2010 at dawn, on the eve of his 89th anniversary, he peacefully passed away in his spouse’s arms Monique, after living together 67 years, his last words were:  » I love you… « 

 Rest in peace my Grand Papa.

 

Your grandson, Sylvain

 » An old man left, taking with him our youth away… « 

 Romain Gary

 » In life, if you don’t know anymore where you’re going, look behind you, and you’ll find out where you come from. But if you want to go forward, don’t look back anymore as if you had lights in your back which will lighten your route towards your future « 

 Ezer Weizman

EPILOGUE

Message from Gaston Bautista, Saturday 20th February 2010

 Very dear sir,

 What a profound joy your mail gave me! But first of all, let me tell you that I share your sorrow and feel compassion for your whole family. I wish to present all my sincere condolences to your grandmother and yourselves. For me, I am loosing a comrade in arms. I will not forget him in my prayers tonight and will recommend him to our  » Holy Mother « , that we prayed you and me together. Please tell your grand mother that I thank her for encouraging you to write to me. Please pass on to her my humble respects as well as the most affectionate embrace from the veteran that I am. With your grandfather, we have been involved in the liberation of our beloved France.

 Please receive my thanks for your kindness when we met in Notre Dame, and also all my affection because I do consider you as one of my grandsons.

 Gaston Bautista

- Officer of the  » Légion d’honneur  »

 

- French Croix de Guerre 1939-1945 (5 citations : 1 palm, 2 vermeil stars and 2 silver stars)

 

- French  » Military Value  » cross with 1  » silver star citation « 

 

- American  » Bronze Medal « ; one citation ”in the order of the American Army” given by Lieutenant  General Mark. W. CLARK, for his duty and leadership in Italy on the 14th and 15th May 1944

Gaston Bautista also passed away in the same year as my grandfather, due to a long illness, exactly four months after him. He left us on the Saturday 19th June 2010. I feel I have lost my great uncle.

 Rest In Peace Gaston, it was a privilege to meet you. Thank you.