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I Fulfill my Vow to put Montana Soil on Bud’s Watery Grave near Cherbourg, France

March 19, 2013


2007 Christmas Narrative

Daniel Struckman


I bought a camera similar to one my son-in-law Brian had, an Olympus point and shoot with powerful optical and digital zoom.  Penny and I had tickets to France in 2007 for Christmas.  I got the camera specifically to document our pilgrimage from Montana to the watery expanse out on the English Channel as close as possible to where Carl R. Bonde Jr. died.  Our aim was to dump a few ounces of Montana soil into the water over the wreckage of the SS Leopoldville, his doomed troopship.  He died just 5 miles from France and his body is still there, as far as anyone knows.  Some of his buddies were on deck where they could see the lights of Cherbourg when the torpedo struck.

Oh, I thought about it a lot.  We both did, Penny and I.  We prepared and rehearsed several years for our ritual on the Channel Christmas Eve, 2007.  (Carl died Christmas Eve, 1944, about 6 pm.  The exact time has been stated to be 5:55)  My wife Penny and I ordered passports, of course, but we also had to get the dirt.  That was Penny’s idea, putting a bit of Carl’s home into the English Channel.

Not just get it, but get it in the right way from near a house in Kalispell, Montana, Carl’s home.  I think I already told about scooping up the dirt from a driveway on the edge of town.  Did I mention that I tore the hell out of my fingernail?  Well, I just had a torn nail.  Did I tell how we were in town decorating graves and our visit to Bud’s home to get dirt was our second try?  The first time no one was home to ask permission.  People do this sort of thing all the time, don’t they?  My impulse was to just get out of the car, get dirt, and leave.  But no, I had to actually ask permission.

May was warm in 2007 when we visited Kalispell.  Once we got the baggie with probably 4 ounces of dirt, gravel, pine needles and my fingernail—well I remembered to take along a plastic bag for the dirt, but it did not occur to me that I might also need a tool of some sort to gather up the soil.

The question was:  how does someone transport a bag of soil to France?  I had asked that question of Bud’s Army buddies at the reunion the year before.  Army mortar man Maurice O’Donnell recommended putting it into a woman’s face powder container, or the like.

Instead, I practiced taking a dummy bag of dirt with me on the airplane when we flew to visit our son Todd and his family in Seattle.  Well, I even took the dirt from our yard, and it was very clay-ey and even heavier.  You know, a quart-sized zip-lock bag maybe one quarter filled with dirt, labeled and rolled up.  I managed to get the baggie to Seattle and back: once in our checked luggage; another time as a carry on.

Turns out taking the dirt to France were no big deal at all.  I just put it in my carryon suitcase. My guess is people do that sort of thing a lot.

Allan Andrade, an author and expert on the SS Leopoldville disaster, helped me connect via email with Bertrand Sciboz, a French treasure hunter.  I did attempt to phone Sciboz, but got an answering message in French that sounded like French jibberish.  By email, Bertrand told me to bring a thousand euros in cash for the trip.  Cash, to avoid paying a value added tax.  I got euros from the bank across the street from where I worked.  Of course I had to order them in, pay the exchange rate, plus a percentage fee.  I got five 200 euro notes, big, maybe 4 x 6 inches, colorful, and crisp.  I folded them and put them in my money pouch with the passport.  Later I got another couple hundred euros to pay for a wreath that I sort of got talked into getting because my Uncle’s body was among about 300 others that were not recovered from the wreckage.

With our computer, I studied maps and photographs of Cherbourg.  It sits on this prominent two-lobed peninsula on the Northwest corner of France, the Normandy coast, looking a little like a snail’s head with two eyeballs.  It is situated a little west of Utah and Omaha Beaches.

I learned about Cherbourg from Jacquin Sanders’ book,  A Night Before Christmas.  The US Army and Navy established forts and headquarters there after liberating France from the Germans.  The Google Earth pictures showed the huge breakwater and the port of Cherbourg.  Also, you could see the giant pier where ferries take people to England.  A hotel is located near the north end of the jutting land, the Hotel Mercure.  Our AAA travel agent arranged for our stay Christmas Eve and the night before.  She also arranged for a round trip train ride from Paris to Cherbourg.  She arranged a hotel in Paris, a place near Gare d’l’Est for the days before and after our Christmas eve expedition.

December 22, when we arrived at the Charles De Gaul Airport, were marched through customs, and herded into a small shuttle, an middle-aged drunk menaced us with his fly wide open as if welcoming us to Paris.

“Get away from him,” Penny said to me.  Soon we bought tickets for the RER train into Paris, a cold, breezy place with confounding streets running in all directions.  One cannot see far because the buildings are the vertical kind and set right up next to the sidewalks.  Many of the streets are only 20-30 feet wide with 5-10-story buildings making dark canyons.  This made the December darkness even darker.  Other places had many wide boulevards converge on acres openness with wild traffic surging constantly.  Such places were difficult to cross, especially lugging and pulling luggage.  Again, the wind was blowing and even with hat, gloves, and a warm jacket, the cold pinched the ears and nose.

Our trouble was that we didn’t know where to go for our hotel.  Sure, we had the name and address.  I had no sense of direction.  I asked a lady at our station, Gare du Nord.  She gave us a map or Paris with the word Printemps.  We knew the address of our hotel.  It was the Villa St-Martin on Rue de Recollets.  Therefore, we boldly set out to find it by walking aimlessly and reading the bright blue and white street signs fastened to the buildings at every street corner.  Many of the streets had  military references, such as the Rue du 8 Mai 1945 and another for Dunkirk.  If we were anywhere near the Rue de Recollets, we couldn’t tell.  An intersection in our home town usually has two streets.  One in Paris often has 3, 4, or even 7 or 8 streets.  Of course, we eventually had to ask directions, so we went into a restaurant and asked a man.  He didn’t speak English and didn’t know where our street was.  He told us anyway, but I couldn’t understand him, so we were even.  Penny and I wandered from one street to another until noon.

The second restaurateur gave us the usual indecipherable shrugs and instructions, so we wandered for another 20 minutes until we found a hotel with a man who helped us find our hotel.  Just as well, too, because our hotel, the Villa St-Martin, didn’t allow anyone to check in until 2 pm.  The clerk put us on the third floor.  This translates to the fourth floor.  In France the first floor is what we consider to be the second floor.  We rode the elevator with purple lighting inside and mirrored walls.  The elevator was 2 feet deep and perhaps 4 feet wide, but the mirrors made it look larger.

We were dead tired.  Afternoon, Paris time, was about the same as the wee hours of the morning back in the Montana.  Somehow we missed a lot of sleep, but we were determined to venture out into Paris to explore the neighborhood of our hotel.  It’s just that we felt sort of—gamey or maybe just exhausted.  Nonetheless, have sick, we walked about.

Our street, Rue de Recollets, was only three blocks long, quite narrow.  To the East was the Canal St-Martin with several gracefully arched pedestrian bridges with wrought iron railings.  Once when I crossed I was holding the rail and it had what seemed to be an infant’s poop on it.  Another time a man in front of us stepped off the last step at the bottom, turned to his right, and unzipping his fly (this time) and started urinating.  Peeing in public was evidently okay in Paris.

To the west of our hotel was a corner where many streets met.  One could see a very old cathedral out to the left and to the right, perhaps 200 yards away was the very stately and ornate Gare Du l’Est train station.  This was one of the rare places where one could see very far at all, that is, where buildings did not obstruct the view.

On the corner before the intersection, on the same block as our hotel, was our landmark:  a store that sold guns, knives, ammunition, brass knuckles, switchblades, spray paint, and sported a sign that read in English, “Bomb Your City.”

I was grateful for the guns and ammo store.   It served as a landmark.  Funny how the landmarks were the really annoying establishments, such as the crappy tourist trap restaurant with the “American Indian” theme.  I’ll bet they did not pay royalties on their “generic Indian” photographs.  I bought French toast there for, like, 10 euros, and it turned out to be dry, unbuttered toasted Wonderbread.  Served by—you get the point, and I don’t want this to turn into a catalogue of bitching.  You can see how grateful I am, because the “Indian” restaurant turned out to be an easily identified landmark, just like the guns and ammo store.

Paris was cold but not snowy.  Likewise the shops and businesses also tended to be unheated but not so cold as to freeze your fingers.  We both wanted to make the most out of the short time we would be there, so our routine would be to make quick visits to our hotel room, do our business, put on our coats, head back out.  We decided to visit the Louvre.

“Ou es le Louvre?” I asked our hotel clerk, who replied in perfect English, “Why don’t you ride the Metro?”

“We want to walk, if it is not too far,” I replied.  She grabbed a tourist map that said “Spring time” on it.  In French, of course.  She showed us the streets to walk, so we bravely marched out.  I started taking photographs willy-nilly.  [I wonder if I will ever find any trace of those photographs?  The computer they were on was eventually stolen on a Paris train about 3 years later.]

Penny and I started walking in a roughly southward bearing through a street filled with shops of interest to Blacks and their hair.  Of course, this is big business, and we were fascinated.  Block after block in the gathering darkness of evening, one fancy hair place after another.  We only had to walk about 8 or 9 blocks and we soon reached cross streets that would likely take us near the Louvre Museum.  We hiked around in one of these, that had numerous restaurants, brightly lit, with people dining on what looked like Chinese chicken dishes, or other brightly orange colored food.  Seems to me we ate something at one of them.  Then we were back.  Now walking westward, then we turned the corner and went south again for a couple of blocks.  No sign of the Louvre, but we did see a large greenish fancy building to the west, that looked like a palace.

At one opportunity, we saw a sign that said “Louvre” something something and an arrow pointed down some stairs or an escalator.  It was not a train station, so we walked down.  The day after Christmas, the place turned out to be a huge underground shopping mall, simply packed with shoppers of all races and descriptions.  We turned around, found an up escalator, got back to the street.  After another block, we found a cylindrical old roman style building and a sign nearby that said Louvre.  Penny said that such a small building couldn’t possible be the Louvre.  I said, “why would it have a sign on it that said “Louvre?”

We walked around the cylinder in about 30 seconds.  Then we asked someone.  The same old song: “Ou es le Louvre?” I asked.  The person answered this time in French and gestured down the street.  We went on and on this way in one building and out the next.  Ultimately we found the Louvre.  Ultimately we found out how to get out of the Louvre.  Ultimately we made our way back through the Hair District and back to the Munitions shop, around the corner, back to our hotel, back to bed.

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