In 2007, I had the amazing opportunity to participate in a workshop/conference called The Varieties of Experience: Views of the Two World Wars. It was an international, interdisciplinary event held at the University of Caen in France. I’d been working for what seemed forever on my second book:
Ethel Thomas Herold, who hailed from Potosi, Wisconsin, experienced both world wars. The first time around, she was finishing college, after which she took a job teaching high school history and, in her spare time, worked for the local chapter of the Food Administration and the Red Cross. In December 1941, Ethel was living with her husband and children on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. She spent the Second World War in a civilian internment camp there, a prisoner of the occupying Japanese forces.
I knew this workshop/conference would provide the opportunity for some critical feedback on the project. Also, I hadn’t been to France since high school, and, well, who doesn’t want to go to France?
On a whim, I asked my father if he’d like to come along. A veteran of the Korean War (he’d been a few years too young to join up in World War II), he read a lot of history about both wars. Although he was well-traveled, he’d never been to France, and he liked the idea of being able to tour the Normandy beaches. We planned to leave early enough to have a few hours of sight-seeing in Paris before taking the train to Caen, then have a day to tour the beaches. My father was looking forward to seeing where D-Day happened. So was I–I teach about it every year.
Bad weather scuttled that plan. My father’s flight from Chicago went on schedule, but mine, from a small Central Wisconsin airport, was cancelled when an incoming plane slid off the runway. I couldn’t leave for another 24 hours. My father skipped the sight-seeing in Paris, went by train to Caen and took the tour. By the time I caught up with him at the hotel in Caen, he was already comfortably settled in and had much to tell me about his adventures.
My father attended most of the conference events. It was a good conference–helpful in the ways I’d anticipated. My father and I explored Caen a bit, and we ate some very good meals, including a dinner to celebrate his 78th birthday. We talked about a lot of things.
I’m not very good at taking pictures, but I happened to snap one of the best ones of my father while we were out walking one day.
At the end of the conference, we looked forward to the few hours we’d have in Paris before our flight left, figuring we could at least get to the Eiffel Tower and perhaps the Louvre.
But the airline had lost my luggage on the way out. It was just one bag, and when it finally arrived after I’d left on the train for Caen, they refused to send it on to me at the hotel. A helpful customer service person said I’d have to pick up the bag myself when I got to the airport for the return flight. Then no one at the airport seemed to know where exactly I had to go to retrieve my luggage. Of course by the time it was all straightened out, we had no time to see Paris. All either one of us had seen of the city was what we’d glimpsed out of taxi and train windows. It was disappointing. But as my father pointed out, it wasn’t the main reason we’d come to France.
We settled into our seats on the plane, and while dinner was being served, we set up our viewing screens and made our selections. After a while, my father nudged me and pointed to his screen. He’d been watching “Casablanca” and it was at the flashback scene where Rick and Ilsa were in Paris, the Eiffel Tower in the background.
“Look,” my father said as he smiled. “There it is. We’ve seen Paris.”
He died less than two years later. I’m still grateful for the time we did and didn’t have in Paris.