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War and Remembrance : From London to Normandy to Berlin, A Daughter Follows Her Veteran Father In Search of His Memories and the Source of His Grand Silence.

May 22, 1994|Mary Williams Walsh | Mary Williams Walsh is The Times' Berlin correspondent

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!"

"Could be."

"I bet the Blue Jays take it in six!"

"We'll see."

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.

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