06 June 2014

D-Day with Dave

I first met Dave in an oil painting class I took not long after I moved to Wheaton. I had no friends, the obvious downside to moving somewhere new, and I'd always heard that if you want to make new friends, you should join clubs and groups to get to know people. I think I read this in Dear Abby, who rarely steers you wrong; the idea is that even if you don't make new friends, you will have done something worthwhile or learned something new, as opposed to just sitting at home feeling lonely.

I joined an oil painting class because I'd always wanted to learn how to do that. My artistic skills were rather stymied once we got into drawing anything that wasn't a tree in my middle school art class, so I wasn't sure how good I could be at this oil painting thing.

The year before, when I'd been living in Rouen, France, there was an oil painting studio I passed on the rue Eau de Robec every day on my walk through town, almost always slowing down to study the advertisement for oil painting lessons. I'd see other people in there, painting still lives of pears or loaves of bread, and a panic would rise up in me about doing something I wasn't very good at and trying to do it in French.

Beyond the fact that I didn't know the vocabulary needed for oil painting—why didn't Madame Warner teach me brush-related nouns back in high school French class?—I just knew that I would panic about verb conjugations and end up with a painting that the teacher would politely pretend was supposed to be some homage to abstract expressionism.

My first night in my Wheaton oil painting class, I found myself explaining this French story to Dave, who looked to be older than my grandpa and who was making a drawing of a covered bridge in pastels. I watched him work, colors flying across the page, but I was slightly perplexed as to what he was doing in an oil painting class if he was using pastels. And he was good—this man needed no lessons. His covered bridge made me think of Iowa and Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County {not bad things to be thinking about}, even as I told him my Rouen and Eau de Robec studio story.

As usually happens when we tell stories about things that happened to us in Europe, I was giving everything this Monet glow: the cafe I walked to, the woman I bought flower from every Sunday morning at the market, what the cathedral looked like in the late afternoon winter sun.

"Rouen, huh?" Dave interrupted. He said Rouen as many Americans do: Rue-anne.

I smiled at him, "Yes, it's a town in the north part of France, which is called Normandy. Where Joan of Arc was killed." I offered this as if it were the most important fact about Rouen, the one thing that would make people say, "Oh, that Rouen! Of course!"

"Oh, I've been there," Dave said quietly as he chose a bold, deep red for the bridge.

I get excited when anyone has been to Rouen; it's an instant bond, one that makes me think this new friend and I can now speak in code of shared memories of what it was like to walk on those cobblestone streets. I started to pump Dave for information. "Really? What did you do there? When did you visit? Isn't it so wonderful to sit at a cafe and look up at the cathedral?"

"Didn't sit in too many cafes then...I was just passing through, actually. It was in June 1944."

June. 1944. In Normandy.

He never looked up from his drawing this whole time, and I never stopped looking at him: This almost 90-year-old man who'd been coming to the oil painting group at the Wheaton Park District for 25 years just because he liked the people, even if he didn't want to oil paint anymore—this man with the watery blue eyes and who, I would learn, wore a University of Illinois sweatshirt every week to class—this man was in the D-Day invasion.

"Wow, so you...stormed the beach at Normandy?" The words sounded overly dramatic, as if I'd only picked them up by watching movies made about that time.

Up until that moment, I'd never met anyone who'd been at D-Day. My grandpa had been in World War II; he was in the Army Air Corps and was stationed in North Africa, where he worked as a cryptographer. When I'd ask him about the war, he'd tell me funny stories of camel races in the desert and how he met a British officer with his same name, Ronald Walker. My grandpa would hoot with laughter as he told us that he'd go over to the British camp with the British Ronald Walker—just to have their better beer. {And the British Ronald Walker would come to the American camp to eat our better food.}

My grandpa left behind an album with grainy pictures of Tunisia, palm trees, and men in uniform we'll never know. I wondered, that first night in oil painting, if Dave had an album at home with grainy pictures of Rouen. I wondered briefly if he even would've been allowed a camera in the invasion.

"Yep, I was there." He said this casually, as you might mention being at a football game or at the Dairy Queen. "My men and I, we were in the second wave, and then we marched on in across that beautiful French countryside."

Well, "marched on in," except for the bloodshed and except for the constant gunfire and except for the landmines on the beaches. And yes, the French countryside is beautiful—it's hard to look at it now and imagine armies and tanks in the place of the cows.

Dave downplayed his role in D-Day, and like the good Midwesterner I am, I didn't want to press for details he didn't seem willing to offer up. Instead, I focused on sketching a bird—my teacher had told me to start with that—and waited patiently to see if he'd tell any stories, encouraged, perhaps, by my quiet attentiveness.

He was and he did.

Over the next several years I was in that oil painting class, Dave told stories of the French people he met.

He talked about the time he'd accidentally shaved with some of the famous Normandy apple cider; he'd thought he was pouring water in to mix with his shaving soap, but oh no, it was the cider. Those watery blue eyes of his would crinkle in delight as he laughed, "I smelled so good after that, the men poked fun at me for wearing perfume!"

He and I talked about the green, lush, rolling hills of the Normandy pastures, and he said at one point that he did remember that cathedral in Rouen. But Dave never really talked about what it was like on the beach that day, beyond a gruff, "We did what we had to do" one night when I asked if he had been scared.

Today, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, makes me think of Dave, who I haven't seen much in several years. I no longer go to oil painting, but sometimes I run into him at the gym, lifting weights and riding the stationary bike while wearing an age-worn shirt from the Grand Canyon.

I look at him, hunched over the bike as his spindly legs peddle as fast as they can, and I think: You helped make history by doing "what had to be done."

And we're all so thankful you did.

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