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Monday, October 20, 2003

I notice yesterday's post got on today's date: I guess I shouldn't have hit the "change time and date" button when I finally published.

I'm picking up today on the thread of the last two days or so, about communication, and way of being, and how one feels about things. You had not noticed a thread, you say? Well, maybe not, but there were markers, little stones, it was up to you to connect the dots if you so chose.

When you are being yourself and trust your life to be in the right place at the right time, you never know when something you do or say will actually save someone's life. Without intention, you mean? Yes, without any specific overt intention of either "doing good", or "fixing things", without a personal agenda. Basically by just showing up.

The first life I saved was my little brother Alain's. Because of other landmark dates of things that happened later, which I know for a historic fact, this must have happened when I was just five years old. I was walking through the woods, behind the house where we lived, on a property where a German cavalry regiment had been quartered. Walking through the woods was a favorite pastime of mine, fulfilling at one time two goals I had then, the one of seeking for treasure and adventure, the other of losing the hair ribbons my mother put in my hair, which I detested. Unexpectedly, because it wasn't really his thing, I came across my little brother in the woods, chewing on something he had filled his mouth with, which was sort of drooling green onto his chin and onto his clothes. He was holding in his sticky little dimpled hands a bunch of large green pills, horse pills, which had been discarded in the woods behind the stables by the German cavalry, which had been rotated out to be replaced by a tank regiment.

I had no idea what the pills might contain, I was sure they were not sweets, and in my way of thinking, green pills in the woods could only mean one thing: poison!

I pounced on Alain, and I tried to get him to spit them all out, which he did. However, he had already swallowed some, even though he claimed they didn't taste that good.

I put one arm around his neck to hold him still, and shoved my other hand down his throat in an attempt to make him vomit (I was too young ever to have heard about "do not induce vomiting" , the common refrain in poison cases). It wouldn't work, because Alain was a squirming handful and kicked and screamed like the very devil. So I dragged him home to my mother, handed him over along with a bunch of green horse pills, and said: "Here, you try. I can't make him vomit, he won't let me."

She rushed him to the doctor, who pumped out his stomach and told her she was lucky to have such a daughter. Without my intervention, my little brother might have been very sick, might even have died a horrible death.

The next year, in the springtime before my mother's death, an allied plane was shot down by the Germans one night. Word went out from the Kommandantur the next morning that people had to remain indoors, anyone caught outside would be shot, no questions asked. This was taken by everyone to signify the pilot was probably still alive somewhere, and that the Germans were still looking for him. There were plenty of French men ready to go looking for him too, to get him to safety and pass him out of the area to freedom, but the problem was where to look, nobody knew exactly where the plane had come down.

In some parts of French farm country, the significance of identifying a field is as follows: a farmer's fields are not necessarily contiguous because estates get split up among children, eventually someone may own a field isolated from the rest of his holdings. The limits of most such fields are delineated by hedges, and hedges are laid to reinforce their strength to withstand wind and storms. Sometimes, the way such parallel hedges are laid on each side of a common access path results in a vaulted, covered pathway, which looks like a single hedge to a casual observer on the outside who doesn't know about such things, but it is a space where a man can walk upright, even ride a bicycle, sometimes, and certainly a good place for a fallen pilot to seek shelter and refuge. Consequently, if the farmers knew in whose field the plane had fallen, everyone would know where to start looking for the pilot. All anybody knew, however, was the direction from which the fire had blazed.

My mother sent me out to scout. All the German soldiers knew me quite well, they were always coming across me in the wrong places, bringing me home with a spanking, like a naughty puppy, "Please, Mrs. Fenn, please keep an eye on this one--we found her in a mine field, once again." They practically always spoke to my mother in English. Well, my mother figured the Germans would not shoot me, I was trouble, sure, but they were unaware I was actually Mata Hari.

I remember walking through the deserted village so clearly. It was a weekday, but it felt like a Sunday, all the houses had closed their shutters onto the street, but I could hear the muffled voices inside, the sound of children playing, dogs barking, women taking off the lids from soup pots on the stove and replacing them with a slam, men's chairs scraping on the kitchen tiles as they stood up from the table, parents scolding their squabbling children, all those family sounds, clearly identifiable, in a world parallel to mine, a world of silence and nervous expectancy.

I walked past the village. I was now on the open road, keeping close to the edge, close to the ditch where tall wet grasses slapped against my bare legs and hit the gap between my Wellington boots and my dress. I would wipe myself from the sting with my hands, and walk on. Suddenly, in the distance on a small hill, I could see the German roadblock, a tank, some other cars, guns all facing my way, and in a very green field nearby, the burnt out shell of a plane, head in the ground, tail in the air. I turned around and went home calmly to report to my mother.

That night, I was pulled out of bed and awakened, brought into the light, where a very large man in uniform, who spoke English, took me onto his knees, laughing. I don't remember what he said, but he fished into his pocket and pulled out a roll of colored sweets, which he gave me. They were funny little round sweets, with a hole in the middle.

The English-speaking man in a strange uniform was gone in the morning and I never saw him again. We never spoke about him, either.

It was only years later, as a child in boarding school, when I opened a gift parcel sent to me by my Aunt Marie in Texas, which contained a roll of Lifesavers, that I realized what it was the stranger had given me, in early 1944, and finally I understood that this was the expression of his thanks to me for saving the life of an American airman.

I didn't often think about this story until 1993. This was the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the village, Bruz, counting Japanese style, which counts the event itself as One.

I had decided to do a Buddhist memorial to honor all those who had died that night, and finally I decided to include all those people who either were from there and had died somewhere else (deported to Auschwitz, or Dachau, for instance, there were many, including the parish priest), or who were from somewhere else and had died there, during the entire World War II period. This probably covered a count of over a thousand people.

Anyway, one fine day that I was riding the No. 7 out to Flushing, I was looking out the window. Now the No. 7, for those who don't know it, is an elevated train, so you are looking across tree tops and at the top floors of small buildings. There, painted straight across beneath the rooftop of a small apartment building, were the four letters in large block capitals, BRUZ, white on red brick.

It really came as quite a shock to me: I had no idea how or why this had happened. And just now, for the 50th anniversary?

Within the next few weeks and months, several graffiti artists took BRUZ up, in different styles, all over Queens and on out into Flushing. You could see it as soon as you approached Queensboro Plaza, just everywhere, on both sides of the track. Finally one person even added a copyright notice after it, and maybe that is the reason why over the years, the various graffiti BRUZ has disappeared. They are almost all gone now, except the one in the tunnel entrance to Main Street, and finally this year, the first one, the original one, has been painted over black and there is closure.
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