The day after Christmas, 2012, marked the 60th anniversary of the birth of a poor white child in the hospital at Natrona Heights, Pennsylvania, so Cynthia and I planned to celebrate by renting a car and driving into the country. A few years ago we had visited Sarlat, a village in the Périgord, known to people like my wife as one of the best preserved medieval towns in France, and to people like me as the place that served one of the best steaks I've ever eaten.
To get to Sarlat from Bordeaux you take the A89 east toward Perigueux, follow it for about 20 miles, realize how boring it is and how much the tolls are going to cost, then get off and find a more picturesque route. Fortunately, in this part of France just about any two-lane road will do. For us it was the D6089 which parallels the Isle River and the D47 from Perigueux, much of which reminds me of U.S. 30 between Ligonier and Gettysburg in western Pennsylvania. The scenery is the same kind of rolling farm land but missing the barns with the faded "Chew Mail Pouch" signs and the "See Indian Caverns" billboards. I swear that more than once as we rounded a curve I expected to see Storybook Forest.
Not missing, however, was the inevitable line of cars trailing a pensioner- piloted RV and the experience here is exactly the same as on Route 30. There is virtually nowhere to safely pass and when an opening finally comes, the opposite lane, which for the last ten miles has been nearly deserted, okay, right, you know what I'm talking about. Here the problem's compounded by the Citroën C1 you're driving being able to accelerate to the requisite passing speed only if it's driven off a cliff. And the European Manual of Conduct for Men over 65 apparently prescribes the same headgear for operators of slow moving vehicles as the American version, because the vieux chevres here, like the old goats at home, are always wearing the same hat. Again, you probably know what I mean. My sister used to say they looked like toilet seat covers.
So when your chance comes, you whip and flog the little C1 to within a red centimeter of throwing a rod until, finally, you make it past M. & Mme. Hulot. This will all turn out to have been futile when within the next kilometer will emerge a scene that your wife absolutely has to capture in pictures. In this case it was something you definitely won't find along Route 30 - a tiny village built into the hillside and, according to the roadside sign, the site of continuous human habitation for 24,000 years. (I guess if you believe the earth is 6,000 [or is it 9,000?] years old, this could be metric years.)
In Sourzac, a little town on the Isle River, we found something else you won't see in Pennsylvania, or anywhere else in the U.S. Next to the little riverside park where we stopped to eat lunch was the town war memorial. Every city, town and village in France has one of these and I always feel compelled to have a look. The inscriptions are often touching and usually include the names of the enfants who never came home. Even in small towns the numbers from 1914-18 are astonishing. But here, along with the names of dead soldiers was also inscribed "FUSILLES PAR LES ALLEMANDS LE 11 JUIN 1944" (Shot by the Germans, June 11, 1944). Below this were the names and ages of 18 men, the oldest being 47 and the youngest 16. Across the street was an old, rusty street sign reading, "Avenue du 11 Juin 1944."
If you're French, you don't need an explanation. Over 350,000 French civilians were killed in World War II, 230,000 of these between 1940 and 1944 in reprisals by the Germans. But I wanted to know what happened here and found the story on the internet. On the night of June 10, 1944, four days after D-Day, Resistance members attacked a German troop train in the neighboring town of Mussidan. The SS troops involved easily fought off the guerillas, killing nine of them in the process. The next day, in retaliation, every man the Germans could find, 350 in all, were herded into the town square. Those over 60 or disabled were eventually let go. The remaining 52, including the 18 from Sourzac, were shot.
As an American I have a hard time trying to imagine this since nothing in our history compares. What was it like to have your country invaded, your army beaten and then to suffer the humiliation and indignity of over 4 years of occupation? What was it like to live day in and day out knowing that the armed strangers might someday decide you were the one to shoot. And what effect does an experience like that have on a country and its people?
Then I thought about what's gone on in the United States since 9/11. As bad as it was, we were never seriously threatened with anything remotely close to what Europeans suffered and yet life in the U.S. has been fundamentally altered. Americans now seem to live in a state of almost constant fear, so exercising a constitutional right isn't the only reason there's a firearm for almost every single person. The current state of discourse in America has the country being split almost 50-50 and intransigence is the order of the day. Conservatives don't just disagree with liberals, they hate them. Mass killings have become so commonplace that most don't even make the front page. Not even 20 children being rounded up and shot can make the National Rifle Association consider that arming everybody might not be such a hot idea. And, in anticipation of the next time, more people buy guns.
Americans don't need the Germans. We've got each other.