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FARM IN CRAVANT
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Waking up in the morning is such a routine. Like breathing.
At least it was for me before this journey of mine. Back in Wuerzburg
in the Army waking up meant no matter what time you went to bed, you always
woke up the same time, and the same sound –reveille… played
on a scratchy record down the hall somewhere. And back at prep school
at Mercersburg – the 6:00 a.m. carillon bells gong, gong, gonging
away at the chapel across the quadrangle, and back in Baltimore at art
school –an abrasive-sounding alarm clock I inherited from my brother.
Prisoners, they probably
wish they didn’t have to wake up. Or men who work at jobs they hate.
They wish they could lie in bed all day. Everyone has to wake up. I can’t
think of anyone that doesn’t have to do it. Wake up.
Well, maybe some rich people or royalty. People like that. They can sleep
all day if they want to. Or insomniacs that can’t sleep. And also,
I’ve heard of people that never go to sleep. They don’t have
to go through the routine of waking up.
It used to be I didn’t
like waking up – or maybe it was I didn’t like someone or
something waking me up. But now, on this trip, I was beginning to like
waking up. Maybe it was the aroma of clover that greeted me outside our
tent on a grassy knoll in eastern France, or maybe it was the sound of
a rooster and his cackling hens outside a barn window.
I could elect to lie
there and listen or maybe fall back to sleep or I could get up and take
a walk before everyone else was stirring. Usually I would get up and get
dressed and start walking around wherever I was. Like in a city or village
or farm or something. I would creep out and start looking around. That
time of the morning if you saw someone on the street they didn’t
have the energy to stare at you or ask questions, they were just as sleepy
as you were, so I had the village or whatever all to myself just to look
around without the distraction of people.
I think as I look back on it now, one of the reasons I didn’t go
back to sleep was because it wasn’t easy. Rudi snored.
I mean he really snored. I guess it was because of his broken nose. I
guess he had his sinuses all banged up when he smashed his nose when the
vegetable truck he was riding in back in Wuesterheide went into the ditch
when that Mustang or Spitfire strafed those people.
Boy! Could he snore!
In the morning, both of us woke up with the rest of the farm animals that
were sniffing and snorting in the barn. Marie knocked on the door, “C’mon
boys, time for some breakfast!”
We went in and Madame Rouge was preparing the usual French farm breakfast,
a roll and a cup of coffee. That was 5:30 a.m., but later in the morning,
at 10:00 a.m. we got a more substantial meal, two rolls and a cup of coffee.
“Got a lot of
work for you guys today,” Monsieur Rogue greeted us. Either of you
fellows know anything about chickens?”
“Sure, I do!” I popped up; “We used to have them when
we lived out in the country when I was little.” I thought he was
going to ask me to go out and feed the chickens or something.
“Good. See that crate over there?” I looked to where he was
pointing in the yard. There must have been at least a dozen chickens in
a big crate. “I want you to cut off their necks and have them cleaned
and dressed by the time Madame Rouge and I return from town!” I
took a gulp, as he handed me a meat ax.
a great friend of animals, and I find it hard to swat a fly or
step on a cricket. I looked at Rudi, and he just grinned at the predicament
I was in. By this time, he’d gotten to know me enough that unless
it was for our survival, I didn’t have it in me to go off and volunteer
to kill something unless the situation called for it. As Monsieur Rouge
went into a shed, Rudi leaned over and whispered , “Better take
care of your job Engh, or he’ll think you’re a coward!”
and he poked me in the ribs.
“Rudi! I gotta job for you; come with me!”
“Yes, sir!” Rudi shouted, snapping to attention. He followed
Monsieur Rouge, turning and looking back at me smiling as he swung his
arm in a whirling motion as though he were chopping off a giant chicken’s
head. “Watch out! They got long teeth!” he shouted back.
Marie showed me the chopping block; it was a blood-stained tree stump.
I turned to the task at hand, and scratching my head, wondered what kind
of mess I was going to make of these twelve chickens. Luckily, I had watched
my older brother, Lynn, decapitate chickens when I was younger. I opened
the crate and grabbed one of the chickens, but dammit! --two others popped
out before I could get the top closed again. I ran around the farmyard
holding the one chicken in my arm like a football, and tried to catch
the other two. Marie laughed. Dodging, ducking, sliding and running was
going to be in vain. She came to the rescue, and in a matter of a few
seconds had the two chickens cornered, and returned them to the cage.
With her arms folded, and a teasing smile on her face, she came over to
examine my guillotine operations. I couldn’t let her down, and recalled
as best I could how my brother, Lynn, had done it. It was either the chicken,
I grabbed the poor squawking animal by the two legs.
I put it fluttering on Monsieur Rouge’s tree stump, said some kind
of pagan prayer, and with one swift accurate blow, brought the ax down
on the chicken’s neck. Blood splattered everywhere. In only a few
short seconds the poor creature was running about the farmyard without
a head, spouting a geyser of blood. The head lay there on the stump, blinking
its eye, like it was winking at me.
Marie giggled at the sight of the chicken frantically bumping into fences
and barn doors in search of its head. I tried to catch the body to settle
it down, but Marie yelled, “Let it alone; you’ll get yourself
all bloody! It’ll soon run out of gas!”
There were eleven more to go, so I rolled up my sleeves
and went about the job, hoping that my stomach would last the ordeal.
I won’t tell you about the near misses. By the time I had finished
the last chicken, Marie had the de-feathering machine running. It was
a power-driven wheel with pieces of rubber from old tires attached to
it that whirled around, beating most of the feathers off the birds. Marie
showed me where to cut them open for cleaning. Like a dedicated surgeon
I removed the insides, sorted them out, and then plugged the chickens
up again with the edible giblets.
Right before the midday
meal Rudi returned, covered with what looked like mud. “You get
a good job?” I shouted to him as he headed for the back of the house
where they had an outside shower stall.
“You know what a honey wagon is?” He yelled
over to me in a disgusted tone. I remembered the big long wooden barrel-shaped
horse-drawn wagons in Germany, full of a mixture of rainwater and manure
that the farmers used as a rich fertilizer in early planting season. I
nodded to him.
“The spout broke
off it while I was laying under it, fixing the rear wheel!”
I laughed and asked him if he needed any soap as he was heading to the
outside shower stall. “Yes, and bring me some dry clothes!”
Marie had heard the conversation and yelled out the kitchen window, “You
want some perfume too, Rudi?”
He just threw his
arms up to the heavens and disappeared into the shower stall. I delivered
his clean clothing and Marie volunteered to wash the remaining clothing,
in fact, all of our clothing that needed it. We were leaving the farm
in the morning.
At midday we took
the usual two hours or so to enjoy one of Madame Rouge’s fine meals.
The folks made Rudi sit down at the far end of the table, more out of
fun that necessity. He refused. He didn’t think it was funny. He
came and sat next to Marie out of spite.
After the noonday
meal we each were given new jobs to do, and I wondered what people were
doing back in the states on a June Saturday afternoon as I was splitting
kindling for the Rouge’s kitchen stove.
When I was finished I came upon Rudi talking with Monsieur Rouge over
at the forge where they were sharpening some tools. The conversation
Ordinarily, Rudi and
I seldom dug very deep into the lives or background of the people we met
on our trip. But sometimes the people volunteered information that they
didn’t care to share with their neighbors or relatives. It was the
sort of things we all will tell strangers, just to get it off our chest.
Rudi had asked
about Marie. It looked like to us that Marie was not a blood
relative of the family. “No, Marie, is an orphan,” Monsieur
Rouge was telling Rudi when I joined them. Her family lived outside Lyon,
a large city some 100 miles to the south. Her father was the proprietor
of a small bakery in a tiny farm village that had a few houses, a tavern
and a church.
war, the Germans occupied France, sure, but how do you keep control
of the whole country? They were smart. They put their Nazi troops all
along the coastline and in Paris and let the interior of the country be
guarded down in the south by an appointed French government that they
called the Vichy Government
And who do you get to run such a government? Well, you look for the opportunists
in any group of people that you want to keep under control.
In this “Vichy government," the Nazis made
up the rules, one of them being the French had to export all of the Jews
in France to Germany where they could put them to work or, well, exterminate
them. I guess I’m not telling you anything you didn’t already
Another was the French would set up a Secret Police that
would make sure their fellow-countrymen would follow all the rules. You
can just imagine who in your own community would like to join a secret
police organization wherever you live.
So there you have
the secret on how a small group of people can control a large group. The
Secret Police. There were a few of the police in each village. They had
uniforms and everything, just like the Gestapo. But how could they control
a whole hamlet or village or entire city?
The Nazi’s were clever. It’s called the “betrayal system.”
In every town and village, there are always people who will snitch on
their neighbors or fellow employees or church members for a price. No
one knew who were the good guys and who were the quiet traitors. It turned
out pretty ugly. It brought out the worst in most people.
Every now and then they’d have an execution. It didn’t matter
if the Secret Police had convincing proof of sabotage or spying. They
resorted to torture to get information out of the public. So there you
had Frenchmen torturing their own people to get information out of the
I don’t want to sound high and mighty here but I heard of situations
where back at my CIC job back in Wuerzburg some of that was going on.
It was hush-hush. I don’t know who and all that, but there were
guys in my unit who knew agents who had it in for the Germans because
they had an uncle or father in a P.O.W. camp who was mowed down by a Nazi
officer and regular soldiers. They wanted to “get back.” It’s
The French who were
suspects were often shot by a Nazi firing squad just to make an example.
Worse things happened to those who had confessed.
This is what happened to Marie and her family. Yes, wherever or what country
you are reading this, you can imagine who in your community would turn
in a neighbor or even a relative to the Secret Police but you can also
imagine who would not, no matter what the circumstances. For these people
there was another secret organization. It was called The Resistance.
Marie’s parents and her older brother were secret members of that
Many the French citizens
joined these underground organizations that sabotaged both the Vichy government
(their own people that the French called traitors) as well as the Nazis
occupying their country.
Hitler should have
known this. Any kid knows this. You can’t ask the countrymen of
the country you are occupying not to want to resist. Most of them anyway.
and her brother were caught in a trap while they were setting explosives
on a rail system that runs near Cravant. The Secret Police had received
a report from one of its informers just when and where the “job”
was going to be done. The three of them were gunned down around midnight
June 14th 1944 and left to be chopped into pieces when the freight train
passed through that night. Marie was only 4 years old at the time and
through the grapevine found a home at the Rouge family. They never speak
about it. This is not the kind of stuff you read about in the Railway
brochures from the Bureau de Tourisime.
Monsieur Rouge’s dilapidated truck was waiting for us out in the
yard at sunset. We all took off for a dance hall where they were having
a Saturday night festival in a village near Cravant. Marie cornered Rudi,
and I spent the evening dancing with Madame Rouge and Monsieur Kelewski’s
wife, while Monsieur Rouge and Stanislav drank wine with a group of friends.
“Where’s Rudi?” Monsieur asked when it was time to leave.
“I think he’s out repairing a honey wagon wheel!.” Monsieur
Kelewski answered, and we all laughed.
“Where’s Marie?” He asked
“I think she’s out there making sure the spout is shut! said
Madame Rouge, just as Rudi and Marie returned to our table.
Counting his group with his finger, Monsieur Rouge shouted to us all,
“C’mon you people, it’s past one o’clock, let’s
get home.” And we rumbled off in the cool night air in Monsieur
Rouge’s lopsided truck.
Sunday was a lazy day around the farm. Rudi and Marie spent most of the
afternoon cutting the hedge. In the morning, I wrote some of the initial
installments for my newspaper article for back home. After the midday
meal, I sat on the stonewall in front of their farm and did a pen and
“Thank you, Rohn,” Madame Rouge said, as the others peered
over her shoulder to get a look at the drawing. “Please sign it,”
Handing me a pencil. When I had, she tacked it up on the wall in the kitchen,
beside the grandfather clock. “There!” she said, “Now
we can never forget the both of you!”
After a late Sunday supper, we sat around singing more songs, and Monsieur
Rouge taught us some folk tunes that he remembered from his youth. Rudi
had bought a harmonica at the festival and showed us all another talent
of his. By eleven o’clock we were in bed. We were having breakfast
at the Monday morning kitchen table by 5:30 a.m.
“Wish you boys weren’t leaving so soon,” Madame Rouge
said hesitantly as we were finishing the final meal.
“Gotta see some more of this world!” Rudi gave her a little
As we were preparing our scooter for leaving, Madame Rouge came out of
the house with a large bag of apples, grapes, and pears. “You have
room for this?” she laughed, looking at the over-burdened scooter.
“Always got a place for food!” Rudi smiled stuffing the package
in one of the saddlebags.
The family gathered around when we announced we were ready to head off,
and Monsieur Rouge arrived in his truck from the fields just in time.
“Well, Rudi, I hope you stop by the next time you come by Cravant!”
he said in his husky voice. “I hope Rohn’s with you, too!”
“Where will you be off to the next time we see you, Rudi?”
Stainslav asked, knowing we would have completed the globe circuit by
“Only the moon’s left.” Laughed Madame Kelewski.
“Here’s something for you, Rudi,” Marie said shyly,
and she handed him the sunglasses. “Take good care of them, and
bring them back someday!” In her other hand, she handed him a daisy.
Rudi kissed her gently on the cheek.
We started up the
Vespa, shouted them all a farewell, and we were off to the Mediterranean.