LAON SURVIVORS ALUMNI ASSOCIATION

MEMORIES OF LONG AGO


 

A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE

  by Cathy Mix Campbell       2002

When I was ten years old, in 1967, my family spent a fairy-tale year in the tiny village of Versigne, France.  My father, Lt. Tom Mix was assigned to Laon AFB.  Wanting his family to get a real taste of French life, rather than living on the base, he rented a two-story house with stables and fruit trees in the back yard, a huge rain barrel from which we used to rinse our hair, and, best of all, a "mannequin pis," or statue of a little boy peeing, into a fishpond!

On school days my sister, Lee, and I rode a blue bus to the corrugated metal boxes, mixed with some trailers, that made up the base school.  Most of my school friends are remembered by first names only, but I recall that my best friend was Annick Montcalm. My memories of that time are predominantly of home.  Even at the age of ten, I noticed the magical quality of light that streamed through the bedroom windows, waking me on summer mornings.  (I think that light had something to do with my becoming an artist - that, and countless weekend car trips to castles filled with paintings.) 

Summer days consisted of riding my bike on the cobblestone street, or maybe sitting under a large tree in the front yard with a few local children and my mother, she with a small blackboard, trying to help us communicate.  I think my first French sentence was, "Do you want to come back to my house tomorrow?", which I said as, "Vous partir ma maison demain?"

 I had a good friend named Genevieve, whose mother, Georgette, helped my mom with the housework.  In turn, our mothers became fast friends as well.  Genevieve and I took naps together and played with our kittens.  The first time I was invited to her house for lunch was a revelation.  "Lunch," at noon, was of course the day's big meal.

  Genevieve and I followed Georgette, into their backyard, which was really just a big vegetable garden with chickens running around in it.  As I admired a particular chicken by pointing at it, Georgette said, "Do you like that one?"  In a second, she scooped it up, wrung it's neck, and chopped it's head off.  It wound up in a huge pot filled, also, with broth and peas.  On the table were a liter bottle of "Citron" (lemonade) from which everyone at the table swigged, and a single damp washcloth which was utilized as the community napkin.  That soup was delicious, and I only thought about the poor chicken a little bit! 

Just as we were becoming comfortable with living in France, my father came home one day with the news that we had to start packing immediately.  DeGaulle (spell?) had ordered all American troops out of the country.  We were dispatched to Upper Heyford, England. 

Although England had charms of its own, it was nothing like France.  Once the sun shown for 20 minutes straight, and that was some kind of a record.  So France has always remained special for me.

Fast forward to the year 1999.  I was now an artist/teacher living in Pennsylvania with my own ten-year old little girl.  I had often dreamed of going back to the magical house with the orchard in the back, the "mannequin pis," and the unusual quality of light, but I was caught up with my busy life and didn't think seriously of it.   

Out of the blue, I learned that a friend was embarking on a mother/daughter group trip to Paris that November.  I wondered if I could possibly combine a Paris trip with a visit to my old house.  It seemed a difficult and unlikely prospect, until I heard of a man named Bernard Croza from Tom Laseter of Laon Survivors.

 Tom told me that Bernard had a special place in his heart for Americans, and had helped a few of them get around the old Laon base.  After many trans-Atlantic e-mails, I decided to go for it! 

Part II:                                          LAON TRIP 1999    

"Before returning to Paris there was another stop we had to make, in Reims. This was the apartment of our former housekeeper, Georgette. Bernard had called her to arrange our meeting , and at first, hearing a strange man's voice on the phone, she had almost hung up on him. When he mentioned he was calling on behalf of myself, she had practically burst into tears and said, "She is like my own daughter!"

Georgette was now an elderly widow, the reason for her move.  However, in honor of my visit she had her daughter, Genevieve on stand-by for the time that I arrived.  When I came, Georgette called her and she arrived with her own husband and son in tow. We embraced and reminisced with much help from Bernard (unlike my previous hosts, Georgette knows no English at all).  We took photos, drank more champagne, and exchanged e-mail and snail-mail addresses.  Then it was getting dark and time for Bernard to take us back to Paris. 

It was a 2 hour trip back in the gathering dark.  We were all quiet, reflecting on a highly emotional day.  Bernard had been the perfect tour guide and host, staying in the background when appropriate, stepping forward to interpret when a glance told him he was needed.  I could tell it was as emotional an experience for him, as it was for the rest of us.  I cannot end this story without telling what happened when I returned to the U.S.  The first time I turned on my computer, to my shock I had mail from Bernard's son, telling me and many of his other e-mail friends around the world that Bernard had had a heart attack the very night of our adventure. He was hospitalized, but expected to recover.

I am very glad to say that Bernard has recovered and is now accepting American chocolate chip cookies.  (I did not send any the first December following our visit out of concern for his cholesterol.)  My husband said, jokingly,  "well, that is what my wife and daughter will do to a guy." 

One more thing - since Sept. 11, I have had several e-mails and snail mails from both Bernard and my French friends, expressing shock, condolences and sympathy for America.  Bernard sent me a photo of his entire village exiting the local church on the day after, where prayers were offered on our behalf. It was very touching.

I'm very glad Bernard will be able to come to the Laon Survivors' Dallas Reunion this June 2002. If anyone reading this is contemplating a trip back to Laon, be assured Bernard Croza is the man to help you with any and all details at a nominal cost. I, and several others who have benefited from his assistance know him to be an exceptional individual and a loyal friend to Americans, especially military. He can be reached at bcroza@laonnois.com