LAON Revisited, more than 50 years later

On March 30, 2007 my husband Keven Van Camp and I arrived at the Laon train station. I was returning for the first time in more than 50 years; he had never been there. Due to his encouragement and the help of Robert Gordon III and Robert Maiden, both close friends in the Air Force at the base in Laon, I had met Bernard Croza through email and was finally about to revisit Laon and the base, places I had not seen since the funeral of my then husband, Lt. Walter Schmuck. He and his pilot were the first of what was to become a series of fatalities in the winter of 1956-1957. At age 18 I had become a widow and my life took several drastic turns before I was ready to return first to France three years ago and now Laon.

 It immediately became evident which person waiting at the station was Bernard. His warm smile and quickly extended hands in greeting immediately eased our nervousness and uncertainty about this undertaking. Though this was our first visit, he had guided many others through the experience and seemed to know just what to do with us at every step of the way.

 As I stood in front of the station on that mild spring day, powerful memories of standing in that same place came flooding into my mind. The last time I had been there it was a cold, drizzling day. I had been at the hilltop, Ville Haute, of the old city and had worked my way down the hill to Ville Basse, looking for Christmas gifts to send to my family in California and Walt’s family in Indiana.

 At that time, Laon, as well as most of France and Europe was still recovering from the devastation wrought by World War II. It continually shocked me to come across buildings that had been bombed out and had yet to be repaired. Many homes had no running water, only the kitchen coal stove for both cooking and heat. I had no idea how difficult life was for many. There were piles of unexploded bombs along many roadways. I would find caches of rations left by troops in the hills across from where I lived. Certain foods, like milk, butter, fresh vegetables, and eggs were not always available in the local markets. The little shops near the cathedral were barely stocked with essentials for daily living let alone luxury items for Christmas giving. I recalled seeing a man dressed in a Santa suit that must have been made in the United States. It hung on him like some sort of bizarre blanket! He was so skinny and bedraggled, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He gave me a smile revealing several missing teeth so I decided to laugh with him. After all it was the season to be jolly and in spite of what his circumstances might have been, he certainly was jolly!

Bernard had made the necessary arrangements for us to go onto the base. I must say it was difficult to orient myself to the present day scene. Gone are the rows and rows of trailers, the Quonset huts, the gravel, the puddles and the mud. Beautiful green lawns, paved roads, tanks on pedestals, and even flowers here and there were in sharp contrast to my memories. Though the years had certainly erased a lot of my memories of that place I probably had not seen the base in the spring or summer time very much. For the first year I was there, I lived off base near the village of Laniscourt in the “Chateau de Bois Roger.” Three other couples lived there and we often had visitors from the base, but I don’t recall visiting there very often other than to shop at the PX and go to the Officer’s Club on occasion.  I lived on base for only about 3 months before the fatal accident in early December 1956. I can’t remember exactly when I moved on base, but I believe it was late fall, well past summer. I’m sure that accounts for why so many of my memories of the base are of a very bleak and dreary place.

Bernard drove us all over the base, pointing out the buildings and relating the history of the area. I recognized some of the buildings, but certainly not all. It was exciting to see the school building. I have many happy memories of being in the school. I volunteered to work with the Brownies one afternoon a week. I was told I was not allowed to be a leader because I was not old enough, but the women who were the leaders were happy to have me assist them. I don’t recall the names of any of the people, but I do remember the fun times I had with the little girls. I still have an angel ornament one of them gave me just before I had to leave. I’m certain a large part of my future decision to go to University once I got back to California and obtain my teacher credentials was formed while being in the school on the base.

Aside from recognizing some of the other structures…the runway, barracks and control tower…the most moving event was seeing the little chapel where I attended the funerals on my last day on the base. I was and still am amazed at just how powerful and painful those memories are even this to day. Fifty years later and still I weep. All those years have passed and I have been blessed with enormous good fortune and health. Yet standing before the chapel I felt as if it had all happened yesterday. It was as if I could still see and hear the jets fly over in the missing man formation. This time however, I had my husband to comfort me. I was not alone as I was last time, my life was not in shambles and Bernard was there to share the comforts of his home and the company of his gracious wife Suzanne after such a moving experience.

We were all a bit shy with one another at first but Suzanne’s delicious home made lunch helped us relax and with that we were in a much happier mood by the end of the meal. So off we went again, first to the village of Laniscourt. Though I may not have known how to get to it on my own, once Bernard got us to the edge of the village, I knew immediately where I was.  First I recognized the main street that runs through it. The fact that many of the houses are exactly as they were 50 years ago helped a lot, but there are several new and quite modern looking homes where there used to be only fields. Then I saw the lane from the village to the chateau. I was so excited! It was exactly as I remembered it to be…only perhaps a bit wider. I walked that lane many times, through all kinds of weather in the year I was there. It was my favorite and safest walk. I had to be careful of live ammunition when walking in the woods across from the chateau, but the lane had been cleared long before I was there.

It was delightful to see the chateau as I remembered it. While on the base I was engulfed in sadness, but at the chateau all the happy times came rushing back. It was wonderful to see the gracious old building looking so beautiful. I remembered my first ever winter with snow while living there. (Where I lived in California, snow was something you went and visited for an hour or two! Now I live in Canada where snow comes to stay for the winter.) Those French windows were beautiful to look at, but they sure didn’t do much to keep out the cold. I recalled the heavily woven tapestry curtains we would draw late in the afternoon in an attempt to keep the warmth in and the wind out in the winter and opening them wide and climbing out of them to get into the garden rather than walk around the chateau in the summer.  Unfortunately there is now a gate across the front and we were not able to enter the property. I would have loved to share the back of the house with Keven, Bernard and Suzanne. We used to have wonderful picnics out there. I would also have liked to enter the house to revisit the living room with its huge fireplace, the gracious dining room and the heart of the house…the kitchen with its cook stove. It was always warm in there and regardless of the day, it was always a bright and cheerful room due to having windows to the east, south and west. Looking at it now, even just from the lane, was like revisiting a happy dream…so real and unreal all at the same time.

After time for picture taking and sharing of stories, we were away to the Crepy Monument. The monument is new since last I was there. I was moved to tears once again. I am grateful to all those whose efforts created the monument to ensure others in the future will realize that many lives have been profoundly affected by their experiences in Laon. Placing the present monument in the park with a monument commemorating an even greater amount of loss of life touched me deeply. It seems so tragic that in all these years we have yet to discover a means of overcoming differences with each other without resorting to killing one another.

Perhaps sensing my weariness, Bernard next took us on a tour of the old Ville Haute. We walked around the Palais de Justice, into the cathedral and down the main street. The historic buildings on the narrow lanes are still as they were. However, instead of the nearly empty shelves I remembered there was plenty of evidence of a healthy and lively market today. The shops are full of tempting offerings, including rich French pastries, Belgian chocolates and beautiful art works.

It was exciting to see the work being done on the cathedral. I did not know it was made of that beautiful creamy colored limestone one sees all over Europe. The old part is so black and grown over with plants it is as if something brand new and sparkling is emerging into the present day. It was breathtaking to see the beauty of the original designs reemerging. No wonder it served as a model for the more famous Paris Notre-Dame. With all the beautiful stained glass windows, some dating back to the 12th century, back in place, the interior also presented a view of light and beauty quite unlike my memories of a very dark and cold place. I think I would like to return in about 25 years just to see the progress of the restoration of the cathedral! It most certainly will be awe-inspiring once returned to its original state.

Our last stop of the afternoon was across the city for a fantastic view overlooking a park, the cathedral and the surrounding plains. I could not recall ever having been to that place. It was a pleasure to share the experience with Keven.  While there we could see an enormous storm rapidly approaching us. It seemed the weather of the day was reflective of my feelings and moods…from a little bit of mist and rain to bright sunshine to huge thunderous clouds and a downpour. It was time to call a halt to the sight seeing and walking down memory lane. We decided the best way to end the day was to first take a break and then have Bernard and Suzanne join us for dinner so we could celebrate our being in Laon and enjoy the pleasure of each other’s company.

The next morning was bright and sunny. The rain was gone with only a bit of mist remaining. Bernard met us at the hotel and asked what we wanted to do or redo. My first request was to return to the cathedral. It was so pleasant to see it bathed in the light streaming through the beautiful stained glass windows. We revisited all the historic sites, this time stopping to take photographs and to walk around the areas. We walked through the Batterie Morlot and enjoyed the view opposite the cathedral. I could not recall ever having been there, and for sure I never saw all the development that is occurring in that section of Laon. It was exciting to see so much growth in that direction while maintaining the old and historic parts of Laon.

After our morning adventures we once again returned to Bernard and Suzanne’s home. They shared their adventures of past visits to the United States and their excitement over an upcoming return. Once again Suzanne prepared a delicious meal of French origin. I suggested she and Bernard open their home as a Bread and Breakfast. She could offer cooking lessons and Bernard could give evening presentations on the rich and varied history of that wonderful area of France. All too soon it was time to catch the train and once again leave Laon. This time however, it was with peace and happiness of having been there…both in 1956 and now.

As I sat back and looked out over the countryside on the return to Paris, I recalled the various events of the last two days. My return to Laon was significant. I was pleased to discover there were so many happy memories to go along with the overwhelming sad ones. I had almost forgotten about so many pleasant things…such as the picnics at the back of the chateau, the long walks through the countryside, and delightful afternoons with the Brownies on base. It was comforting to see Laon pretty much as it was with its old winding streets, gorgeous cathedral, imposing ramparts and panoramic views. I was glad I had returned to the base to once again stand by the Chapel. Most of all I was thankful that Keven was there beside me, loving and supporting me through the sadness as well as the happiness.

I am thankful for my friends Robert Gordon III and Robert Maiden as well as my husband’s support in shaping my decision to return. I am particularly indebted to Bernard and Suzanne Croza. Without Bernard’s help, I never would have returned. Suzanne’s hospitality provided comfort and warmth when it was most needed. I went with many fears of the trip being very difficult. I was afraid I would be overwhelmed with grief. Yes, the pain is still there, but I ended up recalling many happy memories and making friends with two wonderful people. My deepest thanks go to both of them for enriching my life.