Monday, September 24, 2007

Logbook: BeNeLux Wars III

Beneluxwarsiii1Sunday was another truly extraordinary day on The Voyage. Greg and I started out early with a visit to the famous bridge in Arnhem where we were thrilled to meet and talk with veterans of the British Airborne, some of whom actually fought there during Operation Market Garden. These very old men are extremely animated and happy to talk about their experience, and they do so in a lively, almost boyish manner with an air of what a great adventure it was. Not far beneath this surface bravado, though, you can plainly see sadness and grief at the loss of so many of their comrades. (Note: Of the 10,000 British soldiers who dropped into the city only 2,000 ever made it home, by far the highest casualty rate of any operation of WWII.) We finished up our Arnhem exploration with a walk back and forth across the bridge, trying to imagine what the battle was like, and coming to the overwhelming conclusion that it simply must have been hell for an unsupported Airborne regiment to hold that bridge for over a week against two German Panzer divisions.

We then went on to continue our exploration with a visit to the British Airborne Museum a few miles away in Oosterbeek, making a brief stop at the British Cemetery along the way. As we navigated our way toward the cemetery we found ourselves in an increasing amount of traffic, then in a continuous stream of cars, and eventually being directed to park in a very large grass field amidst hundreds of vehicles. A half mile walk with a throng of people later, we entered the cemetery and were amazed to see thousands of people gathered for a memorial service that we just happened to be in perfect time for.

Beneluxwarsiii2The cemetery is set in an open area surrounded by pretty dense woods, and has almost two thousand graves. It was hard to tell how many people were there, but I would estimate there were at least several thousand, and an orchestra filled the space with evocative music. At noon, a military band started up and led a procession of standard bearing veterans into the cemetery, followed by dignitaries and clergy. The actual memorial service was a touching mix of prayers, hymns and brief sermons, followed by a laying of wreathes by various governments, groups and individuals. It was during this process that I started to notice a large number of children filing their way into the cemetery from all around the perimeter. The youngsters each carried two large bundles of flowers and -- in a remarkably orderly fashion -- took their places, each one standing in front of two grave markers. At the conclusion of the official wreath laying, a woman took to the dais and gave a speech -- in Dutch -- obviously speaking to the children about the importance of what happened in Arnhem sixty three years ago and about the debt of honor owed to the men who died there. On cue, the children laid their flowers on the graves. It was a very powerful sight, and those in attendance -- especially the veterans -- were all visibly moved. Greg and myself included.

As if that wasn't enough, a few seconds later the unmistakable sound of large turboprop engines began filling the space, followed by a very low fly over by two state-of-the-art C-130's with their aft ramps deployed in jump position, a tribute from the current generation of Airborne troops. This, of course, got a rousing round of applause from everyone. As this applause died down another sound began to arise, the also unmistakable drumming of big old radial piston engines. Seconds later, a beautiful, military green C-47 Dakota with full authentic insignia made an equally low fly over with its fuselage door open in jump position. It was a stunning sight for those of us who are too young to remember, and it must have been an overwhelming sight for those who lived it. The cheer was deafening and I don't think there was a dry eye in the crowd.

On the way back to the car, Greg and I compared notes, agreed that we couldn't think of a better way to have ended our Operation Market Garden exploration and decided not to make our planned stop at the Museum after all. Sometimes you just have to let circumstances adjust your itinerary. Instead, we drove west until we reached the coast and spend a quiet afternoon and evening in the beach resort town of Noordvijk, Holland.

Beneluxwarsiii3Early yesterday morning we drove north to the Amsterdam airport, dropped off the car and had an entertaining cab ride into the city. Our driver was hilarious, complaining vigorously about the absurd amount of traffic around Amsterdam, reportedly the heaviest anywhere in the world. When we finally reached our hotel, we dropped off our gear, went to the train station to get my onward ticket and set off to do a little walk about followed by a visit to Madame Toussaude's Wax Museum and lunch before making our way back to the hotel and officially checking in. I spent the rest of the afternoon on line making some arrangements going forward while Greg went for a swim and had a well deserved nap.

At dinner, we debriefed our week together. It was a fabulous week, and it was a difficult week. I have explained in this logbook from time to time that there are different "modes" on The Voyage, ranging from "high energy" exploration and movement to "low energy" catching up with myself and regrouping. This past week was as "high energy" as it gets, and Greg made a point of saying he has a new appreciation for how demanding life can be on The Voyage and that one couldn't possibly keep going that way all the time. I made a point of acknowledging Greg's undaunted courage to tackle The Voyage at its hardest, to keep his enthusiasm and sense of humor up and to see the mission through to the end. I'm hoping he will write up his version of our week together so I can share another perspective with you for a change!

This morning we had our last breakfast together and I walked Greg over to the train station for his ride back out to the airport. We said our good-byes and renewed our intentions to meet someplace else in the world, then the train doors closed and off he went. I had about an hour back at the hotel to do a little last minute online work then packed up my gear and walked over to the station to catch my train. At this moment I am cruising through the countryside, just about to cross the border into Germany. I am on my way to the small city of Emden on the northern coast, a place my Mom has recommended I visit for a couple of days. I plan to do a little resting, catching up with myself and putting together some plans for the next few weeks. As always, stay tuned for what's next on The Voyage of Macgellan!

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