My father’s part in the D-Day invasion of June 1944 changed his life. Years later, as I was growing up in the post war ‘baby boom generation.’ his stories about his time in France would shape the course of my life. But I didn’t know that then.
Dad was a Seabee, an engineer and 1st lieutenant in the Naval Construction Battalion, and spent five months on the Normandy coast in 1944, on the cliff above the American landing beach, Omaha.
Dad loved to tell how his high school French made ‘s’il vous plaît’ come out sounding like ‘silver plate.’ And he’d smile remembering the kindness and patience of the French at his attempts.
My favorite story was about the orphan boy Gilbert, who Dad took under his wing, making sure that he came through the lunch line with Dad every day. They became so close, Dad tried unsuccessfully to adopt Gilbert and bring him home.
The French orphan Gilbert felt like a shadow, his presence hovering, slightly out of focus. And France, where it had all taken place, felt like somewhere I already knew.
In high school, I chose to study French, though Spanish was the practical language in Southern California. I would continue to study the language throughout my adult years, following a passion I couldn’t explain.
Near the end of my father’s life, his body weak with cancer, he spoke about Gilbert then, his voice soft and wistful. “I wonder what ever happened to him?”
Two years later, I stood on the cliffs above Omaha Beach, turning my face into the stiff wind to dry my tears. I was there to retrace my father’s footsteps for the 50th anniversary of D-Day and to accept a medal in his honor. I was also there to try to find Gilbert.
I chronicle this story in my memoir, "Finding Gilbert, a Promise Fulfilled," It taught me that, In the end, it is all about who you love and letting them know.