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The Reunion

by Linda Thomas

If a person lives long enough, he will eventually be reunited with those he once knew, loved, and lost. I don't know that I believe this, but I would like to believe. On a summer day in 1987 in the countryside outside Cambridge, England, I saw the evidence of a reunion that made me want to believe that our lives run along parallel lines that are broken by neither calamity nor death, and that given time, the lines will intersect again.

During the second half of the 1980s, I spent three summers at the University of Cambridge as an American professor accompanying students from the college where I taught to the International Summer School sponsored by the University. For weeks prior to our departure, I prepared these students for the study of modern English poetry--Hardy, Eliot, Hopkins, Yeats--and once at University, turned them over to British professors who continued their education. In Cambridge, my duties were largely pastoral: shepherding students into London to see the sights, wiping away homesick tears, nursing hangovers, negotiating with University colleges for loo accommodations or kosher meals.

By 1987, comfortable with the town, the university, and my duties, I urged my father to join me in Cambridge for a visit. I found him rooms at the Arundel House, an easy walk from my summer residence at Selwyn College, through the winding medieval streets and past the punters on the River Cam. And I set about making a itinerary of places I thought he might enjoy seeing.

My father had been in England before. From late 1942 to June of 1944, he was stationed in London with the 302nd Signal Corps of the U.S. Army. But never had he talked about those years, nor about the year after that he spent in France, Belgium, and finally Germany. World War II must have been a profoundly altering experience for a half-Cherokee boy from central Oklahoma. Already he had shown a sense of adventure by migrating alone from Oklahoma to California in the mid-thirties, but once there he had stayed close to the life he knew--cultivated fields, orchards, animals. It is hard to imagine the impression London made on him--Westminster Bridge a foggy watercolor across the Thames, the great tombs of poets and kings in the Abbey, the Palace surrounded by the heavy, damp tents of the quartered U.S. Army.

My father's itinerary that summer in 1987 included London, and while we were there, he seemed to awake as from a dream. Animated and unusually talkative, he pointed to every park and building we passed. "See that statue," he would say, pointing to another heroic or civic monument, and there would begin a fragmented but nonetheless real story of a particular morning or evening event he recalled from forty-five years before. His stories were typical of his character, a proud man who relishes his ingenuity in whatever circumstances. As a map plotter and a supplies sergeant, he seems to have had a certain power there in the blitzkrieg that seized London. With his small fleet of jeeps, he was able to maneuver, locate food, liquor, and other supplies unavailable to the U.S. troops, and make exchanges, friends, a name for himself.

And, as I heard for the first time, he had a special friend there, a man named Jack Knight. The two had enlisted in the army together in California in early 1942, had stood together in line and been issued sequential identification numbers. In 1944, when the U.S. Army prepared to invade Europe, Jack had fallen ill--pneumonia, Dad thought, though he was not sure. Jack was not among the troops of the 302nd Signal Corps that landed in Normandy four days after the initial invasion on June 4. And later, Dad heard, Jack had died. He knew no more than this.

With this story in mind, I arranged for my father and me to drive the short distance from Cambridge to Madingley to visit the American Military Cemetery. Here, in the fenland of East Anglia, the land is green, flat, and expansive, the sky wide. The cemetery itself is a startling display of rows upon rows of white stone crosses and Stars of David that mark the graves of over 9,000 American war dead, 3,000 of whom are service personnel who died during WW II. The men and women died in England, were buried here during wartime, and when the war ended, many stayed in the country where they had died because the families could not afford or could not bear to move the remains to the U.S. The cemetery is well-tended by the joint efforts of the U.S. and Great Britain, and in 1956, the land was deeded by the University of Cambridge to the United States so that those who had died could rest on American soil.

That warm summer morning, my father and I walked about the grounds of the American Military Cemetery, visiting the chapel and the memorials, marveling at the rose gardens, and on impulse, we entered the residence of the groundskeeper. There, we found a room lined with heavy polished mahogany shelves laden with huge volumes, windows that overlooked the green and white cemetery grounds, and a man seated at an immense desk. The man was British, and welcomed us with such enthusiasm that I had a sense that he thought of the Americans buried here as his neighbors, and himself as the local greeter.

We told him the story of Dad's friend Jack Knight, how he had died in London sometime shortly after June of 1944, and we asked if it was possible to learn where he was buried. The man turned to the shelves of books, swept his hand across them, and said that these logs contained the names of those who had died--British, Canadian, Australian, and American--and were buried in cemeteries all over England. The entries were arranged by surname, he said, and he pulled down a log eight inches thick. He heaved it open on the desk, wet his finger to turn the tissue-thin pages, and located K, then Kn, then Knight, but there were many Knights, many Johns, many Jacks, all identified by military serial number.

Dad, near reeling now with the hope of finding information about his friend, rattled off a list of numbers. "3-9-2-8-7-5-4-6!" he said. "And Jack was 4-5!"

The man smiled so widely I thought his thin British lips might crack. He ran his finger down the list of names and read, "Knight, John G., 3-9-2-8-7-5-4-5, died August 19, 1944." I felt something inside my father swell up. Then, the man said, "And, what's more, your friend is buried here."

I don't call this luck. The line my father and Jack followed that led them to enlist in the army, the line that swept them to their separation in London that summer in 1944, the line that led me to Cambridge--these lines intersected suddenly in a bunching like the gathered stems of a bouquet that a moment ago were separate blossoms. The groundskeeper took a small plastic bag of sand from his desk drawer, and he walked with us out into the cemetery grounds where the heat had grown humid with the promise of a rainstorm. We found Jack's grave--his name, division, home state, and date of death engraved on the white cross.

At first, my father stood back. The groundskeeper took sand from the bag, wetted it at a nearby faucet, and used his fingers to press the damp sand into the engraving in the white stone so the letters and numbers stood out like gold. The sand, he said, was from Omaha Beach, the stretch of French coast where the troops had landed during the invasion of Europe. Then, he retreated to a respectful distance.

My father spoke with Jack, but I can't tell you all they said. Dad placed his hand on the grave marker and I heard him say, "Hi, Jack." Then, the conversation became whispered and private, about a friendship that almost fifty years before had joined the lines of their lives.

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Linda Thomas was a judge in the Tapestry Fiction and Poetry Contest. A native of southern California, she has been writing poems, stories, and essays for 25 years, and her work has appeared in numerous print journals, including American Poetry Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, and the University of New Mexico's Blue Mesa Review. She holds an MFA from the University of California, Irvine, and is a community college professor of writing and literature. All photographs accompanyingRambles are taken by Linda herself.

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