“C’est Si Bon” – at trip’s end, a D-Day experience, and an abundance of gratitude

June 6th, 2023

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“These endured all and gave all that justice among nations might prevail and that mankind might enjoy freedom and inherit peace.”

(Inscribed on the chapel at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France.  Author unknown)

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The headstone of Private Calvin C. Gist in the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial; Colleville-sur-Mer, France

May 30, 2023

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…..I don’t know much of anything about Calvin C. Gist.  I do know he was from Daviess County, Kentucky, and that he was a private in the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment Division in the 101st Airborne.  And, since I stood at his grave last week while visiting the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, I know that he died on June 6, 1944. D-Day.  Seventy-nine years ago today.

…..I also don’t know how old he was on that day, but judging by his photograph he was likely around the average age of the 9,386 soldiers buried there, which is 23.  Prime-of-life time, when a spirit for adventure and the thrill of the unknown mingles with a curiosity about life, and about love.  Ordinarily, thoughts of death would be decades away.

…..No doubt well-trained in the art of parachuting and fighting, and best-prepared for his mission as possible, Calvin had to have felt the chill of it.  Imagine, the weight of the world on the shoulders of 23-year-old men.

…..As we know, Private Gist was part of a mission to ultimately liberate whole countries from the tyranny Nazi Germany wrought on Europe so that people could one day return to enjoying the benefits of freedom and contentment.  People like me.  I’ve just concluded a five-week vacation in Europe, culminating in the fulfillment of a life-long desire to feel the enormity of the history on the beaches of Normandy.

…..During my European travels, I visited some of the continent’s most beautiful museums, nourished myself on its classic wine and cuisine, and sampled its thriving contemporary culture.  I strolled through the historic centers of its great cities and villages, and biked along urban paths and in classic inner-city parks.  It was a perpetually rich experience that allowed me to fulfill my own personal pre-trip mission to activate my underutilized “exterior” – to emerge from an “interior” that has been dominating my life since COVID, and especially since the June, 2022 termination of my 34-year marriage.

…..We tend to take the freedoms allowing this kind of personal travel experience for granted, even in the face of centuries of history on the European continent where corrupt monarchs, political tyrants and their murderous sycophants made the prospects for living in freedom a far-fetched notion.  This painful history is evident everywhere.  It doesn’t take a lot of effort to be consumed by it – you can often feel it by merely walking the streets.

…..Among the many museums I visited was Munich’s NS-Dokumentationszentrum (Documentation center), which focuses on the history and consequences of Germany’s National Socialist (Nazi) regime, as well as the role Munich played as the “capital of the movement.”  The four-floor museum exhibits the shocking details that created the environment in which Hitler rose – the breaking down of democratic institutions (i.e. the judiciary) and the ginning up of grievances built on outrageous lies about the blameless and most vulnerable and cultivating the ordinary citizenry to participate in a wholesale discrimination that ultimately normalized the mass murder of innocents.  It was a powerful exhibit and a blunt reminder of how this can happen anywhere if we allow ignorance and fear to overcome our humanity. (The museum is also a fine example of how Germany has embraced the telling of its complex history)..

…..Toward the end of my trip I spent some time in Rouen, the capital city of France’s Normandy region.  Much of Rouen was devastated during World War II, but charm and character is easily revealed, and in the historic center I was able to find a table for dinner outside the lovely Victorine Jazz and Wine café.  It was a classic European setting, with diners seated in the presence of an immense gothic cathedral and bathed in the light of a heavenly sunset while bustling waiters delivered a bounty of delicious food and wine.

…..What especially stood out in this moment was the music that emanated from the small club and drifted dreamlike out its front door to the sidewalk where I sat. First it was Louis and Ella’s famous recording of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” followed by Lady Day singing Gershwin’s “Summertime.”  Then the live band began playing.  Consisting of two elder gentlemen – a pianist (Philippe Ecrepont) who also sang a credible Armstrong, and a multi-instrumentalist who did a wondrous imitation of Sidney Bechet – their tender renditions of jazz classics warmed every molecule, and reminded me of the music’s universal appeal.  When the duo played the beloved French tune “C’est Si Bon” (“It’s So Good”), I felt the abundance of this experience, and all was right with the world.

…..It was a moment that encapsulated so much about my trip, and also what attracts me to jazz  – the emotion of the music, the community inspired by it, and its history and meaning.  All of it was laid out before me in that Rouen club, and on that sidewalk.

…..I thought about that moment while walking the Normandy American Cemetery three days later.  And I also thought about other joyous pleasures of my trip – the gelato in Verona; the pasta in Matera; the fish in Bari; the jazz in Prague and Vienna; the piazza in Lecce; the wild enthusiasm of Venice; the opera in Innsbruck; the bike ride through Munich’s English Garden; the Paris patisseries; the string quartet in Salzburg; the Chagall exhibit in Otranto.  These moments were my unforgettable interactions with the exterior world Europe offered – all experienced in the peace and quiet of my own time.

…..Standing before his grave, I understood that none of this would have been possible without the heroism of Private Calvin C. Gist, whose acts of supreme courage allowed me to immerse myself in this freedom.  My love and deep appreciation for him and all the heroes sharing this solemn place on Earth will be forever abundant.

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Joe Maita
Editor/Publisher

 

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Click to listen to the final bars of “C’est Si Bon” coming from the Victorine Jazz and Wine Cafe; Rouen, France.  May 27, 2023

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Listen to the 1994 recording of Abbey Lincoln, accompanied by pianist Hank Jones, sing (in French) the Henri Betti/Andre Hornez composition “C’est Si Bon” [Universal Music Group]

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Other posts about and from my European journey

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Click here to read “My pursuit of the exterior”

Click here to read “In Prague, things just sort of worked out”

Click here to read “Beyond Category…Two Vienna jazz clubs”

Click here to read “A friendship made in Verona”

 

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One comments on ““C’est Si Bon” – at trip’s end, a D-Day experience, and an abundance of gratitude”

  1. Joe, A very heartfelt article. The sadness of the 23 year old young men and their sacrifice and the beauty and resilience that was allowed to grow because of them is expressed perfectly. In my own life my Uncle landed at Normandy was almost killed by a landmine and while he was a nice man with a great sense of humor he was an alcoholic who could hardly hold down a job because of post traumatic stress.
    Of course ending with Abby Lincoln was perfect. Even her name resonates freedom.

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