Accept the challenge

28 Jun

History (n.): the branch of knowledge dealing with past events. Because I’m primarily motivated and informed by the future rather than the past, I’m not much of a history buff. Revisiting the past through the eyes, minds, and words of people who actually lived through historical events, however, makes “history” a helluva lot more relevant and, in fact, awesome. Before I describe my transformation into a neo-history geek, though, allow me to set the stage thematically:

The last four days have been quite a mix of riding, weather, activities, and inactivity:

  • A short ride (40 miles) with a BIG lung/leg-busting climb in the middle in VERY cold weather. Lots of cycling layers were required, including my new shoe covers, emblazoned with: “Belgian Winter Training Rule #7: Never Ride Without Overshoes” on the inside. The fact that I actually had to heed this warning in Summer seemed poetically appropriate given that we were riding into the heart of the Battle of the Bulge territory and those battles all were waged during Belgium’s coldest winter (1944-1945) in 50 years.
  • A long ride (70 miles) with a screaming downhill that brought me back to nearly my full descending glory (51mph – whoo hoo!) in swampy hot weather. The cycling gods were on my side this day because before we got to the descent they urged me to get to the front of the pack, ahead of 2 guys who were not displaying terribly adept bike-handling skills. Sure enough, about halfway down the hill, as I was exiting an exceptionally tight hairpin, I heard the heart-stopping sound of a tire exploding immediately behind me. One of the German Army guys in our group (we have foreign Veterans from German, France, Holland, and Australia with us this week + occasional Belgians, too) came around too hot, blew his wheel, and launched off his bike, landing about 30’ down in the roadside brambles. Although he was taken by ambulance to the hospital he was quickly patched up and was back on his bike after only 1 day’s rest. He was one a lucky dude, for sure. And I feel very lucky, too, since he actually was one of reasons I had moved to the front in the first place (he was riding in sneakers rather than clipped-in an he was prone to erratic leg movements).
  • A day with NO riding for anyone (mandatory rest and recreation day), which included, among other things to be described below, lunch at the U.S. Embassy in Luxembourg. And we “enjoyed” intermittent sprinkles and heat, which neatly matched my personal climate, which involved shivering + sweaty outbreaks induced by my ever-growing fever.
  • And a day with no riding for me (due to aforementioned fever, now also accompanied by swollen glands), while everyone else did another 70-miler with ~7,800’ of climbing. And, once again, the weather and I were synchronized, as we were both hotter than blazes.

Now, back to how this trip has managed to bring history truly alive for me. The keys to this transformation are Uncle Willie and George.

Uncle Willie was part of Patton’s Army. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and has not been back to Belgium since the war. Willie was a last-minute addition to our group, thanks to his nephew (Joe Mantegna, the actor), who happened to attend a Memorial Day performance in DC with some R2R staff last month (“You need to meet my Uncle Willie” – hence Uncle Willie’s official name for this trip). Anyhow, Uncle Willie’s reflections and reactions at the Patton Museum in Ettleburg and most especially at the American Cemetery in Luxembourg, where Patton is buried (who knew?!?) added quite a few more drinks on the FB challenge tall.

Indeed, Willie’s tales of the hardships and heroism he encountered every day really made me contemplate how beautifully tough, selfless, resilient, and right-minded our fellow humans can be and it made me rather wistful that we don’t collectively have the opportunity to shine in that way. It also made me more deeply reflective about how truly unique the bonds of military service are and how feeble we civilians are in our efforts to provide support and comfort to our troops. There’s really no way that we can ever come anywhere close to giving them what they need and deserve most, which is true understanding. It is no small wonder that so many troops have a hard time re-engaging in civilian life. We civilians truly live in a different world from them. Our questions, attitudes, goals, worries, and joys are all so … trivial, I guess would be the closest term, to what they experience. We inhabit truly un-relatable worlds.

Bridging that social-cultural gap is an incredibly important mutual effort. And I can imagine few tools better suited to this challenge than the bicycle. It is the great equalizer. There is always someone better than you, yet invariably that person wants nothing more than to help you get stronger and more comfortable. Even if some part of them wants to “beat” you, what they want even more is to have you in the race with them. And the more challenging the race gets, the happier they get. Everyone truly wins with this whole biking thing. Perhaps nothing makes this concept more clear than they words that festooned the wreath that Uncle Willie laid on Patton’s grave: “Accept the challenges so that you can feel the exhilaration of victory.” That’s what we are doing here in Belgium, and it’s what we all should be doing every day of our lives. Whatever the challenges are – accept them, celebrate the joy of tackling them, and then move on to the next ones.

George knows this better than anyone. George briefly appeared in my “Truman Show” posting. He was in the Army’s 607th Graves Registration Company, which means he was charged with collecting and burying the bodies of U.S. soldiers in five European campaigns including Normandy (the “D-Day” invasion, where R2R traveled last year) and the Battle of the Bulge over here in Belgium.

When I asked George how he got assigned to the Graves Registration Company, he said he really wanted to be an Air corpsman but his 20/30 vision kept him out, even after he spent 2 weeks eating nothing but carrots at the behest of an Air corps recruiter! When he enrolled in the Graves Company, his commander tried to cheer him up by saying, “You may be surrounded by death here, but at least it won’t be your own.”

During the short ride day, we stopped in Malmedy. The museum wasn’t open yet (we rode too fast!) and it was REALLY FRIGGIN COLD, so we just camped out for a bit in the parking lot to hear George talk about what it was like to encounter the remains of the Malmedy massacre. He and the rest of the 607th Graves Company had to process the bodies at the site where 84 US Soldiers were massacred. He then has to report the conditions of the bodies to the FBI and provide witness testimony during the War Crimes trials. His impressions of the post-war justice system are not terribly favorable. I joined his somewhat sour view of the justice system when I learned about the Wereth 11.

Never heard for the Wereth 11? Me neither. [GO CLICK THAT JUMP LINK ^^ TO LEARN MORE!] But once I learned about them, I pretty much lost my mind – how could something so depraved be totally swept under the rug? The bigotry on all sides of the equation was (is) astounding. There was not even a vague attempt to find justice for these guys, let alone any efforts to promote their special place in history. I understand that not everyone’s war story “needs” to be told, but it seems like this one should get a little more attention.

As should the next one: Eric Fisher Wood, Jr. This guy was the original “Rambo” – a solo badass who has been credited with taking out 200 SS regime members on his own before succumbing himself. There is a tiny, lonely grave marker in the middle of the forest to commemorate his bravery. In some ways, it is the perfect tribute because the forest is pretty spooky out there and seeing the sole marker in the middle of all the wilderness gives you a sense for how brave and dedicated he must have been. But in other ways, it’s just another bit of tragedy – no one knows about this guy and what he did to save the world. It’s shameful that we should allow him to become a pointless footnote in history and it’s discouraging to think about how that concept might play out for today’s soldiers.

How can we make HBO mini-series out of all the awesome war heroes? I give mad props to HBO and Tom Hanks for what they did with Band of Brothers – putting a face on history and making it real and relevant. And they get bonus points for erecting a beautiful monument in the middle of the Bois Jacques Forest where the 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne defended Bastogne. The forest, btw, is replete with foxholes that are still left unfilled/unscathed from the War – a very cool/spooky/awesome touring experience.

Being with Uncle Willie when he encountered the Bois Jacques memorial racked up another couple drinks on the FB challenge – he fought right alongside many of the guys’ whose names are chiseled onto that memorial.

I’ve got stories about the Luxembourg US Military Cemetery (the 1-armed German stone mason tops the list for that one), plus our great lunch and dinner experiences with the US Ambassador to Luxembourg and his wife — not to mention some great pics from our visit to the Bastogne Battle of the Bulge Barracks (and the “Nuts!” cellar) today, but I’m starting to drag. I must sleep and try to get this fever tackled so that I can ride tomorrow.

2 Responses to “Accept the challenge”

  1. katerinadiaviano June 28, 2012 at 6:05 pm #

    REST. Kristin and Co arrive tomorrow. Thanks for History lesson. Will share with Fisher.


  1. Yet more death | JustAdventures - January 9, 2014

    […] extra-loyal JustAdventure followers may remember Uncle Willie from a truncated tale I told in connection with my Ride2Receovery trip to Belgium/Luxembourg in 2012. Judging by my […]

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