Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veterans Day

Here's a great Veterans Day story, written by my own mother. It's a long story, but an amazing story, and one that makes perfect sense.

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Jean Thévenin and Joe Baker
Granville, France
1944

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The Tides of Chausey
Ilene Baker

Being adopted is something I don’t often forget about. It goes in and out of my consciousness, like a sporadic radio signal on a Sunday night driving down some rural road. Even when there is no music or talk coming in, I am still aware of the static of white noise filtering through the speakers, somehow comforting and disquieting at the same time. The idea of adoption looms large in the life of an adoptee, even when so much time passes that you are the parent of adult children, coloring everything in one’s life, imperceptibly most of the time, like a cloud passing across the sun. You know that somehow the light has changed but don’t stop to think of the reasons why. So when my 95 year old aunt, doyenne of the family, casually mentioned to me over dinner one night that my father, her brother, dead 6 years at that time, had wanted to adopt a child he met in France during his service in World War II, I put down my fork and listened.

The way the story went, she told, was that Joe, my dad, had met a child, perhaps an orphan, in France, and had very much wanted to adopt this boy and bring him home. How did she know this, I wanted to know, without adding the qualitative question of why are you telling me this now. Because my father told her so was the reply. He loved children, she said. I knew that, since I saw that love reflected in his own unconditional love for me and also in his deep affection for and devotion to his grandchildren, my own children, raised for the most part by me as a single parent. He stepped up to the role as father figure to his grandchildren, and to other children missing a role model and was always a magnet for young people, his love for them reflected in the mirror of their behavior towards him.

I placed this information in the working memory of my brain, poised for deletion. I was prepared to file it under the category of the ramblings of a woman approaching her centennial who confused one of the many events of her life with another. There was just one thing I wanted to check out before I forgot about it; a small box of wartime photographs I had of my dads. That box of photographs had lived in a crawlspace behind the basement stairs for my entire life growing up. I was aware of the box, the pictures it held and I was vaguely interested, but it was always relegated to something that I’ll look through and catalogue when I have the time that, of course, never comes. After his death and the death of my mother, the ritual of cleaning out their things, the pieces of a person’s life, took on the emotional load that every adult child experiences going through that liturgy of passage and loss. Amazing how unimportant all of it is in terms of the world at large and how infused with the greatest and deepest significance a drinking glass, or a jacket, or a photograph can hold. At the same time, meaningless and meaningful.

I moved that box from my childhood home to the basement of one house after another, never examining it, as if that act would make me a modern Pandora, releasing some fierce emotions that would breach the bridge I had built between me and safety of my childhood, with its reminder of simpler and somehow safer times. I located the box of pictures and found it contained about a hundred photos, each a revelation to me; places that I had heard of repeatedly in historical context but never from my father. Amazed and humbled upon inspecting the images, I found: the ovens at Dachau, the liberation of Hitler’s Eagles Nest, a besieged and battered Belgium in a white out during the Battle of the Bulge, a destroyed cathedral in Carenten. I found Omaha Beach. Among the remarkable images none were more astounding to me than the images of a boy, about 12 or 13 years old, standing with my father, both looking back at me through 62 years, as if to ask me what had taken me so long to discover their story.

Seeing these pictures and sensing a deeper meaning in this for me, as an adoptee, it became imperative for me to try and find this child, now perhaps more than 70 years old.

When my dad enlisted in the army he was 29 years of age- older than most of the boys who were signing up for service and barely out of their teens. My dad had been married for almost 6 years and there were no children. Perhaps he had some sense by that time that there were to be no children forthcoming from his union with my mother. Maybe he had wanted to adopt a child four years before he adopted me. It made sense.

There were no names or locations written on the back of the three photographs that the boy was in. On one photograph, however, there was a notation. There was a picture of my father and the boy and written in my father’s hand on the back was “Me and that French kid and my gun on the Island before going duck hunting. The spot we are standing in is covered with water when tide is in”. With that piece of cryptic information I asked myself, where exactly should I start?

I am a curious person by nature and the opening of the world through the internet has made finding information more accessible to ordinary folks. This is where I decided to begin my search. First I had to get through the swamp of my American lack of geographical knowledge to ask myself what islands are off of the coast of France?

After looking at a map I realized that I already knew the answer, the islands of Guernsey and Jersey in the English Channel, of course. I looked up local newspapers and television stations on both islands and sent emails of inquiry, explaining my interest along with photos of the boy attached to the correspondence.

The text of the email to the Jersey Evening Post:

"I write this to you from the United States. This past month, my aunt, aged 95, told me that my father, while in the army during World War II met a young boy that he thought he would like to adopt or bring back to America; her story somewhat tattered at the edges over the years. This was news to me; my father never shared any detailed information about the war and his time spent in the service. I know that he spent some time in Cherbourg running harbor craft. Both of my parents are gone now, but I remembered a packet of pictures that my dad had from the war. Looking through them I found, to my amazement, several photos of this boy, which I have attached. . Who is this boy that my father should save his picture for 60 years and have me find it after his death! My question to you is, could you direct me to any source, if there is such a source available, where I might match up the boy in the photograph with the man he grew up to be? I know that time is not my friend in trying to track down anyone who lived through the war. Nevertheless, I thought I should try and hopefully tell him this story. Thank you for any insight you may have."


The responses came quickly:

"I'm not sure that we can shed much light on these photographs. Having asked a couple of colleagues we feel almost certain that the photos cannot have been taken in Jersey - and probably not in any of the other Channel Islands either. We were occupied by the Germans from July 1940 to May 1945 - the Normandy landings by-passed us leaving the islands completely cut off. The few American service personnel who did come to Jersey were generally washed up on our shores having been shot down or torpedoed in the Channel and were then imprisoned by the Germans. They wouldn't have been allowed to walk around freely with guns and cameras were also banned.
There is a very slim chance that he could have come to Jersey after the war, but again this is unlikely as we were liberated by the British and only a handful of American servicemen were involved. Also many Channel Island beaches were heavily mined and wouldn't have been safe for duck hunting.
It is more likely that the picture was taken in France, particularly as you say your father spent time in Cherbourg. Probably your best bet is to contact a newspaper in Normandy to see if they might run the photograph."


I had hit a dead end. I went back to the box of photographs, looking for something that might give me a clue to help me. I found it. There was one photograph of a destroyed plane on a beach of sorts, with homes in the background. The text on the back said: “part of an American airplane shot down on one of the Islands. Some fishermen’s homes. Some boats when the tide is down and part of a fish net. Where I am standing is underwater when the tide is in”. I had found the connection. On the web there are so very many sites that digging through them is truly like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. After some searching, I found that there was a bomber named the Daisey Mae Scraggs that had been shot down two days after D-Day, over a small island governed by France, named Chausey, the only Channel Island governed by France and therefore almost never mentioned in the context of the other islands of that group. More research explained that the Iles de Chausey were a group of small islands- an archipelago- with the distinguishing feature of having the largest tides in Europe and of three hundred sixty five small islets, only one was inhabitable because when the tides were in the rest were covered by the sea. Bingo!

I compared my father’s photograph of the downed plane with one that I found on a website called Le Iles Chausey. They were almost identical.

A new round of emails began, more difficult this time because my French is limited. I emailed a dozen sources that somehow seemed connected to the Isle of Chausey- webmasters, tourism bureaus and media sources in the prefecture of Manche, the closest place on the mainland to where Chausey was situated. I received responses immediately, interested and polite but nothing definitive or encouraging. Several weeks after this flurry of emails I received an email from one of the contacts by the name of Hervé Hillard saying:

"Sorry for this late answer, but I first thought your mail was some sort of a joke.

In fact, the little boy on the pictures is one of my friend's father! His name was: Jean Thévenin (my friend's name is Jean-Michel). Jean Thévenin became a Chausey's fisherman, got married and had two boys, Jean-Michel and Stéphane, and died about 20 years ago. I've the professional e-mail of Jean-Michel. The best would be to write him directly because he has thousands of questions to ask you! Thanks by advance. It's quite an incredible story and I do hope we'll all get all the answers we're looking for!"

It didn’t seem real to me. I had located the child. I was sad that I wouldn’t be able to tell the boy grown into a man that my father had saved photographs of him until his death, nor would I be able to ask the questions that I hoped to get answers to, but it really was enough to be able to give a name to the child with the bright eyes in the picture. I responded to Hervé by saying that the news that he could identify the boy in the picture had my head spinning. What could I possibly respond when Hervé replied to me that, "Well, for us, too, it's something quite incredible. Because Jean-Michel has in his house your pictures. And doesn't know at all the “why", "how", "who", and so on!"

So, it seems as if the photograph of the boy that my father saved for 55 years, until his death was also saved by said boy, Jean Thévenin, until his death, and now it was up to me to discover why.

I began a correspondence with Jean Michel, the son of Jean Thévenin, and he shared his copious and scholarly knowledge of the wartime history of Normandy and the Islands with me. Born and raised on the island of Chausey, leaving only briefly to attend school on the mainland, he shared his father’s and his grandparent’s story with me. The name of Joe Baker wasn’t included in that narrative, although he had the same pictures that I did, saved by his father, like they were saved by my father, with no answers to why. My daughter Savannah was living in Prague at the time and Jean Michel, who was captain of an off-shore oil rig in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Angola in Africa, suggested that if I come to visit her that I should stop by- it was on the way. In my head, I started to pack my bag.

My first trip out of the United States was exciting, to be sure. I was so happy to visit my daughter in Prague and to see the Czech Republic. A brief few days in Paris was everything I had imagined that great city would be. But waiting for me at the train station in Granville was Jean Michel Thévenin and his wife, Marie Odile, and perhaps the answers to questions that I had not even been able to articulate.

I arrived in Granville and was welcomed warmly by Jean Michel and Marie Odile and whisked away through the narrow and medieval streets of that beautiful coastal town. The next five days I spent as guest of the Thévenins, traveling throughout Normandy to places that Jean Michel knew through our correspondence my father had visited; Omaha Beach, St. Lo, Pointe du Hoc. Jean Michel’s historical expertise was impressive and deep and I felt fortunate in having such an intelligent, articulate, and knowledgeable guide. Neither of us could provide any additional information about our father’s connection to each other but I was looking forward eagerly to the voyage we were taking to Chausey on the following day. I wanted to go to that place where our fathers had stood together and somehow, thinking magically, understand it all.

The hour long ferry ride to Chausey carried summer residents and day trippers and was accompanied by a group of dolphins who swam alongside. I took that as a good omen. The island of Chausey was magical, like Avalon, rising from the mists. Once ashore, it became quickly evident that there were no cars or bikes of any kind. Waiting at the dock were various sizes of pull carts to transport supplies from the mainland to each home. The island is owned and under the protection of a type of property investment partnership called a SCI so that no one can buy or sell any property on the island, what we might call a Land Trust. One of the rules of their charter regulations is that no one can build or change the exterior of an existing structure. The result is that when I set foot upon the rocky surface of Chausey it appeared exactly the same as it appeared to my father, sixty-two years before. Nothing had changed.

Jean Michel walked me all over the island, showing me places my father would have seen and explaining that it would not have been unusual or surprising if my father had hired his father, Jean, as a guide around the island and to take him to the best small islands for duck hunting. He took me around the 365 tiny islands in Jolie Brise, his canot chausiais, or boat of Chausey, especially adapted to the dangerous navigational conditions of the archipelago. When the tide was in, Jean Michel wound in and around the tiny islands in serpentine fashion, Jolie
Brise skimming over the menacing rocks beneath the surface of the sea within my arm’s reach. I realized that one would have to have grown up on this island to know how to avoid the treacherous rocks and guide someone through the archipelago, as Jean Michel was doing for me. As his father, Jean, did for my father, Joe. Only the naming of each island and the cries of the seabirds that must have sounded exactly the same sixty-two years before, broke the silence. It felt like we had stepped back in time.

Over the next few days I learned some of the history of the island, as only a native and a historian could tell. One evening, several days into the visit, we sat over dinner and wine and Jean Michel spoke. He showed me his copies of the same photographs that I had. It was a humbling moment to hold it in my hand and know that they were saved by both men in photograph albums until they died, telling no one what it meant. Now, sixty-two years later, their children sat together and tried to understand. Jean Michel told of the enormous poverty that existed on the island during World War II. The Chausians could not leave the island to pursue their livelihood as fishermen, and they suffered greatly. “I cannot say why our fathers became friends and we can never really know that.” he said. “I do know that your father must have brought supplies to my father, and work, hiring him as a guide. But most importantly, he brought hope that this war would someday be over and that life would resume again. I can only hope that in having you here I have somehow begun to repay that debt”. And with that, the tough French sea captain and the middle-aged American woman looking for her father’s story, holding tight to her memories, both wept.

In the days that followed, we saw more of the island and accepting that we would never quite understand, speculated mentally on what if it were indeed true that my father wanted to adopt young Jean? What if? Jean Michel may not have been born, or perhaps he would not have grown up on Chausey. What if? Joe Baker would have had a child and there would have been no need to adopt another, myself, 4 years later. Or perhaps in an alternate universe, we could have been brother and sister. What if?

The day before we were to leave Chausey, we had lunch with neighbors of Jean Michel and Marie Odile’s on Chausey. A wonderful couple named Jean Paul Batas and his wife, Jacqueline. Jean Paul was in his seventies, a retired sea captain, who lived on Chausey with his parents and moved to the mainland during the war. He moved back after the war and when he married, his wife moved there as well. As a newly married couple, they lived next door to Jean Thévenin, his wife and family, and were great friends. Jean Paul and Jacqueline hadn’t heard of us or why we were visiting. Jean Michel explained to them in French, that I was an American who discovered that my father had been to Chausey during the war and had known young Jean Thévenin. As a matter of fact, there was some farfetched story about my father having wanted to take young Jean back to America. And then time stood still. Jacqueline, looked at Jean Michel and I and asked, in French, “Joe? Joe de Philadelphie?” Joe? Joe of Philadelphia? I felt Jean Michel; sitting next to me, turn to a pillar of stone. I looked to his wife, Marie Odile and asked, “Did she just say what I think she said?” Marie Odile, dumbfounded, shook her head yes, and said, “This is the first we are hearing about this”. Although neither Joe nor Jean told their children, they had told other people, and so, it was true. I looked to Jean Michel with new eyes and an understanding that in another life, had our fathers’ journey turned another way, we could have been family. Through this connection, we were in fact family, finally understanding and sharing some of our fathers unspoken dreams. I knew at that moment that my father had truly wanted a son or daughter, and through the murkiness and horror of war he had been denied one child, finding another in me.

Connected as family in spirit, Jean Michel and I walked to the spot where our fathers stood, the young soldier in search of a child, and the young child in search of a father, crossing paths in that dark night of 1944, looking at the unknown photographer and at us, their own children, through six decades of time into the future.

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Joe Baker aka "Pop" on a barge in Granville, 1944



Joe Baker aka "Pop" France, 1945

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

great story...families are an amazing set of coincidences and half-truths.

addie said...

what a fantastic story. thanks for sharing it with us!

nina said...

I'm floored, such a beautiful story, thank you for sharing, Zoe of Philadelphia :)

Rona Chang said...

An amazingly beautiful story. Thank you!