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The French Underground

THE FRENCH UNDERGROUND

Hunter said, “May I ask how you and Margaret met? I love a good love story.”
Gamar smiled his handsome smile. “A skeptic and a romantic, eh? What a combination. Well, I’ll tell you. It was a rainy night. I was up on a hill overlooking a French  village south of Cherbourg.”
Margaret said, “And there was a tree. A wonderful, old tree.”
“Oh, yes,” Gamar laughed. “ A very big, sheltering tree, but not from the rain. It sounds like a wonderfully romantic setting, doesn’t it? But let me begin at the beginning. I can even tell you the exact moment I knew this was the woman for me.
“It was August, 1944. I was with four of our brave citizens. We were behind the front lines of the German defenses. We knew the 101st. Airborne was coming from the southeast, from what you now know as Utah Beach, barely twenty kilometers away, but the Nazis did not. You should have seen things change when they got the news. One minute they were eating our food and having their way. The next minute they were scurrying around like cowardly vermin, moving their men and machinery into defensive positions. They were going to meet the Americans head on. The advanced German lines were only a day’s drive to the south. They could have fallen back to strengthen their own lines, but they did not. What fools.
“We hid ourselves around Nazi checkpoints outside the town. We were determined no Nazis would get out alive. My group was watching a gated checkpoint the Nazis had fortified with sandbags and two heavy caliber machine guns on half-tracks. We were at the front door. The war would be over for us when we heard the first American tanks at our backs. I can’t tell you how we felt, knowing the Americans were coming.
“It had begun to rain just before dawn. We were wet and cold and miserable, cursing the Nazis even for the weather. We blamed everything on the Nazis. Then we were discovered by a German patrol. Bullets were flying everywhere. It was every man for himself. I got away and took a position behind a fallen tree, smashed and uprooted by a bomb. It was a perfect vantage point overlooking the square down below. A rugged cart path a stone’s throw to my left sloped down into the village a half kilometer below. I could see everything.
“As I approached the tree I was startled to see a dark figure already hiding there. It was still very dark, and I could barely make out anything in the rain. I froze and waited. He was alone and he wasn’t a German soldier.”
Hunter said, “In the dark? How did you know he wasn’t a German?’
Margaret spoke up. “This person was facing the village. A German soldier would be facing the other way, you see, watching for the Americans.”
Gamar said, “One must experience such things to know such things. It’s one of the secrets of survival.”
Hunter said, “I’m curious about something.”
“What might that be, my dear?”
She said, “This is 1986. If you fought with the resistance, you’d have to be at least sixty years old by now.”
“We are,” Gamar said. He took Margaret’s hand. “Margaret is sixty-three, and I am sixty and two months.”
“Geez,” Hunter said.
It was at this moment when I began to wonder about Gamar and Margaret. Gamar was, as I have said, a much healthier man than I remembered him to be. It was obvious they were both very well preserved. They were more erect and much more limber than the usual sixty-year old. You could see by their movement, their general demeanor that they were much more physically capable than the usual restrictions of aging would allow. One makes mental notes of such things without thinking, but I had taken for granted that Margaret was little more than half of Gamar’s age. And, Gamar, I guessed him to be pushing fifty at the most. It was the fresh food, I thought, the healthy Mediterranean air, their easy life here.
Gamar went on. “I had to make contact with this person crouching under the tree. I couldn’t take any chances. He could turn and shoot in a second if I coughed, or if my knee popped. I gathered three pebbles and tossed them in quick succession close to his head. Had he been a German soldier he would have shot first and asked questions later, as they say, but the three pebbles was well known among our people. He turned and waved me in. I heard a cork squeak out of a bottle. What a relief. And Voila! That very person sits here beside the lovely Hunter.”
Margaret smiled and nodded.
“As I said, we were cold and miserable, cursing the Nazi bastards even for the weather. Margaret shook me awake and motioned toward the bottom of the hill. Five German artillerymen had harnessed the starved skeleton of a horse to a small field Howitzer. They were coaxing the animal up the cart path toward us. The rain was muddying their way, making it impossible. Their progress was a slippery, agonizing struggle.
“The horse, pitched against a load completely beyond its means, was being brutalized by the officer in command while the others manhandled the wheels over the slippery ruts. We watched them struggle and curse for half an hour as we finished up Margaret’s sausages and wine. In the meantime, the rain had become a downpour by the time the Nazis had barely made half their way. Finally, Margaret raised her rifle and released the safety. There was enough light now for a clear shot. She took careful aim, and I must remind you the target of a man at that distance is no mean feat. I asked her, ‘Will you kill the one in command?’ I had a particular dislike for German officers. I still do. She said, ‘I am the one in command.’
“I knew at that moment this was the woman for me.
“I watched, breathless, as she took aim. Which of them would fall?
“The shot spat out and the horse crumbled, relieving itself of its entire intestinal tract as its body was so suddenly relaxed under the strain. The Germans had no idea what had happened. They were left supporting the entire weight of the cannon. It was impossible for them. The cannon careened back down the hill, dragging the limp carcass of that pitiful animal and its steaming entrails along with it.
“The officer was furious, screaming and struggling to stay on his feet. Margaret took aim and dropped him. His body slid down to the foot of the path and became a thing in a mud puddle beside the road. I can tell you, when men march off to war, they’re not thinking about the ditches they’ll die in. She let the others escape so as not to reveal our position. The Germans were very good with their mortar fire. They ran for it when the Americans rolled in. Their command had collapsed. The resistance people picked them off.
“The people of the village filled the streets. They gave gladly to the Americans what they had hidden form the Nazis. It was all they had left. That shows you how people are.
“After that, Margaret and I became inseparable. We’ve been together ever since, as you can see. And that, my dear Hunter, is how Margaret and I met.”
Hunter shook her head. “That poor old horse.”
“Ah,” Gamar waved his hand. “We decided it must have been a Vichy horse. That made us feel better.”

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