The dad she never met
Our second European Concert Tour for the Woodbury Chorale and Bell Ringers would soon be a reality. It was 1994.
Our first tour had been such a success that most of the members were ready to go again. This tour would include visits to The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany.
I was busy planning the day to day details when I was visited by Carol, one of our altos in the choir. She had a special request. Would it be possible for her to be excused from singing on the day that we would visit Maastricht, Holland’s most southern city. On that day, after the noon concert in Maastrict’s St. Jan’s Kerk, we would be driving through the Ardennes to Luxembourg.
I asked her to share the reason for her request. She then told me her story. Her mother had been pregnant with her when her dad, a soldier in the American army, was shipped out to Europe where he was scheduled to fight in the famous Battle of the Bulge against the Germans. Her father died in that battle. He was buried in the Henri Chapelle Cemetery in Belgium, and this was the place she wished to visit.
She realized that if permission was granted for her to travel to the cemetery, she would have to pay the very expensive cost of private transportation. She said that the visit was of the utmost importance to her. I suggested to her that I could change our itinerary somewhat so that we could all go to the cemetery with her and that she would not have to make that emotionally difficult trip by herself.
She was delighted and thankfully accepted my offer. I knew that for our tour group it would be a visit they would always treasure.
My next job was to gain information pertaining to the name and address of the cemetery’s Superintendent. I sent him a letter by express mail and explained my reason for the request. I also asked for his permission, if possible, to have the choir sing a few appropriate songs.
He replied by return mail and indicated that we would be welcomed at the cemetery. We were given permission to sing and he would help us to locate the burial site of Carol’s father.
Everything went according to plan. On the morning of the third day of our tour we visited the Market in Maastricht, sang a noon concert in the famous St. Jan’s Kerk and then departed for Henri Chapelle. It was a beautiful drive through the Belgian Ardennes, the site of the Battle of the Bulge.
We followed a bend in the narrow, winding road. There, ahead of us was Henri Chapelle, the final resting place for 7,992 U.S. war dead. In addition, in that hallowed location, the names of 450 missing in action soldiers are inscribed on its “Walls of the Missing.”
We slowly drove on to the grounds, and I remember how quiet it was in the bus. Seeing rows upon rows of crosses and markers was such an overwhelming sight.
We pulled up next to the Chapel and I instructed the group to “quietly” take pictures and look inside the chapel, because that’s where I planned on having us sing. I too looked in the chapel and checked its acoustics, which proved to be phenomenal. Wonderful for singing.
Carol and I then walked over to the small office building where we were introduced to the Superintendent. He welcomed us and told us how pleased he was with our visit and he asked Carol for the full name and birth date of her dad.
He looked up the name in the registration book and invited us to follow him. We walked quietly among those hallowed dead and soon were standing at the grave site of Carol’s father. We gave Carol some space and private time while the superintendent took the time to inform me about the details of the cemetery.
After a while Carol said “goodbye” to her dad, and together we walked back towards the chapel. As we were walking I told the Superintendent a little about our group and that the mission of the group was ‘to feed the hungry” by performing concerts and giving the collections to area Food Shelves.
I then told him how wonderful the acoustics were in the chapel, and how I and the choir looked forward to singing in that space.
He looked at me and said, “No, Mr. Lamain, not in the chapel.”
I was surprised and began to plead my case about the acoustics, and explained how wonderful it would be for the choir. He stopped walking, looked at me and gave me a lesson I will always remember.
He said, “Mr. Lamain, you are not here for you, you are here for them! As he spoke he pointed to the 7,992 crosses. The “them,” who gave their all so that we, and the rest of the world, might live and be free. It was a timely lesson which was received, and never to be forgotten.
We walked back to the bus in silence. I entered the chapel where the choir was lined up ready to sing and shared with the choir the lesson that I had just received. They understood.
We quietly went outside and lined up; our backs against the chapel wall facing the 7,992. We sang, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “God Bless America”. We ended our tribute with the immortal words of the 23rd Psalm, singing “The Lord is my Shepherd” and about “walking through the valley of the shadow of death”. It is written that “Greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for his friends”.
These men had walked through the valley. These hallowed dead gave up their lives, not for friends, but for an ideal; for freedom, for people who they did not even know. Theirs was the ultimate sacrifice. It was so difficult to sing when your eyes overflow with tears and your heart is filled with grief!.
The superintendent was right, of course. We often forget that we are not here for us, but for “them”; the “them” being not only our families, our neighbors, our friends; but also those who are “other,” the strangers; those who are different from us.
We truly are designated to be “our brother’s keeper.”
I learned that lesson when I saw British planes shot down by German planes over our town in Holland; British and Canadian men who gave their lives for “them” (in that case, us, my fellow Dutch countrymen). I also learned that same lesson when, during the “1944-1945 hunger winter.” people in my hometown in The Netherlands opened their doors to total strangers; children and adults fleeing from the devastating hunger that left thousands dead in cities such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam.
We know that the “them'” will always be with “us” and so our work is truly never done.
We softly said our “goodbyes” to the Superintendent and the hallowed dead of Henri Chapelle. As our bus slowly drove towards the exit, we, all, in our own way, said “goodbye”. We said goodbye to strangers; but Carol said “goodbye” to the dad she had met for the first time in her life.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Gerrit Lamain is a former Copper Country resident who served as a music professor at Suomi College. He was also the organist for the Michigan Tech hockey team before moving on to the Minnesota North Stars.