As the French policeman stepped aboard the bus, I knew what he was looking for. He was looking for the man who had assaulted one of the supervisors (knocking him unconscious) at the American Cemetery just above Omaha beach in Normandy.
My wife, Margie, and I were on the fourth day of a World War Two tour, with 30 other folks. We were following the experience of the men immortalized in the HBO series “Band of Brothers”. We had started our tour in a remote little town in Georgia where the 101st Airborne had trained. We had then flown to London and visited the village where the unit had been stationed before the D-Day invasion in 1944. We crossed the English Channel and had stopped to visit the American Cemetery.
Our tour guide, a highly decorated Vietnam Marine Captain turned historian, had led us through the American Cemetery. At one point he stepped over a “Keep Out” rope and told us in true Marine Corps fashion “Follow Me”. Never one to be comfortable “breaking rules” (at least THOSE kinds of rules), I wondered silently if we should be doing this or not, but, I, along with the others followed “orders”.
Sure enough, as we were standing at a particular grave marker, our guide about to tell us the story of this particular man who was buried there, an official of the cemetery came up and told us all that we had to leave. Our tour guide asked to have “just 45 seconds” and we would then leave. The official said “no, you have to leave now”. Our guide turned away from him and began his mini-lecture. The official drowned his voice out by shouting “You have to leave and you have to leave now”. As you might imagine our Marine Corps captain was not about to be treated this way and an intense argument ensued. During the argument, one of our fellow tour members, a retired Navy Seal, stepped up to the official, seemingly in a sense protecting his officer, nose to nose and began threatening him with bodily harm. The Navy Seal, being about 6 inches taller and 80 pounds heavier intimidated the official enough to have him back off and begin calling for support. Our guide finished what he was saying and we all moved off to a part of the cemetery where we were permitted to be.
A few moments later a contingent of officials came to meet with our guide and essentially apologized for the actions of their official who they said had been a bit too rigid. All the while I was thinking “we were the ones who ignored the sign, don’t we have some responsibility here?” But, what do I know about international diplomacy and leading tour groups? So, I didn’t say anything.
As we were exiting the cemetery, I heard the Navy Seal yell “There’s my guy” and began running towards the official who had first confronted us. His wife began yelling “someone stop him”, then beseeching her husband “please don’t”. I just kept my head down and walked back to the bus.
Note to self: I didn’t do anything.
A few minutes later his distraught wife came running onto the bus crying, “We’ve got to get out of here; my husband has just decked the man.”
Our guide took her off the bus, apparently listening to her story, came back on the bus and said to all of us, “I’ll handle this”. By this time our Navy Seal had made it to the bus. Our guide asked if someone had a shirt he could put on to help disguise him and I started to raise my hand. Margie pulled my arm down. He was offered a coat and a hat by other tour members, went to sit in another part of the bus, and slumped down in a seat, far away from his wife.
Note to self: I had started to do something.
The police had been called and the facility had been locked down. They were methodically searching each vehicle for the man who had assaulted the cemetery official. As one of the officers approached our bus, our guide got off the bus and talked to him for quite a while. Eventually the policeman got on our bus and said that they were looking for a man who had assaulted one of the cemetery officials. He asked if any of us knew anything about it.
I had always imagined that if I were in that kind of situation I would do the right thing. The right thing being, to tell the truth. I didn’t. I didn’t say anything. I just looked straight ahead as if I knew nothing. To this day I don’t know what condition the cemetery official was left in. He could have died, been permanently disabled, or just ended up with a headache.
Not only did I not say anything, I volunteered and was ready to “obey” my captain and offer something (a shirt to disguise the perpetrator) to help cover up the incident.
Eventually they let our bus exit and later as I was thinking about the incident and what I had done, (or rather not done), I realized that my behaviors were exactly the same as many of the German people during World War II. They saw bad things happening. They saw wrong things happening. They said nothing. I said nothing. Some of them helped disguise what had happened - just like I did.
There are no rationalizations making what I did (or more accurately, what I didn’t do) OK.
Once again I was humbly reminded of how often my self-righteous, lofty, idealized view of who I think I am doesn’t come close to matching my behaviors.
Will I do anything differently the next time? I know what I would like to believe. Then there will be what actually happens.