OPINION | STEVE STRAESSLE: A mother’s arms


His parachute opened.

Seeing its billowing silk gave him a little comfort. He could see other parachutes far on the horizon, the crew having bailed at different times. The sleek silver German plane that shot down his B-24 flew away from him, arrogant in its triumph. At least it was leaving him alone, he thought. At least that part is over.

Then, the German plane banked wide, turned, and leveled. It headed directly for him.

He was only 20 years old, a bombardier who had trained for a big mission. It was six days after D-Day, and his plane, tasked with softening German defenses in occupied France, hadn't seen the fighter jet come screaming from the clouds.

But there it was.

He was still hundreds of feet above ground. He tucked his legs, trying to lessen his profile. He prayed for wind, for a cloud, for ... anything. The plane's silver body glinted in the sunlight and he saw it before he heard it. Flashes from the wing and then the obvious report of a machine gun. Bullets whipped the air around him. He closed his eyes.

An explosion rippled through him. The German plane erupted into flames, cartwheeling toward the ground. An American P-51 Mustang roared by, circling its kill. It dipped its wing in salute to the boy floating to French soil.

"They took me to see the German plane," our son Sam told us last week. After college, Sam started a job that allows remote work, so he chose to work while touring Europe. My wife and I had him on speaker.

"That plane would have ended us before we even started," my wife said.

"Yeah, I actually touched the machine gun that fired at Grandpa Ben." That statement chilled us both.

He continued, "Rennes is a beautiful place, about the same size as Little Rock. They took me to see the house where they hid him. I got to meet Michel."

Michel has been part of my wife's family lore, an almost ghost-like figure who comes and goes throughout the family narrative. Michel had been 7 years old when the young American airman finally cut himself from an apple tree.

"Michel told me that his mother took charge. She hid Grandpa Ben in the attic at night. During the day, he'd go to the woods nearby. Michel's job was to scout for Germans, then let Ben know the coast is clear to come inside. He said one time Ben had helped his mother cut vegetables in the kitchen and used his U.S. Army knife. Germans came by looking for American pilots. Ben made it to the woods, but had left his knife on the kitchen counter. The Germans came into their house, Michel's mother casually noticed the knife, and put it with scraps of vegetables in a box and gave it to Michel to 'throw away.' The Germans never knew."

"Smart woman," I said. Those words fell short of the deep courage she had actually displayed.

My wife glanced sideways at me. "She was a mother."

Sam continued, "Michel talked about how he and Ben played during the long days waiting. He said Ben acted like an older brother, making parachutes out of paper. Then, one day, the French Resistance showed up and they said the Americans are almost to Paris. It was time to take Ben there to reunite him with U.S. troops. Michel's mother talked to the Resistance members sternly, saying she wasn't going to let Ben leave until she saw an American for herself. There were just too many Germans around and she wasn't having it."

My wife let out a small laugh. "I can just picture this French woman telling these armed Resistance fighters she's not letting the American leave. And what'd my grandfather do? He probably just said, 'yes, ma'am."

"Mom," Sam said. "The next day, those French Resistance fighters ran into a German patrol on the way to Paris. They were all killed."

Silence enveloped us. Finally, Sam spoke again. "Michel showed me photos of his mom and Ben when he came to visit after the war. He also showed me letters praising his mom as a hero. The French government gave her medals; Eisenhower wrote her personally. But then he showed me the most important letter."

We leaned in so we could hear through the static of an international phone call, the signal bouncing off satellites and towers and to our front porch.

"Who was it from, son?" My wife asked.

"It was from Ben's mother. Your great-grandmother. She told Michel's mom how for months, she had thought Ben was dead. Then, she heard from him and learned the story of how a French mother hid him. She wanted to thank Michel's mom for facing the Germans looking for her son, for knowing the road to Paris was too dangerous at that time, for feeding her son and making sure he was loved. It was a letter from one mother to another and it was beautiful."

We sat with that scene for a few moments, letting it play out in our minds--understanding it, recognizing it, thankful for it.

It's difficult to put in words the connections mothers may have with one another, the recognition of the simplest needs the children of others may have. But then we get to see it plainly, obviously.

And we remember the comfort and safety found within the strength of a mother's arms.


Steve Straessle is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at sstraessle@lrchs.org. Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle. "The Strenuous Life" appears every other Saturday.


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