A word about our tour group.
Al is a big, gruff man, about 70, with a Jersey accent who has not cracked a smile on this trip, as far as I know. He wears a WWI Army hat every day, sporting dozens of pins from various WWI regiments, but he was never in the Army himself. He fills 2 seats on the bus and sort of wheezes his way through the day. Often, he stays on the bus when the rest of us get off to see something interesting, saying he doesn’t need to see one more thing glorifying the French. (He keeps mentioning how we saved their French asses.) He complains about everything, from the shape of the toilets to the fact that all the restaurant menus are in French. Yet this is his 5th trip to France! Everyone else seems to just ignore it, including his wife. But I have been really amused by the consistency of this guy. And then he does something really surprising, such as buying dozens of small bouquets of white roses from street vendors to lay on the graves of war dead from his county in Pennsylvania. He has taken the trouble to look up where each is buried and maps out their plots in each cemetery we visit. So we all dutifully prod along behind Al at each cemetery and watch him get down on his knees with a big grunt and “ plant” the flowers. Then we look away while he struggles to get back to his feet with another big grunt, after which he typically makes some derogatory remark about how French cemetaries can’t hold a candle to American cemetaries.
There are several men on the tour who work in retirement as certified battlefield guides at Gettysburg. It’s really interesting to hear how they describe the tour groups they sometimes lead and what dumb questions they ask. It sort of appears to be a way of showing their own level of sophistication when it comes to knowing the number of each regiment and division, who led them, how many men were killed, and what the mistakes in war strategy were. There’s a fair amount of puffing and strutting among these guys about their various gun and battlefield relic collections. Again, the wives seem to just give each other knowing looks, some rolling their eyes, and pat their men on the arms to let them know when they’ve already heard a story too many times.
There’s one retired military man and his wife, about my age but in awesome shape, who are first timers like me. Jim is a retired Army intelligence officer who spent many years trying to trace Vietnam MIAs who were last seen alive. Fascinating stories. His grandfather was wounded on the same day as Grampa Gates, coincidentally. He and Joan are both quiet but very funny when they do say something under their breath, knowing I’m in earshot. But that only happens when we are NOT at a cemetery. It's ok for them to joke on a battlefield, but never in a cemetary. It took me while to understand where the rules of dignity and respect apply on a battlefield tour. So I just try to follow their lead.
My favorite couple are Tish and Bill. He’s a tall, skinny guy and she’s as round as can be. She’s wide open to every new experience, laughing delightedly at herself when she learns something new. He seems to be terrified of anything new. Uncertainty just freezes him in his tracks. Example: Tish asks the hotel clerk for recommendations for really authentic French restaurants, leads a small group through the alleyways to some place right out of a Seurat painting, with little cafe tables on the sidewalk, rickety chairs wobbling on the cobblestones, waiters that barely know any English, and a menu that takes serious translating. Bill starts edging backwards, saying he just wants a steak but Tish plunges in with limited French, a big smile, and hilarious hand signals to get us all settled. It’s always an excellent dinner and they both go back to the hotel happy, only to go through the exact same routine the next day.
Finally, I will describe Bosch. Nobody seemed to know what his first name was, but I finally wheedled out of him that it is Guillermo. He just goes by his last name. He is a lawyer for people accused of federal crimes, but is about to retire at age 70. He looks like one of the old Civil War generals. He sings barbershop and his wife sings with the Sweet Adelines (but she’s not on this trip). They both do little theatre and they are proud of their huge wine cellar. Brilliant guy and total weapons geek. I try to sit near Bosch at dinner when I can because his taste in wine is similar to mine, although much more sophisticated. He has not failed me yet. But he and his wines are the reason I’m so far behind on this blog. Bosch led the group today in laying a wreath at the tomb of an American in the Meuse-Argonne Cemetary. He chose the man who had founded his little theatre troupe back in 1905. Got very emotional, even though they had never met.
So those are some of the interesting characters I’m with. Free entertainment nonstop.