first published in War, Literature and the Arts
HOMEby Bruce Guernsey
you ask me the name I'm known by, Cyclops?
I will tell you. . . .
Nobody—that's my name. Nobody—"
an odd name to have," said the bespectacled teller, squinting at my
passport. And so it is back in the
United States where there are not many of us, but it shouldn't be too strange a
name here, I thought—not here on Guernsey Island. I'd already seen it half-a-dozen times
on the ride in from the airport, branded on service trucks and buildings, and
now again on the very bank where I was counting my pound notes. Why, even they had
"Guernsey" on them because, as I was discovering, this independent
little island near the English Channel has its own currency.
not, at least they spell it right, I said to myself, a relief from home where
"like the cows" is what I've always told those trying to write my
name. Our name, I should
say, because I'd come to Guernsey Island to represent my family and to find out
where we'd come from, the search for roots an American pursuit no matter the
color of skin.
This trip and its
timing were also of special importance to my four siblings and me. A decade ago our father had disappeared
from a VA hospital in rural Pennsylvania. His acute Parkinson's Disease led him to wander off, and he did so for
good one day in May. My brother,
our sisters, and I took part in a massive search to find him but he'd simply
vanished. Though his remains were
found a few years later by some hikers, I know deep inside that I'm still
searching, and what better place to do so on the tenth anniversary of his
disappearance than the island that bears our father's name?
And what a place it
is, too: twenty-six square miles of granite coastline and lush green valleys
off the coast of France where roughly sixty-five thousand people live and work
or have retired. "The happiest people on earth," according to a
survey reported in the New York Times a few years back, and as
impossible as such a survey might seem, the "Guernseyman" and woman
have every right to be so happy: the taxes they pay at the flat rate of twenty
percent go directly to the island's own government, the "states" of
Guernsey (taxation with representation, that is); the weather is always
temperate, kept so by the Gulf Stream—it stayed around 65 the week in May I
was there; and most people live on locally caught fish and homegrown vegetables
while breathing sea-fresh air scented by over sixty varieties of wildflowers
that paint the island in yellows, pinks, and blues.
facts alone would be enough to attract anyone to this paradise, but I'd come
for reasons far less defined, ones I hoped to discover. I jokingly sought to find some long-lost
and very weathly uncle—heirless, of course—but found to my
confusion not a single Guernsey in the phone book. It occurred to me later that a name is
more important when we leave a place than when we're there. It's the little bit of soil we carry
with us as Leonardo did "da Vinci," or college students do with a
decal of their alma mater on the rear windshield of the family car.
According to an
article by Gregory Stevens-Cox supplied to me by the island's archivist, the
earliest known Guernsey in the New World probably sailed with Jacques Cartier
in l535 on his second voyage when he discovered the St. Lawrence River. One "Guillaume de Guerneze" is
listed on that voyage's manifest. "Guillaume," as the archivist, Dr. Ogier, informed me, was
frequently a name associated with bastard children, so maybe that sixteenth
century uncle of mine was searching like me for more than just a place to spend
a week one spring. Maybe he was looking for his father, too.
Ideally, sailing to
the island, instead of flying, would have been my choice, coming back to this
imagined home the way others like "Guillaume" had left it centuries
ago. I wanted the excitement of
seeing its coastline from a distance on the horizon: the island rising and
falling in front of me, but there, green and rooted. I wanted to be Odysseus, I guess, home
after so many years, but stepping from the noisy, two-engine plane onto the
island's small runway, I was just me. No mythic hero, just me and my memories.
smell," I said to myself, stretching from the cramped plane and breathing
in the Guernsey air. "I know that smell," and I was suddenly back in the dairy
farms of upstate New York where my father grew up. I was greeted not by the usual fumes of
fossil fuels but by the rich and fertile smell of cow manure. While not ambrosia to everyone's
nostrils, the smell of something organic, of grass and growth, and at an
airport no less, would suggest to anyone that they'd arrived in a different
kind of world. For me, it was one
much like my father's private Ithaca: Schoharie County in the Catskills where
we went each spring to reconnect the family ties and where I learned which end
of a cow to milk.
Incredibly, out on
that tarmac, I had quickly traveled back to my father's world before he'd moved
downstate to the hurried pace of turnpikes and his life of sales. I stood there elated, then suddenly
depressed: the closest my father ever came to this special place were the
beaches of Normandy, thirty miles away, around June 6, l944. I was born that
year, although my father never saw his first son for many months after. He went to shore in the second wave of
troops, and the many German gun emplacements on this peaceful island suggest
how terrifying that must have been.
The next morning, with
a camera, not a gun, in hand, I set out on my first full day on Guernsey to
make a Christmas scrapbook for my siblings and my kids, and for their many new
cousins. Snapping close-ups of purple
foxglove and panoramas of endless white daisies, I found myself stepping down
into a ditch—for irrigation, I figured, but it was far deeper than that,
chest-high. Entangled in vines, I
fought my way along the rock-edged trench until in front of me there was a
hollow, a hidden opening in concrete, and I climbed in.
Whew! Talk about
smells! The stench of a thousand "pissoirs" practically blinded me.
Gone was the bouquet of the endless flowers outside. Gone, too, that rich
fertile fullness I smelled at the airport. Now I was indeed Odysseus, but in the Cyclops' cave where the
one-eyed giant hadn't stopped peeing since classical Greece, so it
seemed. Or more accurately, six decades
ago when the Nazi gunners who once stood in this same battery could have blown
away a man just like my father had he come ashore fifty yards below.
Remnants of war like
that emplacement are everywhere on Guernsey. They are as hidden, too, just as
they were in my father's imagination. In the five years the island was
occupied, using captured Belgians and Poles as labor, the Nazis constructed an
underground hospital and tunneled through the island's precambrian granite to
make dormitories and fuel depots. Some of these locations remained a secret
until well after the war. One such tunnel goes under St. Saviour, a small and
lovely church nestled in a wooded valley. Cynically, the Germans figured no one would bomb a church and so such
tunnels would be safe. They also
posted sentinels in St. Saviour's picturesque steeple for the same reason.
Keeping his war-time
memories in his own kind of underground, my father never talked about the war
other than to say it was over, but I believe his experiences in it drove him to
work as hard as he did. Both running to and running from, he set
out on his own to sell life insurance and was a financial success. He'd been hollowed out inside, however,
and those trips back to the farmland were meant to make him whole. The war had displaced my father just as
it did the people of his namesake island and, as it did, of course, around the
world. When the Germans took
Guernsey—they could do so because of the island's proximity to France,
and they wanted to as a symbol of taking something British—many of the
women and children were evacuated to Great Britain and the deep fabric of this
island was forever torn.
In a country pub one
day for lunch, I couldn't help but notice the accent of a gentleman near me who
didn't sound the least bit "Guernsey," a distinct, non-English
dialect that's tinged with remnants of Norman patois. He sounded more Scots, like Sean
Connery. Discovering more in pubs
than I did in books, I learned of his separation from his homeland at three
years old and of his formative years spent in northern England. "It was
tough to come back," he said, "and my brother didn't." Just as our Civil War displaced New
Englanders and Southerners alike, so too did the young of this island go to the
mainland because of war, dividing families, making new voices.
Or making you question
your old way of speaking, as happened to my father. Despite the many
self-improvement courses he'd rise before dawn to study,
"haywire," "hogwash," and "happy as a heifer in
heat" remained his favorite expressions. In the suburbs of northern New
Jersey, a long cultural way from where he grew up, such language didn't
help him get into the fancy golf clubs to make important financial connections. He never went to college yet wanted
people to think he had. His words,
however, were not the educated ones from Princeton or Yale but from the farm,
his metaphors from some place like Guernsey Island. In suburbia such poetry gets you
nowhere, and so he struggled even harder to succeed. Like the mythic Willy Loman, my father
was best a carpenter and planter; like the late Doug Guernsey, Willy would have
been happy here, too.
They would have loved
the hundreds of greenhouses where for generations the island has produced most
of the tomatoes, especially the cherry, for the United Kingdom. Those little broiled rubies that
accompany the Royalty's bacon and egg each morning probably came from under
these buildings of glass. Though
fragile, they are powerful symbols when set against the Nazis' cold bunkers
which, like the Cyclops' monomanical gaze, are blank and pitiless, waiting to
feast on human flesh. In number and
spirit, however, the greenhouses win: they are everywhere, gathering light. So
many times, when looking across a valley, I could see a sheen like water: each
long glass house, the pool of a river.
And, yes, there are
cows, colored golden russet with patches of cream, ruminating on it all. I remember as a kid trying to milk one,
but I went on to do other things better: a child, like many Americans in the
year 2000, of the suburbs and college. But I was back now on one of those week-long trips to our family
farm. On a green, green island,
"Nobody's" first son had landed. I'd hiked this little world of war
and peace without a map in a symbolic search for my father and found what I
didn't know I was looking for: me.
The last night on
Guernsey I walked a few blocks from my hotel down to a point along the
beach. I climbed up on some rocks
that looked curiously organized, a large flat piece of granite horizontal to
some huge verticals that balanced it. From there I could look east toward Normandy better than from any of the
German bunkers near it, and there were several. Little did I know until I uncovered a
vine-tangled sign that I was perched upon a Druid dolmen. Having, alas, no flask to lift a toast
to eternity, I took a piece of gum from my pocket instead and sat there chewing
like my bovine cousins. "Like the island," I'll say from now on,
knowing truly how to spell my name.
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