By Brad Harper
How do I begin? This ancient place, it has been itself the site of pilgrims, come to see the Black Madonna, a small statue within the cathedral brought back by pilgrims from the holy land during the middle ages from Malta. She has her vestments and altar decorations changed four times a year with the seasons.
So I arrive around 2:30. I had tried to book a reservation with the Gite des Capuchins. I figure that by walking towards the cathedral I will see a sign. My pack is riding easily on my shoulders, my troublesome right foot is behaving itself, I walk up the hill with only a little shortness of breath. I get lost, ask a very comfortable older man sitting on a bench, and he directs me up the hill. He says a lot about Americans which I do not understand but seem friendly enough, I wish him a “Bonne Journée” or good day, and off I go.
I run into a bunch of Germans. I had encountered a couple of the women down below at a small courtyard asking directions, but they had no clue. There is a man with them now with a MAP! He has made a reservation with the Gite run by the local Pilgrim’s association. He has a reservation. He knows where to go. Do I follow him? What do YOU think!
The Gite is like twenty feet from where we are standing. They have space for me. They are happy to see me. They give me cold water with mint syrup. They stamp my credential to show I have been here. They do everything but burp me to make me feel welcome. One of the six elderly french people who are running the place actually speaks about twenty words of English which he happily uses to let me know how delighted he is to have me there. After we all sign in, I am told the Gite runs off of donations. No set fee whatsoever. I am overcome with joy and mint flavored water and kick in ten euros, less than half of the daily fee of the Gite des Jeunesse, or youth hostel in Lyon. Bon marché, or good price indeed.
We are shown our lodgings. Old beat up former school house, two showers in private stalls, three toilets, private stalls, sinks for washing up and clothes, and the sleeping area. Two rules. Boots do not go beyond entrance to sleeping area, and anything we need for the night is placed in a basket and taken inside, the rest remains in the hallway in our rucksacks. seems reasonable to me. We are taken to the Hilton of Gites. One large room, yes, but eighteen beds, each enclosed, nestled I would say, inside a small wooden cubicle. I get the one by the far window so as not to be disturbed by those who need to go to the toilet at midnight, and I get a window looking out upon the village of Le Puy. I have a comfortable bed beside a radiator. It still gets into the forties here at night so that is a plus. There is also a sink beside my bed. The water “non marché pas”, does not work, but hey, I can use it as a night sand. Life is looking pretty darn good about now.
I shower and decide to find the cathedral where the pilgrim’s mass and blessing occurs each morning at 7 AM. It is right around the corner from the Gite. I wander inside. I will post pictures of the pipe organ which was playing while I was there. There is un verre du amité, or glass of friendship, each evening at the Pilgrim office besides the cathedral, and I am just in time. The glass is more syrup flavored water, but guide books are given to any who desire them, and our name and nationality inscribed in the guest book. I am the only non-native french speaker there, and after about twenty minutes of trying to be invisible, and doing a pretty good job, decide to go on in search of food. I have exceeded my quota of flavored water.
This Gite locks the doors at 10 PM. The staff are all volunteers from Pilgrim associations across France, and sleep one floor beneath us. Most restaurants do not open until seven. I find a pizzeria open at 6:30, order a Pizza Texano, which is a wafer thin pizza thirtythree cm in diameter covered in cheese, onions, and a fried egg in the center was three Euro fifty. Not bad. I ask to go to the toilet after the beer I drink waiting for my pizza. No toilet, sorry, but I am pointed to a public toilet across two crossings at a busy intersection. I try to pay for the beer, no, they say. No one leaves without paying. You will come back for the pizza. They got me pegged about right. Pizza hot, tastes good, and a definite improvement over the calf’s head I was offered in Lyon. I walk back up to the Gite, my right foot deciding to act up pretty badly. It throbs for some time after I brush my teeth, and go to bed.
As I take the shoe off, I note a woman on the bench besides me. she has a freshly shaven head, looks lean like a greyhound, and slightly scary to me. We both nod in acknowledgement that we are both in roughly the same space at the same time, and go our separate ways. When I checked in they said there was someone from the USA already there. I had been shown the sign-in book, and sure enough, someone named “Peregrin” from the USA. Peregrin is Latin for Pilgrim. The Peregrin falcon is so named as the grayness of it’s feathers are like the cloak of a pilgrim. I think that someone is having a bit of fun. How very wrong I was, to judge so quickly and superficially. As you shall see.
I lay there in my bed, the long slow evenings of Europe allowing the light to linger like a caress. The lights come on down below me. I am in Le Puy. After all the years, the miles, I am where it all began. Tomorrow, the mass.
Now, Let’s go back to the beginning…
I have done the Camino before. In 2010, as I finished my Pentagon tour and prepared for my final job at Ft Eustis, I took some leave, and walked the final one hundred KM with Chere. I wanted to put Michael’s soul to rest, to fulfill my promise. Yet walking around the cathedral in Santiago, I had a sense of unfulfillment. That he was not done with me. There was something not quite right. I prayed that this time, I would somehow get it right. I did not blame myself for his suicide, but had seen signs in his emails. I could have done more. Reminded him of our contract.
Michael was born with what is called ambiguous genitalia. The doctors essentially decided to make him a male, as it could have gone either way. He did make testosterone, but he had aspects of Kleinfelter’s syndrome; body fat deposition around the buttocks like a woman. making him look rather ostrich like. He always had a hard time making weight, as his body fat composition had to make the male standard. He would take long bike rides on weekends, going over one hundred miles in a day. He had been an AP freelance photographer before joining the Army, so I made him our unit photographer. I sensed right away that he needed acceptance more than anything else. One of my civilian docs, the one who generated over half of all my complaints, somehow took to Michael. He asked for Michael to be assigned to him full time to help him with his patients. I agreed, and both seemed to bloom, Michael from the calm acceptance of his doctor, and the doc from being able to get a consistent assistant. An unlikely but wonderful marriage.
He had bouts of depression. I was told of his underlying medical condition by my psychiatrist when I went to visit him when he was an inpatient at the Italian hospital. When Michael found out that I knew about it, but thought none the less of him, he hugged me. I simply told him, “we are each as God has made us”.
Michael volunteered to go to Iraq as the medic for an in-country training team. I tried to block it, not knowing how the other soldiers might treat him. There are few secrets on a deployment. He was in a critical specialty, combat medic, and I was overruled. To my surprise and delight, he blossomed. For once his difference made no difference. He had a critical skill that they needed, and he was good at. He was promoted to Sergeant. When his tour was winding down he was requested to extend. This time I was able to block it. I had not gotten a backfill for him, and as the 173rd Infantry BDE whom we supported was always either going or coming back from the “Stan”, I could justify that I needed him back.
He came back after I left. He wrote me as to how unhappy he was. He no longer got the same support he had before. I wrote back, but there was little I could do at Ft Bragg. I retired, came back on active duty and shortly after I arrived in the Pentagon was told by one of the civilian nurses there that Michael had tried to kill himself. He had jumped off a bridge and fell about sixty five feet but had somehow survived.
I visited him in Walter Reed. He and I talked a long time and I mentioned my dream of the Camino. He looked up at me and asked if when the time came, if he could come too. I hesitated for just a split second, then seeing how important this was to him, and said “yes”. After he was out and in the VA system he sent me a series of pictures he had taken somewhere in Italy; four pictures, same statue, different times of the day and climatic conditions. The Archangel Michael, slaying the Devil. The one that affected me the most was taken around midnight, where the outline was all you could see, and the battle within the darkness had to be filled in by your mind. He killed himself about five months after that. I do not blame myself, I say, but I could have done more.