Sunday, September 24, 2017

Rest in Peace, Colonel Michael Chilcott

Good morning everyone

I am sad to tell the news. I am not sure how many readers have been to Normandy in the past several years, especially in the early 2000s. Michael Chilcott was a fascinating fellow and a great storyteller. I'm walking down memory lane a little bit this morning. 

I just found out the news. I had emailed Rosemary, his wife, a few months ago to check in and see how they were doing, and didn't hear back. I thought that was a little unusual because while it takes a while to hear back I usually do hear back. The summer wore on and I forgot about it and this morning I looked online on a hunch.

In 1999 I visited the Normandy beaches with a friend on a spontaneous, quickly planned trip. I did a little research ahead of time and found on VRBO reference to Michael and Rosemary's B&B in Bayeux. He was retired military and in his mid-60s. We stayed with them a few nights and had a fun time listening to him and their various guests who were all history buffs and apparently all repeat visitors. Michael was quite the story teller! He and Rosemary lived all over the world during his time in the military and the places he mentioned all had the exotic-sounding flavor of the former British empire. Their home, while very Norman French, was decorated much like you'd expect a British home in the country to be (complete with stuffed stoat, and lots of photos and books everywhere). This would have been 55 years after the D-Day landings, and so the youngest veterans would have been perhaps 73 - still hale and hearty in many cases. 

In 2004 it was the 60th anniversary and it had been 5 years since my last visit and so I decided "why not go back again". I had checked in occasionally with Rosemary in the intervening 5 years to see how they were and I was excited to go back to see them again and visit other parts of the area I hadn't seen the last time. It was, as usual, part of my "let's get a flavor of everything trip" because I had spent part of the week before that hiking along different parts of the Brittany Coast, and in fact after the French portion of the trip went on to Switzerland to visit friends there for more hiking. But I digress!

So, off to Bayeux again and another visit. Michael was still in great shape, barely 70 and Rosemary was as always indefatigable. I enjoyed the visits because it felt to me kind of like going to visit grandparents in their home in the country. If you've been to Normandy, especially the coast, it's beautiful and peaceful. Their home is barely a mile outside of town, and the walk into town takes you past the British WWII cemetery. Walk the other way and you are thick in the countryside very quickly. I took a photo of Michael and Rosemary and some of their friends, in dapper clothes, heading out to walk to church services the morning of D-Day. I will have to find this photo. I enlarged and framed it and mailed it to her after my visit. It would have been digital so I must have it somewhere.

Fast forward to June 2009 and the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings. I had started taking my Mom on various European trips with me in 2007 but as yet hadn't taken Dad along. So I dragged him off to Paris and Normandy.  It was our first solo trip together and in fact I hadn't spent a ton of time with Dad solo, full stop, because Mom was always there. He is a huge history buff himself and had a fantastic time meeting Michael and Rosemary and all the regular visitors who came back year after year. Michael had suffered a stroke a few years prior and had slowed down considerably. He had other health issues as well - but still had a lot of stories and was getting around. Rosemary was doing well and we left with more great memories and now with three visits to see them a new tradition - every five years. The youngest vets at this point were probably around 83 or so, and Rosemary mentioned that each year over year they witnessed the changes. There were many more wheelchairs being pushed along the beach during the memorial ceremonies.

So now we are at June 2014 and I decided I wanted to do a little more exploring along the coast and the pull of the tradition of "every five years" was hitting me again. This time it was the 70th anniversary and I wanted to see how the Chilcotts were doing, spend a little time there, and I was curious to see how the area had changed once again. In 1999 the area was still very traditional, for lack of a better word. A few museums, but many of them were small and home grown (and in fact Michael had a hand in starting a few of the smaller ones). I am not even sure if the Caen museum had been built yet, in 1999, and I'm too lazy to google it right now. I think it was, come to think of it, but I'm not sure. I visited in 2009 with Dad but not before that. At any rate, this time some friends had independently decided they wanted to visit the area too and so we coordinated to spend time together a few days while we were local to each other. In 2014 the number of museums or memorials had grown dramatically compared to 1999 and things seemed much more "glitzy and official" to me. The old small museums almost made you feel like you were stepping back in time to 1944, the new ones were glistening and had defined parking lots and interactive displays. 

Michael had slowed even more, that time, but Rosemary seems to never have changed at all to me. She still ran the entire household and B&B with constant guests overflowing their home. Literally. Camping during the busy times, a small cottage on their property they also rented out, people stayed even above the barn sometimes. One thing I also remember fondly is the tradition of their huge table, laden with all kinds of food at breakfast with a table full of people at all times (taking shifts to have breakfast) and no matter which time you chose to came down you would hear even more stories of their days of exploring. Breakfast was easily as engaging as having dinner there. They loved loved loved having a full home at all times. She said it was her favorite thing about having a B&B. Always new people, usually old friends, and lots of stories all the time.

It occurred to me in 2014 that this might be one of the last times I saw them. Never say never, but while going back every five years was a nice tradition I also felt I had seen so much of that area and you only get so much vacation time each year. I think I will go back at least one more time to visit Rosemary and pay my respects to Michael but I'm not sure when, now. I should also mention I made a few nice friends during these visits, too, who I keep up with on Facebook. I have very fond memories of my times there and I'm sad that time marches on, as it must.

Rest in Peace, Michael.

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