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Someone Else’s Passion

Today will be a slight change of pace in that it will not include anything expat-related, per se.

(Yes, it is about traveling in another country, but it’s not specifically about an expat issue.)

Nor will I mention writing or any of the other activities or projects I work on.

So for those of you who think I occasionally get stuck in ‘navel-gazing’ mode, this one’s for you.

My brother and his family are visiting us from their home outside Washington, DC.

We’ve all been doing our share of showing them what we enjoy about Den Haag and the Netherlands, taking them to favorite or ‘must see’ places (sometimes they are one and the same, other times not). Doing the sight-seeing thing.

But yesterday I received what I’ve come to realize is one of the most special gifts possible: the opportunity to observe someone enjoying one of their passions.

My brother is a military history buff. Always has been.

Certainly from before the teacher sent home a note on his report card that she had exhausted her knowledge of the Revolutionary War, and that he knew far more details than she did.

He was eight.

His interests spread to the US Civil War, World War I, World War II, and has continued to grow ever since.

We all know what to get him for birthdays and Christmas: military history books. He’s probably never had one of those moments when you unwrap a present and say ‘Oh you shouldn’t have’ (and actually meant it), because he always receives something he’ll enjoy.

And even though he’s all grown up and a busy husband and father of two tweeners, his passion continues unabated.

Yesterday we filled my car and set out for Arnhem, Netherlands. It’s east of Utrecht, about 90 minutes driving time away from Den Haag.

The objective (you always have an objective when talking about things military) was to visit the John Frost Bridge, aka ‘The Bridge Too Far’ from WWII fame and the Cornelius Ryan book and Sir Richard Attenborough movie of the same name.

In laymen’s terms (because, compared to my brother I am nothing if not a layman), it’s a simple story of failing to meet the established objective in September 1944: secure Arnhem’s bridge to preclude retreat of any German forces remaining in the Netherlands, thereby allowing Allied forces to push on into Germany to help end the war.

Approximately 800 British airborne troops, joined later by a small Polish airborne contingent, parachuted into the Oosterbeek area just west of Arnhem.

Expecting no resistance, they were intent on securing the bridge. As they marched toward Arnhem, they were met by ecstatic Nederlanders, anxiously expressing their gratitude. They were pleasantly surprised by the intensity of the locals’ outpouring of emotions.

Little did the Allied troops know why the Dutch citizens were so thankful. Two German SS Panzer (tank) divisions happened to be sequestered in Arnhem, and the Dutch were convinced the Allies had arrived in full force to liberate them and the town. What was supposed to be an easy mission disintegrated into a bloodbath for the Allied forces and Dutch citizens alike.

Though the Allied paratroopers initially took the north side of the bridge and held it for several days, in the end, all that remained were some 200 Allied soldiers and a fraction of the townspeople. The bridge itself was destroyed, as was much of Arnhem.

Allied Command had desperately tried to send in additional troops, ammunition and supplies to help save their fellow soldiers against the German onslaught, but due to a horrible mix of logistical snafus, it was for naught.

Perhaps one of the most moving sentiments was conveyed on a British military plaque outside the Airborne Museum in nearby Oosterbeek.

I mentioned earlier that the brave Allied forces failed to meet their military objective in Arnhem. But in terms of celebrating courage, valor and the indomitable human spirit, they were successful beyond measure.

As for my brother, I cannot tell you how he felt, taking in all that we saw and did.

I can only say that, watching him tread the same bridge he’s read about for decades and is now named for the British paratrooper commanding officer, pore over the detailed exhibits at the Arnhem Battle Information Center and later at the Airborne Museum, and wander the hallowed ground in Oosterbeek, I was clearly in the presence of someone caught up in their passion.

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