Becoming A Patriot
Anyone of a certain age knows how impactful the Allman Brothers were on their musical consciousness in the tumultuous days of the early 1970’s. Their growling lyrics and locomotive driven riffs let everyone on both sides of the Atlantic know that a new form of rock and roll had taken root in the piney woods of Georgia.
I was first introduced to the Allman brothers as a young hitchhiking fool during our high school breaks. Bouncing back and forth between my home in Western Massachusetts and the Atlanta area, we were surprised, and then delighted, to meet up with Southern Rock for the first time as Fillmore East’s Whipping Post, In Memory of Elizabeth Reed and Hot ‘Lanta played from an old record player each time we entered our friend’s home after a long journey down the highway.
But it was the fall of 1973 that forever guaranteed a life long love of the Allman Brothers and especially Greg Allman. It would also become a turning point in my life as an American.
That September, as a 19-year-old sophomore college student, I left the United States for the first time, to attend the University of Caen in France. For many months after being accepted into the program I thought I would be spending the fall and winter on the sunny French Rivera. Just a month before departure, I learned I would actually be in rain soaked Caen, the largest city in Normandy, France, just 12 miles from the D-Day beaches.
After a full day of travel I was bussed to Caen and introduced to my French family with whom I had been matched. It was after 11:00 PM when a clearly tired woman appeared at the door and looked me over. My long hair and dungarees immediately gave away my social and political proclivities. She said something to me in French that I could not understand. The door was slammed in my face and back to the bus I went.
An hour later I was deposited at the door of an old hotel in the center of the old City. An elderly woman led me up the five flights of stairs to the attic room that had a bed, table and chair and a sink next to a bureau with a mirror. The pitched roof and two dormer windows of the 100-year-old building completed my new home for the next 4 months. By this time I was feeling very sorry for myself.
The next day I made my way to the University where I was able to “borrow” a record player. I sought out a record store that I found nearby. There were only three “American” albums for sale. The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty, Steve Millers The Joker (which was yet to be released in the USA) and the Allman Brothers Brothers and Sisters. I bought all of them. Jerry, Steve and Greg kept me company as I tried to make sense of living in a foreign city for the first time. Brothers and Sisters was especially powerful as it would become a constant reminder that despite my surroundings, I could always retreat to the Allman brothers for a strong dose of truly American music.
But for me something more important was going on that fall of 1973. The City of Caen was the first large French city liberated after the D-Day invasion. My hotel was one of the 10% of original buildings left still standing once the fighting ended. Like many people my age, I had a vague appreciation for the supreme efforts American troops, and those of other nations, made that Day June 6, 1944, to liberate an enslaved continent.
A week after I arrived in Caen I drove my rented moped out to the coast to visit the beaches, and in particular, the American cemetery located in Colleville-sur-Mer. There, in a pristine landscape, lay 10,000 American’s beneath identical white marble crosses and Stars of David tombstones. A wide variety of birthdays across many years, are etched in the stone under the names. Almost all have their dates of death inscribed within days and weeks of each other.
I came back and forth to the beaches of Normandy many times after that first trip to sit and study. I came to visit these soldiers, all mostly my age when they fell, all of whom gave their lives defending the freedoms I had taken for granted up until that point in my life. Over the course of the next few months I fell in love with America. I knew that despite our differences, politics aside, we have much to be proud of and to celebrate. These soldiers, who we remember each year, are testimony to the price paid for each of us to live a full and productive life.
In the 44 years that have passed I can’t recall how many times I played those particular records during the course of my stay in Caen. When I got back from the Normandy beaches that first day I pointed the speakers of the record player out the window of my fifth floor window and blasted the volume, carpeting the streets and alleys below with some of the finest American music ever created.
There are probably people alive in Caen who to this very day wonder why Jessica and Ramblin’ Man sound so familiar. Greg Allman’s voice and his Hammond B3 carried passionately and emphatically across that City night and day, bouncing off the many ruins that remained, filling every crack with the reminder that American’s came, we fought, we sacrificed and ultimately vanquished evil from the land.
In the fall of 1973 I became at once an American patriot and a proud fan of southern rock and roll for all my remaining days. Thank you Gregg Allman. RIP