American History · European History · storytelling

Leading with the heart – the Olympian story of Jesse Owens

James Cleveland Owens looked down at the track under his fingertips. His feet were in the starting blocks. He risked a quick glance to the side as his fellow runners positioned themselves into their starting positions. Then up, at the crowd, the Nazi flags overhead. He took a deep breath, The winner of the men’s 100 m dash is generally accorded the title of the world’s fastest man. Would it be him?

Above him, Adolf Hitler scowled down from his box.

***

James Cleveland Owens, aka “J.C.” was born in the southern United States. Oakville, Alabama, if you want to get specific. He was the smallest, youngest, and frailest of Henry and Mary Owens’s 10 children. Henry Owens was a sharecropper. He farmed the land that someone else owned, and most years, he didn’t make enough to do more than pay the rent. But he was doing better than his daddy – his daddy had been a plantation slave. It was Henry’s wife, Mary Emma, that really kept the family together. She was tough, and she wanted more for her family than to grow up poor in Alabama. All the kids grew up picking cotton and doing anything they could to bring home money.

***

J.C. almost didn’t make it out of childhood. He suffered from fibrous tumours, and the family had no medical insurance. When he was really little, his momma had to cut a tumour out of his leg. When he was five, another one started growing, but this one was on his chest. He tried to ignore it, but the tumour was growing faster than he was, and it was pressing painfully down on his heart and his lungs. Eventually, he told his momma.

He wasn’t supposed to hear them talking, his momma and poppa.

“What are we going to do?” said Mary.

“You cut one out of his leg before, Momma,” said Henry.

“But this one’s so big,” said Mary, “and it’s so close to his heart.”

Henry said, “He might…”

“DON’T…!” said Mary.

Henry said, “He might go, Momma. If the Lord wants him.”

Henry couldn’t bear to see it, when it all finally happened. Little J.C., lying on the kitchen table, a thick leather strap between his teeth, and his momma sterilizing her best kitchen knife. She cut out the tumour that was pressing on her son’s heart. Not a sound came from him, but the tears – and the blood – flowed freely.

J.C. remembered – or maybe it was a dream – getting out of bed one night, lightheaded from blood loss. He found his daddy on his knees, praying on the porch.

“Lord,” said Henry, “please, take me. Please don’t take him. He’s so little. And if he goes, Mary will go, and we will all go if she goes. Please, take me.”

J.C. went over to hug his daddy.

And maybe the Lord heard, because the wound stopped bleeding.

***

When J.C. was 9 years old, the family moved 700 miles northwest to Ohio. Mary and Henry’s daughter Lillie had moved to Cleveland years before, and she said there was work, and houses, and a better life. Henry took two of his sons up to check it out, and then moved his whole family in 1922. They were a part of the Great Migration – the tide of African Americans leaving the southern United States for the north. Between 1915 and 1920, 65,000 men, women, and children moved from Alabama alone.

The family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. It was as though James Cleveland Owens was finally coming home.

He got the name Jesse from his first day at school in Cleveland.

“What’s your name?” said the teacher.

“J.C., ma’am,” said J.C., in his soft southern accent.

“Jesse?” said the teacher.

“J.C., ma’am,” said J.C.

“Jesse?” said the teacher.

“Yes, ma’am.” said J.C.

It was at school where Jesse Owens met Coach Riley. Said Riley, “He wasn’t the fastest boy, or the best one, but he was the hardest worker. He was always the last to leave practice.”

It was Riley who taught Jesse not to run, but to float. To run as though the ground was on fire. And after such a rocky start, Jesse was built to run, as sleek as a greyhound, with the heart of a lion.

***

Jesse Owens followed his heart to Berlin, crushing the Aryan dreams of Hitler’s 1936 Olympiad. He set Olympic records and won 4 gold medals in the 100 m dash, the 200 m dash, the 4×100 m relay, and the long jump – a feat that stood unmatched until Carl Lewis took 4 gold medals at the Salt Lake City Games in 1984.

512px-Jesse_Owens3
Jesse Owens at start of record breaking 200 meter race during the Olympic games 1936 in Berlin (photographic montage). Public domain. Available via Wikipedia.org.
Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-R96374,_Berlin,_Olympiade,_Jesse_Owens_beim_Weitsprung_crop
Jesse Owens, long jump, 1936. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R96374 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Postscript

I told this story at my storyteller’s group on Wednesday night this week. The theme was Following your Heart, and as I write, I’m watching the Canadian women’s Olympic gold medal hockey game aganst the USA. I wanted a story that combined the heart idea with the Olympics, and when I read the anecdote of the tumour, I knew this was the right story to tell.

Weird trivia

At the Olympics, Jesse Owens was wearing handmade, leather athletic shoes made for him by Adolf Dassler.

“Adi” Dassler went on to found Adidas.

Sommerolympiade, Siegerehrung Weitsprung
Jesse Owens salutes the American flag after winning the long jump at the 1936 Summer Olympics. Naoto Tajima, Owens, Lutz Long. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-G00630 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Olympic Postscript

RATS! Shootouts suck.

Sources

10 things you may not know about Jesse Owens. Klein, C. (Sep 12 2013). Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from History.com.

1936 – Owens wins 4th gold medal. Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from History.com.

About Jesse Owens. Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from Jesse Owens Olympic Legend.

How Jesse Owens’ Childhood Made Him the Champion Seen in Race. Schaap, J. (Feb 19 2016). Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from Time.

Jesse Owens. Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from Encyclopedia.com.

Jesse Owens. Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from Wikipedia.

Jesse Owens Biography. Retrieved 21 Feb 2018 from the Encyclopedia of World Biography.

 

European History · The stories of WWII · Women we love

The hairdresser spy: Andrée Virot

Andree Virot
Andrée Virot

This is a story about Andrée Virot, a woman in the French Resistance. She was personally responsible for saving the lives of over 100 Allied airmen who were shot down over Europe. She was the tail end of several escape lines through Europe, and for 3 years, she operated under the nose of the Gestapo.

I wanted to know so much about her. How did she do this? What was it like for her? Who was she?

Andrée Virot was a hairdresser. Yes, Andrée Virot: hairdresser by day, spy by night. This is a fictional story which imagines a night in the life of this remarkable woman whose work impacted hundreds of people, yet is not well know today.

The hairdresser spy

The time is spring, 1944. D-Day is weeks away. The place is a hair salon in Brest, Brittany, the northern coast of France. France is under German occupation, but northern France teems with the French Resistance. The Germans are increasingly anxious to catch them, and the Allied airmen being secreted from house to house as they try to make a home run – a successful trip back to safety in England. These men were called packages. Mademoiselle Andrée Virot is 34 years old, and running a hair salon.

Andrée Virot was standing behind the chair of Madame Dubois. She didn’t like Madame Dubois, but she was careful not to show it. Madame Dubois was insufferable – she was insufferable when she married the mayor, and she was even more insufferable now as a collaborateur – those French who supported the German invaders. Madame Dubois came in for her weekly rinse and set, and her monthly perm, and every time, she’d talk about how charming the Germans were, and how Andrée really should come to dinner one night, being a single woman, and not very young at that. The German commander was quite handsome, she said, and always brought food and wine.

Oh yes, thought Andrée to herself, I would sell my soul for groceries. But outwardly, she was agreeable. Oh, yes, I must come to dinner, she said to Madame Dubois.

Paris bakery line
Line outside a Paris bakery in spring 1945. (Imperial War Museums, U.K.)

Just then, the door to the salon opened. The baker’s boy had arrived with fresh baguettes.
Andrée excused herself, and went to greet him. She paid for the bread, and then told Madame Dubois she’d return in a moment, after a coffee break.

She always made coffee when the baker’s boy delivered 2 baguettes. It was a special occasion when he delivered 2 baguettes, and worth the coffee rations. She closed the door and torn open the small loaves, chewing quickly. Inside one of the loaves, the baker had concealed a note. The baker was a member of the Resistance, and the intelligence hub of the region. Quickly, Andrée read the few words and memorized the code and coordinates. Then, she rolled the note into a tiny ball with her fingers, and swallowed it, washing it down with the last of her bread and coffee. She had been called on yet again. A package was on his way through to England, and she was needed.

When Madame Dubois’ hair was finished, Andrée closed the shop and pulled her prized bicycle from the back. She cycled over to Mimi’s house.

Mimi, or more properly Madame la Comtesse de la Tour de Montparnasse, hadn’t always been an active member of the Resistance. In a sense, the Germans made her into one when they shot her husband – Le Comte – and brought him to her chateau just outside town. It was an accident, they said, and left. An accident.

WWII escape map - Carl Guderain
Map of WWII escape lines through Europe – Photo Credit: Carl Guderain

Andrée tapped quickly on Mimi’s door and entered. When she saw Mimi, she explained that they were needed that night. But of course, said Mimi, and why not? Everyone wants to visit Mimi. Wasn’t this their hundredth visitor? She should throw a party. She’d almost relish going to prison and putting an end to the hiding and lying. Oh, yes, Mimi had a dark sense of humour.

Andrée cycled back to the salon, and Mimi gathered the things she’d need for the package: some food, a change of clothing, and forged papers. They hoped not to be stopped, but if they were, they would say the name of the man they were carrying was Jean Dupre, farmhand. Mimi would pick him up from the safe house that night. No doubt, the family would be grateful to get rid of him and put an end to the desperate danger they were all in.

Until the next time, of course.

Cross of Lorraine
The Cross of Lorraine, symbol of the French Resistance

Andrée gathered her supplies from the hiding places in the salon: medical supplies and bicycle lamps. She kept them on top of the permanent wave machines – those enormous machines with multitudes of wires hanging down. Oh, she’d been searched – many times – but each time had been tipped off, and so each time had arranged for customers to be in the salon. Perhaps that was why she was never searched thoroughly: was it the smell of the permanent solution, or was it the sight of women having their hair done, like modern Medusas? What a woman did to be beautiful, it was felt, should be a mystery to men. And so the German soldiers, most of whom were boys, and many of whom were married, couldn’t bring themselves to stay in this overwhelmingly feminine, intimate, place for too long.

More fool them. Andrée found the flashlight she’d hidden, and prepared herself for the night ahead.

Much later that night, Andrée met Mimi and the airman in the place they’d arranged, and set off. They were headed for a particularly isolated beach, and they were going to drive across the fields for the most part, avoiding all the roads and the check-stops. The airman lay under a tarp in the back of the truck. His leg wound having been dressed, and his clothes exchanged for those of a French farmhand, they were as ready as they were going to be.

When they reached the beach, they all took a deep breath. The most dangerous part of the mission was ahead. They would either succeed, or be shot. Mimi stayed with the airman in the truck, this wounded fighter pilot, while Andrée – or, I should call her by her proper name – Agent Rose – set out the bicycle lamps along the beach and lit them one by one, and then stepped to the shore with her flashlight. The lamplight helped guide the Allied rescue boat to the shore, and the flashlight signals sent the code that assured the Allieds that it was safe to come ashore.

Standing in front of the light, peering into the inky water, Andrée closed her eyes and began the signalling. FLASH FLASH – FLASH FLASH – FLASH FLASH.

She was so afraid.

Any moment, she could feel the bullets from the beach behind or the sea ahead. Until the boat arrived, she would not know if it was friend or enemy.

There comes a moment in the lives of the very brave when they must confront their fear. Confront it, and let it go.

It’s up to God now, said Andrée to herself, and opened her eyes. In the distance ahead, the answering signal of the Allied boat responded.

The package was going home.

WWII Rescue Boat
RAF WWII Air Sea Rescue boat, 1940

Afterword

Andrée Virot married John Peel after the war, and so became Andrée Virot Peel. (I have chosen to call her by her maiden name throughout this story, for historical accuracy.) After rescuing 102 airmen, she was betrayed, caught by the Gestapo, and sent to die in a concentration camp. At the last minute, she was rescued when the American troops freed the prisoners at Buchenwald, Germany, in April, 1945. She passed away peacefully, a much decorated hero of the Résistance, at the age of 105.

Andrée wrote a book about her life, called “Miracles Existent!” I’m afraid I haven’t gotten around to reading it, as it is in French, and over my head.

I conceived this story for my storytellers’ group in early 2017 with the theme of “darkness”. I have a fascination for shining a light on the untold stories of history. I’m looking for the people who made a difference, and to a large degree, I’m looking for people to whom I can relate: ordinary people, quite often female, who see a problem that needs fixing and proceed to fix it.

French Resistance to the Germans
An unknown member of the French Resistance opposes a German tank – Photo courtesy of the US National Archives

Sources

All great fiction hangs on a wealth of factual details.

Andrée Peel. (2010, Mar 9). Retrieved from the Telegraph.

Childs, M. (2010, Apr 4). Andrée Peel: French Resistance fighter who helped Allied airmen evade capture in occupied Europe. Retrieved from the Independent.

Escape lines of WWII. (2017, Apr 17). Retrieved from Escape Lines. A special thanks to Keith, who sent, unasked, records recommending an award for Andrée Virot.

Goldstein, R. (2010, Mar 13). Andrée Peel, Rescuer of Allied Airmen, Dies at 105. Retrieved from the New York Times.

Nichol, J. and T. Rennel. (2007, Mar 16). Escape or die: the untold WWII story. Retrieved from the Daily Mail Online.

Opar, B. Armed with a smile or a dagger: Women in the French Resistance. (2012, Apr 13). Retrieved from Syracuse University.

Special Operations Executive. (2017, Apr 20) Retrieved from Wikipedia.