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Originally published Sunday, May 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Editor's note: Bill Knudsen of Kirkland sent us this Travel Essay after a recent trip to France, a trip he says changed his life. He wanted to share it with us; we're sharing it with you. Reader essays run every Sunday.

Kirkland man's journey to find father brings past to life

I remember that day like it was yesterday: Oct. 14, 1961, one day after my 18th birthday, the day many of the things I thought to be true about my life suddenly became untrue.

Special to The Seattle Times

If you go

Normandy

For information on the American Cemetery at Normandy, or other cemeteries around the world, go to www.abmc.gov.

There are 28 U.S. military cemeteries around the world that serve as resting places for almost 125,000 American war dead. Fourteen of them are in France.

I remember that day like it was yesterday: Oct. 14, 1961, one day after my 18th birthday, the day many of the things I thought to be true about my life suddenly became untrue.

We lived in the North End of Seattle, in a three-bedroom rambler our family had built. That morning, my mom woke me as she did most mornings; she said that she had something important to tell me, and that I should get dressed and come out to the front room. My dad was off to work early, so it was just mom and me.

After some hesitation, the words began to spill out of her.

"Bill, your dad is not your real dad; he is your stepdad. Your real dad's name is Bill Cuthbert. You are named after him; he was killed in the Second World War. He was a navigator on a B-24 bomber and his plane was shot down over France on April 20, 1944, when you were just about 6 months old. He is buried in the American Cemetery in Normandy, France. Then your stepdad and I met in late 1945 and we were married in 1946. That is also the same year that he adopted you and we made a commitment to raise you as our son together."

Suffice to say, this hit me like a ton of bricks. Initially, I was sort of mad that she would keep this from me all these years. But then, as I began to reflect on it all, I started to realize what an amazing thing my stepdad had done.

I had lots of questions, but out of respect for the man who had raised me as his own, whom I loved and who had taught me everything I know, I let sleeping dogs lie. Who was I to second-guess my mom and her decision to keep this secret from me all these years? And I never wanted to demean my stepdad by going on some belated hunt to learn more about my birth dad. So, even though I thought about my birth dad a lot, until my stepdad died a few years ago, I left it alone.

After he died, however, my desire to learn more about Bill Cuthbert and to pay my respects to him became more than I could bear. I quietly dreamed of honoring this man who gave me life, saw a few pictures of me, but never ever held me in his arms, or tossed a ball with me, or watched me take my first steps, or had to deal with what a screw-up I was in high school.

As all of us pass through this life, we have those seminal moments that rock our world: the birth of our kids; a marriage; a major career event; a catastrophe like Sept. 11; or, in my case, a life-altering conversation with my mom just as I had turned 18.

But last March, I had an experience that literally took my breath away and brought uncontrollable tears to my eyes. After 64 years, four months and 14 days, I finally got to meet my birth dad, Bill Cuthbert, whose final resting place is Plot D, Row 14, Grave 42 at the American Cemetery at Normandy, just above Omaha Beach, in Colleville-sur-Mer, France.

A dear friend, Dave Iverson, , and I made a long pilgrimage through the French countryside to a spot that the word "beautiful" does not even begin to describe — the American Cemetery at Normandy. In its 172.5 acres are 9,387 headstones, including 9,238 Latin crosses, 149 Stars of David, three Medal of Honor crosses, 38 sets of brothers, the grave of Teddy Roosevelt Jr. — and a cross with my dad's name on it:

William B. Cuthbert,

Second Lieutenant,

U.S. Army Air Forces,

Service # 0-687930

713th Bomber Squadron,

448th Bomber Group,

Awards: Air Medal /

Purple Heart

Died April 20, 1944

The cemetery grounds, given to America by the French government, include a white marble reception building, several statues, a small chapel and a reflecting pool that flows into the grounds. The grass and shrubs are so well manicured, you would have thought the head groundskeeper at The Masters had cared for them. The white marble crosses that stretch across the grounds are placed so that from any angle — north, south, east or west — they form perfect lines, as if the brave fighting men who reside there will be in formation forever.

On the afternoon of March 28, we pulled into the parking lot at the cemetery and presented ourselves to the officials at the main reception desk. When I introduced myself and told them I was there to finally meet my dad, their demeanor and posture changed immediately. In a matter of minutes, I was presented with a packet of information on the cemetery, details on my dad's service record, a guide who couldn't have been lovelier or more caring and a private golf cart for our tour. We couldn't have been treated better if I had been a head of state. We were then whisked to my dad's grave site.

His grave is located just four crosses from the end of one of the long white rows, only a few hundred yards from the surf rolling in on Omaha Beach below and a few miles from England across the windy, cold English Channel.

When you stand there, watching the tourists strolling the beaches below, you can almost see those thousands of ships on the horizon, the landing craft opening their doors, and those tens of thousands of brave fighting men coming ashore in June 1944 to help free the French people and the rest of Western Europe. Many of them would never come back, including others who died in the days leading up to the invasion, like my dad, Bill Cuthbert. His marble cross lies only a few yards from that of Teddy Roosevelt Jr., whose heroic fight with senior officers to go ashore with his men at Normandy cost him his life. Roosevelt won the Medal of Honor for his activities that day.

At the grave, the hostess left us so we could be alone. It had begun to rain, though that was the least of the water that hit the ground as both Dave and I, overcome, cried with uncontrollable emotion.

It wasn't just from being at dad's grave. Because as you look across that amazing place at all those crosses, it hits you how lucky we are to live in this country, and how much we as a nation have given up to keep the world free from madmen like Adolf Hitler. I can tell you that the Pledge of Allegiance will forever have new meaning to this grateful and proud U.S. citizen.

I was born Oct. 13, 1943, in Missoula, Mont., and only 190 days later, April 20, 1944, my dad's plane was shot down over France. Although he received letters and pictures of me in mail from my mom, we never met — until now.

Thanks to relatives in Spokane, including my dad's only surviving sister, Cora Mae Beck, and some wonderful cousins, I have come to know my dad a little bit through letters and mementos which they've kept for all these years. When I read through them (most of which were written more than 65 years ago), I was struck by how long they were. Today we seem happy with a quick paragraph via e-mail, but in those days the letters were long and lovely. And they expressed feelings that we rarely see in correspondence today. Maybe it was the times, but my dad and his brother expressed their love for each other that is so obvious and gave me insight into who my dad really was. He was kind, he loved my mom, he loved his family and he was brave beyond belief. And he desperately wanted to come home and meet his infant son.

I was so moved by that day at Normandy that it will live in my heart as long as I live on this earth, and hopefully beyond. I hope my dad is 1/100th as proud of me as I am of him.

I am reminded of the scene at the end of the film "Saving Private Ryan," when Ryan, old and retired, comes to the cemetery with his family and asks his wife to "tell me I've been a good man, tell me I have lived a good life."

I sincerely hope my dad thinks I am a good man and that I have done him proud. And although I loved and admired Bob Knudsen, who adopted me in 1946 when I was 3, and raised me as his own, I will forever wonder what my life would have been like if the man in Plot D, Row 14, Grave 42 at the American Cemetery at Normandy had lived.

Rest in peace, Dad, and thank you for sacrificing your life so that others might live peacefully and free.

Bill Knudsen has lived in the Pacific Northwest since 1946. He has four children and spent his career in sales and marketing in broadcasting. He is a former vice president for marketing and sales for the Seattle Mariners Baseball Club, and lives in Kirkland.

The Travel Essay runs Sunday in The Seattle Times and online at seattletimes.com. Essays, which are unpaid, must be no longer than 600 words and will be edited for content and length. E-mail to travel@seattletimes.com or send to Travel, The Essay, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. Because of the volume of submissions, individual replies are not always possible.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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