Friday, November 11, 2016

Veteran's Day

Normandy Beach - from Evan Neilsen
In the early 70's I traveled to Europe and on a cold and overcast day in November made my way to Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. It was nearly deserted. I thought perhaps I had come to the wrong place when I saw a w
oman standing on the hill that led to the beach and as I approached, various concrete bunkers monuments and other features became clear. She turned and looked at me. I raised my hand and mumbled a "Bonjour." "Excuse me," she said. "Can you speak English?" I nodded. She spoke in a clear accent I recognized as 'Chicago.' "My husband is standing there,"she said, pointing to a man looking down on the beach from one of the cliffs. "I'm worried. It was my idea to come here to help him put this to rest, but he wanted a moment alone and he's been there a half hour already. Would you check on him, please?"

And so I found myself walking toward him. The United States was deeply involved in the Viet Nam War then and it seemed it was never far from our minds in those days. I wasn't sure what to expect from this man. I came up near him and said good morning, he looked up, his eyes puffy and red. He returned a mumbled greeting. I stepped closer to the edge of the cliff, looking down, trying to imagine the sights and sounds of that day in June of 1944, that day we all knew from our teachers, movies, fathers, and library books about the war. He sidestepped a bit closer to me and made a gesture as if to sweep away the whole scene below us.

"I lost nearly every friend I had in one morning here. And the rest in the following weeks." He paused. "I really hate Hollywood. I hate war movies. There are no heroes, no glory, no victory. There is nothing but death, and it is all random, and everything goes wrong. Everything they tell you about war is nothing but a big lie. We were nothing but numbers to them. Don't let the bastards ever tell you otherwise."

"I won't." We stood still looking down at the beach. I put my hand on his shoulder. "Your wife asked me to check on you. Do you want to come back with me, or shall I tell her you need some more time?" I waited. He looked down at the beach one more time, turned, and we walked slowly back to where his wife waited. She embraced him, his arms hanging limply at his sides, and after a bit his arms came up and he held her, too, tightly, his body shaking a bit with his sobbing, tears, I imagined, he had held back for many years. I left, not understanding fully what had happened, feeling humbled by what I had witnessed. I hoped that this was a release for him.

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