Tuesday, February 3, 2009

What a difference a day makes. Yesterday’s sky of snow was succeeded by today’s azure and cloudless heaven; and nothing could have been more welcome. Now that the sun has set on a very moving day I understand how big a role weather plays in permitting one to get the most out of an outdoor experience as monumental as a visit to the beaches of Normandy. The sunshine was just the perfect accent to this day. Speaking of which . . . what a difference a day makes, indeed. Sixty five years ago—D Day—is when this place got stamped indelibly. I don’t think it is possible, not at all, to get your arms around that day, no matter the research and planning you might have done, no matter the quality of commentary which can help explain. Unless of course you were here, landing on the beaches or gliding in or dropping from the sky or living in this part of occupied France in June 1944. If none of those circumstances apply, then a trip to Normandy is like standing at the Alamo, or being in Gettysburg or seeing the Mayflower. Things are too placid, too manicured.
The Caen Memorial to D Day is said to be the very best of them all. I don’t know, but it touches on just about every aspect of what brought the Allied Forces to Normandy. From the Treaty of Versailles to the Wall Street crash to the rise of Hitler to the Battle of Britain to Auschwitz to Churchill and Eisenhower and Rommel and Petain—everything is fleshed out in three languages and photographs and all the rest. And the D Day movie is just fabulous. It lasts 35 minutes and is a must-see. There is a much shorter video within the exhibit walls on the Battle of Britain which includes Churchill at his most inspiring and is accompanied musically by the Nimrod portion of Elgar’s Enigma Variations and that alone made the museum visit worthwhile for me.
For a trip to the beaches, I was joined by a young couple and we had a personal escort and also a driver in a commodious van with lots of windows. This is the way to do it. Everyone was French except me, but they all kindly agreed that our guide should deliver her spiel in English. She was wonderful. As this is about a five-hour trip there is a good amount of time for a history lesson and no matter what you think you may understand about it all, the opportunity to have someone explain it in great detail—from the Arcadia conference to Patton and his fake army— is so very valuable. The beaches where the Allies landed run east/west from Gold Beach to Utah Beach. Our trip began at Gold, where the British landed near what is now the beautiful coastal village of Arromanches (there are still parts of the artificial breakwaters the Allies placed about to create a harbor-like effect to help abate the strong currents), and it extended westward toward Pointe du Hoc, our last stop. Further west is Utah Beach but that is not a part of most tours these days as it adds another several hours. In the middle is Omaha Beach, one of two landing areas for the Americans (the other being Utah) and above Omaha is the somber, awesome and perfectly landscaped American Cemetery where more than 9,000 soldiers are buried.
There is a museum with film clips of GIs, the invading force, a conversation with Eisenhower, all scripted to underscore the monumental effort which took place here. And the sacrifice. If this place doesn’t bring a tear . . . great reverence and understated appreciation. It is hallowed ground and it made me very proud to be an American today. Next comes a stop at the
amazing German bunkers of which several remain intact but most of which have had the old rusted artillery replaced; but the enormous bunker and cannon which were used in filming “The Longest Day” are real, and real impressive. And those cliffs they guard! Again, it is surely not possible to imagine what it would have been like to begin your day on June 6, 1994 by confronting that massive artillery force raining down and with your assignment being to climb those walls which go straight up so as to arrive at the top for some hand-to-hand combat.
It is hard to change the subject after this. Tonight I had a good seafood choucroute then stopped again to finish with a big splash of Calvados. At the Memorial earlier I was struck by a quote from the French theologian Fenelon, set alongside some gripping pictures of young men in combat. It was from his Dialogues of the Dead, published in 1712. He wrote,“All war is civil war for it is always man against man, spilling his own blood.” This was a poignant, moving, yet wonderfully rewarding day—a long day, if not the longest day.

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