Friday, June 6, 2014

Normandy: D-Day, 9/11 and a grateful nation

COLLEVILLE SUR MER, NORMANDY, June 6, 2014 The date was September 14, 2001, three days after the horrifying terrorist attacks in the United States.  I was traveling in France when the massacres took place. On that day the Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha Beach seemed an appropriate place to be.  Solemn and reverent; a haven for reflection and solitude amid an apprehensive world suddenly filled with uncertainty.
The soft autumn light was particularly radiant at the memorial where cotton-ball clouds dotted a cerulean sky. The manicured grounds sloped gently toward a cobalt blue, white-capped sea.
Lengthening shadows angled from the graceful elegance of thousands of white crosses and Stars of David; their charcoal silhouettes made even more distinct by the contrasting brilliance of the green lawn.

It was a place where timelessness merged with infinity; a place where the unification of earth, sea and sky blended in the harmonious perfection of landscape architecture. Sublime elements of nature entwined with human inspiration in eternal gratitude to those who had made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms that are the cornerstone of our American identity.  Freedoms that will be forever cherished, even by generations yet unborn.
Shortly before noon an unannounced ceremony began when a small procession of local dignitaries walked solemnly to form a line in front of the 22-foot bronze statue symbolizing The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves to face the rectangular reflecting pool with the chapel in the distance.  Moments later the chimes of the carillon poignantly rang out with the American National Anthem followed by three minutes of silence, a rifle salute and the haunting music of Taps.  And then it was over.
It was a heartfelt expression of sympathy observed in a brief span of six or seven minutes to honor the innocent victims who perished in the United States on September 11th.  But it was the participants at the ceremony who made it so meaningful, for they were the officials from every village and town along the entire coast of Normandy who gathered in that hallowed place to pay their respects to the American people and to the nation that had liberated their country from the grip of tyranny nearly sixty years before.

The past thousand years of Normandy’s history have frequently been filled with conflict, though it is difficult to imagine when you gaze upon rolling landscapes that are a prism of rich, dappled colors beneath ever-changing patterns of light.  Pastoral rural tableaus are dotted with stone cottages and half-timbered houses where the ravages of wars past are but a distant memory. William Zinsser described it best when he wrote that “death in battle is an old story here.”  And yet, despite its turbulent history, Normandy remains one of the most tranquil regions of France.            
With thoughts of the noontime tribute etched into my soul, I somberly, almost aimlessly, wandered the grounds of the memorial. As I strolled past the Statue of American Youth for the last time, I noticed something that had not been there before the ceremony.  There at the base of the sculpture was a single basket of flowers left by an anonymous donor.  Tucked behind one of the flowers, to hold it in place, was a picture.

The picture had been taken from the front seat of a car while crossing a bridge in New York City. No doubt the work of a tourist. Someone who had once visited the United States.  It was a photograph of the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
But there was something even more telling about that tiny, unidentified tribute, for I knew it had been placed there by someone who had survived the Battle of Normandy in 1944.  The answer was written in four simple words along the sash draping the basket.  Words that read, “We have not forgotten.”
It has long been my quest in my travels to seek out stories with a message; vignettes of life that extend beyond guidebooks and bring other destinations, cultures and points of view into perspective. Meaningful narratives that provide greater understanding of who we are as Americans by observing the world through the eyes of others.
I never fully understood the source of my passion in that quest until an early autumn day suddenly and emotionally made it all clear.  Compassion had validated my passion.  It happened in a place where thousands of youth perished to preserve the freedoms that are the foundation of our national identity. A place where one writer noted that “for many soldiers, their first day of battle was their last.” A place where many of the brightest lights of our future were snuffed out in a violent barrage that ultimately liberated the world from the grip of tyranny.

Now, 70 years later, the world will honor those who perished and thank the dwindling list of survivors perhaps for the last time.

Normandy is unique, for indeed it is a place where its people have “not forgotten.” And they never will. For Normandy is a place where its people have witnessed more than its own share of turmoil and grief. People who understand better than anyone the magnitude of the sacrifices of those who preserved their freedom.