25 August, 2011

{this memory} 14

Every photo has a story behind it, and this is one that continues to move me. I took this image in late May of 2003 at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France, that honors American soldiers who died in Europe during World War II. It sits on a bluff above Omaha Beach and is where you have seen any number of presidents and politicians speak.

Today, everyone knows it from the opening and closing scenes of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. What is perhaps less well known is that a perpetual concession from France has allowed the land of the cemetery to be considered American soil. Our flag flies there, and we administer it.

I had always hoped to visit. My father was a career Naval officer and saw World War II action in the Atlantic, Pacific, and African theaters. My wife had one uncle who landed on the beaches during the Normandy invasion and another who flew bombing missions around the D-Day action. Getting any of those three to say much about their wartime contributions was difficult - as it was with most of that generation, the Greatest Generation as Brokaw called them. They each saw things they did not wish to recall. Such is the nature of war.

I have regrets. I was just 27 when my father died and only five months out of graduate school. We never really had a chance to have any of those legendary man-to-man conversations. I was too late. I am filled with questions abut who he was, and I have put considerable research effort into trying to detail his thirty year career, especially those war years.

I listened my wife's uncle demur every time there was a veteran's group traveling back to the beaches he stormed in 1944. I hoped my visit might encourage him, and if not, I would at least have photos and stories to tell him. He died, however, several months before I got there.

As do most Americans, I found this to be a profoundly moving visit. It is, after all, hallowed soil. These men died for my freedom. I was in the small building near the entrance with my older daughter looking at the exhibits when the first wave of emotionality hit. I walked immediately back outside and waited for her. I was pretty much back in control when she arrived.

We walked on into the cemetery proper, but it didn't take long before I simply had to sit as the tears flowed. I knew I had to explain to her why I was so emotional. I explained about all of the unanswered questions I retain for my father and of my resolve not to have the same regret with her uncles. Yet, her uncle's death left me again with that same sense of being too late. The lesson of not delaying these conversations is closely related to what I've written in Postponement.

Waiting for just the right time to have a certain conversation?
     Don't wait.
          Do it now.

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