Pointe du Hoc
This being the 67th anniversary of D-Day and everything, I started to think about my visit to Normandy, which occurred about five years ago.
We were in Paris for a week, and, through Farouk, the concierge in our hotel, we hired a driver to take us up to the battle field.
It hadn’t occurred to us to ask for someone who spoke English – I guess because Farouk, who had an Irish wife, was so fluent. And for $500 (What were we thinking? Okay: it turned out to be a 10 hour day, and gasoline prices are high in Europe…), we thought we’d be able to communicate with our driver, But this was not the case.
We were able to have a bit of a back and forth, between his 10 words of English and my single (present) tense but decent vocabulary French (which was not the driver’s first language: he was Pakistani). And he did get us to all the places we wanted to go. Still…
It wasn’t the driver’s fault that the weather was miserable.
When we left Paris it was overcast; by the time we reached Caen it was raining lightly; and by the time we hit Omaha Beach it was pouring, and the winds were whipping in off the Channel. The weather was too much for my husband, who, after we’d seen a bit of the Beach, mostly stayed in the car. But I soldiered on: umbrella blown out, water proof jacket proving to be not so, soaked feet, mud-splattered pants.
The weather was not unlike what it was on D-Day itself.
And if I were miserable, knowing that at any moment I could hop back into the warm and cozy car, and point and grunt that we wanted to get back to our very nice hotel in Paris, imagine what it must have been like for those young American Rangers rappelling up Pointe du Hoc with German soldiers shooting at them?
After we walked the beach for a bit, and I peered over the edge of Pointe du Hoc, we somehow communicated to our driver that we wanted to go to the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, where about 10,000 soldiers lied buried.
This is the classic World War II cemetery: boys from every where, a hodge-podge of ethnic names, a mash up of ranks.
For the most part, if you’re middle class and above, our wars since Vietnam have been somebody else’s business. And not that you’d wish World War II – or any war – on anybody, but they sure don’t make wars like they used to. Our idea of shared sacrifice these days is us doing the sharing and someone else doing the sacrificing.
Case in point on who used to go to war: Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., a 56-year old President’s son who was in the first wave on Omaha Beach. He died (of a heart attack, not directly from the War) a month later, and is buried at the Normandy cemetery.
The trade-off that we offer our military men and women is giving lip service to the notion that they’re all heroes. They’re not. Which is not to say that they’re not brave and patriotic. Even in a bleak economy where there are precious few decent opportunities for working class kids, and the economic motivations are substantial, my guess is that most of those who sign up factor some measure of bravery and/or patriotism into their equation.
Wars don’t kill as many soldiers as they used to – at least the kind of wars we’re fighting these days. There are more soldiers buried in Colleville-sur-Mer than have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. But that’s scant consolation if it’s your son or daughter who’s been killed.
Our driver had dropped us off at the cemetery, and then just disappeared.
We expected him back in an hour, but he didn’t show.
Worse come to worst, we told ourselves, we could have someone working in the cemetery office call Farouk, who presumably could get a hold of the driver.
As we were making our way towards the office, our driver showed up, and we headed back to Paris.
It was miserable there, too.
Chilled, wet, muddy, tired from the longest day of our trip, and still sorting through all that we’d seen at Normandy, we had an American in Paris meal: Quarter Pounders and fries from the nearest McDonald’s.
Here’s to those who died at Normandy, who never had the luxury of hotel stay in a comfy and pricey Paris Hotel overlooking the Arc de Triomphe. You done good.