Wednesday, June 11, 2014


      This was printed in the Pgh Post Gazette last week- for those of you who don't subscribe or live in Pgh - I offer it up. 
    Used the "number of steps" thing again. Ah well. Themes, motifs…

  Ten years ago I was running around London going to see a play or two a night and chasing a girl I'd chased ten years before and buying bespoke shirts for 100 pounds apiece made by some guy named Oswald Boateng. Now who wouldn't want to buy something from Oswald Boateng, a name dripping with cool.
     I had discovered the Brits could outdrink the Russians. I confirmed this truth every afternoon at about 5 pm. I walked 6 hours a day. I was unemployed.
     I was, in short, acting like an idiot.
     And then I saw what day it was.
     June 4th.
     I hopped on a train to Paris. Crossed Paris by Metro from the Gare D'something to the Gare D'something else, grabbed another train to Rennes, rented a car which is surprisingly easy to do in another country, and drove to Bayeux where I slept in the massive attic of a Monastery turned Hostel surrounded by 60 snoring Germans.
     I mean I tried to sleep.
     Didn't happen.
     I swore at them, I cursed, I felt like it was okay because they were Germans and then I gave up and at 4:30 in the morning drove toward the Atlantic shore.
     I parked in an empty lot beside a small chapel surrounded by gnarled trees and hedges and then wandered down a hedgerowed lane which led me to the beach.
     The sun had risen, a few joggers went by, a french guy walking his french dog smiled at me and nodded. " Good morning," he said in English.
     That pretty much told me, today was not gonna be a normal day.
     I said Good morning to him in French and then looked up- from one side of the ocean horizon to the other grey shapes stood on the water. Carriers, cruisers, a battleship, scores of war boats in a line, waiting.
     Now I knew today was not gonna be like any other.
     Turns out I'd parked right beside the St Mere Eglise chapel and now I was staring back at the American flag flying over the cemetery of the same name. Dumb luck. Thank the Germans.
     It's 683 steps from where the surf ends, where you get your feet wet, to the first thing you could call cover.
     I walked it at about the same time the soldiers did 60 years before. Around 6:30 in the morning. A few more joggers crossed my path. I looked to the left and saw some comfortable homes built into the sea side hills. Happy upper middle class life in the 21st century.
     And I thought to myself, God in heaven there's no way in Hell I could have made my feet move across this nightmare of open space 6 decades before.
     Simply no bloody way.
     It screams kill zone. It must have been made for the machine gunners on the hill in front of you. A runway right into their sights.
     And yet.....
      For some reason the guard at the back of the cemetery where 4 presidents were about to meet and speak let me in. Looked me right in the eye and opened the gate. I didn't have a pass, I didn't have an 80 year old man by my side. I joined the procession of soldiers and ex-soldiers and their families. Some smiled at me and nodded, I smiled and nodded back. A full bar Captain led me to a row where I could stand with a full view of the cemetery. "Thanks for coming," he said.
    And that's when I figured it out. They thought I was an actor. Well, I was an actor but they thought I was a different one. And not even a famous actor or a particular actor. I was simply, possibly just one of the guys who'd been in " Band of Brothers" or "Saving Private Ryan" and that was enough for them.
     It didn't really matter that I was not one of the guys in Band of Brothers or Private Ryan. I was a symbol of what these old men had been. I was the face this decade had put on their myths and memories. I was "one of them." What they looked like, what they must have sounded like when they were young and alive in 1944.
    And this completely blew me away. Freaked me out. First off because I didn't deserve it period and secondly because it made complete sense.
    "If only we could see them move again...hear their voices......tell their stories and then see the story become life once more......"
     And how amazing that it never quite works but again and again and again we try. We never stop. Go to Gettysburg. Go to Agincourt.
     That was ten years ago. I'm sitting in my not yet unpacked new apt in Pittsburgh listening to the BBC play out a ceremony happening 3000 miles away. A decade ago I stood with the men who stormed Normandy beach. I listened to our President promise "for our friends, we'd do it again", I watched both, together and without regard to rank file away thru the gates. Children left among the graves to play and wander. I wandered among french homes with their windows open to the evening cool as families from both sides of the channel broke bread and smiled and emptied bottle after bottle once more.
     I went back down to the beach. The sun was almost gone, the surf farther away, the joggers kept coming and I thought, Life never quits, does it? It keeps coming at you come war or come boredom, come the birth of a child or the daily commute, it pounds away at you until you're history. Within 100 yards of me in either direction 3000 guys had died 60 years ago. Not even close to what the Russians lost daily for a year in WWII, not even close to Cold Harbor in our Civil War but numbers counted in places like this are a kind of obscenity. Sometimes, you shouldn't try to add up what you know.
  They fought. They walked, they ran, into those guns.

  In an age of endemic hyperbole - "Godlike dark roast, Greatest Dub step in History, Possibly the finest remake of Spiderman yet!!"  I think it's fair now to say they actually saved a civilization. 
  We must, until we are the ninety somethings, doddering in a defiant row, fight to tell their tales. 


  1. As the last of these extraordinary, ordinary men slip away, your words remind us that we cannot let the memory of their actions go with them. Walking in their footsteps, even without the shadow of death and gunmen, the imprint of what went before is so obviously preserved. Lest we forget—These words, here written, show the power and import of remembering. You may have been an 'idiot' but fortunately for us, one with a knowledge of history who sought out a place at a specific time and remembered why we can never surrender our past.

  2. Hit at heart - you shot me down...
    I watched several documentaries on how "the event" had been planned, back in 1944.
    Testimonies of survivors of this day, both US/Canada/UK and German sides... I felt every single second of their emotions straight at heart. As if I'd been there with them on the D-Day.
    There were archive footages and documentaries I had never seen before on Robert Capa and Tony Vaccaro, photographers.
    Resistance, allies, strategies, all was documentated and well "directed".
    The Normandy landing was, as you rightly wrote it, a walk to death. Those who were in the bunkers had the advantage of its cover on those who were jumping off the boats uncovered and were trying to make their way to the shore.
    Oh my...

    The latest political developpments on the old continent had me put the 5th gear to go meet people who had to live this war... guess am trying to set up some sort of tribute and willing to pass on the reality of daily life during war times to the next generations.
    They MUST remember what it was like, what is still is like in some countries, even with different weapons and technological back-up.
    They MUST remember the horror of the fights...

    As wishing for everyone to live in respectful peace with one another seems to be a vain and impossible hope, let's try to pass on the lessons of the past to those who are our future...

    Should you ever want to meet people and places in relation to WWI and WWII, make sure to get in touch with me and with this other person who commented once in French/spoke of Bretagne.
    Such a lot to find out and write about...

    Take care xxx

    1. PS. The last part is assuming you are not fluent in French or German and could enjoy some friendly company of persons who are genuinely interested in sharing experiences, writing and discovering more about history, places and people... now I could be wrong of course :-)
      Please don't make me lie, am soooo bad at this!
      Truly yours...

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