MemorialPosted: May 18, 2014
I wonder if a little rock on a beach can last seventy years.
My friend Judy just got back from a trip to Paris and a visit to the Normandy beach. She posted on Facebook: “The most important place I wanted to see was the Normandy Beach Memorial . . . There are signs stating what a special place it is and to keep quiet as you walk through the cemetery where 10,000 soldiers are buried, and you could feel that you were in a special place . . . I got even more touched when we walked down to the beach at Omaha and looked up where the soldiers had to get on the beach out of boats and scale the bluffs in spite of all the bunkers that were built on the top, and the Germans could shoot down at the soldiers, and you wonder how they were able to overcome . . . All you can do is stand there and know you are on a special piece of land, and you realize that tears are streaming down your face . . . and you just say a prayer for all those soldiers that were killed and the ones that were saved . . . .”
I commented: “My daddy landed there during the war . . . and my best friend’s father was actually in the battle there, injured, fingers shot off, and had to hide in the wreckage and tread water for two days before being rescued.”
Judy invited me over for dinner and muscadine wine and told me she picked up five rocks on the beach, and she wanted to give me one because my father was there. We sit at the table, the rocks between us. She describes her emotions while at that beach. I tell her it’s because of all the souls lost there, still there. She tells me I can pick out the rock I want.
I put my fingers around the pale blue-gray pebble, pick it up, and look at it sitting in the palm of my hand. It is cold sitting against my skin. It has pock marks like craters and lines and holes that have been washed deep and smooth by the waves of time washing over. It is two inches long and the shape of a footprint.
My father’s footprints are there.
Seventy years ago during full moon on June six, three hundred twenty thousand feet landed along a fifty-mile stretch of the coastline at Normandy. Eighteen thousand feet did not make it past that day. By July four, two million feet had tromped across the pebbles on the beach. All those feet began a march across Europe to defeat Hitler.
Three months later on September twenty-third, my dad landed on that beach near Cherbourg. The foot shape of the rock I selected from Judy’s treasures reminds me of his movement from the ship to the landing craft to the water at the beach’s edge. I want to think that his boots stepped on this very rock on his way to war.
Dad was in the Tenth Armored Division, Third Army, under General Patton. He once told me: “It wasn’t safe to enter at Cherbourg in a large vessel because of all the wreckage, so we boarded small landing craft out in the ocean. Many ships had been sunk there, and some of their tops stuck up out of the water. There were huge balloons up in the air over us to protect us from being strafed by German planes. The balloons looked to be as big as our house and were attached to the ground with long ropes or metal wire. I walked on shore through bodies and still bloody water.”
Dad was twenty-two then, a boy from a small farm in Mississippi. A boy who quickly became a man.
“War is hell,” Dad said.
“War is a bloody, killing business,” General Patton told the soldiers. “You’ve got to spill their blood, or they will spill yours. Rip them up the belly. Shoot them in the guts. When shells are hitting all around you and you wipe the dirt off your face and realize that instead of dirt, it’s the blood and guts of what once was your best friend beside you, you’ll know what to do!”
From Cherbourg Dad marched on across France, Belgium, and Germany and was in the big battles—he got a Bronze Star with Valor at Trier and was pinned down at Bastogne. Dad was a front line medic and saw things no boy should ever have to see, but boys do see these things when they serve their country in war.
My rock. A footprint. Boots on the ground. Dad’s boots.
The memory lasts.