Saturday, May 26, 2012

D-Day beaches, Normandy France.

"We shot at everything that moved. The beach was soon covered with the bodies of American soldiers."
- German soldier Franz Gockel, writing to his family on June 10, 1944, about the landings on Omaha Beach four days earlier.

"There was another guy beside me and we were the first two off that boat. I went immediately into the water. It was shallow enough that I was able to get up. There was nothing. No bodies - because we were the bodies."
- Michael Accordino, who landed in the first wave on Omaha with Company A of U.S. Army's 299th Engineer Combat Battalion.

"Normandy is marked by the landings. It is inscribed in people's hearts, in memories, in stone, in rebuilding, in memorial plaques, in street names, everywhere."
- Rev. Rene-Denis Lemaigre, priest of Lisieux.

Toms’ Take:

If I were King for the day, I would require everyone from the age of 15 to 20 to visit three locations as part of their US citizenship.  The first would be Washington DC, including the museums, the mall, (not shopping) the monuments, capital building and more. So much of our nation’s history is told here. The second location would be Pearl Harbor on Oahu, Hawaii.   It is a very moving experience to visit the USS Arizona Memorial and to be where the start of US involvement in WWII began. A short distance away is the USS Missouri where later, the end of the war was heralded by the Japanese signing of surrender documents.  Again, there is so much history all in one place.  The third requirement would be visiting the D-Day beaches in Normandy France. 

When we planned our trip to France and Belgium, Sandy asked what I was interested in seeing on the trip and I only had three requests:  drink Belgian beer with my buddy Jim; eat Belgian chocolate; and visit Normandy and the D-Day beaches.  I’m a history buff and as such, I have always wanted to visit Normandy.  I have read many books and seen many movies and documentaries about Normandy and in my mind; I thought I would be emotionally prepared for the experience. 

We had enjoyed our week on LeBoat and now were prepared to begin the next leg of our journey, Normandy and Belgium.  We drove through the Normandy countryside on our way to the D-Day beaches and as we got closer, we noticed homes and businesses flying American flags.  It was touching to see and as we wound through the final miles to the beaches, I started to recognize the names of villages where famous battles had taken place and without warning, I began to get a lump in my throat.  Was it because I couldn’t believe I was finally here, or was it something else?  We rounded a corner on a country road and there before us was the village of St. Mere Eglise, proudly boasting a sign that read;”Viva 82nd Airborne, First Village liberated in France”. Both French and American flags were proudly flying over this sign, the gateway to the village.  Seeing this sign and the flags, still declaring an American victory from 65 years earlier, gave all of us a start.  We did not expect this!

We drove on to Utah Beach and parked in the assigned lots.  As we looked out over the bluff and onto the beach, I had a hard time imagining how it must have looked on June 6, 1944.  The day we visited the weather was beautiful – the sun was shining and the wind was relatively calm.  With the exception of the sand-buried bunkers this could have been any beach on the California coast. The lump in my throat got bigger.  We moved on to Omaha Beach and the American cemetery where there is a wonderful museum filled with many interesting stories, pictures and historical information.  We stopped to tour the museum and cemetery and as I exited the museum I walked to the handrail that ran along the bluff and looked down on Omaha Beach.  I was suddenly taken with the contrast of what I saw before me today compared with what I just seen in the museum photos. 

Many of us have seen the pictures of June 6th 1944, photos depicting young soldiers jumping off of transport boats and struggling through the cold ocean water, rushing to reach the beach while dodging bullets and navigating through utter chaos to battle the German forces.  It was a gruesome scene to imagine and yet, here I stood today looking down on a beautiful beach and watching couples walking in the soft sand while families were picnicking and flying kites.  This is what peace should look like. 

After staring at the beach and imagining what it must have looked like on June 6 and knowing what those young scared boys had to endure, coming up that beach cold, wet, and sea sick and injured, I felt the ever-present lump in my throat grow bigger.  After a few moments of reflection, I turned and walked down the path to the cemetery and as I saw the rows and rows of white crosses come into view, I had to stop and just look.  There are no words to describe what those crosses, all neatly organized with Omaha Beach shining in the background, look like.   There are nearly ten thousand service men and women buried here.  I don’t know one person in that cemetery – I have no family members in the cemetery and I do not personally know anyone else who has relatives buried here.    I have no connection at all with any of the Americans buried here other than our country of birth.  And yet, the feeling of personal loss is overwhelming.  There are names like Martinez, Andersen, O’Neal and home states listed such as Texas, Illinois, and Wyoming making me realize the scope and span of the American sacrifice.  The names and states reminded me that young men and women from varying backgrounds and representing the diversity of the United States are buried here.   There is not an inch of our nation that wasn’t impacted by that day. 

I walked through the many rows, reading the names and states and contemplating the sufferings of those buried beneath each cross when suddenly, I encountered a white marble cross with no name or state listed, simply stating:   “Here rest in honored glory a comrade in arms, Known but to God.”  I finally understood the reason for the lump in my throat.

Thank you, those who paid this ultimate price. 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

My Wife

Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your life... Ecclesiastes 9:9

Tom's Take:  I’m not sure what the process or the requirements are for saint hood but whatever they are, I believe my wife is qualified.  I’m not an easy person to live with and I should know, I live with myself.  They say opposites attract and that fits Sandy and I pretty well.   I’m a little more willing to try something that is a little more daring or adventurous (unless it's a new or strange food).  Sandy, on the other hand, needs a little more encouragement.  This might explain why, in the time we have been married, I have had several knee and back surgeries, stitches etc., to zero for her.  I jump then think about the place to land, she likes to ask a zillion questions and know as much as possible about where she will land before she jumps in.  I have a tendency to get lost; so she bought me a Tom Tom (I think that was actually for her). But By getting lost we have found some cool (and not so cool) places.  It has all worked out well for us even though some tense or stressful moments have occurred.  Most importantly, we have managed to have fun through it all. 

One of my favorite memories was a situation that became a real stretch for Sandy.  We have kayaked before and enjoyed it but our trips have always been in calm Caribbean waters.  On a recent visit to the big island of Hawaii we had read about a beautiful bay that was an ideal spot for kayaking and sight seeing.  At the far end of this bay is the location where Captain John Cook was killed and it's a popular trip to paddle across the wide bay to visit the marker that pinpoints the exact location.   It was a beautiful day when we visited, the sun was shining and there was no one around.  I wanted to kayak out and visit the marker but Sandy can’t swim very well so the idea of going out on the ocean in a small two person kayak took a bit of coaxing.   There was a lot of me saying “trust me honey, we will stay close to shore”.   You would think by now when I say “trust me” her radar alarm would be going WOOP WOOP WOOP.   But trust me she does and we rented the kayak and off we went.  

The pacific is a little less calm than the Caribbean waters we have kayaked in before, so at first we stayed close to shore.  But if you’re an experience kayaker you know that the closer to shore you are, the rougher the water is.  So I told Sandy that we needed to go out a little further from shore and besides, this was a big, deep bay and it would be quicker to go straight across then it would be to hug the shore line and since the majority of the paddling was being done be me I thought that was the better idea.  "Trust me," I said and trust me she did.

As we started to cross the middle of the bay I noticed some splashing several hundred yards in front of us and it appeared that whatever was making the splashes was coming our way.  It was then I realized the splashing was being created by a pod of dolphins and I told Sandy look to look straight in front of us. Fifteen to twenty dolphins where heading directly towards our kayak.  We were out in the middle of the deep blue bay all alone and no one else was even close to us.  I’ve seen dolphins many times before both above and below the water and have had the opportunity while diving to swim with dolphin pods in Costa Rica and again in Cozumel, but Sandy has never had an opportunity to see this beautiful animal so close.   She was as excited as she was scared and the dolphins quickly reached us, surrounding our kayak and jumping and swimming under and all around us.  It was one of the coolest things I have ever seen.  I held the kayak steady and we looked down into the clear water, watching the pod swim right under our kayak, coming up on the opposite side and jumping into the air just a few short feet away, spinning and splashing us with water as they put on a show just for us. There were several new born dolphins in the pod, some only a foot or two long and we felt the moms were showing off their kids, bringing them close to the kayak side and circling around and underneath us, rolling over and coaxing their babies to do the same.   As the mothers brought their babies alongside the kayak for us to get a good look at, the babies responded to our presence with curiosity and not a trace of fear. 

Sandy was nervous at this close invasion but she squealed like a little girl with excitement.  The show went on for about twenty minutes before the pod decided it was time to move on and by that time a few more kayaks had joined us.  That experience was worth the cost of the entire trip and I will forever remember watching Sandy watch the dolphin’s impromptu show.  I had more fun watching her and her excitement tinged with fear than I did watching the dolphins.  To be able to share that experience with her will always be one of the best memories I will ever have.  We stayed out for awhile longer hoping the dolphins would reappear but as we watched them swim out to the open ocean, we realized the show was over and made our way over to the other side of the bay to visit Captain Cook's marker, our original destination.  

Having a partner in life that is willing to be with you no matter what has made life wonderful.  The funny thing is, as we have gotten a little older the dynamics in our adventurous spirits have began to change.  Sandy isn’t ready to bungee jump or cliff dive but she has gotten a lot braver and I think I have mellowed al little more.  And even with a Tom Tom, I can still get lost.