An aerial view shows a man walking among tombstones as he visits the World War II Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Colleville sur Mer, situated above Omaha Beach

A day that changed my mind

I wasn’t really paying attention that day. The flier said to sign up if I wanted to go to some beach. I figured, I was in France to experience everything French, not just Paris, so I signed up. Besides, a little break from the cityscape would be refreshing, even if it was too cold to go for a swim.

My little group of fellow study-abroaders got on the bus, and we chatted about this and that. The lead teacher handed out a flier with an itinerary of what we’d be doing at the beach. … The first stop was a holocaust museum. A little morbid for the beach, but I’ve never been to one before. I probably should go…. but it’s really not my thang.

The bus pulled up to a cemetery, and it still hadn’t clicked. I’m not what you would call a historian on the best of days, and I make it a point to avoid war stories when I can. That Day though, I couldn’t. That Day, I learned about the horrors of war, and worse, the atrocities of apathy. It’s funny, I don’t remember much of the museum. You’d think I would: I have cousins with numbers tattooed on their arms, and in some ways I have always taken the holocaust very personally.

Still, the part of That Day that hit me hardest was leaving the holocaust museum, and looking out at peaceful rows upon rows of white crosses (with a sprinkling of Stars of David) covering the lawn above that beach in Normandy. The sky was a crystalline blue. The pristine grass was the purest emerald, and it was Quiet– not normal quiet, but the Quiet of land that has been ravaged, scarred, and bathed in blood– and has survived.

If it weren’t for the Quiet, it would have been downright spooky. I swear, at one point I saw a GI leaning agains a railing; he tossed his cigarette to the ground, turned to walk away, and disappeared. It wasn’t scary; it was calmly waiting, for what I’ll never know. Still, it was a little disconcerting to actually see him standing there.

But it wasn’t the ghosts of that place that startled me; they were a natural part of the landscape. What got me was how close I came to being related to them. You see, both of my grandfathers fought in WWII, and That Day was the day I realized how close I had come to never having been born. There, but for the grace of God, goes my grandpa. Any one of those crosses could have been my father’s father.

I wrote a letter to my grandfather that very day, and when I got back to the States, I made him a quilt. Possibly it was a little bit selfish– Thanks for not dying when you went to war so that I could be here and make you a quilt– but I had never really thought about what it meant that Pop had gone to war. I mean, I saw his photo in his uniform, and he told me stories about getting haircut without knowing a word of French. There was always a sadness in him when he told me his stories, even the silly ones. I wish … I wish he knew that I had heard him.

I am unsure how my mother’s father served during WWII, only that he did. But what it comes down to is that both of them stood up for what they believed in. They were both ready to put their lives (and potentially mine!) on the line to protect those beliefs, not only for themselves, but for their families, and the families of people they had never met: families that spoke different languages than their own, families with different holiday customs than their own. They believed in Truth and Justice and that their actions mattered.

I may not agree with the purpose behind most (well, any, really) wars, but I am grateful to the men and women who risk their lives as they stand up for what they believe in, as they purposefully put themselves between danger and their loved ones.

To the soldiers of both past and present, living and passed on, I thank you for your bravery and dedication.

You have made a difference.

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