Paying Tribute

I sit very still unable to stop the tears from coming. I am well aware that I am surrounded by my students, but it doesn’t matter. What I am feeling is bigger than embarrassment.  The film drones on telling me things I know for I have seen this film before. I realize I have to breathe or I might faint. I have been trying to hold my breath so as not to be obvious.  I breathe.  The student directly next to me doesn’t seem to notice how uneven the first breath is; she appears as absorbed by the documentary we are all watching as I am. The difference is she doesn’t have a son who has just become an army Lieutenant and who I see in each of these GIs up on the screen; or a Dad who has just recently passed on and who served in both WWII and Korea. She also probably didn’t grow up hearing stories about the war in both Europe and the Pacific where my Grandfather served (his second time in battle). But I did. I also grew up being taken as a child to war memorials such as this . . . every one my Dad could track down, and convince my Mom to visit. Due to this barrage of war history while living in Europe I grew to hate every war museum I passed until I was older; until now. Now I can’t travel to France without feeling I need to visit Normandy. To somehow pay tribute. To remember something I never knew.  I take home rocks from Omaha Beach where men like my Dad once landed. Young men. Men who were really just boys, like my son, but in whose hands the fate of the world rested -- literally. I am unreasonably impatient with people who don’t get it, who don’t see the enormous sacrifice these soldiers made, often the ultimate sacrifice, in a land they had never seen, with people around them speaking a language they had never heard. When I returned home from one of these trips a few years ago I put the rock on my desk in my safe, comfortable office. It stands as a silent reminder. Most days I forget about it until, unexpectedly, I notice it and it reminds me, every time, that my day might be much, much worse. It also impels me, every time, to say a silent thank you to the young men who chose to make my world, and my student’s world, free again so many years ago.  

I guess that is all we can do. The student sitting next to me watching the film (the film with the calming narrator who sounds like a farmer from Nebraska) cannot feel what I feel or be affected in the same way I am. It is not her fault. She may be just as deeply touched by this place we call The American Cemetery as I am, but for very different reasons. I cannot see into her heart, but I have learned to see into mine. In fact, it has become clearer and clearer to me as the years pass, and what I see is a little girl who loved her father and knew this sort of place meant more to him than she could understand. I can also see a grown woman whose son is heading off to face unimaginable  events, and who cries quietly at the thought while watching a film on an old war. 


Both my sons, and these students I am with, face a world that is both deeply disturbing and exceptional. My hope is that they will learn from my father’s generation and not feel they have to forge a completely new road. That they will respect the lessons of the past and use them to avoid the mistakes so deeply entrenched in mankind’s history. Every generation has to accept the challenges of their peculiar time -- person by person. I hope this generation will. I also hope that a hundred years from now there is not another cemetery with 9,000 graves stretching out, and another mother looking at the gravestones of shockingly young soldiers and thinking, “Please, not my child.” 

The misery can be avoided.  I feel the truth of that deep inside me. But we have to continue to challenge evil. The battle did not end with DDAY or even the end of the war. It is a battle that is being fought day after day, largely alone in our own consciousness. As I think of my own battles I realize it can only end when each of us refuses to let even small acts of hatred and fear dominate us, and has the courage, like the men symbolized by these white crosses, to stand up for what they believe, to “resist all that is unlike good”* and to nurture, day in and day out, a resolve that believes there is a better way than war. Then those long days in June of 1944 on the long beaches of Normandy will become a call to even greater action and sacrifice. Perhaps it can even make the loss of innocent lives that were so full of promise somehow not so terrible. If those GI’s had stopped to think before they crossed the English Channel maybe that is what they would have wanted. Not to be forgotten, yes. But, especially, not to be made irrelevant. To have this later generation look at their story and say not just thank you but, “Yes, we get it. We won’t let that happen again.” Then perhaps we can all breathe more freely.

  • Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Mary Baker Eddy p. 393

Chaz WilcoxenEssays