Monday,  24 September 2007

We were woken up Monday morning by a fire alarm. The three kids were sleeping next door, and after we shook off the initial sleepiness, and realized it wasn’t a watch or alarm clock beeping, we stumbled out of bed and down the hall towards the kids’ room. We didn’t smell any smoke, but a fire alarm is a fire alarm and we prepared to head downstairs. The kids in their pajamas and bare feet, me with my passport tucked under my arm, we passed equally bleary-eyed hotel guests in their jammies heading down the hall, one lady a purse under her arm.

We soon discovered it was a false alarm, before even making it down the stairs, but now that we were awake we decided it was high time for breakfast. We dressed and trooped down to the hotel buffet (boo-fay), where we almost acquired a great new story. There were some eggs on a little rack, they looked just like the soft-boiled eggs we’ve seen at most hotel breakfasts, and three of us placed them on our plates. We were all ready to head back to the table and practice our soft-boiled egg-cracking skills when a fellow hotel guest informed us the eggs were raw. There was a pot of hot water on the buffet, we were supposed to cook them, first. Darn, that would have been a great story as the Davises cracked their raw eggs all over that pristine white tablecloth!

After breakfast we walked to the Bayeux tapestry, which had a great museum that explained the whole tapestry in detail. A movie animated the different scenes and explained exactly how Edward the Confessor named William as his heir, but back-stabber Harold stole the throne when Edward died and then William sailed across the sea from Normandy to battle the English (Battle of Hastings) and reclaim what was rightfully his. The kids could tell you all about it, I call that a great history lesson! After the movie, we saw the actual tapestry, each with our own audio guide to narrate the particulars and point out interesting details like the border showing the Crow and the Fox fable (Aesop) right under the scene where Harold decides to steal the throne.

Benji got really frustrated when some grown-ups clustered in front of him and he couldn’t see the tapestry. Poor guy, since we each had our own audio guide we were all moving at our own pace and didn’t notice until the tears were pouring down his cheeks. I hiked him up on a hip, and we listened to his kid’s version, then went back and studied the parts he had missed. I love to see the kids so interested in the historical stuff we see, it certainly doesn’t happen all the time.

We grabbed a quick lunch at a nearby supermarket and picnicked on the hotel room floor, then spent the afternoon at the Musee de Bataille, which was a great introduction to WWII and the Normandy Invasion. It had a film that documented the landing on June 6th, as well as the key advances taken by the Americans, British and Canadians. I didn’t realize that over two months elapsed between the invasion on D-Day and the liberation of Paris. It was also interesting to learn about the British and Canadian roles in the attack, the beach names Utah and Omaha were familiar to me, but Sword, Gold and Juno were not as well-known. I learned if the British hadn’t drawn so many Germans to the fighting in Caen (their first few attempts were brutal but unsuccessful) the Americans would not have been able to capture the northern tip of Cherbourg and move southward as easily.

It was interesting to talk to the kids about how the French must have felt. To be liberated, and yet look all around them and realize that Allied bombs were the ones that destroyed their homes and churches.  To read the firsthand accounts, to learn that many more Americans survived their wounds in WWII because of quick evacuations that staved off infections. To learn that German prisoners were made to carry the wounded American soldiers from their transports to the hospital. These details were so interesting.

The kids were interested for a while, but then they’d had enough. During the museum trip there was a ban on bubble-blowing and the tossing of rubber bracelets against walls. There was a lot of pent up energy by the time we exited, and the kids ran around the tanks parked out front while Clay ran back to the hotel and got the car (it had been a longer walk than we thought to get there).

We ended the day with a late, mediocre dinner, salvaged by ice cream. The kids were so sleepy when we put them to bed, the Bayeux Tapestry and WWII swimming around in their heads. Two very different battles, very different times, I wonder what they dreamt that night.


Tuesday,  25 September 2007

We woke without the aid of a fire alarm this morning, and rolled everyone out of bed, into the shower, and onto the street, where we walked down the road to get some breakfast from a Boulangerie and the supermarket. We couldn’t leave without a box of chocolate flake cereal, even though Clay pushed hard for the “Nateo’s” that we found. No dice, even with the great name they were still just foreign Alphabets cereal.

We ate breakfast in the car while we traveled to our first destination of the day, Pont du Hoc. There are so many WWII sights we could have visited; it was hard to make sense of it all. We decided we wanted to have the kids understand a little more about the sacrifices made by the soldiers, and how the initial D-Day invasion rolled out. I personally wanted to get my hands around the whole thing a little better, my high school history had long ago seeped away and I wanted to understand it all.

We had read that this stretch of beach has been left virtually untouched since D-Day. US Rangers had scaled these cliffs early on the morning of D-Day, of the 250 men fewer than 100 survived in their efforts to disarm this German outpost. It was important to do so because the Germans had a bead on the Utah and Omaha beaches from this point, high above the ocean.

We parked in a car park, then walked down a path with grass on both sides, noticing deep divets in the ground. Craters from bombs dropped more than 60 years ago. The kids wanted to run down one side and up the other, but we were uncomfortable treating this site like some sort of playground. We called them to heel and continued down the path, coming into a large, open area littered with concrete and larger craters. We crawled into bunkers, damp and dark. Some of the concrete structures (some held ammunitions, some held gunners, we weren’t sure what some were) were blown to bits, with huge pieces of concrete stuck into the ground several in all directions. One had rebar tangled like medusa’s hair and concrete scattered all over the place. Others were intact. The Americans had bombed the German sight from the air and from ships in the ocean, to drive back the Germans while the Rangers scaled those steep, scary cliffs.

One thing I read said that ropes were cut, soldiers fell, and the one behind him took his place, continuing to climb. When they arrived at the top, the big guns they had been sent to disable were all gone as were the Germans. The Rangers suffered many more casualties as they pushed farther inland, where the Germans were hiding out in dense hedgerows. Snipers, just waiting.

The kids wanted so badly to run and scamper in those giant holes the bombing had left, and I finally relented. As long as they didn’t whoop and holler. They just couldn’t grasp what it was all about, that men had died here. It was bloody and ugly and scary, but to them it was a giant green meadow full of concrete places to explore and hills to run up and down. Maybe they couldn’t really grasp it, at their age, unless they experienced it. I’d rather they stay blissfully ignorant (running up and down the crater walls like it was a playground instead of a battlefield) than actually see and smell and hear the horrors that went on.

We drove onward to Utah beach, along beautiful sand dotted with war memorials. At one point we hit a dead end. We got out to examine the memorial there, a concrete bunker with a gun still inside, and read how it was at this point that the Americans were able to make a breakthrough, up the cliff, and clear a path for the soldiers to march up and on into the town. We climbed up a narrow, steep path, passing a bunker hidden by a tangle of weeds, and found ourselves at the top of a cliff. A gorgeous view of the shoreline stretched before us, and it was all so peaceful, with the waves lapping the shore and the blue, blue sky. Once again we tried to imagine what it must have been like, the sea stained red from the blood of fallen soldiers, boats dotting the horizon, guns and bombs exploding all around, and the constant fear that someone was hiding, waiting to shoot you. It was certainly easy to imagine how the Germans had hid in the dense bushes.

Back down the hill, we made our way to the American Cemetery. This was the place where it became real, even for the kids. There was a wonderful museum at the entrance, with a good film that included letters and short stories about some of the men who had been killed during the invasion. Suddenly all those faceless soldiers became sons and brothers and fathers (and even daughters and sisters and wives) that lost their lives in the pursuit of freedom. Fighting on foreign soil, in their letters they reminisced about their homes, the similarities between the small farms they had come from and the small farms they were marching past.

The words describing the men as “excited and scared the night before the invasion, 6 June 1944” stick in my mind as the perfect explanation of how these young men felt. They were so young! And yet in their letters they sound brave and casual, talking about their time in London, or how their first parachute jump was in the morning. As we left the film and moved through the museum, Nate began to read the stories for himself on the displays, Benji stood silent and still by my side while I read them to him. Alayna’s eyes filled with tears when we heard of the account of an American’s experience killing a German soldier in hand to hand combat.

Leaving the museum, we approached row after perfect row of white marble crosses (stars if the person was Jewish). The kids were subdued, nobody asked if they could run ahead. They read the names on the crosses and asked questions about whether we knew any of the men buried there. It was a place of perfect symmetry; even the landscaping seemed military with its straight lines, trees cut in the shapes of cubes or pyramids, and close cropped green grass like a military haircut.

While we were there five men were mowing the grass in tight formation,  weaving in and out of the tombstones, almost like an intricate dance, each knowing which direction to turn at the end of their row, their paths intersecting like a marching lawnmower band. They all seemed very serious, as if taking care of this sacred place was an honor they didn’t take lightly.

We came back to the hotel in the afternoon, playing some quiet games and reading while the storm that had been threatening to blow through all day finally came. Peace and quiet. I have a feeling the kids will ask questions for days to come about the things they saw and heard today. I am glad it became more real for them. I am glad that at their young ages they experienced the real places where the battles took place. I hope it will help them make sense of it all as they study it in school later on. I know I have a better grasp on it all, or it has a better grasp on me.