That Wonderful Mix That Is NormandyAugust 23, 2016
There are unique emotions and thoughts associated with every place we may visit around the world from reverence, to delight, to surprised pleasure, to awe. Some are due to the majesty and beauty of nature, the significance of historical events, or the fascination of cultural distinctions. To find places where a combination of feelings and thoughts are presented is always a goal when I travel. So I was more than thrilled to visit Normandy this summer and discover a wonderful mixture of history, art, beautiful countryside vistas, and spiritual power born of unforgotten sacrifice. This is the land of Mt San Michel, Bayeux, and, of course, the D-Day Beaches.
We drove through French villages toward the coast, everyone inviting a quiet stroll past cottages, farms and hedgerows. This is the Europe one never tires of seeing. At last, in the distance the pinnacle of Mt San Michel rose against the backdrop of a summer sky. We were greeted by the cries of seabirds circling that vast pyramid of rock, village and monastery which fills the view and holds it there as if to blink or look aside would be a sacrilege. The tide was out, and the island home to Catholic monks for centuries looked reverent in its isolation, surely a retreat worthy of contemplation and inviting communication with the highest powers. A brisk climb to the highest point brought a cooling breeze and a view well worth the exertion as the coast of France stretched out in both directions.
This is a coast where invasion dominates its character, is infused in the very air and stones, turning the mind naturally towards the sea. Twelve hundred years ago these beaches and river estuaries saw the advance of the Viking long boats filled with ax wielding Norsemen. Their raids were only stopped when a French king gave the northern coast of France to a Viking chieftain stamping the area forever with its name-Normandy, land of the North men. 1066 would see the descendants of those Scandinavian pirates under the leadership of William the Conqueror mass for an attack on England, thus changing the character and language of that island nation forever, enriching it with thousands of new words which would in time produce such masterpieces of the English language as the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Dickens.
In Bayeux the history of that reverse invasion is embroidered in the most memorable vestige of the medieval world-the famous Bayeux Tapestry. I had wanted to see it since the first time I heard of its existence. Once hung during festivals along the entire nave and back again of the Bayeux Cathedral its survival for a thousand years is a story in itself. We entered the darkened corridor and saw it stretching far into the distance only to bend in double length-receding an equal span around the corner of the building. Almost the length of a football field, but only about two feet wide, the tapestry is covered with thousands of figures. The vibrant threads come to life as we view knights of chivalry, galloping horses, Viking ships, churches, forests, fables, and foxes, and the grand figures of its drama-William of Normandy and Harold, the Anglo-Saxon king he defeated. You can almost hear the voices of the men, the sounds of their axes fashioning the invasion ships, the loading of the horses and the whistle of the wind in the sails as they set off from the French coast; then the shouted battle orders as two armies clash for the destiny of England. All the details of the most famous battle in English memory are displayed by the skilled hands of medieval women who wove in brilliant colors the chronicle of one of the great hinges in world history.
With the whistling of arrows and the sounds of swords still clanging in my ears we drove the short distance to the D-Day beaches. The names I had heard my parents speak so many times in my youth now became reality-Juno, Sword, Gold, Omaha, Utah. We peered into the German bunkers where the rusted big guns of the Atlantic wall defenses still point threateningly out to sea. I peered down the steep cliffs at Point du Hoc where the courage of the American rangers who climbed them on ropes under a hail of bullets from the German defenders defied every concept of bravery I could define. I stood on Omaha beach and could see through history’s lens the landing craft discharge their human cargo and the death that awaited so many young men. Here and there were children playing in the waves with parents watching from the sand a stark contrast to the violence and fear that once surged through the incoming tide. Such simple family joys were bought at a price and I knew, perhaps more thoroughly now than on any other battle field I had ever stood upon the value of freedom and the ultimate gift bequeathed by so many that you and I might enjoy its sweetness.
We arrived at the American cemetery a few minutes before the American flag was lowered in the evening to the solemn sound of a single trumpet playing taps. Then the tears of gratitude fell as I walked in silence with my wife’s hand in mine through row upon of simple unadorned white crosses many unnamed but with the inscription “known but to God” lovingly engraved. I thought of the words I heard spoken at my own father’s funeral who had fought on the beaches of the Pacific. They folded the flag that had honored his memory and handed it to me as a memorial “from a grateful nation.” There is a small chapel that stands in the center of those thousands of crosses which proclaims in bold words the meaning of such sacrifice. I read it over and over that not only the words might sink into my memory but the weight of the thousands of lives it summarized might remain a constant legacy in my soul. “These endured all and gave all that justice among nations might prevail and that mankind might enjoy freedom and inherit peace.” I had reached the climax of my Normandy visit. It had lived up to all I had anticipated.