The sand beach seems to run forever. Waves roll in from the north; reach over the sand and then retreat. The sky to the east is burdened with heavy cloud and the sun on this morning barely seeps through. To the west the land rises in steep cliff. Inland, where the sand gives over to grass and tree, high bluffs swell and block the way south.
The sand is firm beneath my feet. The air is cool and fresh. In the sand at my feet lies a single, long-stemmed yellow rose. The rose is dusted with sand and the yellow is aged. It lies, simple and unadorned, its beauty and vitality faded.
I lift my eyes from the rose and see a stark metal sculpture rising from the sand. Stainless steel forms, over a dozen of them, lift from the beach as if seeking flight. It shines bright in the weak sun.
We are on Omaha Beach on the Normandy coast of France. The metal work is a memorial to the American soldiers who came ashore on June 6, 1944.
“I stand at the water’s edge and squint my eyes and try to imagine it all. But I cannot.”
I stand on the sands of Omaha Beach and the waves come in behind me and I look to the south and see the bluffs that rise, dark in shadow on this day. The bluffs that were studded with German guns that raked the water’s edge when the American kids waded the surf to the sands of Omaha Beach.
And died; so many.
There is an iconic photograph of that dawn, taken from a landing craft. Black and white; slightly out of focus. In the photo you can see America soldiers in the foreground; then the water and beach. The horizon is dark with shadow and fog where the German fortifications were dug in. I stand at the water’s edge and squint my eyes and try to imagine it all.
But I cannot.
They rolled the dice on that day in June all those years ago, threw everything they had on the razor’s edge of sand along the north of France. It was all or nothing. There was no way to turn back. That day would turn the tide of the war. Or fail.
On that dawning the Americans came ashore and the German guns tore the air and the American soldiers died on Omaha Beach.
I walk the beach where the yellow rose lies, torn from a bouquet by the onshore winds. I walk in the shadow of the memorial to those that died that day. I walk, attempting to imagine what it was like and knowing there was no way I ever could.
There are houses now on the strip of land between the sand and the bluffs and nearby, a small restaurant. We stop for lunch.
There is music playing in the kitchen and I hear a faint harmonica riff drifting like the wind over the sand. I strain to make out the song. It is an obscure Springsteen song, “This Hard Land,” and I can hear bits and pieces of it and my memory fills in the words that I cannot hear. This hard land; it seems appropriate.
We have fresh seafood and I have a salad with foie gras. We order some local hard cider (they pronounce it see-der and I like that better). The restaurant fills slowly. I listen to the talk, the voices, the languages: Americans to our left, British at the small table, Germans in the corner. The Springsteen song ends. The chatter of the diners rises. Outside through the large windows we can see the memorial on Omaha Beach.
I have an unsettling feeling; the diner is built on blood-stained sands where on the June morning the young Americans came on shore under heavy fire and died on the beach and there seems something inherently wrong about a restaurant there. Outside a group of school children arrive on bicycles and run laughing on the beach in the shadows of the memorial. They run like spring colts in the sea air and their voices and laughter are like the cries the seabirds in flight.
We have a pleasant lunch.
In the afternoon we drive away from the beach, up to the bluffs and on narrow country roads that twist and turn like a small stream through the farmlands. At the end of the road is the American Cemetery.
We walk from the visitor center and ahead of us we can see the sea that meets the horizon. We stroll the pathway and then turn left and up a rise and then we are in the cemetery. And I cannot move.
I stand there and look out at a field of white crosses, row after row after row. The sun has come out and the white crosses gleam in the light, stark and pure against the rich green grass under the blue sky. There are over 9,000 Americans buried here. Nine-thousand white crosses. Nine-thousand lives given.
I walk among the forest of crosses. Most bear a name, a state, a date of death. Some read simply, “Known But To God.” And one does not know which is sadder; knowing or not knowing.
It is a silent place. It is a place of reverence. It is a place of sadness and joy both.
We leave the cemetery and drive back toward the sands of Omaha Beach. The war memorial shines bright and the ocean swells glisten. We walk again on the sands of the beach, over the fallen yellow rose. The sound of the surf is constant.
White sea birds lift from the beach and wheel and cry and circle over the memorial. They drift inland, over the sands of Omaha Beach, over the houses and the restaurant, over the bluffs on the high ground. The birds disappear in the direction of the American Cemetery and soar high in the spring sky, white birds against the blue sky over the pure white crosses of the men that died.