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Sunday, June 06, 2004

Today the world commemorates the Normandy landings, sixty years ago.

Some twenty plus years ago, I was cycletouring with my American boyfriend around Brittany and Normandy.

He had been in the American army for three years during the Vietnam war--but he was not a Vietnam veteran because he was posted during that time along the DMZ in North Korea. He learnt some Korean, he learnt to drive a large truck, and he never fired a gun.

I told him I wanted us to go see the landing beaches and visit the war graves.

"Why on earth should we do that?" he protested.

"Because," I said with finality. Question marks, all over his face.

"Because every American should learn firsthand what Americans did that day."

He could not see the point. It was all in the past, as far as he was concerned, it was irrelevant. I kept saying that unless the new generations learnt what happened in the past, it could also be in the future.

He didn't want to go, but I was the navigator, I was the one who could read the maps, and so, as you may imagine, we went.

It was a lovely summer. Utah, Omaha, Sword, the lot.

At Coleville, we saw the 10,000 impeccable white crosses, lined up neatly across a beautiful field of green grass, immaculately cropped. Eighteen, 19-year old kids, from Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, the heart of America, some died the very day they landed. You can bet a lot of them had very little notion of exactly where they were.

The one thing you can also say about these young heroes is that they for the most part had had no previous war experience, unlike the British, French and Canadians on the neighboring beaches who were already seasoned from fighting in Sicily and Africa, and who had also experienced war hardships, including regular bombings, back home in England.

These young boys, hardly more than high school students, were suddenly dumped into freezing, rough surf, loaded down with guns, ammunitions, K-rations, etc., and if they did not simply sink and drown first, they had to make their way into the beaches and across wet sands truffled with landmines, facing German blockhauses where the German gunners could just pick them off without so much as stepping out.

Rommel had also sent in the panzer divisions.

Apart from the American cemeteries, you can also visit the "commonwealth" cemeteries, where the British and Canadian boys are buried. Those graves are covered with great white daisies and poppies.

If you search your map carefully, you can then locate the German war graves. Those cemeteries give you the goosebumps, there is something primeval and threatening about them: it's the dark stone crosses, the dark iron crosses, the crosses of the Teutonic Knights. If you pluck up enough courage to approach these spooky monuments, you can see for yourself that those Germans who died on those same fields as "our boys" were either over the age of 60 or below the age of 16.

Grandfathers guiding little boys, helping little boys kill and be killed. Steadying their aim and calming their fears.

Rommel's son was drafted into the German army straight out of school, age 15-16. This is not a fantasy of fiction.

At the Pointe du Hoc, the whole mess is an open-air war museum. Everything was just left as is, which includes, probably, some unrecovered bodies and unexploded ordnance. There are warning signs everywhere: "Don't touch a thing, it could still blow up!" and also: "Keep to the indicated pathways and keep your children within reach."

Looking down the slots through which the gun barrels pointed at the boys who climbed up those little rope ladders that myth says were on loan from the London fire department, if you have the least bit of imagination, your run the risk of losing it, as the saying goes, at the thought of what it might have been like to be one of those boys, climbing up out of the mists into the maw of almost certain death. It affected me so hard that for a while I thought I might have had a stroke, I had to sit under a shade tree in complete silence for a time, until I could step back into my everyday life and breathe normally again.

My stepmother, Paulette, comes from that part of the country.

Her grandmother had a fishing fleet at Grandcamp-Maisy. Some two dozen fishing boats. The owner of a fishing fleet in those days was responsible for all her fishermen and their families. It meant that if one were to be lost at sea, the fleet owner was responsible for the widow and orphans. This was a matter of honor and tradition.

On June 6, Paulette's grandmother's entire fleet was fishing at sea. They had left with the tide the night before. Not one ship ever returned.

If don't know about maritime insurance anywhere else, but in France, if you want to collect insurance, you must prove the loss of your boat. A dinghy, a lifebelt, a plank with its name or the ID number of the boat, a part of the registered engine, there are any number of things which can serve as proof of loss. You can't collect a cent otherwise.

The old lady couldn't prove the loss of a single boat. Not a single body of her fishermen was ever recovered. There never was anyone who came back or any witness who came forward to tell what happened to this little French fishing fleet on D-day. Paulette's grandmother had to sell off all her goods to divvy up the proceeds as best she could among the surviving families. She never went back into business and died soon after.

We should all of us ponder the significance of what was happening in 1944. We should, however, not forget that Hitler did not get his power from some God, handed to him on a silver platter, but from wealthy human beings whose plan it was to use him for their own purposes.

One should not forget to examine such details of post-war Europe, where on the one hand you had the vanquished enemy standing trial at Nuremberg for war crimes and crimes against humanity, at the same time that a select group of Hitler's henchmen were smuggled out of Germany straight to America (yes, I'm talking about Warner van Braun and his cronies, who gave us the race to the moon, after he had already given the other half of us the V1's and the V2's, his earnest money of services to be rendered. We also got that wunderkind Henry Kissinger--dirty little old war criminal!).

What is it that really distinguishes a human being from an animal?

It is, quite simply the feeling of gratitude.

The first of these gratitudes is the gratitude to one's parents. Animals don't have that. Maybe the fact that it takes so long to raise a human child to maturity is just to enable this sense of gratitude to develop naturally.

If you think about it, a calf, a colt, a kid, a lamb, stand up and take their first step immediately after birth and even though they need to be suckled by their mothers in order to survive, they are able to move about very early, and are able to come bucking at their mother whenever they are hungry, whereas a human infant must give voice and get her willing attention. I remember watching at London's Whipsnade Zoo as a little baby rhinoceros was trying to suckle his mother, and he kept going under her and bump, bump, bump into her with his horn, trying to get some milk, and she didn't like it one bit, maybe he was hurting her, and she would just impatiently take a few steps forward, and the poor little fellow would follow and try again, making a very strange sound.

The fact of the matter is that without both our parents, we none of us would have life in the first place. I figured out one day that even if my parents had not been married, if they had met in some bar just one time, gotten drunk, fallen into bed, made love just the once, never seen each other again, and my mother had found herself pregnant, decided to keep the child, and on seeing me come out a girl had decided I was not worth keeping, and she had dumped me in a dumpster and walked away without giving me another thought, and some other woman had come along and found me crying, and had thought I was cute and had saved me from certain death, no matter what, still my parents were my parents and I owed them the debt of gratitude of my life.

But, of course, my parents gave me much, much more than life.

The next debt of gratitude we owe is to our countries, our nations, because it is our social organizations that determine our overall wellbeing as a race.

The final debt of gratitude is to all humanity and all life, because all life is interdependent and there is virtually nothing we can do entirely on our own.

It is a scientific fact that a single human being, even if set down in a physically perfect earthly paradise, with clement weather, plentiful food and water and adequate shelter, such an isolated human being at best would be able to survive one short year.

We all of us like to think we know who we are. My father always used to say: Think of it this way, you have four grandparents, and each of them had four grandparents, who each had four grandparents. Within a few generations, you have more forefathers than ever lived in Felixstowe (the place where the family "comes from").

I used all my fingers and toes (I don't have a calculator), and I may have made a mistake here and there, carrying forward. But I figured it out on a piece of paper. Based on my father's formula, and calculating there are four generations per century (25 years per generation, I would think, is about average), when I look back 700 years, I have...

72,232,471,936,678,656 ancestors.

So do you, and you, and you.

But we only have 6 Billion people on earth now, the most ever.

"Here, Coz, Coz, Over here, Over here! Let's have a cuppa tea one of these days!"
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Gone Fishin',

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