The view was nothing shy of spectacular. And it was certainly not what I had expected to see. I stood quietly with my companions for what can be described as more than awhile – with only the steady clicks of our cameras interrupting the silence.
The day was ending with evening approaching much more quickly than any of us desired. Soon our tour would be over, and the six of us would be headed back from whence we came. Thankfully, from beginning to end, the weather had kindly cooperated, offering us a smattering of sunshine, wind, clouds, and rain. Eighty degrees and balmy would have been ideal, but autumn is a season of surprise when it comes to outdoor conditions, and we were prepared.
In the last of the moments, I still had not come to terms with the landscape surrounding me. The cliffs were more than beautiful; the water calmly lapping their edge. A lone bird was swirling back and forth, seeming to have no particular destination. And it was quiet . . . so quiet.
I thought I was going to see something quite different. In fact, I was most positive that the experience was going to be one hundred and eight degrees away from what the experience actually was. Part of my quiet was due to my inability to quickly move from my past expectation to my current reality.
I knew that to visit this site meant that I would be stepping on ground where many – too many to count – had died before me. I just didn’t know what to expect. World War II started and ended well before I was born with every subsequent generation since June 6th, 1944 having chronicled the horrific battles that transpired on and near Omaha Beach. All six of us had studied the history well in preparation. But, it absolutely did not prepare me.
I saw magnificent colors in the water swells. I saw green, moss-covered cliffs with auburn, crimson, and turquoise hues. I saw a blue and white-painted sky with moments of gray pushing towards shore. I saw serenity, peace,and calm. I saw majesty.
I listened as our most reverent tour guide spoke about lost lives on Omaha Beach. He mentioned those who scaled the cliffs in twenty minutes and survived both the climb as well as enemy fire. And he mentioned those who did not survive. He described the men who exited their boats and headed towards sure-death on the beach. He described the deafening sounds of that day, as all sorts of explosives were launched from sea to shore and shore to sea. The more he spoke, the more I realized that all the ground around me – as well as the tiny piece beneath my feet – held the memory of the death of many. My heart ached – and still does ache – for all of those who died in pursuit of freedom for others including me.
Yet, when I looked out towards the horizon, I saw beauty. In fact, the nearby rock formations were mesmerizing. Likewise were the sandy shores and the surrounding vegetation. Here and there were tiny cottages, some vacant, some inhabited, all that clearly had stunning views of the Omaha Beach of today. There were many memorials to those who had fallen in service to their country seventy years earlier, all of which were impeccably landscaped and maintained. A scenic coastline, serpentine road cut through the hillside, bringing visitors like me to see and experience the history of the area.
I must admit that I still have not come to terms in any way with Omaha Beach’s unbelievable beauty juxtaposed with the reality of the heightened degree of suffering and death that occurred in the same place.
Perhaps the generations that follow me will offer greater clarity and understanding of how we, as humans, can come to some understanding of the balance between nature and history. I know for me it is something that I will ponder for much time to come.