Nature and History

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.

The Cliffs of Omaha Beach

The Cliffs of Omaha Beach

The Pearl Harbor Firefighters

WOW.  I look at this picture and am speechless.  WOW.  There are certainly a thousand words in me that describe what I am thinking, feeling, seeing when looking at this photo, but the first word coming to my mind is . . . WOW.

WOW.  The sirens must have been blaring . . . fires roaring . . . death and destruction surrounding all. For all I know bombs were still falling.    The sky above looks to be full of hazy smoke, most likely residual from the deadly attack.

Though the three faces that I can see look intent, it is the hands of all the women that truly show intensity.  All fingers holding onto a 1941 fire hose with all the power they found deep within themselves.  Side by side each hand forming a chain of strength enabling the women to hold on . . . tight . . . knowing that their success could save lives.  WOW.

And the courage of these women.  Their ‘caution to the wind’ actions – working to save the lives of others while their own lives could have been in danger – shows courage.  Their fight to contain a stronghold on a monster hose knowing quite possibly that their physical strength only existed due to their number – shows courage.   Their desire to help those in distress – placing their own needs second – shows courage.  I often wonder what my response would be . . . only hoping that I would be a person capable of fighting fires.

Their faces are mesmerizing.  Their eyes seem to be willing the stream of water to reach its destination.   Their jaws are rigid with determination, desperation.  And though the ground below their feet appears to be slippery and unstable, their legs are planted firmly, muscularly on the dock, no trembling or quivering . . . hoping against hope to end some type of eminent suffering . . . to bring some type of calm to the firestorm. WOW.

Within twenty-four hours, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the nation telling all that December 7th, 1941 would be “a date which [would] live in infamy.”  2,401 Americans were killed.  1,282 were wounded.  188 U.S. aircrafts were destroyed.  Family members, friends, colleagues, co-workers, and buddies – all walks of life were among those who perished.

Though I was not alive, I am sure that the United States stood still on that day . . . at that time . . . at that moment.  And although there is plenty of movement in the photograph, to me it renders an eerie, chilling stillness.  It is a quiet portrait, wordless.  The women are frozen in time, perched on the edge of the harbor, working with dazzling silent commitment.

WOW. I stare at this image and my mind wanders to what may have happened in the frames before this shot or what may have happened in the frames after it.  How did these women assemble?  Who called them to this duty?  Why them?  What was the chatter among them?  What were their skills . . . their strengths?

For some reason, after a good length of gazing at it, I want to know their names.  Who are they?  Where are they now?  What was their connection to this particular moment other than being in Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941?  What doesn’t this photograph tell me about them?

So often as tragedy strikes, the sharing of detail is too difficult.  Sometimes, it is only through pictures – like this one – that those of us on the outside catch a glimpse of what those folks on the inside experienced.  The United States may be blessed to have this piece of history as documentation of the attack on Pearl Harbor – for part of infamy is remembering a moment such as this, for better or for worse.

Interestingly, the composition of the Pearl Harbor firefighters reminds me of another popular photograph: Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima.  A Pulitzer Prize winning photo taken by Joe Rosenthal in 1945 during the Battle of Iwo Jima, it depicts six United States soldiers raising the stars and stripes in victory on Mount Suribachi.

The two photos were taken less than four years apart – one in agony and one in victory.  Both capture heroic actions – one on the part of a group of young women and the other a group of young men.  Each photo defines what I consider to be patriotism . . . our drive to protect freedom, our concern for each other, and our common goals as a nation.  Today – both photos are inspirational: they are true commentaries on the American spirit.

Though I was a very young child at the time, I have often heard, studied and can recall the words of President John F. Kennedy via his inaugural address in 1961 – a mere twenty years after the attack on Pearl Harbor:  “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”   These words often give me guidance as I work through the challenges of daily life.

As the challenges unfolded on December 7th, 1941, I can’t imagine that the women in the photograph had any time to ask themselves or anybody else what they should do. No time for conversations or debate. Rather, I have a feeling that some type of instinct drove them to the precipice of the harbor, directed them to find a way to battle the torrent blazes around them, provided them with the courage to persist, and encouraged them to stand firm in their attempt regardless of the horrific circumstances of the day.

I just thank my fifty lucky stars for what these women did for their and my country.