The day of days.
I caught the tail end of a news item last week about a space rocket launch, I think taking supplies to the International Space Station. It only got a mention, because it also was carrying up the ashes of the actor James Doohan. The name might mean nothing to you but if I said he played Scotty in the TV series Star Trek, you’ll possibly know who I’m talking about. His ashes, as per his last request, are to be scattered in space.
Despite arguments in various Scottish villages, he wasn’t Scottish at all but Canadian. A rather obscure claim to fame I knew he had, was that his hand was the most “doubled” in television history. Every time they did the cut shot of his hand sliding the warp drive up a notch, it wasn’t his hand doing it. The reason for this was that he’d lost part of it as a young Lieutenant in a Canadian regiment on D-Day at Juno beach in Normandy. After an experience like that, the life of a jobbing actor can’t have seemed so perilous.
Incidentally, he was also known as the craziest pilot in the Canadian Air Force, even though he was actually a fire control officer in the Artillery, for slaloming a light observation plane between a line of telegraph poles, just to prove it could be done. He had led a full and interesting life.
The conjunction of his war service, Memorial Day just past, a chance conversation in the blogosphere and the anniversary of D-Day coming at us this week, made me recall some stuff from far back, that I haven’t thought about in a long time.
When I was a young man, I was prone to falling deeply and desperately in love, and occasionally, just as deeply and desperately in lust. I really wasn’t too sure of the difference at the time. On reflection, it was all a bit foolish but I don’t regret any one of them – not one. To contradict Oscar Wilde, youth was not wasted on me. I went at it head on like a young bull, cracked the bones, supped the marrow and made all the great marvelous mistakes. I have a few tender memories, a lot of very fond ones and not much in the way of regrets over any of it.
There was a Catalan girl of mine, who went home to Spain, and we’d agreed to keep in touch, so I set off to hitch hike over half of Europe to see her, as one does. France, as usual, was in the way. If you’re thumbing your away around, you don’t get picky about exact destinations; you just want to go west, so anybody heading in that general direction is welcome. Never knowing exactly where you’ll finish up at the end of the day, is part of the adventure. It’s that sort of leap of faith into the unknown that only the very young or very foolhardy do. There’s a whole psychology about picking up hitchhikers but it’s never discussed from the other side. Given how much travelling I did as a kid, on nothing more than my thumb and an ability to rough it, there’s most certainly the makings of a decent article in it.
On the way, I ended up in Normandy. A sleepy little village with a bar, which served food. It was cheaper to get what you wanted standing at the bar in France; sitting down at a table cost more, so since I was potless, I did a lot of eating at the bar. You can actually live on croque-monsieurs, which are really just toasted cheese and ham sandwiches, but then again, when you’re young, you can get by on road kill and not be too bothered about it either.
I met an old man in the bar, and when I say old, bear in mind that I was, as they say, very much in my green and salad days, so anyone over thirty was old. We started chatting and by way of introduction, he bought me a drink of Calvados, which is the local poison in Normandy. It’s actually a brandy made out of apples but it looks and tastes more like a Whiskey and it’ll very quickly put you on your butt, if you’re not careful. He was probably in his late forties at the time. Looking back on it, I’m sure he regarded me as some hopeless young Don Quixote on a romantic mission and was probably highly amused by me, which I wouldn’t blame him for, since I would be too. I tried to pay for a drink in return but somehow, he insisted and the barman smiled good-naturedly every time I tried, which is always a good sign. It was one of those relaxed and friendly bars it’s all too easy to settle into.
I don’t know, you’re young, stupid and a bit suspicious. Somewhere through the evening, I asked him why. Why this generosity to a foreigner, who barely speaks your language? Pourquoi? Why? C’est pour les autres – it’s for the others.
You see, as a young teenager, he’d seen the Omaha beach a day or two after D-day. Tout ces corps, sur la plage - all these bodies washed up on the beach. I don’t know what that’s like but he’d seen the thing and he was never ever going to forget it either. All those bodies bobbing in the surf and covering the beach, for as far as you could see. Incroyable, pour nous, pour la France – Unbelievable, for us, for France.
I have an image of a child wandering about, totally ignored amidst the frenetic organised chaos of thousands of men and hundreds of tons of equipment being unloaded and just concentrating on getting off that open beach and into the relative safety of the interior.
The invasion began at dawn on the morning of the 6th of June 1944. Over the day, a hundred thousand soldiers came ashore at Normandy, to eventually liberate Europe, but ten thousand of them became casualties. In one day. In one single day. That was the blood price of the freedom we enjoy. Ten thousand good young men. I suppose he’d looked at me; a young English-speaking man of about their age, and felt he was giving something back, and I do understand that so much better now.
When you consider that the people of Normandy suffered so badly in the pre-invasion bombardment, and yet still celebrate that day, you can see how much liberation meant to them. Buying a few drinks for a wandering soul like me was nothing.
I camped that night on Omaha beach, below the bluffs and woke, just before first light the next morning. I prodded the embers of the fire back to life, boiled some water and made a coffee. I sipped it as I sat having a smoke and watched the sun coming up.
Even at that age, I’d read a lot of modern history and knew a fair amount about the D-Day landings. I knew for instance, that the amphibious tanks which were supposed to come ashore with and support the infantry, had all foundered and sunk in the heavy swell that morning, drowning most of the crews. The poor bloody infantry were going to be on their own again.
I knew the standard German machine gun of the time was the MG-42. It was light, accurate, effective out to a range of 1000 metres and had the ferocious firing rate of 1,500 rounds a minute, which if that means nothing to you, is 25 bullets per second coming at you. The whole of the heights overlooking the beach at Omaha, were studded with the damn things. The allies took 3000 casualties on the stretch of beach I was looking at.
I thought about what it would be like advancing up that long, flat, bitch of a beach, no armoured support, no cover and under murderous machine gun fire. I’m a good shot and it would have been so easy, oh so bloody easy. Ducks in a barrel. Such brave young men.
I imagined what that must have been like for them and then, because I have too good an imagination, I wept for them. The saddest sunrise I’ve ever watched. Think of them, this coming Wednesday.
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