Thursday, July 2, 2009

Reflections on Omaha Beach…a Pilgrimage by Sam Heatwole

Date of trip to Omaha Beach 6/13/09...65 years and one week after the Allied forces landed there, 6/6/44

When I was a kid, Mom and Dad used to talk about my twin uncles Cloyd and Lloyd. They admired them and said they’d been in WWII. They’d landed at Omaha Beach. As a kid all that meant very little to me except for the fact that they had been REAL soldiers. Kids, boy kids anyway, like to play war, at least they did when I was a kid. I was inquisitive about what it was like to really be a soldier, and who better to ask what it was like than my uncles. So I would ask them about it from time to time, but as I recall it, they said little if anything about it. They would change the subject or give a short answer like… “It was a bad time” or “It was rough…” or something like that.

I remember coming back from a fishing trip with Uncle Cloyd, Cloyd Jr. and Dad, all of us packed in the front of one of the old aqua-colored Harrisonburg Refrigeration Service trucks. I guess I must have been 8 or 9. Dad was driving, I sat next to him, then Cloyd Jr. and Uncle Cloyd at the other window. I said, “Uncle Cloyd, how many Germans did you kill in the war?” My dad put an elbow right through my rib cage!!! I thought I’d never get my breath back. You see, killing and dying in a war for me was sneaking around in my front yard, pretending to see an enemy, shouting “Pow, Pow, kapow, kapow!!!” then jumping up, pretending to get hit, rolling dramatically down the big hill our house sat on and holding my breath, pretending to be dead. I had no idea then…and I still don’t, of the horror, the awful reality of war. Uncle Cloyd didn’t respond to my question. He just looked out of the window and pretended that he didn’t hear me. I never asked him or Uncle Lloyd any thing about the war again…and I think that something of the horror of war was passed along to me that day. I understood that the war experiences of my uncles was a heavy burden…a burden they carried inside…not something to be shared lightly or irreverently. It was not for all to hear. It was theirs to know and to carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Since my childhood, I have only gained more respect for my uncles and the entire generation they represent. There was a moral fiber and grit in them that makes one want to put them under a microscope and analyze how they came to be the kind of people they were, and how they functioned so bravely through a debilitating economic depression and a mechanized war of fearful proportions.

When I found out a few months ago that my wife Deborah and I would be traveling to France again, I knew where I had to go...Omaha Beach. This would be a pilgrimage for me. I prepared for it: I read, I researched, and I bought a new camera. The purpose of a pilgrimage is to pay reverent respect, and that is what I tried to do.

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