When we see many of the same thing all together in one place – twinkling stars lighting up the night sky, pods of dolphins swimming in unison in the ocean, groups of deer walking gingerly in the forest, feeding as they keep a wary eye on their surroundings, and wildflowers in a large meadow sashaying back and forth, as if doing a hula dance, in a warm breeze – it is nothing short of captivating, even breathtaking, stopping you in your tracks.
Or it can be nothing short of sobering, even numbing, also causing you to pause.
The latter is the case when you see photos, or videos, of all the little white markers -- most of them crosses while some others being the Star of David – signifying the graves at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial near Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France.
Aligned perfectly in rows and rows and rows that appear to stretch forever, as far as the eye can see, in the neatly-trimmed lawn, it is difficult at first glance to grasp what they are. Then, a moment later when you realize not just what you’re looking at, but also the broad scope of it, you are completely taken aback by it.
It changes you.
Over 172 sprawling acres lie the remains of 9,387 American military dead, most of whom were killed during the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944 and ensuing military operations during World War II. Fittingly, this sacred ground is located on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, the biggest of the five beaches where the landing took place and the one most intensely fought after. It is where many of those brave souls met heir demise.
D-Day was the largest amphibious invasion in history, and the victory there after more than two months of fighting played a huge role in winning the war a year later.
But it came at an incredible cost – the ultimate cost, really. All those markers attest to that.
They set silently, unwaveringly and proudly, but if they could talk, they would say volumes. They would tell all who cared to listen the tales, the stories, of the men – and women – whose eternal resting places they identify. And we should all care not just to listen, but to hear, digest and reflect.
These are people who had it rough – in many cases, extremely rough -- long before they knew what Normandy was, or where it was.
They lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s, where the only solace was that they had no idea just how poor they were because everyone around them was in the same boat. Tough times are an equal opportunity annoyer.
But this much they did know: their dream, whether it was getting off the farm and taking a good-paying job in a factory, leaving their small town and heading to the big city to make their way in whatever manner, going off to college or a trade school, or getting married and starting a family, would have to be put on hold until the Depression ended and things got better.
The Depression ended, but things didn’t get better. Instead, to the utter surprise of those people, they got worse. ... Well, more depressing. That’s because what brought the Depression to a close was the onset of World War II, to which they eventually got an invitation they could not, and would not, decline. They couldn’t. It would have been against they believed in, valued, held dear and trusted.
Nobody wanted war. Oh, sure, heading off to World War II has been romanticized to the nth degree over the years, but what was really the push to get these young people to go was their recognition – and acceptance – of their call to duty to serve their country.
Even after having had nothing for so long during the Depression, it was still a country worth fighting for.
And, if it came to that, also dying for.
But it wasn’t going to come to that. You must think that. No negative thoughts, ever. That would be … well, depressing, again.
It did, of course, come to that.
Their lives ended – their dreams ended – all those miles from home.
And these many years – many decades, several generations – later, all that’s left to remember them, and their valor, by are the seemingly endless straight lines of white markers.
So this weekend – Memorial Day weekend, when we remember all the dead in all the wars since this country began – between the parades and picnics, barbecues and ballgames, lounging and laughing, take some time – better yet, even a lot of time, which, in our fast-paced world, may be only 10 minutes – to think about these soldiers and what they gave you.
Freedom, as they say, is not free, but they picked up the tab. Cherish it like a precious heirloom and prepare to someday hand it off to the next generation.
And because of their efforts and sacrifices, you have the world – one quite different from theirs in many ways, but identical in others in that we all want freedom, then and now -- that they wanted to come home to, but never had the chance.
Enjoy the fruits of their labor to the fullest, but at the same time, know from whence those opportunities came, and be reverent for them.
Like those little white stakes, there are more of them – blessings and gifts beyond our wildest dreams -- than you can count.