Summer 1984. A summer that, as I now see – thanks to the keen hindsight that only thirty-five years can bring – was my final summer as a “kid.” I’d be a high school junior that upcoming Fall. At the time, I had no job, no car, no girlfriend, and virtually no real responsibilities. All of those things would very soon change but, at the time, I had another blessed three-month reprieve from homework and studying ahead of me, a calendar- quarter of lazy days and lazier nights. That summer would be the last childhood hurrah, even if I didn’t appreciate it at the time.
On the very first day out of school for that summer, I decided at almost the very last minute to accompany my mother on a road trip to Virginia to see her sisters and other extended family for a week. My grandfather from California would be there as would a bevy of cousins that I rarely saw. I don’t remember now why I’d originally planned to not make this journey; for a variety of reasons, I’m very glad now that I took it.
On what I believe was our first night there, I found myself accompanying my slightly younger cousin, Matthew, on his collection rounds for his newspaper route in the neighborhood. His customers all knew him, of course, but I was a stranger – a few of them joked if he’d hired out-of-town muscle to “assist” with the collection efforts. I’m sure I was super-menacing in my Levi’s and, recalling my fine fashion sense of those glory days, one of my father’s button-down Oxfords.
One of the many doors Matthew knocked-on that evening was answered quickly by an elderly woman, well-dressed but clearly in a state of distraction. “Come in! Come in,” she urged us. “Quickly…they’re talking about D-Day on TV…you boys know about D-Day, don’t you? Come in!”
The Nightly News was indeed running a feature on the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Normandy that took place June 6, 1944; grainy footage of paratroopers blackening each other’s faces before a jump and landing craft packed full of soldiers heading toward a coastline.
It clicked finally: TODAY was June 6, 1984 – it was the 40th anniversary of one of the most ambitious combined airborne and amphibious assaults ever undertaken.
As the news story ran, the woman told us, “My late husband was there – he was part of this.” She pointed to some sepia-toned photographs on the mantle of a military man in a crisp, starched uniform, bearing the unmistakable swagger of the era to match both his youth and the times in which he was living. She went on to tell us that she had been in England herself at that time; if I remember correctly, she was a nurse there.
On the mantle and on the television: black-and-white history that this member of what would become known as The Greatest Generation had lived in full, living color.
I do recall that I did NOT appreciate at that time the significance of the 40th anniversary of D-Day. In silent answer to one of the woman’s first questions to us that evening – yes, I DID know about D-Day, egotistically probably more than most kids my age would have. I had spent most of my childhood as a World War 2 buff, devouring every book I could find on the history, the battles, the men. I have my father to thank for my love of reading and for his getting me started on texts about the war. I could have quoted right there the code names of the invasion beaches – not just ours, but the beaches our British and Canadian allies landed on that day. I could detail the differences between an M-1 rifle and an M-1 carbine, a P-47 fighter plane versus a P-51, and the mottos of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. For crying out loud, I’d turned in a book report in the 4th grade on Cornelius Ryan’s book, “The Longest Day.”
So, while D-Day had been a big deal to me early on, I probably thought I knew all there was to know – and all by the ripe, old age of 16! I suppose my youth had its own sense of swagger – though it paled in comparison to the genuineness and raw intensity of that displayed by the warrior in those aging photos.
Like so many things that happen when we are younger, I didn’t appreciate getting the front-row seat to truly LIVING history like my cousin and I had that night in 1984. Now, three and half decades down the line, I see it for the blessing that it was, and I treasure it now like I should have back then.
Take a moment to ponder the sacrifices made that day 75 years ago in the name of freedom. Appreciate the living history all around you. And, remember – no one knows history like someone who there as it was being made. That goes for the history YOU are making right this moment. Own it, live it, and pass it on to your own next generation. Others truly gave their all for all of us to be able to live and thrive today.