Tales from the Van: He fought them on the beaches

Stories come to me sometimes, from the most unusual places – like the back of my retinal screening van. This story really grabbed me and made me think, and given that it’s D-Day on Saturday, now seems a very poignant time to share it with you.

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He was old and skinny – shrunken by the passage of time – but stately, with immense dignity of movement in every measured stride.

His liver-spotted hand held onto his stick, not desperately, as though afraid of a fall, but lightly and with humour, as though at any moment he might swing it up over his shoulder and break into an Astaire classic, right there on the grass.

I invited him in, and ice-blue eyes held mine across the room as we dealt with the details. They sparkled like benign glaciers, encased in mountains of pale, wrinkled velvet. His lips were blue, too – poor circulation, probably.

I saw kindness in the wrinkles around his eyes, the unkempt tussocks of hair sprouting from ears and nostrils, and eyebrows which straggled into mid-air, as though channeling the questing tendril-spirit of a spider-plant.

His teeth were stained with nicotine, but not his fingers, which suggested that he was a pipe man. More elegant, somehow, and it certainly explained the faint, warm smell of tobacco, which was emanating from him.

We talked as the appointment progressed and I felt such a wrench at being constricted by someone else’s agenda – he went off on a tangent about the Normandy landings, where he’d been present and seen his cohorts mown down in swathes, like wheat in a field under the farmer’s indiscriminate scythe. His cracked voice described the scene and I realised, with reverence, that this was a man who had LIVED.

He told me about the sea walls, which had hidden the Germans and their machine guns, as they watched those boatloads of hapless lads bobbing up and down in the sea. Lads, because although there were men amongst them, so many were young – he had only been 19 at the time – so many were destined to end their lives only a few minutes after stepping out into the vicious surf.

His pupils dilated with the drops, rather than with horror as he explained briefly, and without self-pity, what had occurred that day. I imagined what it was like to be a teenager in a group 600-strong and raring to fight with all the glory and vim of patriotism boosting your spirit. And what it was like to be a teenager an hour later, when upwards of half of that seemingly dauntless number lay dead or dying at your feet, or the feeling of catching your boots on a fresh corpse as you scrambled for shelter with bullets whistling around you.

What must it be like to have hit the wall of war’s reality with such sudden harshness?

What must it be like to have looked back over the events, not with the removed anguish of those at home, whose letterboxes suddenly became destined for bad-news telegrams, but as one who had been there in the moments when three hundred souls were released through splashy crimson bulletholes, and soared upwards into the stormy French skies.

What must it be like to look at me – a fresh-faced young nobody who clearly had no comprehension at all of the sacrifices made – and know that in this situation, I was the professional; I was in charge and without the efforts and losses of his generation, I might have been speaking German (or never have been born at all, by virtue of having no Aryan heritage whatsoever)?

What must it be like to want to return (as he did – he told me – in spite of the fact that only three from his command were still alive now) to stand on those beaches in their modern innocence, remembering the blood-stained sand and terrible noises of D-Day?

What must it be like to be 70 years past this awful day, and to still carry such clear memories in your head?

What must it be like to be an old soldier?

47d14-waves

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51 thoughts on “Tales from the Van: He fought them on the beaches

  1. Pingback: Ten Things of Thankful #60 | Considerings

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  3. One of my favorite things is to sit and listen to the tales of the past from generations a bit ahead of me. I wish every day I had the technology available to me a few years back that we do today. I would have recorded so many tales I have long since forgotten 😦

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    • Start writing the ones you remember. I bet they’re fascinating.

      I was never EVER into history, but oral history, and the STORYTELLING, is awesome. That I love, and could engage with for hours and hours.

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  4. I saw the special on the world news that showed all the veterans there and I wonder if I saw the man you spoke with…

    We will never ever be able to understand the enormity and atrocity these young men endured, sacrificed and faced on our behalf. My heart- stirs with an intense gratitude and quivering lip.

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    • You quite likely did. I didn’t catch any coverage, but I thought of him lots over the past couple of days. This is probably going to be the last time he’s able to go back – possibly for many of those soldiers, this is their final trip to a place of such monumental importance, with such memories…yow!

      They gave so much.

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  5. Lizzi, this is such a beautiful story. I love your description of the man’s appearance. I could *see* him. Well done with those colorful words of yours. I know I’ve told you this before, but I volunteered at a nursing home in college where I visited some of the tenants who had no other visitors, and the stories like these are the ones that stick with me still. We like to think we have it tough in this world, but if it weren’t for that generation, things would be so much different.

    I want to come hang out in the van.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It would be one helluva squeeze, but you are my Squishy, and I would fit you in. I got my next story today – I was chatting to a patient and all of a sudden I realised he was telling me something *really* important, and a STORY – I swear my ears actually pricked up – so as soon as he was gone, I wrote a page full of notes about his story and YAY! I have my next one ready to write up soon.

      Yes – I bet you heard some wonderful stories there. Talking of wonderful stories, didn’t you have one about the shelter your parents ran when you were growing up, that you were going to tell? *nudges you in the ribs* I’m still waiting to hear that one.

      We don’t have it tough. Not at all. We don’t know how easy we have it.

      And thank you. I’m glad you could *see* him. That’s wonderful to know that my words had that effect.

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  6. I think I already told you this but D day is my father’s birthday and when he was 19 he was shot on a beach in Normandy. I’ll tell you the story some Friday night.

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  7. You have met some of the most interesting people in you job! And you being an easy person to talk to and a great listener makes you able to get these wonderful stories!! Thanks for sharing some of them!!

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  8. Pingback: THE WOODS BETWEEN THE WORLDS | Hastywords

    • Thank you Terrye 🙂 I’m learning as I go along, still. Having a bunch of new people to talk to each day is certainly helping that along – I have new stories to keep trying at.

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  9. I’m covered in goosebumps. Sometimes, with old folks, I feel a bit unworthy to even stand in their presence, because what I have to offer just cannot match up with the amount of life and lore they have accumulated over the years.

    Also, I am a very big fan of eyebrows that straggle off into space, and loved that detail!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes – that’s what I felt – very humble and very small, like I was in the presence of someone truly great, and had just recognised my own lack of value. A bit like putting one of those kiddie electric jeep toys next to a Bentley or something. I felt lacking. He was incredible. I hope he has a nice trip back to Normandy.

      *giggles* I’m glad you liked the eyebrows detail. Eyebrows are a pain because they straggle into the photographs and I have to take them again.

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    • Ah well you have me pegged, Rose – I am a poet. And thank you so much. I love that you felt you were in the story, listening to him. He had an amazing story to tell, and I’m glad the magnitude of it is coming over in the post 🙂

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    • Linda I was absolutely GUTTED because I wanted to have the rest of the day with him and learn all about it. But I wasn’t able to because of that damn work agenda. He was absolutely fascinating.

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  10. I can imagine quite a few things, but I think imagining the reality and devastation of D-Day is beyond my capabilities. I have seen that day recreated in movies and video games and I doubt any of them capture the true terror of that day.

    Men like him have seen horrors NO ONE should ever have to see. He is a hero, as is every one of the soldiers who stormed the beaches that day.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Oh, the things we will never be able to imagine. I’m sure anything we gather from hearing these stories is nothing near what that dear man experienced when he was nothing but a child. I have been watching stories on the news this week of soldiers past returning to the shores this week. So very powerful and I envy you being able to sit with this man and hear his account. Bless his heart.

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    • Yes – there was a short interview with an American soldier on local radio the other day, because he was going on the boats, back to Normandy. He said it would be the last time he’d be able to go, as he was 91, and wouldn’t make it back again, and that has haunted me ever since – something will come of that.

      But this guy, yeah – he was incredible, and I was so lucky to be able to hear his story and learn more about the reality of the dry and dusty accounts of the history books.

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  12. Wow! What an interesting story! I learned that there were a group of German soldiers up in an encampment in the mountains in Italy (during WWII) where my boyfriend’s dad grew up. He said he used to hang out with the soldiers and they would teach him German and that they were nice to him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very cool. I’m sure it’s so easy to vilify ‘the other side’ and dismiss them as evil monsters, but they were also just men, serving their country, for the most part.

      I’m glad he had a positive experience of them.

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  13. My grandfather was an old soldier with vivid memories – and none of us really knew how much so because it wasn’t until very late in his life that he actually began to share them. They are sad and beautiful and powerful. He was a Battle of the Bulge vet and had some unbelievable tales to tell.

    Liked by 1 person

    • See, I am so ignorant about history and wars – I only know that I’ve heard of the Battle of the Bulge, but could tell you no more about it than the name! I remember hearing stories from my granddad (who was an evacuee in WWII) and from my great uncle (who was an engineer in the RAF, and served in Africa during WWII) and their stories were incredible. I think my aunty made a book of all the family stories somewhere, but I’ve no idea where it is.

      But it’s amazing to listen to these tales our elders tell, and realise what an incredibly different world they inhabited.They are immensely powerful stories.

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    • Thanks Jana – that’s what I hope to achieve. I do meet some truly fascinating people. And some fairly repellent ones too – like the guy yesterday who kept belching, and then I left him in the camera room only to find (upon returning to him) that he had removed his shoes!!!!

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  14. My grandfather (Mom’s dad) is an old Marine that fought in the Pacific conflict side of WWII. My father is still trying to piece together and archive what little he’s said about it.

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    • Yes, I guess there’s a tougher job when the old soldier doesn’t want to re-live those moments, or does so in a sparse manner. What a time it must have been! Just underlines to me how clueless I am about the luxuries I enjoy.

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    • Yes – I think I alluded to him somewhere, but didn’t tell the whole story because I was keeping it for D-Day 🙂 He was an incredible man, and I heard that the ships left from the docks in Portsmouth today, to take the Veterans to Normandy to revisit those beaches. Wow.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Today is obviously the day you make me cry repeatedly with your writing. We are so sheltered in our little worlds, aren’t we? This is something we will never understand, never be able to truly empathize with. I cannot even imagine, but I am so thankful for men like him.

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    • Me too – I felt almost ashamed, for all my blithe enjoyment of a world which people had given their lives and their loved ones to protect. It was truly the moment which most brought home to me how VERY important the sacrifice of soldiers is, and how much I owe them.

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