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Everyone has those moments in life were guilt just floods their system. Those moments come from days that start like any other, they get up go about their day being blissfully unaware of the powerful guilt to come. I am no different from the rest, my day started out in a fog of not knowing like every other day, sure I had certain plans like where to eat and what things to visit but you never really know what going to happen.
The day started out like any other while I was on the trip with People to People; the leaders walked from door to door in the hotel waking us up one by one. We had a smaller group, only 30 student ambassadors, usually there were around 50, but with only 2 students per room it took the leaders a good 20 min to make the rounds and make sure we were all awake.
That fine morning I was awoken at the beautiful hour of 5 AM, to make it even more wonderful we hadn’t gotten to the hotel until midnight the night before and weren’t settled and in bed until around 1:30. My roommate and friend on the trip, Maggie, grumbled and gowned while gathering her uniform. “God, its way to f***ing early for this.” I nodded in agreement making no comment on her language. We had strict rules while on this trip and one of those top rules was no swearing. Maggie and I tried to keep each other in check but on morning this that one it was hard to care if the leaders heard us or not. We only had a few days left, no way would they send us home for the slip of the “F” word.
I quickly opened the blinds, effectively making Maggie swear again while I covered my eyes. “I miss Paris already.” I grumbled under my breath. We had been traveling Western Europe for almost a month now, each night in a different hotel and a new city. Some places were breath taking like the roaming hills of Ireland or the bustling city of Paris, but as I looked out the window I might as well have been back home in Wisconsin. The land was flat with the same trees I see back home and the houses looked the same, the only difference being the signs were in French.
“I miss London more, were the hell are we anyway?” she really wasn’t watching her language anymore, I made a comment about some city in France while I dashed to the bathroom before she could; Maggie had a habit of taking long showers. I kept mine short while at the same time washing some of my dirty socks and pants. Moving every night meant there were no washing machines so if you wanted clean clothes you had to get creative.
I came out uniform on and hair pulled in a pony tail, while carrying my wet clothes over to a laundry string Maggie had set up. She was frantically going through her suit case looking for a clean pair of sock that matched her uniform, meaning they had to be white; nothing else really goes with Maroon. “I really need to do some washing.” I nodded in earnest, some of her clothes had gotten a little stinky but after a month of traveling with 12 boys who don’t wash anything ever, I couldn’t complain too much.
We headed down to the lobby for role call, calling out our number when it came to us. We then headed to the dining hall for breakfast. Throughout the dining hall I could hear the low rumble of complaints about eating the same thing almost daily, French bread with butters and jams with eggs and fruit; your pick of hot chocolate or water. Maggie rolled her eyes as we took our seats next to Sarah and Jamie our fellow traveling friends.
We poked at our food; our stomachs not really awake yet, while we half listened to Jill the head leader ramble about what we would be doing today. The only thing I really caught was a long bus ride, fantastic.
We practically lived on buses, but it was the cheapest way to travel with so many of us. The buses weren’t all that bad really they were coach buses with nice fuzzy seats and outdated TV’s hanging from the ceilings, but the best part was the radio which every day our Tour guild, Sadie would wake us up with the song “love today.” At first I found it a little annoying but after a week I found I couldn’t really get up and going until I heard that song. Maggie crudely said after I mentioned this to her that “she Pavlov’ed your ass.”
After finishing our meal we climbed on the bus, groaning at the chart Jill had placed by the driver, assigned seats again. Jill was making it her goal for everyone on the trip to become the best of friends, the seating chart was her way of getting us to spend time with different people in hopes that magically on that bus ride, when most of us slept or listened to music, we would become friends. I found it to be a mute point since we only had a few days left. We liked who we liked and that was the way it was.
I scanned the list; I was sitting next to Jeremy, a nice guy we had talked before so the ride wouldn’t be too awkward, I then noticed Maggie was sitting next to Mike. He was a sweet guy there was no doubt about that, but he was one of those kids who thought it was okay to shower only once or twice a week.
I tried to hide my laughter by quickly walking to my seat, Jeremy was already sitting and half asleep. The bus roared to life and the song started playing. It still didn’t fail to put me in a good mood; other students, already pissed at the surprise seating chart and early wake up, yelled to turn it down or shut it off. Sadie ignored them all and softly spoke to the driver telling him where we were going.
The ride was uneventful most of us dozed off or had our head phones safely in our ears. No one was really talking some too tired others didn’t want to talk to their companions.
I noticed the scenery start to change what was once boring grass fields were now rolling hills and blue ocean.
Sadie then told us our destination, Normandy Beach. We all gave a squeal of delight, we had talked and read about it in so many museums it was unreal that we were finally there.
But once we got off the bus I was confused. There was only one small monument telling the story of Normandy but other than that a person would never know the horror that beach had seen. There were families running around playing in the surf, children building sandcastles and dog playing fetch. It was strange that once years ago this place was littered with dead bodies and now kids were playing in that very sand. It made me mad and I could tell I wasn’t the only one. Our tour guild was rambling on about Normandy and what it’s become but I ignored her.
We loaded back on the bus and for the first time that day Jeremy spoke “its bullshit,” I understood what he meant, he had told me the story a while ago when we first met. His grandfather died on that beach, and to see people laughing and enjoying it now seemed so wrong.
For the next hour and a half we listened to the tour guild drone on and on about France as we drove around the small town. She pointed out buildings and tired to throw in some jokes to spark some life in us, but we were too tired and too disappointed to respond.
“Okay children last stop of the day.” I wanted to cheer I was sick of her voice. She didn’t say where we were going but she did tell us to straighten up a little bit and look a little more presentable. I was confused we were in our walking uniforms today which meant large crowds and usually not very fancy.
Energy had started to zing out of people then, discussing what we could possibly be doing, and since no one was sitting next to who they wanted, we were screaming across the bus to talk. But then I noticed something just ahead of us on the road. It was very propionate and hard to miss, it was the American flag.
All I could think about in that moment was why was there an American flag. We had already been to the US embassy and this place looked more like a garden than a road to a building.
“Alright everyone we’re here, the Normandy Cemetery for the USA.” A hush fell over the bus. We rolled past iron gates that opened up to a lush green lawn. But beyond that lawn was row after row after row of white granet crosses. Every single one the same size and shape the only time this pattern deviated was when the occasional Star of David popped up.
On this trip we had been to countless museums and war statues that told us about the two wars and how traumatic they were, but seeing the thousands of crosses and knowing what laid beneath them made it all so real.
Slowly we made it off the bus and followed our guild to a big circle of white statues and American flags. Around this circle were dozens of flower arrangements some still wrapped in plastic others neatly placed in flower pots. But my eyes were not drawn to the colorful flowers or the intimidating pillars; no they were drawn to a group of men staring at the flag being hoisted up the pole. Their hands were placed over their hearts before “Taps” could even start.
One man sat in a wheelchair, one leg hanging loosely the other cut off at his knee, he held a pocket sized picture in his hand that he kept over his heart, another man stood behind him in full uniform. There were a dozen or so other men all very old and white haired, some with limbs missing others with missing expressions, but they stood together as if they were old friends. Some held hands, others rubbed backs in encouragement. Nurses and younger family members stood to the side, dabbing tears away with white handkerchiefs or quietly whispering.
As I gazed on I felt the same hot salty water falling down my face, my heart pounded heavily in my chest as I thought about what these men had seen and done. I thought about the men buried in the ground and what they put on the line so America could be what it is today. A hand found its way in mine while the other passed me a crinkled tissue. I looked up and found Maggie crying as well, we averted our eyes to the ground in a vain attempted to clear our minds.
We stood off to the side while some people from our group were picked to place flowers at the memorial, we didn’t even bother raising our hands to volunteer. We talked in hush a voice about our grandpa’s who fought in this war and how our lives would be different if they were buried among these men.
“Everyone you have one hour to walk around, remember to stay in groups.” Maggie, Jeremy and I stayed in a group. We walked in silence either finding there was no need for words or we couldn’t find the words; we just walked. We didn’t stop walking until we intercepted the man in the wheelchair and his family. He noticed our tears and waved us over. He didn’t start out with the common bullshit greetings and asking about our days or talking about the weather; no he jumped right into his story.
He talked for a good 15 min, he told us about the day he was called to war, and how he was so excited to become a hero. His family threw a large party and before he knew it he was overseas gun in hand, and on the front lines. He told us about the many battles that seemed to go on for days on end with nonstop gun fire or cannon fires. We listened as he talked about how he was scared to make friendships because they were so easily ripped away, and how after only a few weeks he scared himself when he could sleep while guns were shooting around him.
He then told us about one friend he had. They were friends before the war and had somehow ended up in the same platoon. They kept each other entertained with stories from the good old days and new stories that came in letters from back home. They stayed by each other’s side whenever possible, earning the nick name the Siamese twins. But that was all ruined for him during an “ordinary” battle.
He spared us the gory details but simply said, “That was the day I lost my leg and my best friend.” Maggie was gripping my hand so tight it hurt, or maybe I was gripping her hand; I don’t think either of us really cared. Our faces were wet with tears and Jeremy tried to hide his but soon gave up and wept with us. We tried to keep our sobs silent because the man wasn’t done yet.
“They gave me a purple heart for that day; I wanted to chuck it in a river. The war stole my leg, my mind, and my best friend, and they try to give me a medal as if that made it okay. I’ll tell ya kids something drink up every day of childhood because the moment you become an adult life goes right to hell.”
He then just stopped talking and gazed at the grave in front of us, “he should have come home with me.” He laid a single flower on top of the stone and rolled away, his family gave us a little wave then stumbled after him.
The rest of that day was pretty quiet, no one talked on the bus and no one talked at dinner. Everyone was too focused on what they had seen and what they had heard.
Some stories from that trip have been lost to my mind, some names and faces forgotten; but the day we went to Normandy is a day I can never forget. I can never forget the man and his story or the way his face scrunched up to keep from crying or the way I wanted to hug him and let him cry. That sea of white crosses still enters my mind from time to time. The image pops up when the news talks about the war and I think, will there one day be a cemetery like Normandy’s over in Iraq?
How many purple hearts will be passed out for this war? How many people have to die before we get out? They say war changes a man, and I can confidently say war memories change a woman.