I don’t own waterfront property, but I enjoy a swim or beach walk as much as anyone. So, I confess that I count myself among those bemoaning the loss of beach. I did this up until June 6. That was the 75th anniversary of D-Day, when allied forces in World War II had a very different beach experience.
I watched the news coverage and some of the ceremonies that took place in Europe to commemorate the historical moment. I re-read the speech given by Ronald Reagan, written by Peggy Noonan, when we reflected on the 40th anniversary. He spoke about the “boys” of Pont du Hoc. I looked on TV at the legions of grave markers at the American Cemetery on that coast of France and recalled visiting there myself during a trip to teach in France about 10 years ago. I cried at the sight. I am somber once again.
We are in the habit in this current era to place much emphasis on defining generations. You see this in advertising, churches, education and elsewhere. People are defined and appealed to by the period of years in which they were born. People know if they are boomers, generation X, millennials, generation Z. It’s almost as if we know our generation more than our profession, ethnicity or character.
But, if we are going to obsess over generations, we should do so more over the generation that is departing us. The beach we are currently losing through seasonal fluctuations in water levels may come back. The ones who dealt with real tragedy on those beaches long ago are leaving us forever.
Hearing the interviews with a few nonagenarian survivors still stuns me. They were indeed boys, still in their teens or barely in their 20s. Drafted or volunteers, they nonetheless went into the dark certainty of a pivot in history. They had been told they were fighting a war to end all wars. They boarded Higgins boats, landing craft, knowing this could be their last assignment. They watched waves of their friends leave the boats into frigid water, a rain of bullets, then screams and blood. Then they went next.
Others jumped out of airplanes in what was then a new wartime tactic. Boys, paratroopers, floating down in foreign darkness to confront a grisly foe.
So many of that generation did what they were told, knowing they might die. They did what they were told and those who survived told little of their experience. They did not speak about what they saw because they saw the unspeakable.
We, meanwhile, all the generations who have followed, speak often of ourselves. We share on social media our experiences, more trivial than tragic. It’s OK. The members of the oldest generation who came back silently lived their lives. That’s what they fought for. To end a tyrant’s tight grip on humanity. To preserve and restore freedom. To no longer be soldiers, but to be workers and husbands and fathers and men. To allow us to do the same.
I realize others have been soldiers and have seen combat. I don’t know what that was like. But I cannot imagine it reached the level of horror recounted on the beaches and skies and fields of Europe 75 years ago.
Soon I might go to the beach, once the water warms and it is more comfortable. The worst I will experience, I imagine, might be flies, or a wayward beach ball, or difficulty finding a parking space. If so, I will remember another beach, and another generation. I will be grateful.
We all should revere the elderly. We should consider their greatness is measured not in technical gadgets but human generosity, not in hubris but humility. We should be respectfully mindful that the last of them are leaving us. The tragedy today for them — and us — is not what they faced on the beaches of Normandy, on Flanders fields, or in the decades since at home where they lived their lives and silently carried their grief. The tragedy will be if none of us has the grace and grit to rise to a level of greatness seen only rarely across generations.
I saw an old gentleman wearing a World War II veteran hat recently. I looked at him and smiled and saluted. He looked initially surprised, then he smiled and nodded. I don’t know what he saw long ago. I hope that day recently he saw respect.
About the writer: A collection of columns by Tim Penning, Ph.D., is in the book “Thoughts on Thursdays,” available at The Bookman.