Editor's Page

By Alejandro Grattan-Domingez 

The Day the World Held Its Breath

 

This last June 6th marked the 65th anniversary of D-Day, a day in which the future of the entire world literally hung in the balance. To honor the men who fought and died in the invasion of Normandy, the presidents of the United States, Britain, Canada and France gathered at an American cemetery on a bluff overlooking one of the four beaches onto which 150,000 Allied warriors would storm over the course of June 6, 1944 and in the days that immediately followed.

The invasion would mark the beginning of the end for Hitler’s once-invincible Third Reich, but it came at a huge cost. Nine thousand Allied soldiers were killed the first day and within a month there would be another 120,000 dead and wounded. But these men had both history and unity on their side, and of the many unforgettable moments that marked the battle was how thousands of men who had been wounded refused to allow themselves to be taken away from the front lines. What drove many of those courageous men, thousands of whom were teenagers just out of high school, was best summed up by a young American major with a flair for poetic language: “Many of us sensed that we had come to the hour for which we were born.” 

The logistics of that invasion have never been equaled, either before or since. The Allied Armada included 5,000 ships, 250,000 vehicles, several portable piers, thousands of planes and 20,000 paratroopers, all in support of an initial battle that was won ultimately on the beaches, one grain of sand at a time. These men had vowed that freedom would not be pushed back into the sea. Within that commitment, they were carrying the hopes of one age and the dream of all ages.

Upon the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the invasion, Presidents Obama, Brown of England and Stephen Harper of Canada all made memorable speeches. But perhaps the most touching was the speech by France’s President Sarkozy, who went out of his way to thank the United States for the huge contribution it had made to the liberation of France. Centuries earlier, France had been the American colonies first great ally and had sent over one of its best military technicians, General Lafayette. During the First World War, when the American Doughboys (of whom my father was one) landed in France, General “Blackjack” Pershing had paid homage to America’s debt of gratitude by saying: “Lafayette, we are here.”

The somber backdrop for the recent anniversary was the American Cemetery, where over 5,000 men have been laid to their final rest, a sight which prompted reflection not only on D-Day but on World War II itself. It has been called the “last just and great war.” Historians can argue about that but what is indisputable is that America has never again been so united.

At the site of another great battle, President Lincoln expressed it best when he said, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

Eventually, the United States would lose more than 250,000 men in that heroic war. But those five thousand men buried in France seemed to be speaking for all the other brave men in whispering that we should always have the same overwhelming reason as we had in WW II before we ever again send men off to die. 

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My mother, in her fortieth year (1951), might have been mistaken for Elizabeth Taylor coming and Susan Hayward going, and was frequently asked by strangers if she were in “show bidnis.” Naturally, the next door neighbor, Miz Barr, a stout lady, hated Mama with intensity bordering on insanity, and watched our house almost constantly from her kitchen window—you could see her shadow on the curtain.  

The neighbor on the other side, a pensioner from the Great War named “Hawkshaw” Hawkins, owned a Rottweiler bitch that only had one pup at a time—which pup, at ten months old, had invariable achieved the size and general demeanor of a yearling rhinoceros, and was meaner than two acres of copperheads. Old Hawk kept his dogs tied up and he tormented them until they were nothing but devils; then he sold them to junk yards or oilfield supply depots or self-storage places for guard dogs, and got a good price.

There was a seven foot high fence around his property but he kept the dogs on chains anyway and these chains were about eight feet long. One morning his latest protégé, named Sugar Pie, thoughtlessly jumped over the fence and hanged himself. Mama was in the back yard watering when he did it, and she threw the hose down and rushed to the dog’s assistance. Uncle Carl was on our roof fixing our air conditioner and he told me about it when I got home from school.

“Your mama was watering the lawn in a mighty fetching halter top and tennis shorts when that big ol’ pup jumped the fence, but his chain only let him down on this side to a point where his toes just touched the top of the ground, and stretched out like that he was just about as tall as Opal was herself. She had him around the chest and pinned to the fence with the length of her body and was trying to shinny him up it far enough to loosen his collar and let him down. She was doing this by trying to hunch him up an inch at a time with pelvic thrusts, and the whole time the pup was helping by pushing down on her shoulders with his front paws and down on her hips with his back paws and making a kind of strangling sound like a canine demon in throes of sexual rapture.

“Then,” Uncle Carl hooted through his laughter, “Then…the pup’s collar broke and your mama fell down on her back and her legs flew up with the pup between them struggling to regain his breath and his feet and it must have been about then that Miz Barr glanced out the window and saw what she “thought” was going on and called the cops.”

“Good Lord,” I said. “What happened then?

“Well,” Uncle Carl said, wiping the tears from his eyes with his hanky, “by the time the squad car got here, Opal and the pup had got themselves untangled and Mr. Hawkins had come and got his property and mama was back watering the lawn when the cops walked back and wanted to know what was going on. Mama smiled her smile of puzzled innocence and said, “Why nothing at all, officer.”

“We got a report of animal abuse.”

Mama fluttered her eyelashes and turned her head in an attitude of gorgeous disbelief, and the bedazzled cops went next door to speak to Miz Barr about the nasty penalties for filing a false police report. 

 

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