Smithsonian Magazine, July 5 2012
It’s the 76th Anniversary of D-Day, I am humbled once again by the bravery man can exhibit and, how given a task, teams of likeminded people across cultures and nations can come together and achieve a goal. Striving for these noble undertakings (in this case releasing the world from Nazi occupation) people can be so selfless and strong putting themselves forward for a bigger, better cause. People can use communication and intelligence and sheer will of heart to work together to overcome the wrongnesses in the world.
It is not without cost. My family lost my Uncle Bill as his flat-bottomed boat struck a mine whilst he cleared a path to Normandy in his minesweeper so that others could follow through the English Channel safely. I am so grateful that that loss is marked by the cemeteries of Colleville-sur-Mer with fields of white crosses, stars of David and in my uncle’s case, for those lost at sea, a wall of remembrance with each name etched deeply in the marble. The wall is white so you can fill the name with the wet sand the caretakers give you when you register your loss with them and they walk you to the spot where your family member is forever remembered and given thanks for. The wet dark sand of Normandy lets the name be seen. The names, there are so many of them from the Utah, Gold, Omaha, Juno and Sword beach landing sites and beyond. The names so important to be held in honour, to mark the loss but also the life. The names which last beyond the body and represent what cause they fell for. The first time I went to the Normandy I was on a semester abroad programme with my university and our teacher had organised a visit to the Musée du Débarquement in Arromanches where you can to this day see among other things the “temporary” landing platforms – the genius of the logistical planners for creating docking areas so once the beaches were won and the invasion begun, the Allies could continue to arrive and reload with reinforcements and support. The museum display is just a few miles from the famous cemeteries so when we finished our tour only to realise that the cemetery was soon to close, my teacher called ahead to let them know we were on our way, and we were quickly hustled on to our tour bus and driven quickly through the deep brown and Kelly green of the Normandy countryside. All along the way watching the La Manche/English Channel on our right as we wound through the roads trying to fathom, from the overlooking cliffs, how anyone had worked themselves up to land there and fight their way to the top. You realise how individuals would never have made it. How, as we’d learned at the museum, it definitely took a united effort to achieve the taking and winning of this territory.
I remember being sobered as we approached the gates and saw the endless lines of memorials. I felt a bit disappointed from my spot at the back of the bus when I noticed the gates were actually shut and there were some official looking men standing by the entrance. The bus stopped and my teacher stepped off and over to the small group and proceeded to have an earnest discussion with the men. After a few moments, he returned to the bus and waved at me shouting,
“Kelly, can you come here for a moment?”
I double checked he wanted me placing my hand on my heart and mouthed,
“You want me?”
And he said,
as he pointed towards the men at the gate. I stood up and weaved my way down the aisle of the bus and I remember it quieted as I stepped past my classmates. My teacher was waiting at the bottom of the bus stairs and walked with me to the men. Unsure of what was intended of me I mentally rehearsed what I might need to say in French not being as fluent as I would liked. A man with a cap, white shirt and braces who looked more like a worker than military personnel was the first to put out his hand. I glanced to my teacher who nodded. The gentleman looked me directly in the eyes as he took my hand in both of his, slowly shook it and with a heavy French accent said simply,
I stayed silent not sure what the thanks was for. He released me and then the next man along, more of a curator type in a suit again, took my hand and squeezed it, studied my face for a moment and with utter seriousness again clearly said,
The last man was in military uniform. He followed the same grace of, seeing me, treating me with utter respect and he asked in English,
“So, you lost someone in Normandy?”
And I responded in English,
“Yes, my father’s brother, William Parichy, he was on the USS Osprey and died on the 5th of June, 1944. He was on a minesweeper. They never found his body.”
The officer nodded. Cast his eyes down in reverence and then he, too, took my hand.
“Thank you for your sacrifice,” he said. “Please know, the French never forget”.
And then they proceeded to unlock the gates, just for our bus, to let us through so I could go and honour my Uncle Bill. I could find his name. Fill it with the wet sand. Remember what he fought for. Give thanks for his life. And be determined to live up to his sacrifice. Not take it for granted. I got to say his name even though he no longer breathed; I got to honour him.
So in the quiet of this morning, as I think about this anniversary I also consider the matters of the world. The global upheaval we find ourselves in as we battle a pandemic along side looking for justice and wanting the world to live up to my uncle’s sacrifice. I think about the Pledge of Allegiance Uncle Bill would have said, I learned in my kindergarten class in America and said everyday of elementary school, and I even taught Megan and Christy when they were in school in North Carolina. The Pledge of Allegiance, an almost Our Father prayer of a pledge. I consider how much I want the country of my birth to live up to the pledge it taught me to say, that people have fought and died for.
I pledge of allegiance to the flag and the UNITED States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with LIBERTY and JUSTICE for ALL.
When I say the pledge in my head certain words stand out to me. I consider them a simple mantra which I pray my country finds in its collective soul to remember and live up to…’united’, ‘liberty’, ‘justice’, ‘all’.
And having lived in England for the better part of thirty years, I also appreciate it’s not just the US I want to do what I know it can do. I want the whole world to move forward with a vaccination, a cure for what kills and pains us, especially the Black members of our societies. This is not just a movement that one person, one community, one country can fight and win. This needs to be something we do together. Something we unite to abolish from our world – like the Spanish Flu of 1918-1920 and Nazism of the 1940s. I am certain this is not something we can do alone. This is going to require reinforcements and support and pitié/mercy whatever language you speak.
Now flicking through the bombardment of stories, images, videos flying at me like a military bombardment, I am looking for inspiration to guide me. Us. Finding it not just in the D-Day landing operation, but also by looking up. In the past week we’ve been reminded of the spectacular awesomeness of space travel. It is hard not to marvel at accomplishments when you watch the SpaceX launch and the astronauts arrive at the International Space Station. It all falls in line with my listening of the BBC World Service Podcast 13 Minutes to the Moon. A podcast that reviews the final thirteen minutes of the Apollo 11 voyage of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong as they left Michael Collins in the command module Columbia to orbit the moon while they descended to its surface in the Eagle. If you want to find an example of what people can do and how they can do it listen to this podcast. You will be astounded by the audacity of the undertaking. I was only two when they landed and for my generation and afterwards its amazingly almost unremarkable that humans have not only flown to, but landed on, walked on and returned from the moon a quarter of a million miles from our earth. Over the episodes we are reminded that the thirteen minutes prior to landing encapsulate all that was necessary to come together to make this achievement. All that a team of people, with respect, good communication, intelligence, and bravery, can do when they come together in a common cause. Especially with a strong leader setting their sites high and pressing them to their limits and beyond. Again and again you hear the Mission Control, engineers, mathematicians, physicists, designers, computer programmers and astronauts explain how it was possible because it was a successful team effort. From the moment JFK declared, “We choose to go to the moon” to Neil Armstrong stating “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” you have to use the strength, expertise, insight of each and every soul to make big things happen.
Michael Collins remarks about the response to the Apollo 11 team on their world tour after their return to Earth seems to reiterate this ”I was flabbergasted. I thought that when we went someplace they’d said, ‘Well congratulations, you Americans finally did it.’ And instead of that, unanimously, the reaction was, ‘We did it. We humans finally left this planet. We did it.’”
It just has to be a “WE” then and now. The connections we’ve felt and witnessed across different counties and cultures to battle the pandemic, the small acts of kindness we’ve shown to each other to make it better is a start to a better way of living. To even be moved to live up to the ideals of our forefathers and mothers and strive so the marches of 2020 lead to something new. Maybe a renaissance of ideals worthy of the Pledge promises of liberty and justice for all. We need to unify to do this. Respect and value each and everyone of us. As Obama encouraged us in his Medium article, How to Make this Moment the Turning Point for Real Change, it’s time to get working and maybe along the way you can remember how precious this world and its inhabitants are – no matter what colour pigmentation their skin has. You can remind yourself of the value of our interconnectness. You can awe at the power of our unity, respect its fragility and fight for what is right.
Then, maybe, perhaps, you can rejoice in the words of an astronaut from the Apollo 9 crew Russell Schweikart’s words describing his time in space looking back at our earth:
“As you pass from sunlight into darkness and back again every hour and a half, you become startlingly aware how artificial are thousands of boundaries we’ve created to separate and define. And for the first time in your life you feel in your gut the precious unity of the Earth and all the living things it supports.”
I’d argue that refers not only to our global climate especially as being regarded by the likes of Greta Thurnberg and David Attenborough, but it could be applied to its people. ALL of its people.
Finally, I wonder as we plot our landing, moving out carefully from under lockdown AND racial tyranny, taking small steps and with some luck giant leaps, if we can pledge for our rallying cry to be, not we go to the moon but:
“We go to equality. We go to good health for ALL!”