Some know that on the weekends during the summer, I’m a Jones Beach Lifeguard; it’s the “job” I would do for zero pay (you know the question I ask – What would you do for the sheer joy of doing it? – this is my answer). I wrote this piece for our Union newsletter back in 2004 and had forgotten about it until I saw Brothers (I won’t debate the inaccuracies of the movie) two nights ago. The message holds equally well if you’re at your own beach enjoying the day, or watching your local Memorial Day parade, or shopping in Home Depot. You’ll see plenty of veterans today.
What are you going to do when you come face to face with them?
As you walk down the beach this weekend – or any day for that matter – take a long look around; listen to the banter, the radios blaring, and the crashing of the waves. Some might think to themselves, “It can’t get any better than this.” Now imagine yourself doing the same thing 60 years ago, but instead of walking down to the stand, you’re one of 176,000 soldiers – nearly as many people who watched the Memorial Day air shows at Jones Beach. Most of these soldiers were your age – or younger. Saddled with nearly one hundred pounds of gear, they waded in from amphibious landing crafts while bullets whizzed by and mortar shells exploded.
Gold, Juno, Omaha, Sword, Utah – innocuous names for beaches on a grand military plan. These beaches, (today they are beaches as beautiful as ours), determined the course of the next 60 years. When our crowds become large and unruly, when beachgoers leave their garbage buried in the sand, when drunkards become brash and boorish, remember the words of Pvt. Charles Neighbor, 29th Division, who landed on Omaha Beach, “As our boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell.”
By nightfall of June 6, 1944, the beaches were secure – the bullets had stopped but more than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed. If you visit these beaches today, you would never know such carnage took place if it were not for the remnants of German bunkers and many American flags. The sands are soft to the touch and the waves often role in hollow. My Dad, 21 years old at the time, was part of 10th Mountain Division who defeated the Fascist armies in Italy one year later. He recalled how the defeat of the Nazis in France served to bolster the confidences of soldiers fighting Axis armies in other campaigns.
Dad is now 80 and frankly not in the best of health. But he is no different than any other old geezer you see at the beach strolling on the boardwalk, their heads covered with a VFW beret that is adorned with campaign pins, miniature bronze stars, and battalion buttons. These graying reminders of WWII probably sponsored your Little League team when you were a kid or gave you your first job. When they returned from the war, they never asked for anything in return despite the facts that many of their friends didn’t return with them after dying on the beaches in Normandy.
These men are your fathers and grandfathers; many wear hearing aids and knee braces – it doesn’t matter whether they’re nearsighted or farsighted, many can’t see too well. They live on fixed incomes and have to make decisions such as buying drugs or food for the month.
But I’m not here to offer a maudlin commentary on the treatment of WWII veterans. I’m here to implore you to do something that is long in coming: When you see these regal figures of our past at the beach, don’t walk by with your head down. Introduce yourself and shake their hands. Thank them for their sacrifice; ask them how they’re doing. Find them a place on the shore and give them an umbrella for the day. Make them Honorary Lifeguards for the day. Listen to their stories of D-Day.
Then as they leave for the day, smile and wave goodbye then turn around and look at the beach where we are privileged to spend a significant amount of our lives. Then think about Gold, Juno, Omaha, Sword, Utah and the thousands who died on those beaches 60 years ago so we can enjoy our beaches today.