Cherish your Freedom My Friends
by Bill Kurtze
This week’s blog is offered with the sincere hope that COVID is in our collective rear view mirror; it hasn’t disappeared but for most it is fading into the distance. Now it’s time for some of us to travel! Why don’t you come on along for the ride!
It’s a beautiful sunny Saturday morning. We’re at Gare St. Lazare in Paris anxiously awaiting departure of our train to Caen and the beaches of Normandy. Many of us have been there before but the memory fades after a decade of absence.
The last two days in Paris have been wondrous. Everything in full bloom - even love. We spent yesterday in the Tuileries. You remember? It’s the Palace on the right bank of the River Seine, directly in front of the Louvre. We strolled through beautiful gardens as if we were English gentry. Little do the ghosts of past French royalty know! Statues everywhere! God how the Caesars and Bonapartes loved themselves.
The Champs Elysee seems more crowded than usual. Commercialism remains rampant. You hear fewer and fewer people speaking French. Street fashion isn’t much different here, but only if you’re ordinary folk. The beautiful people however still line up to buy their “haute couture”; paying exorbitant prices for the latest must haves and don’t needs.
Like always, we walk and walk and walk some more seeing sites and enjoying the sounds, smells and tastes of everyone’s favourite city - Paris.
There’s the train conductor now. His whistle blows. The smokers grab a last long drag before throwing cigarettes to the tracks and rushing for an open door. We’re off to Caen and the beaches of Normandy. Somewhere in the background a female voice instructs as to where we’re going and how long it will take. I sure hope we’re on the right train. God I love the trains in France.
As we rush by graffiti lined walls it doesn’t seem to matter if we’re on the right train because we’re off on yet another adventure. Prophetically, our IPOD plays Barbara Streisand and the Bee Gees singing “Stranger in a Strange Land” leaving an old man to dream his dreams.
The next two days were both exhilarating and heartbreaking. Our hotel – La Dauphin - is typically French; service is excellent and the food c’est magnifique! If the chef wasn’t stolen from a famous Paris restaurant he should have been.
Our tour of the Caen Memorial Museum gives a measured dose of man’s inhumanity to man. The slaughter was unimaginable; The suffering incalculable. Particularly poignant was the inscription at the entrance of the building "The pain broke me, the fraternity relieved me, out of my wound sprang a river of freedom" (sentence by Paul Dorey, local poet who speaks in the name of Normandy).
Next it’s a whirlwind tour of some of the beaches - mainly Gold and Omaha. But it was Juno beach that held the greatest meaning for me as a Canadian.
We see German bunkers amazingly intact with rusted guns still pointing at distant targets long since gone. We see remnants of huge concrete mulberries, those temporary portable harbours designed for rapidly offloading allied cargo of war onto beaches during the Allied invasion of Normandy.
Thank God Rommel had fallen out of favour with der Fuehrer or the Atlantic wall would have been more impenetrable and the casualties more horrendous. Although Canada’s contributions are less well memorialized than those it commemorates at Dieppe, we still have much to remember and even more to be proud of.
It is fascinating to watch the reactions of the people who have made the pilgrimage to Normandy and, make no mistake, for many it is still a pilgrimage even after seventyeight years. People still collect the stones and sand from the beaches. Those on tour or at just at the cemetery seemed to be there to remember someone or at least to offer a silent prayer to those whose headstones read “known only to God”. Flags and flowers placed poignantly at graves of fathers, uncles, and brothers but in most cases just out of respect or in some deep seated sense of gratitude.
The little children played their war games as us older folks moved solemnly past one another trying to comprehend the magnitude of what they were witnessing and to capture their most memorable photographs.
Although today is not D-day, the mood for some seemed festive because anytime was a good time to celebrate what was the beginning of the end for the Boche. Vintage jeeps and motor cycles ridden by uniformed troops from every regiment criss-cross the countryside vanquishing imaginary enemies and recapturing lands long since returned to farming. Some dressed in exact replicas of the US 101st airborne – only they spoke French.
What would war be like without Hollywood; without Private Ryan and without the Band of Brothers? How would we ever understand our history?
Believe it or not we also met a number of Canadian Troops here as part of a major training program. You felt a deep sense of pride when you saw the Canadian Flag displayed predominantly on their shoulders.
And how would end such a perfect day? Well, you’d take a C-130 turboprop aircraft and you would have it fly low over the cemetery and dip its wing in silent tribute to all lost comrades!
What lessons did we learn, what were the takeaways? Cherish your freedom my friends because it came at one hell of a price, and, perhaps for the first time since War’s end, those freedoms are truly in danger! Quoting the late Winston Churchill, "One ought never to turn one's back on a threatened danger and try to run away from it. If you do that, you will double the danger. But if you meet it promptly and without flinching, you will reduce the danger by half.”