We stand on bluffs high above the beaches where, on D-Day, Allied troops fought Hitler's army in what proved to be the beginning of the end of World War II.
See also: Self-guided D-Day tour of Normandy.
We walk fields where, more than six decades after the invasion on June 6, 1944, bomb craters the size of buses still scar the earth.
We squeeze into the concrete ruins of German artillery bunkers. And we visit the American cemetery where the remains of more than 9,000 GIs lie beneath a precise expanse of white marble headstones.
It's three days before Veterans Day, and I am in the Normandy region of northern France with my husband and our 12-year-old son. Brian and I chose to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary by pulling Jack, our seventh-grader, out of school for a history-filled vacation in France. With survivors of D-Day now deceased or well into their 80s and beyond, personal connections to the event's horrors and achievements are diminishing. With this visit, Jack will gain insight into a past that his generation may just touch upon in social studies class, or equate with little more than a cool video game series.
Unlike many historical destinations, Normandy wears its battle scars without the excessive intrusion of souvenir shops, fast-food joints and attractions better suited to theme parks. Much of the area, which is coastal and rural, remains much as it likely was in the 1940s (or, in many places, the 16th century). Seeing the landscape, and traveling the distances and medieval roads once traversed under enemy fire, you needn't be a World War II buff to be awed by what occurred.
And Jack is awed — in his understated, adolescent way. Being in Normandy has made real an event he knows a fair amount about through the film Saving Private Ryan and the DVD set of TV's Band of Brothers. The trip has also helped feed his curiosity about our family connections to the war: My heritage is represented by Italians and European Jews; my husband's late grandfather was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne, which participated in the Normandy invasion.
Like my son, I, too, am awed by our visit to Normandy, even though this is my third. It's also not the first time I've witnessed the inspiring power of a historic place. Long before Jack was born, Brian and I lived in Tokyo, where we befriended an older Japanese couple who lived on our street. When Mr. and Mrs. Kobayashi later visited us in New York City, they caught site of the U.S.S. Intrepid, the retired aircraft carrier-cum-military museum on the Hudson River, and wanted to go in.
My heart dropped when we entered an exhibition room that displayed, at its center, an American World War II fighter jet detailed with Rising Sun flags to represent each enemy plane its pilot had shot down. While I worried about bringing my Japanese guests to a celebration of America's victory over Japan, Mr. Kobayashi eagerly examined that plane, and everything else on display about the war's Pacific theater.
He and his wife were children in the 1940s and they remembered aspects of the war (especially the firebombings of Tokyo). But because postwar Japan sought to put its past away, the Kobayashis' generation wasn't taught much about the war itself. Our impromptu visit to the Intrepid had provided my visitors with a personal, intergenerational connection to the past.
In turn, these friends began to share with us their own memories of that time. Personal narrations, especially from people you know, can be invaluable. My own parents' stories about (for my dad) being of draft age during Vietnam and (for my mother) the limited rights and opportunities available to women decades ago give me insight and a connection to a time I'm glad to have arrived beyond.
Last month, while cleaning out the home of his recently deceased parents, my husband found a Time magazine special issue honoring D-Day's 60th anniversary. In one of the articles, 90-year-old veteran James Eikner recalled landing on the beach and scaling Pointe du Hoc: "Toward the sea the cliffs dropped off about 100 ft. on the average, from vertical to near vertical to actually overhanging.… [T]he enemy was leaning over and shooting at us and throwing down hand grenades by the bushel basketful."
My family and I read Eikner's account, and the recollections of other survivors, before and during our own tour of Normandy. It's not hard to imagine the terror that must have ripped through every soldier on and before D-Day. Listening to Jack these past few days, I know his first overseas excursion is having an impact.
"Imagine what it would be like to go on a long trip knowing that at the end of it, you would probably die," my son bluntly observes, pointing out how the same is true for soldiers who leave home for wars today.
I don't know whether Jack will ever speak up in a social studies class and share this spot-on observation with his peers. But I'm hopeful that, going forward, he'll understand that what might seem awesome in a war movie or video game, or even an afternoon of paintball, is horrifying to experience in real life.
Melissa Stanton is a former editor at Time Inc. magazines and a frequent contributor to AARP.org.