Robert Haydon Jones and Matthew Levine

 

Matthew Levine
Deserted Pier

Inspiration piece

Bridge Back
By Robert Haydon Jones
Response

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Grass
By Carl Sandburg

PILE the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo,
Shovel them under and let me work —
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.

*********************************************************************************

“Oh Yank, you are very, very, good,” exclaimed the guide. Jimmy O’Hara had just solemnly declared that there was no way on God’s green earth the American assault troops had taken the bunker on the Dog Green Sector of Omaha Beach that Jimmy and his wife, Anne, and their old friends Bob and Gail Brady, were standing in.

It was a lovely June morning in Normandy on D-Day plus 67 years. Jimmy was gazing out the forward firing slot of the bunker at the sea. The low tide had just turned and was about where it was on D-Day. The beach ran for 200 yards of utterly flat, hard-packed sand from the water’s edge to the bunker. The MG42 that had stood here fired 1,200 rounds per minute. It couldn’t miss.

Jimmy turned and looked out the bunker’s enfilading firing slot. This was worse. The MG42 had swept down the entire width of the beach. There was no cover. In about an hour, 2,000 young American soldiers had been killed on this 500-yard section of Omaha Beach.

“I have to tell you,” the guide was saying to the others, “Your man, the Marine here, knows his stuff. I’ve been doing this tour for eleven years and nobody has envisioned the actual course of action here as he has.”

“Well, it is a really nice beach,” Bob Brady was saying to the guide. “I live on a nice beach quite a lot like it in La Jolla, California. I have a hard time imagining men killing each other on it.”

Jimmy had met Bob Brady on that beach close to half a century back. Wind & Sea beach was the primo surfing spot in San Diego. Jimmy was a salty, 26-year-old recon Marine on leave. Bob was a 21-year-old yeoman just discharged from the Navy after a four-year hitch.

Now Bob owned vast swaths of San Diego real estate. He was a big man – he looked like an old pro football lineman. He wore his snow-white hair shoulder-length, sported a Wyatt Earp handlebar mustache, raced Ducatis in Italy every spring, and did exactly what his wife, Gail, told him to do.

Jimmy thought about the difference just five years had made in their memories. D-Day was something out of a history book for the Bradys and for Anne.

Sixty-seven years back, Jimmy had listened to the live D-Day reports on the radio as they warbled in, rife with the familiar static and the washy underlay that came when words were squeezed out of cables that lay under the sea.

Then he had gone with his Mom and Dad to the Cathedral to pray. It was jammed. They recited the Rosary. As Jimmy chanted the ancient, rhythmic, soothing words, he closed his eyes and envisioned their prayers swooshing away from the Cathedral like barrage rockets up and over the Atlantic and down on the rotten Germans at the Landing Beaches.

The Brady’s and Anne were indulging Jimmy in this expensive full day custom tour with expert guidance supplied by a former English, SAS Paratrooper. For them, this could well have been a tour of any famous battlefield…Agincourt….Waterloo.

For Jimmy, D-Day was a shimmering day in his memory and in the history of man. Jimmy knew he couldn’t change the past. He accepted that he would never be old enough to volunteer to fight in WWII. Even so, he was forever deeply connected to the action, to the men and women who did the fighting and the dying.

Frank, his Unitarian minister, had told Jimmy that there were only two prayers: “Please” and “Thank You.”

Coming to this beach and standing in the midst of the battle, as he envisioned it, was Jimmy’s “Thank You” prayer for the men who had died to keep him safe when he was a child. The Nazi’s had murdered more than a million children. They would have murdered many more if they hadn’t been stopped.

This is a very beautiful beach, he thought. Even these bunkers and all the chunks of debris the authorities had decided to leave in situ were definitely second fiddle to the long, flat, glistening surge of the incoming tide just a few inches deep flowing over the killing ground – as if it were powered by a continuous, steady, puff-cheek, exhale along the ancient, pure, utterly flat, hard-packed sand.

“I am the grass.
Let me work.”

They traipsed along in silence back down the beach to the exit for the road and their van. They passed a jumble of sundered concrete and re-bar. Without thinking, Jimmy said, “This was definitely a big time secondary – really humongous.”

The guide did a little jig. “You are definitely the real deal, Yank,” he shouted. “No one knows this stuff unless they were here or went to school on it like me.

“The fact is two companies of Rangers were landed over here by mistake. The tide pushed them off course. As it turned out, they had landed on a relatively soft spot. They worked their way around to the rear of that bunker we were just standing in and took it out.

“Then they started cleaning out the other interlocking bunkers in the Dog Green sector. They tossed a satchel charge into a bunker right over there. Well, it turned out to be an ammo locker for the entire area and it blew up. The explosion killed 17 of the Rangers and God knows how many Germans. It marked the end of organized resistance on the beach.”

Jimmy kept silent. This wasn’t a place for talking. They climbed up the exit steps to the road. They turned and looked back down at the beach. It was hard to imagine that the greatest armada in history had landed here. That thousands of soldiers and French civilians had been killed and maimed here.

In thirty years or so, Omaha Beach would be like Agincourt or Waterloo or Verdun. Even when the old soldiers all died out, D-Day would endure in living memory until the last child of that time who remembered that day died. Thirty years would do it.

Jimmy looked back out over the beach at the glistening incoming Channel. He recalled a D-Day photo of a very young American soldier sheltering behind a star-shaped “Hedgehog” obstacle about twenty yards from the shore. Bodies were bobbing all around him. He looked terrified.

“Thank You,” Jimmy said out loud. “Thank You to you and all your comrades on behalf of myself as a child and as a man and on behalf of all the children and all the people you helped save from being murdered.”

Jimmy felt a surge of happiness. He had got his Thank You out. He was grateful he had the time and the money to travel to Normandy. He wondered if he might be the last such D-Day child to come to Omaha Beach.

They drove on to the American Cemetery overlooking the beaches. The guide had all the facts. 9,387 young men interred here – their average age, 22. The cemetery was dedicated to the youth of the world.

They meandered through the plots. Then Jimmy and Bob Brady and the guide walked on out to the plots closest to the cliff overlooking the beaches. The women found a bench and settled down on it. It was clear they felt they had seen enough.

Bob Brady said, “It is just so sad. I never expected this. It is too sad for me to stand. I feel bowled over with an unbearable grief. I feel I am doing wrong standing here.” He turned to the guide. “Do you know what I am talking about?”

“I do know what you’re talking about,” the guide said. “I expected that the veterans of D-Day and their family members would be emotional and almost all of them are, but the grief hangs heavy here. Most of the people I guide through the cemetery don’t want to stay long.

“It is hard on me too. Maybe the beauty of this place amps up the sorrow… the cliffs, the sea below, the greenery, 150 acres of geometric white grave markers. All I know is that almost all my clients get jumped by it.“

The three of them stood there for a few minutes in silence looking out over the white grave markers – and the sea.

On the way back to the hotel, everyone kept silent. It wasn’t an unfriendly silence. It was soothing. The women went up to their rooms. Jimmy and Bob conferred and tipped the Guide exactly 20 per cent. The guide said he was grateful. “I won’t soon forget you, Yank,” he said.

“Nor I, you,” Jimmy said.

After the guide left, Jimmy and Bob had a drink in the bar. “I’m still bummed out,” Bob said, “and I don’t know why. I mean we won the war. We stopped the Nazis. Why am I so sad?”

“Well,” Jimmy said, “We just visited a cemetery with 9,387 young men in it. I don’t think we are supposed to be happy.”

The guide had urged them to be sure they visited a nearby ancient bridge built by the Romans in 30 BC, so they left the wives napping in the rooms and drove on out about 12 kilometers till they saw the bridge just off the road about a half mile back.

It was a beautiful arch. Jimmy whipped out his iPhone and took a picture of Bob Brady pointing the way to the arched bridge in the middle distance.

The river had changed course over 2,000 years. The bridge now spanned the ravine the river had left. A remnant stream tinkled at the bottom of the ravine. There was no one else in sight.

Jimmy and Bob clambered up the old riverbank. There was a sign saying they should stay off – but the 2,000-year-old bridge beckoned and they strode across.

“You know, Jimmy,” Bob Brady said, “the men who built this beautiful bridge are long gone – but when I look at this bridge I don’t feel sad.”

“Well,” Jimmy said, “I don’t think we are supposed to be sad.”

 

 

 

18 Comments

  1. dave monroe
    Posted October 18, 2011 at 3:01 pm | #

    a moving, somber tale. The horror of what men can do in war, the majestic things men can create, as shown by the bridge. To know we are men, to know we can be horrible and majestic, and to be able to feel as we should feel about both. And to be thankful for the men who sacrificed their lives for our freedom. Powerful story.

    Excellent painting, too.

  2. Patricia
    Posted October 19, 2011 at 2:35 pm | #

    you need to put this painting in a upcoming exhibit. lovely!!!

  3. Sean Beaudoin
    Posted October 20, 2011 at 9:36 pm | #

    Really beautiful painting, very evocative story. A genuinely moving paring. I really like this format.

  4. Posted October 22, 2011 at 1:43 pm | #

    There was a war story about a bridge too far as I recall.I like this one better Bombs hinder bridges hasten. Well done . The quiet horror of nearly 10,000 vital 22yr olds being slaughtered hit me hard. For what ? real estate? power ? Thank you for a powerful evocative story

  5. John H. Tucker
    Posted October 22, 2011 at 5:02 pm | #

    “…the long, flat, glistening surge of the incoming tide just a few inches deep flowing over the killing ground …” A “thank you” for that.

  6. Charles DeFanti
    Posted October 23, 2011 at 12:15 pm | #

    Jones can reduce you to tears in a few lines. And who else can spin a poetic line like this, about radio signals no less…”rife with the familiar static and the washy underlay that came when words were squeezed out of cables that lay under the sea”?

  7. Ed Lambertson
    Posted November 5, 2011 at 11:45 am | #

    As a boy of 8 I remember the swell of pride we felt that day in 1945 as the reports of our sacrifice and accomplishment filtered back home to us. Your story has rekindled that memory , so important to remember. Thank-you

  8. Chris E.
    Posted November 11, 2011 at 12:49 pm | #

    Well done…it’s good to read this today, of all days. The mother’s wails from across the sea today, sound the same – as then, as 25, 250 & 2500 years before.

  9. Posted November 13, 2011 at 5:58 pm | #

    Not a senior citizen as yet, my memories of “B” movies and the latch key child playing war hero battlefield enactments, rekindles my youthful innocence of not wanting to wait to be a soldier. However, the Vietnam war made me rush to have my student deferrment and finally claim my winning lottery position. Reading your story makes me long for that innocence of the black and white of the bad guy, good guy roles. Makes me want to honor those that crossed that fateful bridge to protect our freedom. A profound sense of gratitude wells up in me for those that have served! Thank you Bob!

  10. Greg
    Posted November 20, 2011 at 7:05 am | #

    Both picture and story conjure up a series of powerful and somber images. The story really makes you think about – and remember – that unbelievable time – the tragedy – yet the unbelievably important victory. I shudder to think what history would be like without that sacrifice.

  11. daniel rees shulman
    Posted January 3, 2012 at 8:15 am | #

    Extremely moving. It captures the past and the present remembering the past.

  12. Quentin
    Posted January 18, 2012 at 12:59 pm | #

    Lovely story, Robbie. I especially liked: Frank, his Unitarian minister, had told Jimmy that there were only two prayers: “Please” and “Thank You.”

  13. Souren
    Posted February 7, 2012 at 6:41 pm | #

    A multilayered story, very well done, about time and memory. The Roman bridge at the end carries the weight of the whole narrative.

  14. paul zalon
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 1:28 pm | #

    Beautiful piece. Those 10,000 boys changed the course of history; I love how RHJ admits feeling proud and sad. The river changed its course, but the bridge stayed and the beach stayed and it’s all so terribly sad and wasteful and real. Matthew’s painting, while not of Normandy evokes that same sense of loss. Mr. Jones can evoke strong feelings in very simple and true ways.

  15. Malachy McCourt
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 9:19 am | #

    This story has an eloquent non ending like the war that so casually killed nearly 10,000 young lads in one fell swoop. There is no such thing as a just war or an unjust peace . Well done with an unsentimental look at banal horror as it is

  16. Chris Egan
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 9:47 am | #

    Amen.

  17. Charles DeFanti
    Posted May 27, 2013 at 11:36 am | #

    This should have been read at Arlington today, Memorial Day. Jones manages understatement like no one else.

  18. Evan Owen
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 2:21 pm | #

    Excellent and poignant. They on the precipice and we on the edge of a future without even the children of the war. I know that place and I hoe to return. This time with my thank yous at the ready.

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