We approach the beaches from the south
in what was Nazi-occupied territory,
a lumbering tour bus filled with teenagers,
most on their first European tour.
As we draw closer, each successive village bears
more American flags in the windows that line the streets,
some with messages of gratitude like
merci and thanks you, America.
I chaperone these newly-graduated, newly-minted adults,
which mostly means that I tell them they need
to go to bed or what time they need to wake up and be ready to roll
or I threaten that if they stay out too late or break the rules
by drinking in a French bar, I might have to call
their parents, who await their return with anxious hands and hearts.
That was before we stopped near the beaches
nicknamed Juno and Omaha in American lore,
near the sprawling cemeteries on the bluffs,
the cold wind off the Channel whipping our skin,
making our eyes tear up,
buffeting our jackets as we peered out to the north
from the sidewalk café where we sipped rich chocolat chaud.
That was before an ancient man in an old Canadian military uniform
pointed at the choppy sea and the scuttling clouds and said to us,
or to no one in particular, that day was just like this, cold and grey.
And we shivered, grateful to him and the others
– for their courage, yes,
but also because we weren’t in that water,
loaded with gear and guns,
dodging German bullets and mortars, and
trying (not) to envision those
aspects of war that old soldiers never mention.
That was before an old American man boarded our bus to share
his testimony: I was here, he said, voice shaking.
I was here, and I saw things no one should ever see.
I don’t know, he started, and stopped, looking at each of us,
why I lived and why my buddies didn’t. He paused again,
his intense eyes becoming shiny,
then, they were good men.
He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his nose
and the bus was brimming
with our soft weeping and sorrow, and
we tried to reconcile the textbook image of hero with this
very real man who stood before us, gripping the back of the bus seat
to steady himself: I was here, he said again, and now he looked at
the boys on the bus, and I was your age.
He turned, and his middle-aged son, camera strapped to chest,
appeared to help his father down the steps
as we called out inadequate thank yous.
Somehow, I think he meant to tell us other things,
what it was like that day and what he did in the war -
until he saw these boys on the bus.
Even fifty-five years can’t bury some things.
That was before I was a mother, before I could plumb
the dark depths of love and fear those boys’ mothers
must have reckoned from the other side of the Atlantic,
without benefit of a phone call from a chaperone,
on their sons’ first European tour.