Life Marches On and Only a Few Hold Onto the Echoes of History
My life as I knew it was over, I thought. No matter what kind of therapy they throw at me, I will never ever be able to have a moment of peace again. I was in command of an infantry platoon and we were ambushed in a murderous crossfire. Only three of us survived; the other 30 lay dead out there to rot in the elements. I knew I would never be able to recover from this. The sense of loss and total failure was indescribable. My life would be absolute and total misery.
I opened my eyes and sat up, disoriented. Did not know where I was, or who I was. Out the window, I saw the familiar cityscape. So far so good. This had been a graphic and palpable nightmare. My wife Dorothy lay fast asleep. Markie, my labrador, moved toward me wagging his tail. I was more than relieved.
I don’t usually remember dreams, but that dream from six years ago is still fresh like it happened last night. Where did this come from? Some sort of “circuit of memory” from another life? I don’t know.
I relayed the dream to a close friend who said, “Steve, that is not normal.”
I had never served in the military.
“I am aware of that,” I said, “I’m just telling you what happened.”
In 2007, I met with Jan Scruggs, the brilliant veteran who founded the Vietnam Veteran Memorial Foundation that created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. Scruggs asked me to make a painting for a museum as he began to raise funds for it. The Education Center at the Wall was to be dedicated to all who ever served in the U.S. Armed Forces and would be located adjacent to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It has not moved forward. Scruggs had a Congressional allocation to build the museum adjacent to the wall.
“What are you thinking about?”
Truth to tell, I wasn’t thinking about anything, but I had to say something.
“I see soldiers crossing a field.”
“OK, but make it with soldiers, soldiers from the eight uniform eras of the United States Army,” he said. Tremendous concept. Scruggs is a visionary.
The 42-by-78-inch painting, Legacy, got made but never deployed with Scruggs. Legacy sat in my cubbyhole storage area for years before someone saw the image and said, “What if those soldiers could step out of that painting and tell their stories?” Wow. I commissioned a talented young playwright, Mat Smart, and together we put up the stage play The Steadfast. It was about the effects of war on soldiers and their families through the ages. The entire experience took me deep into the notion of soldiering through the ages. It fed my fascination and longing.
October 2013. I took a ride in an old B-17G, the Nine-O-Nine. These Flying Fortresses were key to the Allied victory in Europe taking the war to the German homeland. Before boarding, I circled the old Flying Fortress, taking in the gorgeous lines from every angle and marveling at the deadly effectiveness. These things were durable and deadly, exerting a decisive impact on the Allies defeating the enemy. I could not take my eyes off this stunning aircraft. Crawled into the tiny opening in the rear and found my seat at the radio man’s desk, on the port side on the wing next to the window. The four Wright Cyclone engines roared to life. I thought of what it must have been like with 40 or 50 of these beasts all fired up at the same time queueing up for another daylight bombing run over Germany. The gut-wrenching anticipation of the flak going and coming, and the Messerschmitts that would be screaming after us.
I spied a commercial jet waiting across the jetway and wondered what we looked like to them, this big beautiful olive drab B-17G from nearly a century ago. The Nine-O-Nine inched forward as the pull of the engines began to ease this magnificent monster down the runway. Slowly at first, and not much faster later, we lifted off the tarmac accelerating more horizontally than vertically. Then, the craziest thought came to me:
“I’ve done this two hundred times.”
It was absolutely familiar to me; the ineffable rattling and vibrations of this big old bird felt like home.
June 8, 1995. My third visit to Paris. I took a car and drove to Ouistreham, Gold and Sword Beaches on the eastern edge of the Normandy beaches where French and British troops came ashore. Two days after the anniversary of the invasion, late afternoon—gloomy, gray, chilly, and raining. Flowers and wreaths, poignantly wilted, laid at various small memorials along the promenade.
Award-Winning Journalism in Your Inbox
Across the street was a storefront museum, all in French. Displays of replicas of German, French, and Canadian soldiers, uniforms, gear, pistols, knives. Swastika emblazoned pewter plates and flatware. It was shocking. The Nazis were so damned cocksure of themselves, weren’t they. …
April 2013. Paris again. On that first day, Dorothy and I walked and walked. We, well I, just had to walk up the Champs Élysée.
At the base of the boulevard is the huge roundabout, the Place de la Concorde. I flashed on Hitler and his troopers arriving to this very spot in triumph in June 1940. The big shiny cars, the SS officers decked out in their haunting uniforms in a show of force, power, and evil, delivering a clear message to the horror-struck Parisians. We walked up the boulevard, and I saw the stormtroopers goose-stepping in perfect lines just five feet from where we walked. I saw those ugly Nazi bastards goose-stepping in maniacal precision with shouldered rifles and those goddamned helmets. I could hear the clatter of their boots, the growl of their motors. The Parisians stood stony-faced, stock-still. Barely breathing. In the movie Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart says to Ingrid Bergman about their affair in Paris, “I remember it well. You wore blue, the Germans wore gray.”
At the top of the boulevard, Dorothy sat down on a bench as we watched the cars, buses, and motorcycles race around the Arc de Triumph roundabout, incongruous and oblivious to what had happened here so long ago. I walked up to what I thought was an American couple of a certain age—my age—and struck up a conversation about what I had been thinking about.
They were English and they said they were thinking the same things.
“The irony is that our kids will come here and have no reference for any of that.” I said. Life marches on and only a few hold onto the echoes of history. And when those few are gone.
* * * *
Amsterdam, June 2018. The Anne Frank House. Sunny and warm in juxtaposition to what we were about to witness. We meandered through the tight quarters called the Secret Annex, where those eight souls lived in a balance of fear and resolve. Hunkered down for 761 days undetected by the Nazis who had control of the city. A textile factory on the lower floors. At night, six neighbors, called “the Helpers,” smuggled in food and supplies. No sound of any kind could be made during daylight hours. The single toilet could only be flushed at night. We ambled through the small rooms on the top floor and then came to an empty, creaky, wood-floor front room and a steep and narrow staircase down. I lingered in that room by myself for a full minute. The tall windows were covered with a translucent skin that allowed only the shadows of the trees outside to play on the scrim. I stood in silence. The shadow play gave way to the echoes of clatter of Nazi boots on cobblestone, the angry growling of the motorcycles, yelling of the officers, and terrifying barking of the big German Shepherds. Someone tipped off the Germans. They hauled young Anne and her crew to the trains, crammed them into boxcars, and ultimately sent them to their deaths in the camps. Only her father survived. To think of what had happened right here on this floor … I stood in that empty room, transfixed by the silhouettes of the leaves dancing silently in the breeze. I wanted to remain there in that blissful silence for centuries.
October 2019. Rome, Italy. Our 25th-wedding anniversary trip. A personal guided tour of the Jewish ghetto. We came to a cobblestone street, where the Germans had pulled up in a murderous rage. The Italian Resistance had killed 33 German soldiers, and the German commander called for 10 Italians to be executed for each German soldier. They dragged the Roman citizens out of their homes and executed those unfortunates right there where we stood.
It was at this particular house that a well-known Jewish woman was taken from her home and shot. Look down and you see the brass plaques, called “stumbling stones,” with the name of each memorialized person and a date. The guide kept talking, but I drifted off and could see the German soldiers coming forth from their motorcycles and trucks. The yelling and screaming of the officers, the clatter of their boots on the cobblestone, the growling motorcycles, the dogs, all culminating in the horrible kill shot ringing out, echoing off the buildings on this narrow street. There are more than 70,000 of these brass commemorative stumbling stones strewn all over Europe.
Back to 2013, Omaha Beach; April. Sunny, brisk, windy. We drove down that winding access road cutting through the hills that led down to the beach, and the magnificent Les Braves sculpture by French sculptor Anilore Banan. Tall shards of stainless steel reaching toward the sky.
Pulled into the car park opposite the cafe across the road. Suddenly, my chest tightened up, hard to breathe. The deepest of grief and sadness welled up my belly and chest, and eyes grew wet. I wanted to stay in the car and lose my shit, but I held myself tight. I didn’t want to upset Dorothy—make a scene—even though I felt overwhelmed. I should have let it all go, but I held on tight. Dorothy asked me a question as she got out of the car. I could not create a word in response and instead took a moment to gather myself.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I lied.
All that unspeakable horror still hovered in the air after all those years. We walked across the road and had lunch. It felt terribly disrespectful to eat lunch in this spot, where the American Army came ashore and fought their way into Europe decades before I bit down on a ham-and-cheese on baguette, washing it down with Orangina. I didn’t taste it, just filled the space in my gut. Ridiculous.
The exact spot was between Easy Green and Dog Red. We walked among the sculptures. Omaha is a long swath of beach. From the base of the bluffs to the water could be more than a quarter of a mile. At low tide we saw the remains of the sunken Mulberries, the structures Winston Churchill brilliantly dreamed up that served as floating docks the transport ships would use to unload material into mainland Europe.
You can walk into the German pillboxes up on the bluffs overlooking the beach. The tracks of the big guns remain in the cement floor. Completely surreal. Luckily, Hitler chose Calais as the spot where he thought the invasion would come. Erwin Rommell had his prized Panzer divisions, leaving only one at Caen, near Gold and Sword Beach; the other seven divisions were way farther east. Even luckier, the German Command did not want to awaken the sleeping fuhrer while Normandy was being bombed at 3 a.m., and Rommell was in Germany celebrating his wife’s birthday. Ike could not have planned that better had he been able to.
When the Allied predawn bombing began on June 6, 1944, the young Polish conscripts who occupied the pillboxes and gun emplacements on the bluffs were awakened to their final horror. At first light, they saw the vast Allied armada that would swarm ashore. They must have known they were going to die that day.
To get to the Normandy American Cemetery on the bluffs, we passed through a museum operated by the French that told the entire D-Day experience. Dorothy and I both teared up a number of times as it was all so overwhelming. A black-and-white photo caught my eye. It was of Gen. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied Forces who toiled tirelessly on cigarettes and coffee planning the invasion for more than a year. Ike had wanted to watch the proceedings in the English Channel on D-Day, but his staff absolutely refused to allow this. But Ike prevailed on D-Day plus one and sailed into the English Channel on an English minesweeper to view operations. The image is worth thousands of words. The general is gaunt, rawboned, and exhausted, all that tension sunk in and lodged in his neck and shoulders.
The American cemetery. You’ve seen it in Saving Private Ryan and countless other movies and photographs. It is pristine. Not a cigarette butt or candy wrapper on the grounds anywhere, absolutely devoid of any trace of trash. The headstones are erect and perfect in alignment as far as your gaze carries. The green grass is uniform. Engraved on the white granite headstones are the names of the soldiers and where they are from. The stones that hit you in the gut are unidentified remains engraved with, “…Known but to God.” A blanket of silence hangs over the almost 10,000 white granite markers. It is life-changing.
Our Journalism Depends on Your Support
Are we granted quick glances through windows to our pasts? Fleeting moments of sense memories that appear to be so totally real that somehow connect with synapses engraved deep into the soul? Do we dare allow these things to reach us in this life? What is to be made of all of this?
I can’t answer that, other than to say that these memories cling to the deepest parts of me in this life. They point in the direction of what to me is important. The willingness to open up to these seminal echoes has changed the course of my life, and aimed me in the direction of needing to tell these stories, to make these paintings to honor and remember the sacrifices made and given for our nation. I think all humans have the same desires—to love and be loved, to have a warm place to live, good food to eat, and the desire to live in peace, and to do work that is meaningful to them. All of these beautiful things are interrupted and destroyed by conflict leading to war and the destruction of the fabric of soldiers and their families.
The steel shards of the Omaha Beach sculpture reach in supplication, maybe asking the heavens to honor and protect those who lost their lives on that beach. And to ask for grace. To ask for the wisdom to teach us how to evolve as human beings, to live with each other in peace.