About 12 years ago, Professor Jim Foster and I took a group of George Fox students on a trip to Europe that centered on the American experience in World War II. We started in London and visited one of the finest war museums in the world – the Imperial War Museum. We then traveled to Dover, took a ferry to Calais and from there visited the French city of Bayeux. Once we settled into the hotel in Bayeux, we prepared for a two-day tour of D-Day sites with our British guide.
As we boarded the bus the next morning, I noticed most of the students were carrying glass jars. That seemed curious to me. Of all the things one might pack on a trip to Europe, why pack a glass jar with a lid? So, I asked. The response was a bit befuddling to me: “We are going to put sand from Omaha Beach in our glass jars and take it home!” I have to admit I really didn’t understand why they would want to take home sand from Omaha Beach. After all, June 6, 1944, happened more than 60 years ago, and there was no way that any of the sand our forces touched on that day was still left on that beach! As a relatively matter-of-fact historian at the time I thought it was fine to appreciate the sites, but packing sand from a beach that represented activity in the distant past did not seem worth the effort. Certainly you should appreciate what happened here, but taking the sand seemed just a little “childish.”
One of the most difficult things to do in life is to admit when you are wrong. At the time, I clearly did not understand the importance of the sacred activity our students joined in on that morning. I later learned that almost everyone who brought a glass jar knew intimately someone who had been on Omaha Beach or was involved in the D-Day operation. The sand they gathered was not for themselves but for the people they knew. They later told of delivering the sand to great-grandfathers and great uncles – and their friends who received the jars of sand with tears. Somehow, a little glass jar with sand from a beach where thousands of lives were sacrificed for the cause of freedom against tyranny carried a depth of meaning that almost no other gift could. It is one thing to consider objectively that almost 9 of 10 men who hit Omaha Beach in the first wave were killed. This gift required that one use their imagination to transport back to that day and consider what it would have been like to have been there. That is not an easy task but far more important than remembering numbers.
Ruth and I just came back from France, where we enjoyed an outstanding Viking Cruise. Toward the latter part of the cruise we took a day-long tour of D-Day sites. The sites were the same, essentially, as the ones we visited with students 12 years earlier. This time, however, we were traveling with many older Americans and some who had experienced firsthand the Korean War (there are few WWII veterans left). Many walked quite slowly, often with canes, as they tried to navigate the sites and imagine what it was like to have been there so long ago.
When we reached the American cemetery, the staff had arranged a special ceremony. As I already noted, I am part of a skeptical generation, and I wondered “What now?” They assembled us around the American monument and, following a brief comment on the American cemetery, they gathered all the veterans present. It was a good group. We all then turned and faced the flag as The Star-Spangled Banner began to play. I don’t think I have ever experienced anything as moving, from a national perspective, as that moment. Everyone we could see in the cemetery stopped in their tracks and began to sing. What happened there transcended the actual event as people entered into the experience. Tears flowed down cheeks and people choked on the words as they tried to sing. As soon as we were done, a French soldier began to play taps, and all you could hear was that bugle, playing quietly amidst thousands of crosses and Stars of David. Then, we were given a flower and asked to place it on a grave. You would not believe the thoughtfulness of every member of the group as they later talked about the thought process that went into deciding who they chose. It was an afternoon we will not soon forget.
Following the experience at the cemetery we moved to Omaha Beach. This time I was the one with the jar. As soon as I left the bus, I walked to the beach and filled my jar with sand – the sand of Omaha Beach. Oh, I know it is not the actual sand experienced by the soldiers in June of 1944. But in a world that is so short of symbols of greatness, that sand represents the sacrifice of real heroes who gave the “last full measure” in an effort to roll back the tide of tyranny. Now the jar sits on my desk in the president’s office of George Fox University – a constant reminder that our experience of freedom is built on valiant men and women who sacrificed greatly for their children and their children’s children.