In most ways it was the usual scenario–me on the Stairmaster at the Y, making my way up those 200 or so artificial flights of artificial stairs, working my legs and heart and lungs, sweating, reading a book. But in a couple of ways things were different. One, aside from its usual activity-related pounding to keep up the blood flow, my heart was busy responding to what I was reading–the concluding chapters of Stephen Ambrose’s D-DAY.
The entire book is jammed with unfathomable and often poignant stories of bravery, tragedy, resolution, triumph, loyalty, but the last few chapters, covering some of the activity at the so-called British beaches, were particularly personal and touching as the soldiers and sailors fought their way ashore and made their way inland and began making contact with French citizens. There was the story of Private Robert Piauge, a French commando who’d fled occupied France to join De Gaulle’s Free French army but was now returning, so eager to get his feet back on French soil that he and some of his fellow commandos leaped off the landing craft into chest-deep water because they couldn’t wait any longer. He was the third Frenchman to get ashore.
But he didn’t get far. When he was less than halfway across the beach a German mortar shell exploded next to him, riddling his body with shrapnel and killing his best friend, who was hurrying along next to him. Lying bleeding on the sand, Piauge watched and listened as a British medic came up to him, examined him, gave him a shot of morphine, and declared him “fini.” He was finished, kaput, dead.
Piauge hadn’t waited this long and come this far just to die, though. He thought of his mother, who’d “protested tearfully” when he’d joined the French army in 1939. He thought of France and began to cry, not for himself but for the country that he loved. He wanted a second opinion. He passed out but refused to die. Another medic came by and picked him up and he was carried out to a hospital ship. He eventually recovered in an English hospital. At the time the book was written, he was back on French soil, living in an apartment from where he could look out and see the place where he landed.
Other men made it farther on D-Day. They experienced and saw things that they never forgot–a beautiful French girl–a hallucination, many thought, although she later proved to be very real–riding her bicycle to the beach to tend to the wounded, an old woman hanging laundry in the midst of a battle, soldiers stopping for tea while the battle raged around them, courage and devastation everywhere.
While I was taking in all these stories and images, I felt my hard-working heart warming and tears forming–not the usual day at the Y. But that’s what a well-written book, whether nonfiction or fiction, does. It doesn’t just inform, it touches. It has a voice that whispers and sometimes shouts in your ear and head and heart. And that’s what D-DAY did to (for) me. Coincidentally, I’m now reading Anthony Doerr’s ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, much of which takes place in France in the same time period as D-DAY. I’m not far into it, but it’s wonderfully written and heart-warming and engaging. The characters are already memorable. I’m expecting big things, and maybe even some tears.