The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Quand vas-tu à Caen?

On Monday, I went on a school bus trip to Caen and the American Cemetery in Normandy. It was a class of seniors that I already know, and a group of sophomores who I didn't. I hadn't really spoken to the accompanying teachers much before the trip either, so it was a fun. They weren't English teachers, so I had to speak French with them, which was good. However, I did not speak French all day (bad Natalie) because one of the seniors is actually an English girl who has lived in France for several years.

Anyway, it was about a 3 hour ride to Caen. On the way we crossed the Normandy Bridge, which was incredibly huge. I hadn't heard of it but I was quite awed to see it. where we visited the Memorial museum. Most of it was on WWII, but there was also a whole huge wing on the Cold War that was interesting. They also had a special exhibition of Reza photos, which were amazing. I am a big fan of him and his work now. He photographs mostly conflict and dire humanitarian situations, but there is always so much beauty in his photos. Even though most of them capture the pain of his subjects, the colors and light are so beautiful that it feels like you're seeing the beauty of the subject's humanity even as he shows you the desperation of their circumstances. Really, you should just look up his photos and see for yourself. I really want his book now.

We spent most of the day at the museum, but in the afternoon we went to the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach. It is run by the US Government, which I discerned from the English-first signs and the welcome center complete with insanely tight security and photo of President Obama above the front desk. My grandma had told me that a cousin of my grandfather might be interred there, so I used the computer in the welcome center to look up his name. I found him, and the computer told me where to find his grave. He was all the way at the far side of the cemetery, but I found it easily enough. The cemetery was divided into sections, which each in turn had numbered rows and tombstones. In fact, the entire place struck me as very starkly American, after having toured European sites for the past several months. The aesthetic was just like pictures I'd seen of Washington DC; clean, geometric, classical, masculine, somewhat minimalist, highly symbolic, and with more than a touch of industrial pragmatism. Everything was completely immaculate. The white tombstones were clean and sparkling. The grass was cut perfectly around each one and a bright, healthy green. The landscaping was flawless. There was not a paving stone nor blade of grass out of place.

I found my grandfather's cousin, Richard D. Ingalsbe, in Section J, Row 17, Grave 11, just like the computer had said. I don't know for sure, but I may have been the first one from our family to ever visit him. I felt bad that I didn't have a flower to leave. I had hoped to be able to buy one somewhere before we came, but I didn't get the chance. I settled on saying a prayer for him. It felt strange, knowing that I may have been the first one from his family to ever visit his grave, and I never knew him. He died 41 years before I was born. I don't know anything at all about him. I'm sure he was mourned when he died, but did anyone ever leave him flowers? Is there anyone now to remember him? I did my best to honor him, but felt inadequate. How can you miss someone you never knew, and don't know anything about?

Here is what I know; the inscription on his tombstone:

Richard D. Ingalsbe
Pvt 119 Inf 30 Div
Missouri July 25 1944

So I know he was a private. I know his Infantry regiment and division. I know that he did not die on D-Day, but nearly two months later, probably during the fighting to push the Nazis inland and eventually out of France. Maybe he died in combat, or maybe from sickness or infection. The computer said he was awarded the Purple Heart, so perhaps he was injured in combat and died a while later. I don't even know how old he was, but he was probably very young; most likely my age, or younger. I wondered what it would be like to be in his place, and if I would have died willingly to liberate others; to liberate another country. I stood on his grave, in a free country, and thought about if his life was worth it. That's not to say I don't think some things are worth dying for, but it seemed wrong to be glad he died so that we could live in a better world. I didn't want to stand there and celebrate his death because it means I live in a safe and free western hemisphere, where I can go live in a foreign country and learn its language and meet its people and eat its waffles without fear. I guess I'm just trying to say I felt guilty to be reaping the benefits of his way too early and probably painful death.

So like I said, I did my best to honor him but I still feel inadequate. I'm just glad that the cemetery is so well kept, well respected, and well-attended. There were plenty of visitors that day, and it's not even high tourist season. I'm glad to know that the soldiers we owe our lives and our lifestyle to are respected and remembered. I hope someone else from my family gets the chance to visit the cemetery; he deserves to be remembered by the descendants he never knew.

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