Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer
Martin stood at the edge of the field, struck numb by the expanse of white crosses peppered with red, stretching out to where the earth touched the sky.
“Overwhelming, isn’t it?” The voice dry, sandpaper rough.
Martin turned to the old man nestled in a wheelchair, an old green blanket on his lap, liver spotted face wrinkled and pale, too-big ears tucked up under a knit touque.
“It is. I’d read about this place, about how many men were buried here, but you can’t grasp the scale, can’t get this feeling from a book.”
“Men, women, many of them just children. They didn’t just give their lives, they gave up everything they’d ever have. Generations of heroes are buried here, the sons and daughters these men and women never had, never raised,” he waved towards the field. “You’re here because many of them died, and because someone made it home.”
Martin puzzled at the old man in his faded uniform jacket liberally decorated with ribbons and stars. He was unmistakeably proud, even sitting in the centuries-old wheel chair.
“My grandfather used to tell us stories about his grandfather Fred, stories his dad had told him when he was growing up,” Martin started. “Fred served in both World Wars, lived to tell the tale.”
“Many didn’t,” the old man shook his head. “I was part of a Ranger unit, we stormed the bunkers at Pointe du Hoc, lost a lot of good soldiers there, a lot of good friends.”
The comment caught Martin off guard. “Pointe du Hoc? That was nineteen forty four. How…? You’d have to be…”
“Old,” the man interupted, chuckling, “a relic, an artifact of a much, much earlier time. I remember being holed up in the dug-ins we’d inherited from the waves that came before us, curled up in foxholes just trying to stay alive one night at a time. I remember taking cover in the cellars of burned out homes while Jerry rained a hell storm of mortars down on us. It’s a wonder any of us came home.”
“I don’t understand, how…?”
“Friends, wealthy sponsors, all help keep me alive, help to keep me around. I’m full of pumps and pipes, transplanted bits and pieces. The medical technology’s a little beyond my understanding, but it keeps me going, lets me stay on here, to keep watch.”
“What’s with the wheelchair then? Why fix everything else but stay confined to that chair?”
“A bullet took my legs in Hürtgenwald in forty five, right through my spine. A soldier I never knew carried me for an hour on his shoulders through heavy fire to find friendlies. He saved my life, and then went back for more.” He paused, and turning, met Martin’s gaze with his steely blue eyes, surprisingly clear and focused. “I just lost my legs, these men gave up everything. I can’t forget that, and if they fixed me, if I could walk away and leave this place, maybe I would. I can’t take that chance.”
“Why wouldn’t you want to leave? You could travel the world.”
“There’s still fighting to be done. Whenever someone speaks of this place as a piece of ‘real estate’, the men and women lying here need a voice. That’s why I stay. I speak for them, I can still remember.”
Martin turned back to the field, for a second time struck by the enormity of it all.
The old man spoke quietly. “If I left this place, how could I be sure the world would remember? Who would fight for them if I were gone? Would you?”