A day horrific and glorious

June 03, 1994|By Ken Willaman

THE world view of a 10-year-old is short on details with no sense of continuity or perspective. The world is small, private and often a secret sanctuary.

Still, 10-year-olds are affected by major world events in deep and permanent ways. I was just 10 when the invasion of Normandy was launched. On that unusually hot June morning, I was helping my uncle repair fencing on his Ohio dairy farm, where I spent the summer. By mid-morning, my aunt would always bring cold lemonade to the work site. It was a welcome relief from the rising temperature.

But that morning, as she came across the field, her gait was different -- urgent and purposeful. She had just heard on the radio of the Allied invasion. She was a self-contained farm woman who seldom exposed her emotions, but that day she was excited and worried. It was unsettling to see her so out of character.

It would be years before I understood. My aunt had loved ones on those French beaches, a 19-year-old son and a brother. The son returned with all his parts. The brother is under one of 10,000 crosses in the St. Laurent cemetery.

The following summer I was again working on the dairy farm. My aunt's son, my cousin, had returned from Europe. He had been home only a few weeks and was working his way back into civilian life one day at a time. Cows had a beastly need to be milked by 6 a.m., requiring 4:30 wake-up alarms seven days a week. Except for my cousin, that is. He could sleep until 7 and seemed to have earned that right.

One morning, I was told to go wake him. It was 7:30. Only city slickers stayed in bed so shamefully late.

I tapped lightly on his bedroom door and cracked it an inch, softly calling his name.

He sat bolt upright in bed with an expression of utter terror. When he realized where he was, he shook his finger at me and shouted, "Don't ever do that again!" I was puzzled and frightened. The incident was never brought up again. Until a month ago.

Married with a large family, my cousin is now a grandfather many times over. Unexpectedly, he came to visit me. I hadn't seen him in 20 years, and so I thought it was safe to ask him about that morning 49 years ago.

Although he didn't remember the event, he apologized for frightening me. He said that for more than a year after his return, he couldn't sleep with any sense of security. Fighting his way across France, he had slept in foxholes with a single buddy. One man always had to be awake while the other slept, but the soldier assigned to sleep was never secure; a German patrol coming upon two sleeping GIs wasn't going to wake them before shooting them. He told me it took years before sleep became a pleasant, welcoming experience.

As many 60-year-olds know, we often recall early events more clearly than last week's. I am struck with how indelible my memory is of D-Day. My impression does not come from any cognitive understanding of the event, but rather by way of a 10-year-old's sensitivity to the effect it had on the adults around him.

I was raised in a family where children were kept free of real worries as long as possible. Adults disguised their stress and masked their anxieties, not knowing that the effort itself was a give-away. D-Day was a schizophrenic day for those family members with me on the farm.

They knew an end to that long war was finally in sight but that it would surely cost the lives of many loved ones.

I sensed then in their furrowed brows and hushed speech that something quite extraordinary was taking place -- a very adult thing with which I was not yet ready to be entrusted. It would take years for me to process and put into perspective those intense feelings and begin to understand the significance of that at once horrific and glorious day.

Ken Willaman plays the cello for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

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