Maybe it's a lingering side-effect from growing up on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., but I have a warm spot in my heart for memorials. There's something wonderful and magical and creepy about statues of our heroes; I love these idealized forms, permanently frozen in the middle of giving a speech, riding a horse, or just sitting in a chair. More to the point, the way that we position them says volumes about our perceptions of heroes. Lincoln restively sitting. Jefferson mid-stride, papers clutched in hand. Roosevelt in a cape, Fala by his side. These iconic images are like prefabricated nostalgia, simultaneously creepy and stirring.
My special love is reserved for the military memorials. The Vietnam memorial, a brutal black slash across the mall (I hated it when they put up all those silly statues!); the Korean memorial, a ghostly aluminum and marble vision of a forgotten war, and the World War II memorial, a horrendous, pave-the-earth monstrosity that will one day play host to gangs of giggling Rastafarians overcharging tourists for nickle bags of catnip.
Oddly enough, though, my favorite war memorial isn't even in Washington. It's in Bedford, Virginia.
Before I go any further, I should mention that Bedford is a backwater's backwater. It is a nothing town, practically the defintion of BFE, fifteen minutes past
the middle of nowhere. However, for all its isolation, Bedford proportionally suffered the severest losses in the D-Day invasion, so Congress decided to place a memorial to the invasion in this area. In 2001, the memorial opened amid fanfare and a monosyllabic speech by G-Dub(ya):
Driving to the D-Day memorial is a surreal experience. After getting off the highway, you wander around for a while, following the occasional little sign and mostly wondering if you've taken a wrong turn. After a few minutes, you end up on the access road to the memorial, which takes you past an elementary school, through a field, and finally to a little tollbooth, where you pays your money and you takes your ticket.
And then you're at a huge plaza, a dramatic and beautiful pile of concrete, granite and shrubbery that seems as out of place as a marble statue in a McDonald's. You drive past the flags and huge "Overlord Arch," past the poured concrete and careful landscaping, and park in one of the hundreds of empty spaces in back. You wonder who this huge memorial in the middle of nowhere is for, and then you realize: it's for you.
You start off in the English gardens that represent the planning stages of the invasion. You see where, one day (if optimism and donations have anything to say about it!) a folly will be built. The brochure that the guard gave you tells you that there will ultimately be a statue of Eisenhower here, where it will face the memorial. You stand in the same position.
The memorial is poured concrete, ugly with pockmarks and dimples. You wonder at the carelessness of its construction until you realize that it looks like one of the gun emplacements at Normandy, and you start to understand what this memorial is doing. You aren't just honoring D-Day. You're supposed to be reliving
it. Not for nothing is this plaza built in the land of Civil War re-enactments.
As you climb the stairs to the main memorial plaza, you start to hear what sounds like whales breaching. Of course, you wonder what the wet snuffling snorts mean, but it would be rude to break the silence of this place, so you keep your mouth shut and your thoughts to yourself. You cross the huge plaza toward the fountain area, and the snuffling gets louder. If your wife is with you, you might make a smartass comment. If not, you keep your stupid mouth shut because the old veteran-looking guys hanging around don't look inclined to take a joke.
And then you realize what the squishy sounds are. Between the main plaza and the "Overlord Arch," there's a large pool and what looks like a sandy beach. In the pool, there are a lot of little fountains that occasionally shoot off, looking like strafing bullets and explosions hitting the water. What you're hearing is the sound of bullets without gunshots. You want to take this really seriously, but you can't, because it reminds you of how your St. Bernard used to wake you up with snorts and wet kisses.
It doesn't help that the statue in the middle of the pool has been cut off at the waist. From a certain angle, it looks like a soldier wading to Omaha beach, but it mostly looks like Johnny Eck
, the amazing half-boy.
There's a black marble stall set up on the edge of the pool area. Looking through it, you see the whole point of the scene. It's like standing in a landing craft during the invasion. In front of you lies the beach area, with statues of dying men lying across it. A little further on, you see a wall of soldiers, scaling "Fortress Europe." Simultaneously awed and amused, you wonder if the snuffling was as irritating on D-Day as it is now. Then you realize that this is blasphemy, and you are despoiling a sacred place.
Still, you wonder...Note: ironically enough, as I was writing this piece, the statue of Eisenhower was finally installed at the memorial. Here's an article on it.
Labels: D-day memorial, fountain, Jefferson, Korean memorial, Lincoln, memorials, Vietnam memorial, World War II memorial