Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Gift From God In Normandy, France

It's so funny how God works in our lives. Usually in a moment of our weakness, God reveals Himself to us and provides a beautiful life's lesson.

I had another one of those God experiences recently on a trip to Europe with my family.

On the day we traveled to Normandy, we drove a rental car from the beautiful French community of Bayeaux. Needless to say, driving in a foreign country where English is not the official language provides challenges for most Americans. When you are an impatient driver like me, the frustration gets magnified a hundredfold.

My son Connor was the navigator for the trip due to his linear thinking with maps, etc. Unfortunately he took the brunt of my frustration as we tried in vain to find the Normandy American Cemetery. I was feeling lousy for losing my cool (again) while driving in Europe.

On a dark, windy and rainy day, we finally found our destination. At first, I drove to Omaha beach to see where the U.S. troops landed. We spent a quiet moment walking the beach where so many young men the ages of my two sons died on June 6, 1944.

On the hillside above the beach were some German bunkers. Sean and Connor enjoyed crawling around the inner cracks and crevices of these dens of death and destruction.

I walked alone up the hillside and noticed that the cemetery was just a little further up the path.

Saving Private Ryan is one of my favorite movies. Like most people, I cry every time James Francis Ryan walks through the cemetery as an old man filled with all those memories. As I prepared for what I was about to experience, I prayed a decade of the rosary for all those young lives cut short on that fateful and important day in our history. I also prayed my family would forgive my momentary road rage.

I was alone as the rows and rows of crosses appeared after rounding a corner. The emotions swelled. Just then, a guy walked up and asked, "Are you an American?" I said, "Yes," and he introduced himself as "Andy" and started showing me around the cemetery.

He told me not all of the graves were for servicemen. Three women are buried at the cemetery, mostly servicewomen nurses and Red Cross workers. He even showed me the grave of an African American woman who served as one of the first openly gay people in the military.

He asked what I did. I told him I was in formation to become a deacon in the Catholic Church. He showed me the graves of one of four chaplains who died on the beach that day. Andy said chaplains had one of the most dangerous jobs in the Normandy invasion due to their low numbers and high death rate.

I asked Andy what he did at the Cemetery. He nonchalantly said, "I'm the Director."

Just then my family showed up. I introduced everyone to Dwight "Andy" Anderson, Director of the Normandy American Cemetery.

Then he showed us the graves of the brothers who inspired the movie Saving Private Ryan, Preston and Robert Niland. He told us the movie embellished some of the details, but basically got much of the story right. Two brothers were killed during the invasion, one on Omaha beach, the other on Utah beach. A third brother Edward was a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp in the Pacific at the time of the Normandy invasion. The fourth brother Frederick "Fritz" Niland eventually returned home. He's the one the movie was about.

He then asked our family if we would join several other Americans on site to take down the American Flag for the night. We said, "We'd be honored."

Mary offered to video the experience on my iPhone. Oldest son Sean took photographs. Connor and I joined the ranks as the lowering of colors service began. As the flag touched our fingers and we began to fold it, the skies opened up in a torrential downpour. It was almost as if heaven was sending down tears on this solemn moment.

The quiet whisper of God in the experience: When you're lost, when you're angry or frustrated, trust in God alone to get you through it. My exasperation with driving, getting lost, backtracking, double-backtracking, etc., was all part of God's plan to make sure our family got to experience what we experienced at Normandy. Had we not gotten lost, we would have never received a beautiful gift from God.

1 comment:

  1. I think it was a "Gift from God" that I Googled Dwight "Andy" Anderson just this moment. Andy is more than the Director, he is part of the wonder, the "soul" of this hallowed ground. I had the same kind of experience just a few months ago while on a river cruise. As I wandered by myself through the crosses, I was approached by a well-dressed gentleman who asked me if I was a Marine. I was wearing a Marine ball-cap; I guess it was obvious. Andy was a Marine (still is a Marine!!)in Vietnam and after being discharged wandered Europe for a few years before enlisting in the Army, rising to his highest enlisted rank. As we talked, my wife, Carolyn, still recovering from surgery, joined us. Andy took us on a short tour as Carolyn was getting tired. He showed up the Roosevelt brothers, one killed in WWI and the other, BGen. Roosevelt (MofH recipient), who died of a heart attack shortly after D-Day. Carolyn was giving out, but Andy wanted to show us the "Love Story of WWII" and took us to the grave site of 1stLt. Billie D. Harris, a P-51 pilot killed shortly after D-Day. His story is here:

    Carolyn in tears, placed her rose at Lt. Harris's grave and we left the cemetery eternally grateful for Dwight "Andy" Anderson.

    One last note: Andy says he gets up every morning and runs through the cemetery checking on "his boys." He means, of course, "his boys and his "girls."