I think my father would describe his father as a tough, uncompromising man who never let hard work slow him down, but by the time I knew my grandfather, life had softened him. He enjoyed napping while watching television, playing cards with his friends, and making a bit of mischief with his grandchildren. If you looked him in the eye, it was always there, that twinkle that said he was looking for the next way “to pull your leg,” as he would say, or to set you about getting into trouble with your parents. But, that’s what grandparents do. I’ve watched this same transformation in my own father.
As I’ve gotten older and my own life has progressively stretched behind me, I’ve come to understand the value of experience and history. Unfortunately, as is the case with my grandfather, those with the longest histories and the best stories are increasingly gone from this world. Though it’s too late to ask him now, I wish I knew more of my grandfather’s stories.
Born in 1921 in Pennsylvania, he was eight years old when the Great Depression began, so he completed primary school and then he went to work. When he was old enough to drive, my grandfather became a truck driver in Pennsylvania’s coal country. He enlisted in the army with his brother in July of 1942, seven months after the attack at Pearl Harbor. But I didn’t know any of this about my grandfather when I was a child. To me, he was simply my very own charmingly short, rotund grandpa, whose stomach shook when he chuckled and whose greatest pleasure in life was showing me his candy stash. I loved him, and he very obviously adored me.
What, you might ask, does any of this have to do with travel? In short, more than you might think.
On a stormy day in the summer of 1944, my grandfather landed at Utah Beach. I don’t have the full story, only bits and pieces gathered from declassified military records from the National Archives, a few old photos of my grandfather in his Army Service Uniform, and a Bronze Star Medal citation. Unfortunately, I don’t have my grandfather to ask anymore.
When I visited Normandy, I thought a lot about my grandfather. He never talked much about the war, which I suppose is evidence of the indelible mark it left on him. Standing in the American Cemetery among nearly 10,000 graves, I saw the names of many 23-year-old men from Pennsylvania, and I realized for every one of those gravestones, there was a story that didn’t continue past 1944—a whole generation of children and grandchildren who never came to exist. However, just as surely, there are generations of people of different races, creeds, religions, and nationalities who now exist only because of the men whose graves remain as one of the few visible reminders of what happened in Normandy in 1944.
Travel provides so many remarkable opportunities including the chance to understand one’s past. I know my grandfather’s regiment was responsible for building Milton Camp in Cambridge; for loading D-Day vessels out of Cardiff and Newport; for following the first wave of soldiers into Normandy; for clearing mines and beginning to rebuild Saint Malo, Cancale, and Brest; and for reconstructing bridges, water pipelines, and other infrastructure in and around Marseille. I know, from an old photo, that my grandfather was in Paris, probably on leave enjoying city life and good food after days spent bivouacking. These are all places I would like to visit, or re-visit, because I now want to see them through my grandfather’s eyes.
I am one of the lucky ones. I got to know my grandfather even though he isn’t around anymore to tell me the full story of his time in Europe. Nonetheless, I was able to visit Normandy, where I stood on Utah Beach with a great sense of pride in the fact that I am the granddaughter of one of the men who landed there. This is one of my grandfather’s many legacies to me, and I am honored to travel in his footsteps.