Stan Kaufman on Normandy Beach

D-Day 2012, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii – I am at Pearl Harbor thinking about Normandy. On this date in 1944 an invasion of France was launched. The Normandy invasion is considered the beginning of the end of WWII. Today, I’m where WWII began for Americans with the attack on Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941. The symbolic place is the USS Arizona Memorial where 71 years after the attack small oil droplets continue to bubble up from the fuel tanks of the sunken Arizona.

My dad, Stan Kaufman, was kid from Jersey that turned 20 on the beaches at Normandy. He never spoke about the experience  or showed any emotion about it with me for more than five decades. In 1998 he was dying of cancer my sister, Janet, asked him, “dad what do you want to do before you die?” She was very direct. He responded in a heart beat – “Two things – first I want to finish my rock collection (which was his way of saying I want more time); second, I want to go back to Normandy.” His doctors said if you’re going to do it, do it now. He only has another month or two. So even though he was in a wheelchair and on oxygen 24/7, we made it happen.

Returning to Normandy

It was mid December 1998. The day was cold and clear when we arrived at the landing beaches. There was nobody there. The beach was beautiful; hard packed sand – the tide was out; it was quiet. Without hesitation dad ripped off his oxygen tube and jumped out of the car leaving his wheelchair behind. All of a sudden I was on the beach with a 20 year old kid (my own son was 20 at the time). The last time he was on this beach it was like the first 20 minutes in film Saving Private Ryan. Now it’s a quiet and peaceful pristine beach for as far as the eye can see. After a few moments of quiet his emotions start to stir and just like the oil from the Arizona that’s been trapped all those years down inside his emotions began to bubble up. I never saw my father weep before. At first it was grief and sadness, but it quickly morphed into tears of gratitude and full on joy to be alive. Mixed in with the emotion short snippets of stories started to bubble out, as well – stories I’d tried to tease out of him for 40 years that he’d never given up to me began to percolate up from down deep inside. As the flashbacks came he shared them – short bursts and snippets. When we went to the cemetery above the landing beaches the process repeated itself. Those couple of hours on the landing beaches and the cemetery above them were like stepping into eternity – a timeless place where the past, present and future merge and all ones senses are fully alive and engaged – the body, mind and spirit all present at the same place at the same time. Snippets of stories continued over the next several days even as the full sensory experience receded into memory. Memories I hope I never lose even as they fade.

Discoveries At Normandy

I discovered two things on that beach that December day in 1998 and third a decade and a half later upon reflection. First – I discovered for myself the power of place as the truest witness to history and the impact of being fully personally present there with someone you love. There is a sense of the sacred – holy ground – sacred history personalized. Second – Standing there on that beach I was struck for the first time with the realization that the trajectory of my dad’s entire life changed on that beach – not only his, but the lives of all of his descendents including his eight children and twenty-four grandchildren and beyond were altered there on that beach in 1944. I understood my dad better now. A lot of very private questions were answered in a moment of insight. Everyone should be as fortunate to experience a personal renewal journey with someone they love.

We picked up a few rocks to add to his collection and mine. By the way he went on to live another two good years before “dying healed”

Discovery At Pearl Harbor

And now the third discovery upon reflection in 2012 at The Place of Black Tears. We all have stuff – emotions and stories – down deep inside us. It might be profound emotions and stories, like my dad, with what we now call post traumatic stress disorder (regardless of cause – combat, abuse, loss). Or for most of us perhaps less complicated. Nevertheless, all of us have emotions and stories that are uniquely ours that will bubble up to our benefit when the time and place is right to release them. The black tears of the Arizona at Pearl Harbor will continue to remind of that as they bubble up for the next several generations. Do we have to wait for five decades to experience renewal that comes with that release? I don’t think so. All the best in your renewal journey