I’m knocking on the door of a significant birthday, so I’m going to gather my wits and make a modest proclamation.
Just when you think you’ve got a few facts down, can recognize a thing or two with certainty, absolutely know how to define particular words…something will probably happen that will cause you to re-shuffle the deck. Not that I put myself in the camp of people playing with a full one or anything. But I venture to say that, whether or not you’re religious in the regular sense, real jolts to your understanding can come on almost a daily basis and they must be absorbed with open-mindedness and sometimes even courage.
Let me give a simple example, from this rich time of high summer.
There’s so much burgeoning going on outside, it almost makes you dizzy. Hay fields have been mowed, some for the second time, and creatures scurry about everywhere, caring for their young. For those lucky enough to be on the shore, it’s been spectacular beach weather.
“Beach”—now there’s a word we can always rely on for sunny associations, just as surely as we count on waves to keep pounding on the sand. Beaches are where we relax, swim, cavort, toss a ball, catch a break. Bathed in sunlight there, we fend off anything nasty.
Except not always.
We just saw the movie Dunkirk during a sojourn on Cape Cod. One day we were winding our way down a trail with soft breezes blowing, walking past long green grass, dipping our bare feet into warm pools along the way to reach the almost empty strip of sand along the sea, feeling so fortunate; the next day (a cloudy one) we were in a dark theatre, facing harrowing scenes of thousands of boys–about the same age as my younger son–fighting to survive from moment to moment and doing anything they could to escape from the place where the enemy had surrounded them. In this film, and of course more importantly during the time this really happened, the beach might as well have been a prison.
If you’ve seen it, or know history well enough, you know what I’m talking about. Three different but integrally related story lines with individuals in three different locations are woven together masterfully, and there is unrelenting tension the whole way through. No relaxing for anybody there, and none in the theatre 77 years later either.
You can’t watch something like this and not wonder how you would possibly endure the terror, how you would keep your head and not give up, how you would look out for others besides yourself, as so many of the soldiers, airmen and boatmen on the screen do. Or, if you’re a parent, how you could endure knowing that no one rescues your son in time.
But beyond turning our usual understanding of “beach” upside down, the events at Dunkirk in May of 1940 also mix up the results of winning and losing. In his famous speech following the miraculous return of 338,000 men to England, thanks largely to the 700 private boats that came, Churchill called what happened a “colossal military disaster” but also said “there was a victory inside this deliverance.” Tens of thousands of British troops, and even more French, were lost; it was terrible beyond words, but it could have been so much worse.
In case you would like to take in the entire speech, presented with such a remarkably quiet and reflective tone (such a contrast to what we’ve become accustomed to) even at a time when the security of the nation was in imminent peril, you can listen to it here.
Getting back to what beaches are for, depending on whom you ask, probably the most oft-quoted section of the speech is this one:
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old
He sounds calm—peaceful, even—but there can be no question about the steely resolve that will be the basis of eventual triumph over the Nazis.
Nowadays, we sure are lucky that we can carry our aluminum, or whatever the newest material is, chairs with us to the beach and leave the steely resolve at home. Such is one of the gifts we have been given by the previous generation.
But, come to think of it, I wouldn’t be totally opposed to checking out a swamp sometime, either; you see, I grew up near one that was really totally delightful, home to so many different species of wildlife. Here’s hoping it will never ever be drained.
The fact is, you just never know the full meaning of places unless you can live a lot of different lives.