About Me

My Photo

Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 58 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Friday, July 03, 2015

Normandy


Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey

The overcast which had been persistent all morning was reluctantly giving way.  The sun pierced the clouds occasionally, the light giving color to the land.  It was cool and breezy, but this was June.  And this was Normandy.

Places where violent death has occurred have the same feel.  There is a quiet that is somber, yet meaningful.  The same atmosphere exists in places like Gettysburg, Antietam, and Shanksville, PA, where a group of airline passengers fought the first battle in the War on Terror.  These are places where heroism was defined; where violence and valor defined the day.

We stood atop the windy bluff, my wife and I, looking down onto what, on another June day, had been designated Beach Easy Green.  It was a bit of a misnomer, "Easy" being the phonetic expression for the letter "E".  In truth, there was nothing easy about that beach on June 6, 1944.  Today, we stood and watched as the waters of the English Channel whispered across the sand.  In the quiet, we contemplated the meaning of courage.

71 years and 13 days previous, the quiet morning was rent by the roar of tens of thousands of guns, from officers' pistols to the giant naval rifles of the battleships.  By the hundreds, landing craft hit the beaches, dropped their ramps, and for the first time in that war, Allied soldiers poured into Europe.  

Superbly trained thought they were, only a few were professional soldiers.  They were coal miners and cab drivers; farmers and financial managers; college students and cowboys.  Also present in abundance were the boys fresh out of high school who would today lose their lives before they had even started. Some were cut down inside the landing craft, sawed by German automatic weapons before their boots even touched the sand.  Some died on the sprint across the beach, others as they courageously fought to open the beach exits.  Still others would die on  the uplands behind the wall of pillboxes and emplacements, including the Airborne troopers who had jumped in the night before, some of them executed in their chutes as they mistakenly dropped into the charnel house of Ste. Mer Eglise.  

But others -- many, many others -- would survive.  They would cross the beaches, climb the hills, kill the enemy and start that long, bloody march that would end 10 months later in a ruined city called Berlin.

A World War II veteran once told me, "I cannot tell you about war.  If you've never been there, you'll never understand."  As the ranks of those veterans steadily thin, some are finally turning loose of those terrible memories, and at long last, weeping for their fallen comrades.

Throughout our history, our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and guardsmen have faced terrible things, experienced what could only be called waking nightmares so the rest of us could sleep peacefully.  They understand the job description.  But standing on that beach, and looking up at those forbidding hills trying in vain to imagine the unremitting blizzard of lead; trying to think  about watching the best friends they would ever have die, their young bodies cut to pieces, I wonder.  How could anyone have survived that, let alone achieved that victory?

The Germans had poured tens of millions of cubic yards steel-reinforced concrete into what Hitler called "The Atlantic Wall."  It was thought that the defenses were impenetrable, that the Allied invasion would die aborning on those beaches, and forced back into the sea.  In point of fact, the Atlantic Wall lasted less than a day.  There were still struggles ahead.  The Bocage country that would slow the invasion to a crawl until August, when a brilliant plan called "Cobra" finally allowed the Allies to break out.  

There were many crucial battles during the war.  Midway, Guadalcanal, Anzio, The Bulge, but make no mistake.  It was here on that day where events would determine the war's outcome.  

We had hired a cab driver in Caen to give us a tour of the area.  He drove us first to the American Cemetery where we entered the Visitor's Center.  It is a grey building, not very imposing or beautiful.  But inside there are a host of displays and film clips covering the events leading up to D-Day, the events of June 6th, and what happened immediately afterwards.  

 The entrance.
An Infinity Pool points toward the beaches.
The soldier's headstone.

It takes a while to get through this part, and because our time was limited, we almost used up the entire allotment before even getting to the cemetery.  After leaving the building, we took the walk along a stone wall overlooking the sea.  Ahead of us, a patch of beautiful green grass covered in snow-white crosses marked the final resting place of the valiant.



 


They lie here in peaceful repose, so different from the manner in which they died.  There's no real order to the placement of their graves, officers and enlisted together.  Among these 9,386 graves, along with the unknown and uncelebrated, are two sons of a U.S. president and a three-star general,  But nobody gets any prominence.  In death, there is no rank.

It can be easy for us who have lived the gift of freedom and plenty for which they paid with their lives, to not think about their sacrifice.  To not consider the courage it took to cross that beach and climb those hills, or consider whether we could have done the same thing.  We have largely forgotten what it means to have to fight for our freedom.  And that is a tragedy.

Visiting a place like Normandy, or Gettysburg, or Antietam helps to bring that sacrifice into focus, if we can be bothered to pay attention.  I, for one, cannot help but hear their whispers, the question that I am still ashamed to answer:  

"I gave you my life; my future.  Was my sacrifice in vain?"


Thursday, July 02, 2015

Day 4 -- Paris Again

 Eglise du Dome Church

Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey

This was our first day on our own, with the departure of our son's family for Korea.  It's always sad to be away from grandchildren when you've gotten used to having them around.  But, this was vacation, so we soldiered on, albeit with slightly empty hearts.

We decided to take a bus tour, as it would be the best way to see the most sites in the least amount of time.  We went online and bought tickets, which we printed out at the computer in the hotel lobby.  Taking the train in, we debarked at the station nearest the Notre Dame Cathedral.  According to the map we had, it should have only been a block to where we could pick up the GO-GO (Get On, Get Off) bus.  Easier said than done.  It took the better part of an hour to locate the stop.  It didn't help that neither the website or the flyer off the website showed what signs to look for.  After chasing those yellow busses up and down the streets, criss-crossing the Seine several times, we finally found the proper signage.  After a few minutes, the bus came by.  We presented our vouchers to the driver, who gave us back our tickets, a very informational flyer, and--lo and behold--a map of all the stops.  It would have been nice if that had been on the website.

We were issued earphones, those rock-hard earbuds that simply don't fit my ears.  The plug-ins were against the outer wall of the bus, which meant the cord (never long enough) had to stretch across my seat-mate, an elderly lady who regarded me with barely concealed contempt.  An American, of course.

Once settled on the upper deck, I was able to sit back and enjoy the city as it rolled past.  The heavy traffic meant that the bus was going slow enough to make picture-taking a fairly easy task.  The day was picture perfect, the sky a clear and beautiful blue and the sun pleasantly warm.  As much as I enjoyed the ride, the earphones made it difficult to understand much of what was being said.  Still, Paris is a beautiful thing to behold, even if you don't know what you're looking at.

 Aboard the bus.  Finally
 The Eiffel.
 Pont Neuf

The Pont Neuf, or "New Bridge," was started in 1578 and finally finished in 1607.  It was started because the Pont Notre Dame bridge was overloaded with traffic.  It was originally designed to have houses built on it, although none ever were.  


One of the ways you brag about how rich and powerful your nation is, is to put gold on everything you build.  This is one of several perched on columns near the river. 


The Louvre.


A smaller Arc de Triomphe, near the Louvre.


Another wing of the Louvre.  You simply can't get the whole thing in one picture.


Pont Neuf, again.


I couldn't identify this church, only to decide that it was very old.
Duh.

We got off the bus close to the Notre Dame Cathedral, a place we both were looking forward to seeing.  It was a very impressive structure, even more amazing to realize that it was built largely by skilled human hands with no power tools, and was still standing after some 800 years.


There are simply no words to properly describe the beauty, the sanctity, 
and the peace of this Cathedral.




 Along the sides are these small chapels, each commemorating a Saint.


 Mass was being celebrated while we were there.
The sound of the organ and the voices raised in worship
was incredibly beautiful.

Here, I came face-to-face with the fundamental difference between American 
and European culture.  We think of a 50-year-old building as antiquated.
There, it's still an infant.


 Guess Hoo-kah.

The next stop announced, or at least the one I could halfway hear, was the Eglise du Dome Church.  If that was not enough to get my attention, the phrase "tomb of Napoleon" did.  We had to run the gauntlet of some grim soldiers of the French Army who were guarding the place, but once past them, we went first to the visitors center to buy tickets.  We then crossed over to the church.  There were several tombs inside, some of Napoleon's son's, and some famous Generals from French history.

 

As in all these places, the artwork on the ceilings was breath-taking.


 Lyautey
 Foch, the French Marshal from World War I.

And Napoleon himself.

Once back on the bus, we rode around a bit more before getting off on Ste. Germaine.  According to the guidebook, this was an area where we could find a good place to eat.  After wandering a bit, we decided on a place called Quartier General.  We found a table on the sidewalk (nobody eats inside in Paris), although we had to move once when we realized we were downwind from some smokers.  Allergies, you know.  The food was good, the service friendly, and it was a good way to spend the evening of our 37th wedding anniversary.


Monday, June 29, 2015

Day 3 -- Paris Disneyland


Copyright © 2015
by Ralph F. Couey

This would be my fourth Disney park, after Anaheim, Orlando, and Tokyo, so I didn't expect any real mysteries in our visit.  But I discovered that there are differences, enough to make the day interesting and fun.  We went with our son and his family, and at our age, the fun is not so much us riding rides, but watching our grandchildren have the time of their lives.

It began as Euro Disney, but eventually became its current moniker, Paris Disneyland.  The park opened in 1992 to less than rave reviews.  Attendance was very low, but in all fairness opening something like this in the middle of one of the biggest recessions in recent history didn't help.  In 1995, the park opened Space Mountain, that iconic roller coaster ride.  It was an immediate hit, and by the end of that year, the park showed a profit for the first time.  By 2006, Disney Paris was the leading tourist draw in France, outselling the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.  The French, at least the intellectual community, had little good to say about the place until the government announced that the park had generated over 37 billion Euros in economic benefits to France.  After that, smiles all around.

Still on US east coast time, we didn't get up until almost 11am.  But fortunately, the shuttle bus picked us up right outside the hotel, and in about 10 minutes, we were at the park.

There are two facilities, Disneyland itself, and Disney Studios.  The Studios portion is vaguely like the California Adventure part of the Anaheim park, although somewhat truncated.  But it was the first place to visit, since it had shorter operating hours than the main park.  We found Robbie and family eating a late lunch.  We visited the Studios, and then crossed over to the main park.


The park entrance is styled after the palace from Beauty and the Beast, which as you recall did take place in France, so it was an appropriate way to entre vous, as it were.  Once inside, we passed under the trestle for the train, and found ourselves on Main Street, USA.  Same...but still somehow different.



The three parks I had been to were all laid out the same.  Standing on Main Street, Adventureland was off to the left, then going to the right, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland.  Not so here.  Tomorrowland is called Discoveryland.  I guess tomorrow arrives too fast these days.  It took a bit of exploration to locate where we wanted to go.  The only scheduled event for us was a reservation at the Blue Bayou Restaurant, part of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.  So, off we went.  


Couple of classics.

Celebrating Disney's appropriation of the Star Wars franchise
was this magnificent X-Wing at the entrance to Tomorrowland -- er, Discoveryland.

The grandkids had a terrific time.  And we had a grand time watching them have a terrific time.

A different take on New Orleans Square.

Perhaps for the family, one of the most interesting places was a shop outside the park where you could build your own lightsaber.  It was fun to watch not only the kids, but their Dad "complete their Jedi training."
Ian meets Buzz.
Diana and Ian climbing on Wall-ee.

Obi Rob de Couey...

 ...and his Padawan. 
 (Ian is doing the Han Solo thing
with the gun off-screen to the left.)

Ian's Jedi game face.
(Note the mouse ears on the Vader helmet)

This was taken at 9:50 pm.  
No kidding.

A nice dinner to end a very full day.

We ended up closing the Park at eleven, but extended goodbyes made necessary by their departure for Korea the next day, almost made us late for the shuttle bus for their last run at 11:30.

It was a great experience.  Disney Paris manages to stamp a very French feel to itself without unduly altering the basic DNA.  For us, this was bittersweet, as we would continue our French visit without the rest of our family.  It figured to be a bit lonely.

But not as lonely as that empty house waiting for us back in Virginia.