Courage Is generally defined as "the ability to do what frightens one, bravery." I also think of it as something that only a few of us really have. What drives someone to act courageously? Is it an instinct? Or is it a product of methodical thought?
In my short 29 years on this earth, I have done a lot of things that have frightened me. I have put myself in danger, done things that are very difficult...the whole nine yards. But after seeing what I have seen in the past few days, I can flat out tell you that I have never done anything that is truly courageous.
On a long strip of beach, next to a sleepy stretch of villages on the northwest coast of France is a place that defines courage. Today, it is one of the most painfully beautiful pieces of coast I have ever seen. Waves from the English Channel lap gently on the golden sand, while dogs and children run freely in the wind. It seems as though nothing could go wrong here. But 73 years ago, this beach along the coastal village of Collevile-sur-mer was given a new name, and a whole lot of trouble along with it.
Omaha was the new name given to this beach by allied forces leading up to D Day on June 6, 1944. The beach is now perhaps the most well-known World War Two battle sight in the whole of Europe, due to it being the bloodiest of all the invasion beaches and the jumping off point from where the European liberation came. It just so happens that my grandfather, Francis Joseph Harrington was one of the thousands of young men to come onto the beach that day, to liberate not only France, but the free world.
Having decided to replicate Frank's journey by bike, I needed to arrive in Normandy by boat. Seeing that there has never been a real port near Omaha (and for good reason) I booked a ship to Cherboug with my dad. The port sits on the opposite side of the peninsula from Coleville, so I had to pull up my britches and ride a twisting 75 miles across through Normandy's famed countryside to arrive at the old allied beachhead. A large boulevard led to a small country road, which led to a smaller road, then eventually to a dirt track until I understood that I would have to be willing to ride on anything. This remote part of France, although well known is largely undeveloped and from what I understand looks an awful lot like it did 73 years ago.
Cruising through hamlets like Le Vast, Lestre and Quettehou I couldn't help but think about the dangers that lurked around every corner back then. For in this part of Normandy, the battles took place in these bucolic outposts from hedge to hedge and building to building. The distance I was able to cover on my bike in one day, would have taken allied troops weeks.
By the time I reached Colleville, I was dead tired but so happy with what I had accomplished for my first day on the bike. The fog began to set in and before too long, we were well into a hot meal and glasses of locally-made Calvados to mark our arrival.
Seeing something that you've heard about you entire life for the first time is a trip. When you finally have context, your perception of a place clicks into focus. That's what happened to me the next morning, when we turned down the gully that links Omaha beach to the town of Colleville-sur-mer. This is the gully that Frank drove one of the first jeeps to hit the beach while dodging German gunfire.
As we navigated the E-3 gully on La Rue de Captain Joe Dawson, the wave of emotions hit me. I finally understood what this environment looked, smelled and felt like. To think, a guy of 23 years of age to be thrust into the fight of his life as a captain of his unit is insane. Even more insane, is that he was one of the lucky ones. The fates pulled their strings in the wrong direction for thousands of guys that day and the rest went on to temp those fates later on in France. After many rolls of the dice, Frank came out the other end alright, or else I'm not riding my silly bike across France.
This place has set the stage for me and my journey to chase through the areas that he saw, the areas that he risked his life for so I could experience them. What a crazy notion. But that's the price those guys paid and with no questions asked.
On this journey I will push myself and I will learn as much as I can about what my grandpa and his mates saw. But when it comes to being courageous, those guys took the cake. I can't get close. Respect.