Last week, on the 57th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, some 20,000 people stood in line to get into the dedication of the new National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va. I was one of them.
Though politicians, including President Bush, addressed the group, the emphasis was on historical information: telling the story of D-Day through the words of those who were there. Representatives from the military read from journals, memoirs, and official orders, underscoring the united effort that took place on June 6, 1944.
The Normandy invasion on D-Day ("Operation Overlord") was the largest air, land, and sea assault ever undertaken. It served as the turning point in World War II. The Allies suffered nearly 10,000 casualties.
At the time of the assault, I was not even a gleam in my soldier dad's eye. But for the past decade, I've become increasingly interested in these events, especially from the perspective of Dad's D Company unit. (My dad joined as a replacement soldier 21 days into the campaign.)
Dad's been deceased for nearly 30 years, but D Company has an annual reunion around Memorial Day. I've joined other children of the company in attending a handful of these, looking into the eyes of these men in their advancing years, to catch glimpses of what my dad was like as a young soldier, and what he might be like if he were still alive.
These meetings also show how little we baby boomers really know about World War II. That may sound odd, because growing up in the '50s and early '60s, World War II was one subject we heard about over and over in popular movies, books, and TV.
On his 1960 comedy album "The Button Down Mind Strikes Back," Bob Newhart spoke of seeing a John Wayne war movie on TV, then joked: "They're all John Wayne war movies, aren't they?" So it seemed to us. War tales everywhere led us to believe that we knew the story of World War II cold. Pearl Harbor. The Good War. The Holocaust. The Atomic Bomb. We won.
Yes, we knew there were some casualties, but (thanks to Hollywood) we mistakenly believed there were always some dramatic reasons for the deaths, and that the good guys usually survived. Pretty soon, we got tired of the stories.
Meanwhile, vets rarely shared the real details of combat. As a result, we boomers were woefully uninformed. We went into the controversy about serving in Vietnam never having heard about the personal horrors that another generation had faced in what we viewed as the "easy" war. Yet I can understand why it was so tempting to reduce World War II to a few factoids. The real story of the war is scary, and so big that each aspect can be a lifetime study. And yet, it is obvious that education is essential in this area - even if it means revisiting painful memories.
The trick is to find ways to break the stories into digestible bits that can be appreciated by new generations. The 50th anniversary of D-Day and the film "Saving Private Ryan" were turning points in contemporary awareness. Historical news coverage of ceremonies at Normandy put the story onto the front page. Then, on screen, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks not only helped us rediscover the World War II epic film genre, they also helped us rediscover the war itself - just in time to honor those who served while some of them are still around to appreciate the gesture.
Oddly, all this attention has led to another round of people wondering: Haven't we heard enough already about World War II? Can't we move on? Sorry, no. This is the time to fill in as much as we can while there are still people who can share their experiences. What was a very real event involving live people can easily become merely words, photos, and monuments - part of a historical mythology no more connected to everyday life than the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, or the ancient Peloponnesian Wars.
That's why I especially appreciate the fact that the new D-Day Memorial Foundation has named education as one of its missions, with an education center slated for the Bedford site. We need to put specific faces and actions to the stories.
Sometimes the result can be silly, as in the film "Pearl Harbor." Sometimes the means is controversial, as in the proposed World War II monument on the Mall in Washington.
Yet this is history that matters, and, for a while longer, this is history that can still be shared. The day before the dedication, one veteran showed pictures from a trip to Normandy in April, his first visit since 1944. Accompanied by one of his grown sons, he walked the beach again, stopping at one point to declare: Yes, this was it. This was the spot. In that moment, history came alive.
When I look for details of my dad's past, I find them in the men who served with him, each one with a story. Each thread now knits together to give me a better understanding of what he, and they, did for my generation.
Walter J. Podrazik is co-author of nine books on popular culture.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor