It was low tide—perhaps not the lowest—when I walked way out away from the dunes, easily as much as a quarter of a mile. I suppose I was looking for some sort of connection and that the solution was to walk in the direction they had come from, the frightened men, boys and men, by the thousands, over time as many as 850,000 of them.
In places the sands were hard, in others soft. I vaguely remembered a scene, perhaps out of French literature, of a man sinking into quicksand. A two-wheel racing buggy raced back up the beach to the east, with its French jockey whipping away at the high-stepping horse for more speed—or, it seemed, to establish his mastery over the horse, both for himself and for the benefit of the few tourists on the beach that were watching him.
There was very little wind, the sun was out, it was a beautiful day, no one was out that far except for me. There was no trace of what happened; and so I puzzled, once again, what it meant to be standing there at that historic place. The connection, I have found, is easier to past atrocity. Thirty, forty or fifty Yahi people—mostly children and women—trapped and shot down by white men at Kingsley Cave, northeast of Chico, California. Buchenwald, in the hills above Weimar, home at times to both Goethe and Schiller. But what was the atrocity here? A war that is celebrated as my country’s greatest? A history of heroism and triumph—that story—that obscures the atrocity of killing and maiming—the unbearable loss?
I was so far out from the dunes that I enjoyed a near complete privacy. I do not mean to offend. I unzipped and peed on the sand, just at the edge where the tide was beginning to return and therewith I suppose at least established my own presence in history. Then I wondered how many others had done the same thing. Back then. Out of fear, or just because they had to go and there were no bathrooms—only raking machine gun fire and the aircraft cannons depressed to fire down into those who were landing.
On the way back, I stooped to pick up a shell. A lovely thing, dark, scolloped and blue-gray, the progeny of those that had lain there then when no one felt like a hero. Rather, only felt fear. And possibly hope. That the next bullet or exploding shell would not find them and disappear them prematurely into history.