Reception Committee on the Point
Last Saturday was the anniversary of the assault on D-day, June 6 1944. Recently I was in Northern France, in Picardie where you cannot drive far on the rural highways without passing a military cemetery. In Picardie the cemeteries mostly host the fallen from the appalling slaughter of 19141918. Most well known among them are the battlefields of Beaumont Hamel and Vimy Ridge. Those battles were murderously costly to both Newfoundland and Canada. The unimaginable loss of life caused optimistic souls to refer to this four-year blood bath as “the war to end war.”
Nonetheless such is the capacity of the human race to forget the follies of their history that a mere 30 years later landing craft were coming ashore on the beaches in nearby Normandie, and soldiers from Newfoundland and Canada were once again hurling themselves into a driving rain of machine gun bullets.
This is probably coming to my mind because D-day is the moment each year when Lisa and I get aboard our boat and begin the 200-metre voyage that will bring us across to the Point. Like the invasion force preparing for the assault that was code named Overlord, exhaustive planning is required for our landing on the Point. Groceries for at least a week, clothing that will keep us warm and dry until the end of September, computers, printer, drawing and painting materials, all must be pulled together, checked and double-checked, then loaded aboard our fleet of one 19foot speedboat and a punt before the crossing takes place. As we motor across the harbour, just like those aboard the landing craft 65 years ago, we approach a beach of smooth gray shingle rising to a bank topped by white painted buildings.
In Salvage, there is a cemetery in the field beyond, filled with white headstones. That wasn’t so in Normandy in 1944, but today, the fields above the beaches named Juno, Sword, Gold, Utah and Omaha are crammed with thousands of graves. The landing craft 65 years ago were filled with thoughts of terror and dread and prayers for survival in the five-minute scramble up the beach. Our speedboat and punt in 2009 are filled with joyful anticipation of the peace and beauty that awaits us as the summer unspools over the next three months.
On D-Day the German occupying force waited in their pillboxes atop cliffs and seawalls.
The entire coast was fortified with immense battlements created from millions of cubic metres of concrete. The Germans watched in horror as the horizon of the English Channel filled with hundreds and hundreds of oncoming Allied ships.
In June 2009 the two blackbacked gulls who, each spring, take up residence on the aptly-named Gull Rock stand atop the one-cubic metre concrete remnants of Sandy and Lizzie-Mary Dunn’s home lobster cannery and watch as a single white fiberglass speedboat towing a punt approaches. According to what happens next, the two birds may be every bit as frightened as the tens of thousands of German forces were in 1944.
As they both scream in unison, one of the gulls takes flight. It speeds toward the oncoming boats and swoops low, circles and swoops again like a fighter plane. With each pass the screams from the birds become louder and the bird that is strafing us passes ever closer to our heads.
When this first happened years ago, we were nervous, but after years of being welcomed in this way we recognize this is only a warning: Stay away from our nest! Inside the small concrete fireplace, now open to the sky, the other bird sits on the eggs and screams for us to give her a wide berth. We do. Once we pass by Gull Rock the birds quieten. The one imitating a fighter plane returns to base. We land the boat safely.
Later on, sitting in the rocking chair and looking out at the blackback pair on Gull Rock, it occurs to me once again that we may feel utterly at peace here, but among the creatures outside the window there is an ongoing war. The blackback eggs are in peril from marauding hawks and eagles from the air, and the stealthy mink by land and sea. The blackbacks themselves will soon be looking for food for their newly hatched youngsters. An easy source is the totally defenseless spotted sandpiper chicks who will shortly be scurrying up and down the beach. They will make tasty morsels for the blackback newborns. The only protection the young sandpipers have is their father’s warning cries to hide themselves from imminent attack. That and the chance that a watchful human will hear those warning cries and jump up from his rocking chair, rush outdoors and scare off the threatening predator.
That’s one difference between D-day in Normandie in 1944 and Salvage in 2009. War is going on in both places at both times. The difference is the role of human intervention. To take the lives of our fellow man or save the lives of our fellow creatures.
Peter Pickersgill is a writer and cartoonist, who resides in Salvage, Bonavista Bay. His column appears on this page every other week and returns June 23. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org