Taken for Granted
There’s a scene in the epic World War II film, “Saving Private Ryan,” that always gets me. The Tom Hanks character, Capt. Miller, at D-Day plus three, having endured 45 of his men killed and 90 wounded knocking out Nazi artillery pieces, has been summoned to company headquarters, away from the action, for reassignment. While awa i t i n g orders, the battle-weary captain takes in the surroundings. Nearby, a soldier casually shaves with water heated over a fire, while a companion chows down on a freshly made Dagwood-style sandwich.
Miller’s eyes widen as an orderly pours thick, black coffee into a field cup for the Colonel. Miller’s rapt gaze conveys his fervent desire for the coffee, yet none is offered to this man who survived the carnage of Omaha Beach and beyond. The colonel turns and addresses the captain, the steaming cup of coffee taken for granted. Taken for granted... Later in the film, as Miller readies a handful of men for a last-ditch defense of a vital bridge, he visits ruined buildings of a bombedout French village. He at last finds a coffee maker, an espresso machine of sorts, but despite his every attempt, no coffee will issue forth. Departing, Miller pauses at the door and casts one last, furtive look at the coffee machine.
Just one cup of coffee. That’s all he wanted. A cup of coffee, so easily taken for granted by those who never dwell on the sure fact that each day, each moment, could be the last.
Taken for granted...
I reflected on “Saving Private Ryan” this week for a number of reasons.
First, of course, was the winter storm event which affected our neck of the woods. Children had a great time sledding down the hills in our neighborhood. Birds and squirrels went through 60 pounds of my birdseed in two days. My old Jeep, derived from the timeless General Purpose (GP, pronounced “Jeep”) vehicle which helped win World War II, garnered appreciation for its ability to go anywhere.
Even if it was just a quick run to the grocery store, to get to work, to buy more birdseed or for any other mundane trip, which, under normal circumstances, is so often taken for granted. Taken for granted... A second reason for my reflection was news that Richard Winters has passed away. Winters had been thrust into the limelight a few years ago when the exploits of Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, were televised in the “Band of Brothers” mini-series. A true hero, everyman’s idea of what a soldier should be, Winters shunned idolatry and in his will specified that notice of his passing be delayed until after the funeral. Richard Winters died Jan. 2, at age 92.
I last saw Dick Winters in the background of a June 2009 news report commemorating the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, France. Security was whisking celebrities, including Hanks and the French prime minister, past an old man and his wife who were trying to get out of their way.
Without so much as a glance, the official party swept past. As they did, the old man straightened to attention, which caught my eye. My heart leapt into my throat as I recognized Richard Winters, “a Toc- coa man,” being taken for granted. Taken for granted... The cold weather has been brutal, but 66 years ago “The Battle of the Bulge” still raged in the Ardennes. Last Thursday morning my backyard thermometer registered 18 degrees, with the sun shining on it. Our GI’s, including Winters, endured America’s bloodiest World War II battle in worse conditions from Dec. 16 until Jan. 25.
Neighborhood kids frolicked to their heart’s content, and I restocked my bird feeders daily, but we all experienced temporary discomfort knowing our heated homes awaited. Our heated homes, like one cup of steaming coffee, so easily taken for granted. Taken for granted... The final reason for my contemplations this week hinged on a kindly member of our First United Methodist Church, Bill Morris. Bill asked me to look over the memoirs he’s written at his children’s request.
His notes frequently stop me in my tracks.
This unassuming and gentle man, you see, landed on Omaha Beach. He endured Nazi V1 “buzz bombs,” was on the northern flank of “the Bulge” and, later, the bridge at Remagen. His unit liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp, and, after Germany’s capitulation, trained for the invasion of Japan on Okinawa.
Bill and his wife, Nancy, drive cautiously these days. Some who rushed to the grocery store last week may have zoomed past the older couple, and taken them for granted.
May America’s soldiers, and the freedoms they sacrificed to preserve, never be taken for granted.
Nat Harwell is a longtime resident of Newton County. His columns appear regularly on Sundays.