High Mark 11: An Excerpt

Remembrance at Normandy

In this introduction to his story, High Mark 11, World War II pilot Ralph Jenks’ granddaughter recounts visiting the beaches of Normandy with her grandparents and other family members on the 60th anniversary of the invasion. Her account is a beautiful example of how hearing her grandfather’s stories on location in Normandy created an enduring sense of connection between his life and her own:

“…when we boarded the train to head across the Chunnel to France, the stories just kept coming. Everywhere we went seemed to kindle memories for Poppi. At dinner, he’d suddenly break into, ‘I remember there was this one time…’ and no matter what the conversation had been, we would all grow silent and listen. We drove through towns and Poppi would reflect in amazement. ‘The last time I was here, it was just rubble. Rubble. If it weren’t for that statue, I’d hardly recognize it.’ He wondered if that was the roundabout where he had seen General Patton directing traffic. He added personal insight during our tour of the WWII museum in Cannes. Everything around him served to remind, and we got the feeling that he was freshly discovering many of his own memories along with us. Dodo [his wife Doris] had heard some of the stories, many she hadn’t.

“But by the time we made it to the beaches at Normandy one foggy afternoon, we were still unprepared for the effect it would have on Poppi—and on us.

“A few days after D-Day, my grandfather landed an airplane on Omaha Beach. He was twenty years old at the time—a girlfriend named Doris back home, college plans on hold, and a world of uncertainty and fear all around him. Sixty years later, he returned to that beach with me, his twenty-year-old granddaughter, and tried to tell me, to somehow help me understand what it had been like….

“I remember that we crawled into the old German bunkers at the top of the hill. We remarked on how beautiful the field of wild yellow poppies looked on the edge of the beach (the irony of it striking me then, as it continues to do now). I remember Poppi debating with the tour guide. She said the old airstrip had been in one place, and he was certain that it had been at another. I remember taking lots of pictures, walking along the sand, and bundling up in my scarf against the sharp wind.

“But mostly I remember standing there with my grandfather and suddenly knowing in a way that I had never considered before that he had been twenty years old just like me. The last time he was standing here, he was my age. And with that realization came another: how different his time abroad was from my own. What was for me a gift, was for him…well, also a gift, but one that he was giving. To his country. To his girlfriend back home. And somehow also to me.

From High Mark 11 by G. Ralph Jenks
Copyright © 2012 by Doris Jenks

One of my most cherished photographs is the snapshot of Poppi and me standing on the edge of Omaha Beach that cold spring morning. It’s a type of intersection—of generations, of life experiences, of stories. His stories continue to affect mine….
— Sandy Hermansen