In 1994 we were in Normandy for the 50th Anniversary of D-Day, with Susan's step-father in a special tour with his military veterans' group, the 29th Division. Our three large busloads of veterans and their families had been feted and honored for a week (the 29th Division went on Normandy Beach on D-Day and then on to liberate St. Lo and many other small villages). A typical day with the veterans involved visits to as many as six separate villages, each visit involving a parade, speeches, floral presentations, French and American national anthems and songs, elaborate meals, special wine (even at 10 a.m.), many, many toasts, and many hugs from the local French. By the end of each day we were stuffed, drunk and exhausted but the veterans, mostly in their 70's, were energized by the excitement and the warmth of the French people of the villages.
These were the days of the presidency of Bill Clinton, a man who did not serve in the armed forces. This fact did not sit well with these veterans. Not well at all. In fact, there was grumbling and harsh comments made by a number of them. This surprised us because up until that point we had seen the veterans being pretty polite and docile as they were being herded around. (This Youtube video will give you an idea of how it was and what the average veteran looked like). Our generation was the one to protest and make loud accusations, not theirs.
The day of the anniversary we were processed on to our buses at 7:00 a.m. for the ceremonies at the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy Beach, which didn't actually begin until about 1:00 in the afternoon. There would be traffic jams, bus jockeying, long lines to stand in and numerous strict security checkpoints before we could even get to our reserved seat section. On the way to the ceremony the buses for all groups were pulled off the road and active duty French and American military officers got on and proceded to sternly lecture us all: Under NO circumstances would any negative statements or negative actions about President Bill Clinton be tolerated.
Evidently word had begun to filter out that the veterans in many Divisions and in other groups also were not happy about Clinton's appearance at the ceremony and might do something public to demonstrate their disapproval of his lack of military service, something like boo him or stand up and turn their backs when he spoke. We were told any "controversial" actions would result in immediate "ejection" from the ceremony. This was a little frightening and the bus was pretty quite and subdued for the rest of the ride.
Having to be to our seats about three hours before the ceremony gave the veterans plenty of time to go up and down the aisles and visiting the veterans in other Divisons, units and groups. They reminisced, told stories and began again to grumble about Clinton.
What was the grumbling like? "That s.o.b. had better not have anything to say." "We won't listen to any draft-dodger." "Who does he think he is to talk to us? Nobody ever fired on him." And the worst part: "We're going to let him know what we think about him." This was really making us nervous. What would happen when the speeches began? Would the veterans shame themselves by making a disturbance?
No, they didn't. They behaved with dignity and showed respect to the gathered leaders and dignitaries. How did they manage this complete turn-around in attitude? The opening speaker did it. One magic, reassuring voice came out over the loudspeakers to begin the ceremony, one immediately identifiable voice calmed them, one voice that they knew was the heart of all the daily stories that defined their America: Walter Cronkite.