News Archive

Reflections on the D-Day Presentation

Some of our veterans address the delegates

The door closes behind me as I walk down the driveway. It's early December, but not cold enough for more than a long-sleeve shirt. I have a plate of cookies in my hand, the first of three I will try to deliver tonight to our neighbors, in keeping with our annual tradition.

Turning right, I walk towards Jack's house, a brown-sided house with cream-colored trim, large bushes, and a tight driveway leading to its two doors. It's a 1950s GI Bill house, like many in Haddon Heights, made for and bought by the veterans who settled in the small town after World War II. Each has its own feel but they all have the same characteristics. The main door faces the street and opens into the living room, which has a large window. A side door off the kitchen exits onto the driveway, usually the family exit, but it's the door we've always used. I walk up the driveway and knock at the barn-red door. There is no answer.

I wait a full minute, listening to see if he is home. A light is on in the kitchen but I hear nothing. I knock again. Again, no answer. I retreat, backing off the kitchen steps, and walk back to my house.


During my first year on staff, we held the D-Day presentation in the Student Center Theater. This was back when it was called the Student Center Theater, before the name of Bart Ludeke was placed on the building, before building and theater were closed for renovations. Along with three other first-year staff members, I seated the last of the delegates as the lights dimmed and the presentation began. The delegates were crammed into the theater, which left no place for any staff member to stand or sit. Crowd control was our job as first-year staff members; we needed to be close in case of any issues. The four of us retreated to the small atrium, found some folding chairs, and began to watch the presentation through the window.

We talked among ourselves for some time as the opening scene of "Saving Private Ryan" began to play in front of us, but the conversation abruptly died. All of us had watched the movie before, but watching it here felt different. Our conversation would resume later but we, like all the delegates sitting in front of us, sat in sobering silence.

The immediate chaotic terror of war that Steven Spielberg so clearly evoked in that scene is subverted by confining it to a television's plastic boundaries. A forty-foot screen and loud theater will not allow that. The setting reaches out and hits you. Gunfire hisses and pops all around. We react with the soldiers, flinching with the explosions and impact. It's an immersive experience, and many staff members, some of whom have seen it ten times, will still stay behind to silently watch and reflect like we did that night. It may lose some of its visceral impact from repeat viewings, but the emotional impact remains the same. We have seen war.


I approach Jack's house again, turning up the driveway. I used to squeeze past Jack's silver Nissan Altima to get to his door but I don't have to anymore. The car that I saw backing out at 7:00 AM each morning to get coffee and a paper at our local convenience store and struggled to shovel around for many years is no longer there because Jack no longer drives.

Like driving, many things have changed in Jack's life in recent memory. There are no more summers on the deck with a portable TV and a grill. The lumpy ten-foot asphalt slab with a basketball hoop they welcomed me to play on is still there but has scarcely been played on since I stopped. His wife, Anna Mae, is gone. Jack doesn't get out much anymore and when he does, he needs a walker. Things have definitely changed, but we still give cookies each Christmas.

This time, my knock is rewarded with a greeting. "Come on in," Jack bellows.


Part two of the presentation begins as Peter Jennings appears on the screen, walking slowly across the now-clear beaches of Normandy to open a 1994 ABC News special about the 50th anniversary of the attack. After witnessing the horror of that day, the delegates see the planning behind the attack and it Operation Overlord unfolded. Allied and German soldiers talk about the battle, the chaos from things going wrong, the noise of the guns, and the death of their brothers in arms.

Then the video ends. Director Bagatelle takes the stage, quiets the murmuring delegates, and begins the third part of our presentation. He is not alone. Standing next to him are men and women he will soon introduce. Not all are dressed like most staff members. Some walk slowly, their legs hindered by years, as they align on the stage and face the delegates. Our staff member introduces them, then each of them speaks to the delegates. And now, as they speak, some of those themes of Boys State become clear as everything from Sunday morning through Tuesday night sharpens in their minds right now.

Patriotism. Sacrifice and love of country. Respect for veterans.

These things now make sense.

Thunderous applause ensues as they finish speaking. The applause is uniquely quiet; there are no whoops and yells over the din. This is pure respect and admiration from understanding. Each delegate knows what is going on. There is nothing to say. And what would you say? This is better gratitude than words.


I grab the old doorknob and enter. The bells on the side door announce me as I step into the kitchen. Jack is in the dining room, watching the last few minutes of the Army-Navy game from a chair that faces the TV. Jack fought in six battles of World War II, including the Battle of the Bulge, but he has never said anything about them, so I can't remember if he has a rooting interest. He turns his head and some of his broad shoulders towards me and smiles. "How're ya doin', Ty?"

The words come out more like an exclamation than a question, but that is his usual cadence. I'm smiling too by now, as I walk towards him, plate in hand. I'm doing pretty well, I say politely. "It's great to see you. How are you?"

Jack pauses, looks toward the TV a bit, his smile fading. "I'm–I'm still here," he says deliberately. "I'm not doing so well." He looks up at me.

I'm struck by his honesty. I hope I'm showing sympathy. I hope he understands that my concerned gaze and slight nod express my emotions instead of patronizing him.

I don't know if Jack knows our tradition but he notices the plate in my hand. I give the plate to him, mentioning that my mom baked some cookies for him. He smiles again. It's not as broad as the smile I remember from years ago, but he's still happy and that makes me happy. "Aw, she did this again? Tell her thank you for me. I really appreciate it," he says. As it has so often, his gravelly voice underlines his meaning.

We talk for a minute or so more, mostly about what I'm doing or hoping to do, and then it ends. Jack thanks me for stopping by and thanks me again for the cookies. I tell him it was good to see him and leave through the same door I entered. I walk back to our house, thinking the whole time, and deliver his message to my mom. I tell her that he looks good (he does, as well as a man his age can look). He's still got that strong-bodied look, the same face and glasses, even his same hair. I tell her about "I'm not doing so well," too. It makes us both think about him. I keep thinking about him through the night. I'm still thinking about him.


The moment on the theater stage is special for me too, but for different reasons. I witness this each year. There's no lightbulb moment from this presentation for me anymore. Instead, what I notice is how many veterans stand next to our staff member each year. When I was a delegate, there were more than fifteen. That number has slowly dwindled. Veterans I know from the program, like former Alumni Association Coordinator "Stormin" Norman Sullivan or William "Bill" Breen, have passed away. D-Day was 68 years ago. An 18-year-old boy who fought would be 86 today. There is not much time for these men–men like Stormin' Norman, Bill Breen, and Jack–anymore.

I don't look forward to the day when none of the men from this era are there to slowly shuffle onto the stage. These are the men who took responsibility when it was thrust upon them in the din of war. These are the men who, scarcely older than the boys before them, fought for their country and for principles larger than national pride. They returned home from their service and built the foundation of the American economy and society. They built the Interstate Highway System (whose signs still bear the five-star emblem of the President who commissioned it in 1959), broke the sound barrier, and dreamed of the stars. Calling them "the Greatest Generation" is less a compliment than a statement of fact. We owe them much, much more than we will ever thank them for.

And tonight, on Tuesday night at Boys State, we get a chance to thank these true American heroes appropriately. We won't always have the chance. I won't always be delivering cookies to Jack at Christmas. That will be a sad day, but tonight is not then. Tonight is for giving thanks.

originally posted June 19, 2012 2300