As we all should know, today is the 75th anniversary of the storming of the beaches of Normandy by the Allied forces. Operation Overlord, months if not years in the planning, became D-Day, the day that most military scholars mark as the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.
There are what seem to be endless resources — books, movies, media chronicles — to tell you all about this day 75 years ago. And they are generally better informed on this topic than I am, so I will note instead that today, June 6, is also the birthday of my friend Dan. A different kind of D day.
In a fun twist of numbers, this is Dan’s 57th birthday. Which makes Dan my contemporary. And if you want to know how old this contemporary relationship is, well, I moved to Gunnison before the start of second grade. Dan’s family was on sabbatical in New Mexico, so I didn’t meet him until the third grade. We’ve been friends since we were 8 years old.
My mother has always marveled at Dan’s capacity for invention, and she still sometimes mentions when he showed up at our door one Halloween, wearing a costume he’d made himself that lit up. While I played with words, he played with circuit boards. We both went from the same elementary school to the same junior high and high school, and then we both went the the University of Colorado together, with a slight parting of the ways: I enrolled in the College of Arts and Sciences, and he was a student of the Engineering College.
After that, he stayed in the Boulder area, where he is to this day, and I came back home. Through this all, we’ve maintained this comfortable friendship that lets us just slide back into it whenever we see each other — although sometimes these days I think he likes Lynn better than me, because her love of gadgetry runs nearly as deep as his. (He sometimes thinks hers is deeper, but I’d still put my money on him.)
For years and years, I used to find it amusing that he and his sister, a marine biologist, had such scientific minds, because their parents were both artists. But as I pay closer attention to Dan’s work —
(I still don’t understand a thing he says he does. See if you can help: his company “provides embedded systems engineering consulting services and designs and develops its own products.”)
— I realize there’s a wide creative streak in him, too. These days, he seems to be making a name for himself combining his light with others’ art.
Dan and I are both children of Western State College (that’s what it was back in our day) faculty members. My dad taught history; his dad, Pat, was in the art department. And while Dan and I are the same age, his dad was older than mine.
Pat was one of those people who embraced life not just with both hands, but with a full-on bear hug. It was easy to know who he was and what he stood for. I think this story gives you an encapsulated version of Dan’s dad: my mom was working at an all-woman travel agency that booked a trip for Pat to Italy. One day the agency got a postcard from him. It was Michelangelo’s David on the front (no censorship provided), and on the back all Pat wrote was, “Now that’s Italian!”
It turns out, though, that Pat’s origins were rather murky. At his memorial service, in a church he didn’t attend but for which he had done all their stained-glass windows (the Stations of the Cross in stylized fashion), his daughter Vicki (sadly lost to cancer just last year) provided a eulogy detailing his 90-plus years of life.
It turns out Pat was an orphan, perhaps even fending for himself and living on the streets as a youth. (I can’t recall which Midwest city this was.) He had one living relative, and that was a brother.
No one today has much information about the early life for either of them, but Pat’s brother found himself in the military during World War II. And then found himself on a beach of Normandy. He survived the landing, but was killed in action in France a month later. Pat was bereft of family until he married and had children.
Dan and family, including Pat, once took a trip to Normandy. They visited a grave in the Brittany American Cemetery that is the resting place of Pat’s last childhood relative and his son’s namesake, his brother Daniel.
So today is D-Day, and D day. One is 75 and the other 57, but a tight thread, at least for one small family, binds the two together. My friend Dan came along 18 years after the sacrifice of his uncle Dan — today is a good day to think of them both.
If you’d like to see more of Dan’s inventive mind at work, check out his website. You can find plenty of commemorations for D-Day; I found this interview with 96-year-old Jake Larson on CBS This Morning to be quite charming. “Freedom is not free,” he reminds us.