“I cannot live without books.”

I arrived at the base of the mountain and could not really see much.  Everything was cool. leafy and green. I parked and made my way to the visitor center, a complex of stores, ticketing office, interpretive theater and cafe, waking up slowly to meet the onslaught of new visitors who would want to make the trek up to Monticello. Pretty soon, our guide for the Revolutionary Garden tour was there. It was obvious that this lady knew her stuff, as she had a bit of informative Jeffersonian trivia that connected every single visitor in her group to the great man himself. We walked up a few steps to the bus loading area, where we were met by a life-size, six foot two inch statue of Jefferson, keeping watch over the morning’s activities.

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A trip to Monticello is by default a study in contrasts, in ideas expressed and presumed and in the mind of a great reader, thinker, experimenter, documenter, and statesman. From the time I set foot  on the drive in front of the house, I was aware that this was a special place, and that the man who built it loved the mountain top.

For the next eight hours, I was immersed in Jefferson’s world, first walking along a one thousand foot garden that is an exact replica of the one he himself planted in 1813, two hundred years ago. Seeing the variety of plants, the neat rows, the methods of staking and covering and blanching and weeding and documenting successes and failures, precipitation and sunshine, reaffirmed that this man missed little in the world around him. At the end of the garden tour, we were treated by the professional staff to a wonderful mid-morning brunch of the fruits of the garden, literally. We saw sesame plants and heard how TJ experimented with at least three or four presses to extract sesame oil. We saw a ninety year old stand of fig trees, loaded beyond measure with green, not quite ripe figs, the branches bowing under the weight.

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The tour of the house was also a wonder. It was furnished just as it was in President Jefferson’s time, with the very artifacts of his time there. No photography was allowed inside. From the Jefferson designed clock and Lewis and Clark artifacts on the walls in the foyer to the copy of the Declaration of Independence on the wall of the bedroom-turned-schoolroom to the study with its rotating book stand, Jefferson’s beloved house served him and his family and guests in a fashion that was ahead of its time. He was said to have written more than 19,000 letters, and the manual, mechanical copier on his desk faithfully reproduced, in his own handwriting, a copy of each one he wrote. Since he had given his first library of books away (these later formed the nucleus  of the Library of Congress), he had accumulated another large library of volumes, stacked floor to ceiling in the “book room”as he called it. The dining room, the bedroom where his friend James Madison often stayed the night after an evening of conversation and dinner, and the exquisite gardens surrounding the house all made this experience a very pleasant one indeed.

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The slavery tour, learning about the hierarchy of life on a Virginia plantation, and seeing how the hustle and bustle of life on the mountain was maintained were all enlightening. It struck all of us, I think, that the man who, at age thirty three, authored the document that outlined inalienable rights for all equally-created men owned over six hundred human beings in his lifetime. He freed less that two dozen of them at his death, and the rest were sold to help pay off the $107,000 in debt that Jefferson left behind. Jefferson was intelligent, brilliant even, with boundless energy and creativity, but he was also human. He shaped history, but he was also heavily influenced by his times.

A short stroll down Mulberry Lane from the house, past the gardens, lead me to the Jefferson cemetery and gravesites for the third president of the United States, his wife, his children, his mother, and other members of his family. Seeing this site, and knowing that he and John Adams died only hours apart on July 4, fifty years almost to the hour that the United States had declared its independence from Great Britain, still gives me chills.

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Monticello is a place of great beauty, stark contrasts, wonderful stories, and exquisitely detailed accounts of a time two centuries gone by. If you are in Virginia, it is well worth your time to make the trek to the mountain top and take in the view that drove Thomas Jefferson to carve out his place in the world there, a legacy that will live on forever.

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Operation Overlord: Planning, Execution, Sacrifice and Victory.

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I was headed down the interstate highway, ironically one of the brainchildren of President Dwight David Eisenhower, towards home when I spotted it. A clearly visible sign announcing the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia. I had seen this sign before when traveling this same road home from Washington, DC, a few months ago, but I did not have the time to veer off and explore the site. This time, I decided that I did have the time, and I drove the two dozen extra miles to reach it. I am so glad that I did.

The mission of the Memorial is to preserve the lessons and legacy of D-Day, June 6, 1944. It was officially dedicated on the fifty-seventh anniversary of D-Day. It is described as a “sacred precinct”, and once on site it is easy to see why. 

Why Bedford, Virginia? Bedford provided Company A to the 29th Infantry Division when the National Guard’s 116th Infantry Division was activated on February 3, 1941. Thirty Bedford soldiers were still in that company on D-Day. Other Bedford soldiers were in other companies. 

Transported by the British Navy’s 551st Assault Flotilla, Company A of the 116th Infantry Regiment landed on Omaha Beach in the first wave of the First Infantry Division’s Task Force O. By the end of that terrible day, nineteen of the thirty Bedford men were dead. Bedford’s population in 1944 was only 3200 souls. Proportionally, this tiny Virginia community suffered the nation’s severest D-Day losses. Bedford instantly became emblematic of all communities whose soldiers served on D-Day. Congress decided that this would be the perfect place to establish the Memorial. 

The site is laid out in three plazas. The lower-most is dedicated to the planning that went into Operation Overlord and the men who made it all happen. Most notable of course was General Dwight David Eisenhower, architect of the plan that covers the canopy above his head in his own corner of the monument. Image

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The landscaping, flowers and color scheme in this part of the Memorial tell the story of the flaming sword that would point towards Hitler’s Atlantic Wall on that fateful day. 

ImageThe middle plaza is dedicated to the assault. Just walking onto this area was an experience like I’ve never had before. Quietly, powerfully, I was able to feel what it must have been like to jump out of a Higgins boat in choppy seas, carrying an eighty-one pound pack on my back, run the length of four football fields in wet sand, and immediately be raked with machine gun fire from the low brown bunkers atop the cliffs in front of me. I looked to my left and saw a comrade wading ashore. To my front a medic helped an already wounded comrade to safety. To my right, a friend was already down, awash in his own blood, his battle over. Hedgehogs, made to upend Allied boats and cause drowning deaths, became places to hide behind to dodge the murderous enemy fire that spit and zipped all around me, making little geysers of water to my left and right. The architects of this Memorial got it right. I could feel it as if I were really there. Powerful stuff. 

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The upper plaza is dominated by a multi-ton granite monument to Operation Overlord. Imposing, stark, and perfectly colored to blend with the gunmetal gray skies the day I visited, it overshadowed everything in its purview. The alternating black and white stripes atop the arch pay homage to the part the air corps played in the success of the operation. Directly in front of this massive structure, a Ranger tops the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, symbolizing not only that critical piece of the assault but the victorious spirit of all the Allied troops who pushed ahead against all odds to secure a beachhead that day. Just in front of him, a lone inverted rifle and helmet pay silent tribute to the 4400 members of the Allied Expeditionary Force who were killed on D-Day.

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I love our American military history, whether it is Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War II, the Vietnam Conflict, or other engagements. Visiting well-executed monuments and memorials like the National D-Day Memorial make me think, really think, about the men and women who risked their lives so that I might be free today. These wonderful American treasures help us to see, feel and experience this history and what it means to us like no history book ever could. The fact that D-Day was a well-planned cooperative effort among twelve countries just made this even more fantastic. 

Looking back down the hill towards General Eisenhower, knowing the planning that went into the assault, seeing the expanse of beach that had to be taken by Allied forces, and then seeing the look of sheer triumph on the Ranger’s face as he crested the cliff made it clear to me how much these brave soldiers added to our rich military history. 

We owe our freedom to soldiers, sailors and airmen who serve bravely, fight valiantly, and execute when the cost of failure would be just too much to bear. 

If you are ever in the Bedford, Virginia area, please make time to stop by and experience the National D-Day Memorial. You will see that day, June 6, 1944, in a way that you have never seen it before.