Shrines are best seen alone. You can't do that if you're a president, of course, particularly if you're accompanied by another president standing on soil hallowed to both and facing a throng that instantly records every flicker, sound, mance and word.
In the end, that didn't make any difference today. The gathering of citizens and soldiers and observers from around the world at the place where the invasion of France began on D-Day 1944 needs no explanation. The beaches, and the crosses in the cemetery, and the words graven on marble tell the story.
Words and arrows, in fact. Little red arrows that curve and move and zigzag across a map of France also carved into that marble. They tell of the movement of armies: the French and American flags flying high over the cemetery tell the rest.
Of the parts played by the two presidents in the formal wreath-laying ceremony here, probably only two things need recording. The American President gave his most eloquent testimony in the words he chose to write in the cemetery guest book.
"To the heroism of those who fought and died here for the freedom of us all," he wrote. He signed his name simply, "Jimmy Carter, U.S.A."
The French president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, offered even more personal testimony. He remembered what it was like when he heard the news that June day 34 years ago. He was 17.
"Mr. President, like all young Frenchmen of my age, on June 6, I heard the news of the landings over the radio," he said. "That news spread like wildfire across Paris - 'They have landed'. They were the Americans, the British, the Canadians and the French who, on five beaches, had come to give us back hope and freedom."
But it wasn't the formal ceremony that made the deepest impression today. It was the sense of memories. Both those who remembered and, most important of all, those who didn't.
Not far from the beaches here is one of those lovely Norman cafes, the Carefree Cafe it is called. All across Normandy today were signs of a peaceful land in a peaceful country.
Here and there remain a few physical reminders of conflict. The hedgerows still dot the Norman countryside. just as they did when those armies clashed. The Norman steeples from which paratroopers dangled still stand up against the unbroken farmlands. The road markers, bearing their sharp curves point out names that instantly evoke the past. Caen. Cherbourg. St. Laurent.
They were on those maps we used to pore over during the war, maps that bore arrows then, too. But maps don't tell the story of wars, and memories play tricks. Because, you see, some of the names pull you back into other memories. Rue de Verdun, one street sign reads. Verdun was the name on that big drum the French soldier beat at the wreath-laying ceremony, but Verdun was an earlier war.
Our President had triggered memories of that earlier war, too. As he looked out toward the white grave markers before him today, he spoke of the numbers of Americans buried in Europe from the First World War. There are 30,000 soldiers and Marines who lie in European soil, he said.
That brought a flood of personal memories, of a picture of a great-grandmother standing stoically beside her son's grave in France, one hand on the stone corss, the other holding a small American flag, and of an American Legion post in a Georgia town that bears his name.
Today was like that. The train that brought us here from Paris moved through the dark early morning hours of the Norman countryside, offering glimpses of frozen fields and quiet farms, stands of trees and gentle hills, Norman spires and small streams, the train, leafing through a Time magazine, one reads an article about a prosperous, calm America. An America, the contented, it would seem, without war or crisis to disturb its calm.
France bespeaks that spirit. Its countryside radiates calm and quite today. Whatever, ancient sorrows these fields have witnessed are hidden. The idea of savage conflict occurring in such a bucolic place seems unthinkable. But it did, and many have not forgotten.