On Tuesday, June 6, 2006 — the sixth day of the sixth month of the century’s sixth year — I wasn’t to be found pawing a $27 tub of popcorn, eyes glued to the big screen for the remake of the anti-Christ’s early years.
Instead, I focused on the small screen in my own living room, entranced by a two-decades-old animated story of four exchange students, a decidedly intelligent and capable beagle, and a little yellow bird. In fact, I plan to make this an annual tradition, to dim the lights and follow Charlie Brown, Peppermint Patty, Linus, Marcie, Snoopy, and Woodstock across the French countryside.
Tuesday marked a day that only rolls around once a century, 6-6-6, a marketer’s dream date for releasing the new Omen. But 6-6 of every year should be a special day, a red-letter day on the calendar of freedom-loving people everywhere, for 62 years ago, American, British, and Canadian servicemen paid for liberty on the shores of Normandy. The march to Berlin, the march to ignite the extinguished lamps of civilization, decency, and freedom in Europe, had begun.
It may seem odd watching a cartoon of a hapless bald-head boy and his dog to mark such an occurrence, but this is What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown?, Charles Schulz’s tribute to D-Day. I can think of no better way, in under 30 minutes, to call to mind the lasting significance of June 6, 1944.
Growing up in the days before VCRs became as commonplace as indoor plumbing, I never missed, if I could help it, Linus reciting the Christmas story, Charlie Brown ending up with a bag full of rocks for tricks-or-treats, or Snoopy battling the lawn chairs on Thanksgiving. In 1983, when What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? appeared for the first time, I would have been 12. Somehow I missed it. What’s more, I don’t even remember missing the show, which, in the Peanuts universe, takes place immediately after Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown, and Don’t Come Back! It wasn’t until last year when a friend and serious scholar of all things Snoopy upgraded to DVDs and gave me a box of tapes that I discovered this hauntingly moving tribute.
While on an exchange trip to France, the four children, Snoopy, and Woodstock get off track and have to spend the night camped on the coast. Linus wakes earliest and wanders the beach. He wonders why the location seems so familiar. We see the peaceful beach. The vision changes to scenes of war: bombers in the sky, battleships firing their massive guns, fortifications on the beach.
This, Linus realizes, is Omaha Beach. He wakes the others. From the kids on the beach we return to black-and-white film footage — German machine gunners, barbed wire and pillboxes, GIs piling out of landing craft — set against an animated background of changing colors, murky purples and oranges and yellows, as Linus tells what happened on this very spot. The color makes this more than an educational program, more than a “Peanuts Visit Normandy,” with cuts to archival footage; it ties the show together, connecting the world of the children and the world of war.
And yet, because the swathes of color differ so markedly from the animation we’re used to in a Peanuts special, the images of war passing before us transcend not only the world of the cartoon, but our day-to-day world as viewers. We sense the world-altering implications of D-Day and that history was made by real men, in a real place, with real death-dealing costs.
We see and hear of Pointe du Hoc and the bravery of the Rangers, the field of crosses at the American military cemetery, and we hear Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower on the 20th anniversary of the landing:
These men came here — British and our allies, and Americans — to storm these beaches for one purpose only, not to gain anything for ourselves, not to fulfill any ambitions that America had for conquest, but just to preserve freedom….Many thousands of men have died for such ideals as these…but these young boys…were cut off in their prime….I devoutly hope that we will never again have to see such scenes as these. I think and hope, and pray, that humanity will have learned…we must find some way…to gain an eternal peace in this world.
A World War II veteran himself, Charles Schulz led a machine gun squad. When word came that the Allies had landed at Normandy, he was training at Camp Campbell in Kentucky. Schulz considered June 6, 1944 the most important day of the century, never to be forgotten, and backed the National D-Day Memorial with his time and money.
“Without D-Day it’s possible that Europe could have remained for another 25 or 50 years in darkness,” Schulz said in an interview near the end of his life. “I’m glad I wasn’t there, and yet my admiration for the people who were knows no bounds.”
“What have we learned, Charlie Brown?” Linus asks.
What we have learned? We won’t learn anything, won’t even know where to start with Linus’s question, if we allow June 6, 1944 to drift from our collective memory. Charlie Brown and his friends can provide us a refresher.