History is a critical part of our DNA

The D-Day anniversary last week reminded us of a time when everything was at stake — not just for our country but for the entire world — and how good triumphed over evil.

It was also a reminder of how quickly those lessons can be forgotten, if they were learned at all, at the highest levels of government.

That was sadly on display this past week, and if you didn’t recognized it, shame on you.

I’ve been chasing American history most of my adult life, and I’m not sure where that comes from. There were no day trips to historical sites, no visits to presidential museums or pilgrimage to the nation’s capital when I was a lad — we just didn’t have the means — but I was drawn to that American narrative that is so unique.

Our history is a critical part of our DNA, and it is one of the greatest legacies we can give our children.

So every business trip, school visit, vacation or weekend away has been an opportunity to learn something new about my country and the people who molded it.

A request to do a sports writing seminar in Austin, Texas was the opportunity to visit Dealy Plaza in Dallas and the grave of President Lyndon Johnson.

A week’s vacation in Virginia involved working our way across the state from George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon to Monument Avenue in Richmond and Jefferson’s home and final resting place at Monicello. There were four other presidential homesteads and gravesites on that trip as well.

My brother and I spent a week in Virginia going from Civil War battlefield to Civil War battlefield — Manassas, Fredricksburg, Spotsylvania, Chancellorsville and the Wilderness — before finally winding up at the site of Robert E. Lee’s surrender, Appomattox Court House.

When we saw a curious sign on the side of the road, we pulled off and visited the final resting place of Stonewall Jackson’s arm. It had been amputated after he suffered a mortal wound.

When I was working in Tennessee, a friend visited me and dragged me off to see the gravesite of President Andrew Johnson. I’ve been to all but five presidents’ graves since.

But this week was a reminder of the impact our history can still have, especially in Normandy.

Standing on a wall overlooking Omaha Beach 10 years ago, I looked on as small children played in the surf, oblivious to the carnage so many years ago.

At Utah Beach, my 13-year-old son began to run toward the distant surf at low tide. He wanted to experience what it was like for the first soldiers coming ashore. He never made it to the water. It was too far and too muddy.

But it is at the cemetery where it hits you. Much like at the memorial for the U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor. And the concentration camp at Dachau I visited earlier this year.

It overwhelms you.

The loss, the sacrifice and the scale of what it took to save the world. It was quiet the day I visited the cemetery in Normandy. I suspect that is the way it usually is, unless you are attacking political opponents during an interview.

It should always be a place of reverence.

I’ve been to Arlington National Cemetery at least a dozen times. Standing on the bluff in front of Lee Mansion, the headstones stretch out before you endlessly. It is always emotional for me.

It speaks to the cost of democracy. It sounds odd to call this one of my favorite places in the world, but it is.

It speaks to me about the greatness of our country and the proud place we once held in the world.

Those are lessons that history can teach us.

It is the reminder of what we all need to know and what it means to be an American, because D-Day anniversaries only come once a year.

It’s our history. It needs to be cherished and revered so we can all be better citizens.

You don’t need to go to Normandy to do that.