|A Lake Area Resident Explores Normandy
By Barbara Gartman
Monitor Staff Writer
MABANK-It wasn't as hot as Texas. A cool breeze filtered around the hedgerows and the sound of the ocean quietly lapped the shore.
But 52 years ago, a war was going on and where Dean Fannin was standing, on the Normandy beachhead in France, thousands of Americans died.
"Just walking on those beaches - it choked me up," Fannin said.
He began studying World War II history in grade school and spent a lot of his growing-up years listening to stories from his grandfather.
"And then, when the Internet came along, I used it to check out and search for facts," Fannin, manager of the Mabank Brookshire's said.
"I have wanted to go over there my whole life - but I began to plan (the trip) seriously two years ago," Fannin explained.
Then things kind of fell into place and without a lot of organized preparation, Fannin made his trip.
"The plane price was right and it was just a window of opportunity for me," he said.
Friday, Sept. 20, Fannin, traveling alone, boarded a plane for France.
Fannin and his wife Gina have two children, a 15-year-old daughter, Jordan, and a 12-year-old, Jeffrey,
He said they didn't think too much of his trip.
"My whole entire family thought I was nuts," he said, "Especially since I made no hotel reservations, and planned to sleep mostly in my car."
His adventure began at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. That was where he got his first inkling that things were done differently in France than at home.
First, they still have pay toilets in France.
"And the airport restrooms were co-ed, with only the stalls between you and the next person," Fannin said.
But that was only a small detail compared to the fact he didn't speak French and the attendants didn't speak English when he tried to rent a car.
That was an adventure, he said, adding he couldn't read the traffic signs or his road map.
"It was overcast, so I didn't have the sun to tell me which way I was going. I wanted to go west, but I took a road sort of north west," he said.
After finally finding the road he needed, he was on his way, enjoying the country side.
He planned on stopping at a restaurant or cafe, but, when he did, his adventure took a serious turn.
"When it came time to order from the menu, I just closed my eyes and pointed," Fannin said. "The food was really unique," he added.
The eating establishments in France are open from about 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and after those hours, there's no chance for a late meal or snacking, he said.
"I didn't have much luck in the villages either. I stopped at service stations and bought sandwiches, but they weren't like ours," he recalled.
His trip took him to Belgium, Bastogne, Foy and Normandy.
"I was out in the Normandy countryside and it was all little villages," he said.
"Most of the sites of famous battles were on private property, such as Brecourt Manor," he said.
"But I had come so far. I walked on the property going through the hedgerows. I stood in trenches where battles were fought," Fannin said.
The countryside was what awed him. He said he always felt safe, even sleeping in his car.
"The towns are not modernized. People are still living in the homes their families have lived in for centuries. There is no new development. It is all farmland," he said.
Another awe inspiring sight was the Ardenne Forest between France and Belgium.
"The Ardenne was so overwhelming I just stopped my car and hiked into the forest," Fannin explained.
"It was so thick and dense and the trees so huge, it became dark inside," he said.
The number of WWII museums also caught his attention.
"There are museums everywhere. I started at sunrise and explored until dark," he said.
One such museum was called the Internet Cafe, located just across from Utah Beach.
While Fannin said he thought that the name sounded a bit disrespectful. But after entering he found it filled with pictures and memorabilia.
"Everything in there, from walls, tables, counters and chairs had signatures of visitors who have stopped by," he said.
Fannin said he found the signatures of former presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton.
The museum at Utah Beach was built around a German Bunker.
"A lot of the museums used the bunkers like the Utah Beach museum did," he explained.
"One museum was filled completely with things from the bottom of the channel, from shirt buttons to tanks. It is surprising what they are bringing up," Fannin remarked.
Fannin also collects WWII memorabilia, everything from the original uniforms to rifles and all equipment carried by the WWII soldiers.
"At some point in time I will be able to put it on display. It will never be donated," Fannin said.
"I know I was born in the wrong time frame. I just love that era," he said.
"The trip was one of the most adventurous, educational and at times, very sentimental trips of my life," Fannin declared, adding "There's a ton of history on that Normandy coastline."
Fannin's interest, knowledge of WWII history and his collections are put to good use as he and quite a few other fellow patriots do reenactments of the 502 Parachute Infantry Division.
"We travel all over Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma, he said.
We also do a lot of filming for the Discovery and History Channels," Fannin said.
"And we are in the process of making a 30 minute trailer for the Stephen Spielberg film festival," he added.
Fannin is not through with his wartime adventure. He wants to discover more.
"I am going to tour the Pacific at some point in my life," he promised.
"Before my life is up I want to tour Iwa Jima and I am going to climb mount Suribachi," he said.