First of five chapters

He hasn't spoken about it much over the past 60 years, not to anyone. His generation wasn't much for talk, and besides, he wouldn't have wished those images on anybody. And cometo think of it, few people really asked. But the prospect of talking now -- in public, for Pete's sake, in front of friends and family and the few buddies who survive, and right there on the beach where the bullets flew, where the mines blew up, where he stood over a wounded pal in the chaos but had to keep on going -- well, it rattles him almost as much as the din of Hitler's guns.

Charles Heinlein is 82, an emotional man - and not afraid to say so. Remembering that day makes his voice catch, his eyes water. It's hard to get things in perspective.

When something is big enough to turn you inside out, when it changes the course of history, and when you've carried it inside you for six decades, how do you find five minutes' worth of words to let it all go?

That's the question Heinlein is doing battle with these days, as he prepares to return to Normandy, France, for the first time since he approached Omaha Beach's 80-foot bluffs on June 6, 1944: D-Day.

He was a private in the 29th Infantry Division then, part of the fabled "Blue and Gray," a young man from West Baltimore who drilled at Fort George G. Meade, crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Mary and trained for 19 months on the moors of England for one of the decisive events in the history of Western civilization. When the ramp of his landing craft came down at 7:40 a.m. that day, Heinlein was one of the first several hundred ashore, a vanguard of the fighting force that would liberate Europe from the death-grip of Adolf Hitler, battle by bloody battle, over the 11 months to come.

This week, just a few days before the 60th anniversary of D-Day, Heinlein will stand again on that windblown stretch of sand. This time, he'll face not artillery fire but 71 of the men he fought with that morning, family members who know only snatches of their stories, and, perhaps, the feelings he buried long ago just to get across that beach.

Nearly 10,000 29ers took part in the D-Day landing. Heinlein and the other returning members will convene in the cemetery where their buddies are buried. On June 6, they'll hear the words of Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and George W. Bush, a new wartime president. Like friends at a funeral that was delayed for 60 years, the veterans will pay their respects.

"The heroes," Heinlein says, "are the fellows still there."

On a day in late May, just before his departure for France, Heinlein sits with his wife inside the brick rowhouse in Violetville that they have owned since the 1950s. Their nephew, Ed Hullett, is here, too, and Charles is worrying aloud about the speech he is still polishing.

"Whatever you say will be fine," says Hullett, 66, a self-taught D-Day buff who has helped his uncle with an early draft. "Lord knows, you've earned the right to say it."

Irene, the West Baltimore girl he married the month he got home from the war, wonders what the weather will be like in Normandy. She'll be there, too, with Hullett's wife, Carol; the Heinleins' daughter, Darlene; and two grandchildren, all of them curious to put the man they know so well together with the scene they've only read about.

Ed suggests Charles should type the final draft of his speech, make it big enough that he won't lose his place or his thoughts. But who knows what might come to the mind of a man in such a place, at such a time, during five minutes the likes of which few of us will ever know?

"I don't mind when a grown man cries," says the former Company D machine-gunner. "We do, you know. I did over there, pretty regular. You had to let things go. It didn't make me a chicken.

"It's just that - well, I know I'm going to start that speech. I just can't say what's going to happen after that."

Ordinary people

Sometimes, especially in America, the heroic has roots in the ordinary. Historians say it was citizen-soldiers who won World War II, regular guys who saw acts of heroism in service to country as just another kind of heavy lifting.

That all sounds a bit like Baltimore, and a bit like Charles "Harry" Heinlein, a sheet-metal worker from the time he turned 16. Baltimore is where Heinlein's story begins and where, God willing, he says, it's going to end.

His father, Frederick, was the son of a German immigrant, an Army man himself. He served in a cavalry unit in the Philippines, where a horse kicked his leg.