A War Story
We were in the Belgium, a city named Bastogne, the very center, I believe, of an incredible German offensive late in December of 1944, a quarter million troops and a thousand tanks that came as if out of nowhere, stormed the relative peace of the Allied front, and created a horror story since named The Battle of the Bulge. Historians make very clear that while it didn't have the effect Hitler hoped, without a doubt it lengthened the duration of the war.
Right in the city center a large sign tells the story of that city's destruction during that surprise attack and the subsequent six-week battle. There we stood, five of us, trying to match up the pictures with the reality of what we saw all around us, a small Belgian city fifty years later. There we stood when an old man and his wife came up to us and started explaining, started pointing, started talking. I wish I could remember his name.
He and his wife had charted a return visit for him, his first after those fifty years. He was an American, from Chicago, I think, one of the thousands of kids, just kids, who unexpectedly found themselves attacked in a winter battle that was often waged, it seemed, hand-to-hand. Just up the street, he'd said, he remembered losing a friend.
For a couple hours, there in Bastogne, as well as at the museum a couple miles east of town, he became our tour guide, his wife following along, often in silence. They weren't young, of course, so our rental car helped them get around. Our chance meeting was a blessing, if that word can be used in such a place; the man was not only an eye-witness, he was a participant in the snow and ice and cold that made that German offensive even more horrific.
In the Bastogne Historical Center, he made the visit come alive. I only wish I could remember more of what he said, more of his stories, more of his own eye-witness account. That second visit of his brought a rush of memories, some of which he himself hadn't considered or remembered in the many years that had passed. I don't think I've ever before been privy to an account of a battle told by someone who was there and couldn't forget.
You can read for yourself the accounts of that battle, if you desire. War's brutality creates its own wily fascinations.
Strangely enough, the only moment I remember by image--that clearly--is a moment that took place after all the recitation. We'd returned from the museum to the city center, where we stopped to eat at an outdoor cafe. It was early June, and the sun was hot that day, but we sat outside--seven of us, five from a Dutch summer study program just doing some sightseeing, and the aging war veteran and his wife from the States. They were staying in town at a bed and breakfast they'd found on-line.
The waitress who took our orders couldn't have been more than nineteen, and in her defense, the cafe was overflowing with hungry customers. I say that because it was obvious that she was overworked and the sun, as I remember, was hot. She was not interested in small talk, and what I remember more than anything else from that day was how short she was with the old man and his wife, how she grew irritated at the turtle's pace of his choice of sandwich, how her being annoyed showed in a way that we read very clearly, in a way that seemed even to offer us the shared irritation of youth with the elderly. She rolled her eyes at us, as if we'd understand.
I don't know--and I didn't then--whether the old GI even recognized what we saw. Age offers benefits that way, I guess. His concentration on choosing the right sandwich from the menu left him no time or opportunity for picking up the cues we did. I honestly think he didn't catch her incivility. That may well have been a blessing too.
But we saw it--or at least I did; and the irony of that moment somehow found a way into my own memory vault, so that sitting there and feeling her disdain is the only immediate memory of that afternoon. I remember the landscape, too, and the museum. I remember standing beside him and listening. I remember reading the displays, and I remember very well thinking how much suffering must have gone on in the hills and forests of the Ardennes.
But what sticks somehow is that young woman's snarling irritation toward a man who was once a terribly young GI with frostbite and battle fatigue, a man who remembered the very street where the cafe stood when all the buildings as far as one could see stood in ruin, a man who risked his life for her when many, many others like him were dying all around.
The stories that don't somehow dislodge from our memories often find a permanent place because we can't locate a fitting theme for them, a file of similar stories by which they can be identified and understood--processed is the word some psychologists use.
There's easy morals to what happened, I'm sure--like, "how quickly we forget." But there's more to that story somehow, I'm sure, because she was young and innocent herself, in a way, a victim of the blessed thoughtlessness of youth. And she wasn't there fifty years ago, so it wasn't her war.
But right now, a decade later, I'm just happy that specific story is there to be told, there to be remembered, because I find myself, right now, not wanting to forget it--the look in her eyes, the old man's relative innocence, along with the memory of him standing at the sign and pointing west, up the road, toward some horror, as if it all had happened just yesterday.
It's Old Year's Eve, maybe just the right day for that old story to be told.