Thirteen years after the war I decided to return to that territory just over the Dutch-German border. Prummern, Geilenkirchen, and Beeck. Then southeast to Belgium and Marche-en-Famenne. I might have died in any of these places.
I had no trouble until I came to the German customhouse on the German border. Though the agents were young, they could have been old enough to fight. I had a sense memory of the green and black German Wermacht uniforms. The guards wore clothing with colors that triggered the recall.
I told myself that any German under thirty had an automatic pass, a verdict of not guilty. But wormed in my medulla were Ahlem Hanover and the Holocaust. Unreasonable maggots that took years to crawl out of my brain, my memory.
I went through Prummern and turned north to Geilenkirchen.
I was lost. There were no ruins. The church where I had failed as a sniper was rebuilt. The Cathedral in Geilenkirchen had been restored to its 18th faux 16th Century exterior.
As for the beet fields that had sheltered me until Robas and his BAR rescued me, they were gone. Concrete roads, parking lots, buildings of no distinction had replaced the battlefield. No rows of beets.
One October day in 1944 a fine officer, Lieutenant Mercer Yeager, had been mortared when we attacked Beeck. We called off the attack and went back to our foxholes. I brought the wounded officer into my shelter and tried to stop his bleeding. I could not. The only sounds he made were animal noises. Except once, when I thought he said he was cold. I wrapped my arms around him, and his blood flowed into my combat jacket. He died.
I got a new field jacket two days later.
I turned the car towards Belgium and slept the night in Heerlen. The coal mines had disappeared. I could not find the house where the husband had offered me his wife. The following morning I crossed into the Ardennes on my route to Marche-en-Famenne and the chicken coop where I had last seen Hyman Lipsky.
It was early fall, not the grey winter of the Battle of the Bulge. The light on the hills and trees was elegant amber, and the roadway was without peril. Woods and foliage wove into a mixture of orange, brown and yellow. Sun, no snow. Water, not ice. Streams interlaced the twisting road. I climbed a path toward the exterior of Chateau of Biron from which I had fled.
The chicken coop was not there. What remained, and had grown raggedly well, were the trees that had been torn apart by artillery shells that had burst in the air.
I went into Marche. I saw the schoolhouse and the jail again. On the main street was a small shop I had forgotten. One night in that long past December the door to a grocery shop had been left wide open. Technically I suppose I looted, but there was a quantity of Belgian chocolate I liberated. To my surprise the shop was still there. I entered and found the storekeeper. I told him about my thievery and offered to pay.
He called to the back of the store and three men, well dressed, came out. I was introduced as one of them men who had kept Marche from falling to the Germans thirteen years earlier.
Suddenly, for all of us, it was a solemn moment. They said, “Merci, cher Americain. Vous qui nous avez libere, êtes toujours bienvenue.” You will always be welcome.
“Do many Americans come back?” I asked.
“Too many Americans have never left Belgium.”
It was a fragile emotional footbridge that could only be crossed by memory. It would fall into the depths of banality if we walked on it with words. We smiled and said nothing more. We shook hands and I left.