In the Presence of Our Enemies
Barbara Presnell

In the Presence of Our Enemies

“I hate Germany,” Philippe says. His face is stone, his eyes clear and intentional. “Everything—the language, the people, the food, the land. I hate it all.”

If we look east, we can see the country he so despises. A ten-minute walk and we’d be on its soil. That’s how close he’s lived all his life, yet to cross its border is still, sixty-nine years after the war, to enter enemy territory.

His hatred is visible in his face and body, is made real by his words. It’s so strong it almost becomes the sixth person in our group, and when we climb in the car, it climbs with us. We carry it all day, just as he has carried it all his life.

This thick growth of evergreens, the Ardennes Forest rolling like felt over a bumpy horizon, is where over eight hundred American soldiers died in the winter of 1944-45 in what we refer to as the Battle of the Bulge. Then it was snow-covered, and temperatures dipped below freezing. Now, on this May morning, the forest is rich, healthy, and stunningly beautiful. Its lushness is haunting; a thin shroud of fog hovers just above the tree line. It is our last day in Belgium. Tomorrow we will enter Germany and visit my friend Gabi and her family. A few days later, we will end our journey at the Elbe River in Madgeburg.

My brother Edwin, my sister Ellen, and I decided two years ago that we would travel together to trace our father’s World War II map from Omaha Beach in France to the Elbe River in Germany. My father was a young mill worker when he signed up for the National Guard early in 1941. Three years later, as a first sergeant in the 30th Infantry Division, he set sail for Europe and the French coast. After the war, he returned to the mill, this time climbing to middle management. He married, had three children, and, like so many other returning soldiers, built a prosperous post-war life. But in 1969, at age fifty-two, he died, leaving behind a collection of artifacts that included maps, photographs, a journal of daily movements, rosters of men in his company, newspaper clippings from the Stars and Stripes and the Courier-Tribune, the hometown newspaper, and more. From those, we pieced together his story.

We also, through a series of blind emails and lucky connections, located individuals all along his trail, people like Philippe, with their own stories of the war. We didn’t want the historical narrative; we wanted the human one. We wanted to place our father, the hometown boy from Asheboro, North Carolina, in the midst of a foreign war.

Through our brief email correspondence, I learned that Philippe is seventy-seven years old, has bad knees and feet—therefore cannot walk well—and his English is very poor. “I’ll try to found [sic] somebody to help us for translation,” he wrote. “Maybe better with the hands!”

We arranged to meet outside the Baugnez 44 Historical Center in Malmedy, a museum dedicated to the story of the Malmedy Massacre and just a hundred yards or so from its site. It’s Monday, though, and the museum is closed. We are also late—our brother, Edwin, complicated our morning by sending Ellen and me a text message saying, “I can’t get out of bed. Go without me.” By the time we knew he was all right—just worn out from a week’s hard travelling—we were cranky and irritable—and a good fifteen minutes off schedule.

Philippe is waiting, the door of his blue Citroën open, when we turn into the parking lot. He hauls himself out of the car with the help of a cane. He wears a white shirt with an open collar and a blue sport coat that, together with his thin white hair and closely clipped beard, give him a formal, professional appearance. In English that is difficult to understand, a little laughter, and our repeated “Your English is better than our French!” we make a plan for the day—first we’ll visit the site of the massacre. Then he’ll drive us through the forest, providing an overview of the town itself and the layout of the battle that took place over a several week period almost seventy years ago. We’ll “take a glass—or more!” for lunch, and, finally, he will show us his grandmother’s house where he was sheltered—and bombed, injured, and almost killed—as a small child.

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Barbara Presnell

is the author of Piece Work, winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center's First Book Prize, and Blue Star (Press 53), which traces her family's involvement in war from the Civil War to the present. She teaches writing at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and lives in Lexington, North Carolina.