During the reunion in 1994, Jack pays a solitary visit to Noville, just north of Bastogne, where
he had his baptism of fire. On the way back to Bastogne, the sun breaks through and shines upon
fields of bright red poppies.
While the brilliant blooms flash by, Jack realizes that he didn’t notice the poppies under
cloudy skies on the way up to Noville. Now they command his attention and stir a recollection of a poem written during the First World War. The poet was a physician who, in the absence of the unit’s chaplain, presided over the funeral of a close comrade. That experience moved the doctor to take pen in hand and capture the essence of loss, sacrifice, and duty for all time, but Jack
struggles to recall the first line.
“In Flanders field the poppies grow... no, the poppies... bloom?”
He falters and resolves to look into it as soon as he gets back to town. But his mind has wandered far in that direction, and he suddenly makes a crystal-clear connection between the
blood-red poppies dotting the countryside and the blood of fallen soldiers during World War I.
The madness! Old men with medals lining their chests used obsolete tactics against modern weaponry and sent young men charging on foot into the withering fire of machine guns. They fell in waves, by the thousands. Their blood dotted the ground then, just as the poppies proliferate by the millions and bear silent witness today, and forever.
Approaching Foy now from the north, Jack slows to look for a place to pull off the road. Apparently, it is an unpopular maneuver, as several cars he hadn’t noticed behind him zip by
honking their horns. He pulls off quickly and checks carefully to be sure the road is clear. He
steps out of the car and stares into the distance off the west side of the road. Without a soul in
sight, Jack is startled by a boisterous voice behind him.
Jack takes in the sight of a middle-aged man dressed in hiking clothes and a feather-topped
fedora stepping through brush on the other side of the road. He feels a twinge of concern as the
man steps into an uneven, overgrown ditch, wielding a walking stick with marginal success. When he lands safely on the hard surface road, the man is all red cheeks and smiles.
“You are American? Come to Bastogne? I am from Germany. My name is Kurt.”
Kurt strides up to him and leans in to read Jack’s nametag.
“Yes, but just Jack.”
“Nice to be meeting you, Mister Just Jack!”
In a flash, he grasps and pumps Jack’s hand vigorously. As Jack surrenders to Kurt’s good humor, the German points with his cane to the fields that roll gently toward the scattered farm
buildings of Foy.
“What do you see here?”
“Well, we came down from Noville through these fields somewhere along here. And you? What brings you here?”
“My father. I search for my father. His group reached here. The 26th Volksgrenadiers.”
“Is he buried at Recogne?”
“No, there was no body.”
Jack feels a jolt of sympathy for Kurt, whose father was likely listed as missing in action and
never found. So many young men died here. So many bodies were never recovered. Some were so shredded by explosions that their remains were scattered and consumed as they leached into the fields and forests around Bastogne. Jack ponders for a moment the painful yearning of loved ones who never learned what happened to their sons, brothers, husbands, or fathers. He is visibly moved.
Kurt, like many of his generation of Germans, came to terms long ago with the death of his father in the futile defense of Hitler’s so-called Thousand-Year Reich. Along with his personal loss, he carries the collective conscience of a nation responsible for the Holocaust. Such a background makes for an attentive and empathetic man. Hence, the last thing Kurt would ever want to do is cause discomfort for a complete stranger like Jack, clearly a very kind and considerate older man.
“Ah. Aha! Here is my father.”
Kurt fishes a photo from his wallet and hands it to Jack. As he holds the picture, Jack sees a
handsome young man with a distinctive, L-shaped scar on his chin in his full-dress Werhmacht
uniform. As he handles the photo gingerly, Jack finds it worn about the edges and stained here
and there with water, or perhaps tears. As if reading his mind, Kurt adds solemnly.
“My mother saved the photo on the day the shooting started in the Ardennes, and she never let it go. It was with her when she died.”
Jack feels a surge of compassion for the young wife who must have repeatedly caressed the photo and pined away for the love of her life. He reverently hands the photo back to Kurt, who returns it to his wallet.
It is amazing how such a chance encounter could elicit from Jack such an emotional response. Nonetheless, he feels enriched and revived by the experience. Observing the American’s brightening mood, Kurt smiles and continues his quest.
“So, was my father there in the Bois Jacques? Or did he reach to that village?” Kurt makes a sweeping gesture from the thick pine forest east of the road all the way to the scattered farmhouses and barns of Foy in the southwest. The two men stand side by side as still as sentinels, eyes fixed on the village a thousand yards away. Then Kurt remembers himself and turns to his new acquaintance.
“So, I don’t know where. But it is not important...”
Jack turns to the shorter man.
“... because he is in here.”
Kurt places his right hand over his heart.