The Great Boat Race


1 Church on the Dunes

Dunkirk, France 

Evening of August 31, 1939

Enzo shut the door behind him as he entered his home.  With a smile in his voice, he called out for his wife and their son, “Coralie! Benoit!” He walked down the narrow hallway towards the back kitchen, pausing at the entry of each room.  He poked his head into the front sitting room as he passed.  Then made his way to his wife's sewing room.  Still unable to find anyone he stood in the middle of the main hallway and called out again, “Coralie!”

“In here my love,” Coralie answered from the kitchen where she was warming up some fish stew for dinner.         

         “I did it! I did it,” Enzo said over and over as he laughed with excitement and joy. After years of sacrifice, years of late nights and early mornings, struggles and sadness.  Finally, his lifelong dream, to be able to provide a comfortable living for his family, was finally within his grasp. 

    “You got it?” Coralie asked as she wiped her flour coated hands on the pale blue apron tied around her waist, leaving white hand streaks down the sides. Their young son, Benoit, sat on the floor at her feet playing with his wooden toy boat.  He was scooting it along the worn wooden flooring, using Coralie’s legs as posts that his boat would have to maneuver through.  Even in her tattered apron, faded and layered with years of baking, even with her hair pulled back into a loose bun, and even standing there, straddling their only child, she looked as beautiful as the first day that Enzo had laid eyes upon her. She was two years younger than him and had a naturally thin frame, which started at her long legs and ended with her blond curly hair. Her deep blue eyes were the first thing that captured Enzo’s attention, as well as every other sailor on the dock, that first day she walked past.  But it was Enzo’s eyes that she locked upon, and from that day until now, through good and bad, they have been inseparable.  

    For the past year, while Enzo had been trying to save up everything he earned from working on other local boats, Coralie, had been making fresh bread daily, to sell to the local restaurants and diners.  With their son at home, and the small confines of their house, there was only so much that she could do, but still, every bit counted.  She had been working tirelessly, spending twelve to fourteen hours a day on her feet, baking and delivering freshly baked goods.  However, this day would be her last.  One way or another, their lives were about to drastically change.     

    Enzo stepped closer to Coralie, watching out for their son Benoit, who was still traversing the dangerous waters of the kitchen floor with his wooden toy boat.  Enzo wrapped his arms around her waist and gave her a strong, impassioned kiss.  Then pulling away to speak, while still holding onto Coralie’s hips, he answered, “I did.  I am now the full owner of my own fishing trawler.  I even have a standing order with two of the fish merchants at the dock.  They have promised to buy from me first.”

    “You did it! I am so proud of you,” Coralie said as she leaned in, giving her husband another tight hug and placed her head on his chest.  “Your father would be so proud of you,” she added.  “What are you going to call her?” she asked incredulously with a bit of playfulness in her voice. 

    “Étoile de Minuit,” Enzo said with a sweet smile, “My father always referred to my mother as his midnight star.  I felt it was a fitting name, considering how much they both gave so that I could be here today.”

    Coralie smiled and placed a gentle kiss on Enzo’s cheek, “I think it is a wonderful name.  I think your dad would be proud and your mother would be honored.”   Enzo held his wife close as he looked down at his son, thinking about her words. Would his dad be proud? Enzo wondered in his own mind.  He could not be so sure of the answer, and he feared the truth. It has been so long since he had seen his father.  The images that had resided so long in his mind had faded and changed over the years.  They had morphed into something almost mythical, no longer based on reality, but of childhood memories and ideas of what he thought his dad was like. The memories of his father were like a fading star, if he tried to look directly at them, they would disappear.  It was only when he glanced at them, at an askew angle, that they became visible. As he held his wife in his embrace, and as their son played at their feet, he wondered if he would ever receive the forgiveness from his father he so desperately sought.  When they have reunited once again, will he be able to stand before him and feel proud of what he did with his life?  Will he ever be able to live up to be half the man that his father was, and more importantly, would he be able to do what was done for him?

Despite all the years that had passed, just a simple comment by Coralie had transported Enzo back to his home town.  Back to when he was a fourteen-year-old boy when he thought he knew who his father was and how the whole world operated.  Looking back he realized now, he had been nothing more than a babe in the woods, lost, confused and self-infatuated. 

Enzo Van Rijn had been fourteen years old when he started working on the docks of Dunkirk.  He started by helping the United States Navy during the Great War, mainly just doing odd jobs, cleaning up here and there. He grew up in Rethel France, the only son of a shoemaker.  When the opportunity to work by the fresh sea air, and more importantly away from his father, was presented he couldn’t pass it up.  In what would be the final year of the Great War, two of his childhood friends persuaded him to join them on the daring trek to Dunkirk.  This had been his chance to make a real difference in the war, unlike his father whom he looked upon as a failure.  From where he had stood, his father represented everything wrong with the French people.   

    After the German army pushed into France and occupied his home town of Rethel, his father spent his days and most of his nights repairing German soldiers' boots. Many of these days and nights, Enzo and his mother were left home alone, and he would have to listen to his mother crying.  Whenever Enzo asked why his mother was crying, she would just say that she worried about his father.  In his mind, she worried because she saw his father as a traitor to the nation.  Colluding with the enemy, enabling their occupation, and literally putting boots on the invading army. When not repairing old boots, he was hand making fresh new leather boots for some of the German officers who had taken up residence in the town. Enzo had never understood how his father could stoop so low as to help the very people that had viciously invaded their country and looked upon them as lesser people. He had to leave, to get away from the sight of his father's face and his lies.    

Under the cover of night, Enzo and his two friends made their escape from German occupied Rethel and journeyed to the sea.  After a few days travel they arrived at the port town of Dunkirk where they were quickly hired on to work around the US Naval Base. The jobs obtained on the base were minimal tasks, consisting mostly of cleaning up and running errands. Enzo soon realized that going off to war, wasn’t as fun or exciting as he thought it would be.  He also found himself with a lot of down time, which wasn’t all that bad, except for the fact that there's no pay for sitting around.  Being the adventurer he was, he found himself occupying his down time by working for fishing boats at the docks.  Mostly cleaning the boats, or repairing fishing nets or sometimes he helped haul the day's catch from the boats to shore.  It was hard, back breaking work, but he liked it.  He shared a single room with two of his friends, they would rotate turns of who got to sleep on the bed, while the others slept on the floor.  Some nights he was so worn out and tired, he didn’t care where he slept.  Within moments of shutting his eyes, he would be out.  Other nights though, when he would lay down to sleep, his whole body would hurt so bad, that sleep was difficult to grasp, but he was happy. The one thing that he openly admitted to having inherited from his father was the love of working with his hands and creating something. 

    His time at war didn’t last long, for soon after arriving at Dunkirk, the war to end all wars had ended. The Armistice conducted at Compiegne France saw to that, and on November 11th, at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour, the guns were silenced.  There was no longer a need for the United States to operate a Naval base at Dunkirk, discontinuing any need for the extra labor, and in turn ending the employment of Enzo and his friends.  As men laid down their guns and left the front, returning to their lives which had been so violently interrupted, all the little towns across France started to return to some sort of normalcy.  The town of Dunkirk also returned to normal as able-bodied men came home looking for work and a chance to spend the rest of their lives in peace.  Enzo and his friends quickly found themselves out of work, with very few opportunities.  Enzo feared going back home a failure, feeling he would be unable to face his father, so he decided to stay longer and take his chances at getting a job with one of the fishing boats, while his two friends chose to head back home with little money, but a lifetime of stories. 

    One month rolled into another and then one year into another.  Enzo always felt he needed just a little bit more, just a few more jobs and then he would be ready to go home.  Then before he knew it he had been gone for twelve years.  Almost half his life had been spent alone, living from job to job, sleeping in whatever form of housing he could find or afford.  Despite all of that, all the hungry nights, all the hot summer days out on the dock, he still felt that he was still that little fourteen-year-old boy, still afraid to face his dad.  He had grown into a man, looked upon by many as an outstanding citizen of the town, but in his heart, he was still the young boy who had run away in the dark.

     It was in the spring of 1929 that he first met Coralie.  He had been working on a local fishing boat, learning all he could so that one day he could run his own boat.  He was unloading the day's catch, when he heard some of the other men, whistling and calling.  He turned just in time to lock eyes with the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.  She was with two of her friends, as they walked along the beach next to the pier, but all he saw that day was her.  He immediately walked away from the boat and started to follow her, after the third mile she stopped in her tracks and turned to face him.  With her hands on her hips, she looked him up and down, then smartly informed him that if he was going to follow her around all day, the least he could do was take a bath first, then take her out to dinner.  

    Being the wise man he was, he promptly asked when and where he could see her again.  Upon the agreement that he would take a bath, she told him about a little restaurant called La Nuit.   From that point on, as they say, the rest was history. The two fell madly in love and by that summer they were married.  It was almost exactly a year from their wedding date that Coralie gave birth to their little boy, Benoit.  It was then that Coralie persuaded Enzo to go back home, to mend old wounds and finally make peace with his father.  

    Enzo was not sure if it was the persuasive nature of his new bride or the fact that he was now a father, but the timing felt right.  They packed up for the journey and soon after Benoit's birth, they traveled from Dunkirk to Rethel.  Though they left with high spirits and great hope, unfortunately they found only sadness at the end of their journey. Enzo discovered his father was buried in the local cemetery, after having died of heart failure. 

    Enzo’s mother related the story of how after Enzo and his friends disappeared, that his dad had been taken a prisoner and interrogated over the span of three months.  For the duration of his incarceration, he had been kept in a small damp cell, with little to eat or drink.  The local German officers feared that Enzo’s father had been a spy for the resistance and that he had passed critical information to Enzo to pass onto the Allies.  Enzo’s mother also informed him that his father took care of all the boots for the German soldiers to keep Enzo and his mother safe.  That his father had swallowed his pride and worked for the Germans in exchange for Enzo’s life.  He had convinced the Germans that he needed Enzo to help work on the boots and the other custom leather work that they had all requested.  Many of the other boys Enzo’s age had been conscripted into service for the German army.  Enzo’s father feared the same would happen to Enzo, so he took on additional work, telling the Germans that his son was helping, that he was vital to the work.  

    It was during his three months of confinement that Enzo’s father caught pneumonia, which exacerbated his already weakened heart.  It wasn’t long after his father's return home, that his overworked heart finally gave out.  His mother had found him in his shop slumped over his work.  When she found him, he was already dead, and there was nothing she could do for him.  It was that image of his father that, to this day, kept Enzo up late at night and motivated him to find success to take care of his family.  They asked his mother to come join them, back at Dunkirk, but she didn’t want to leave her home, to leave behind her love that now forever resided in the ground there.  Saddened by the missed opportunities, and disappointed in the childish manner he had been conducting his life, Enzo decided to return back home.   

    It was with heavy hearts that Enzo and Coralie made their trip home.  When they returned they worked hard but were happy and after a few more years their lives seemed about to drastically change.  On this day, August 31, 1939, Enzo completed a deal that would not only make him captain of his own fishing boat but would all but guarantee their success in the town.  His ship, the Étoile de Minuit, would provide the closure he had sought for so many years.  He felt that by being the best husband and father he could, that in some way he would be able to find peace with himself and pay homage to the great man that saved him so many years ago. 

    “I did it, I finally did it,” Enzo said with a smile as he looked down into his wife’s eyes. 

    “You did!  We are so proud of you,” Coralie said, then looking down at Benoit who was still sitting on the floor, “We love daddy don’t we, my beautiful son?”

    Benoit looked up at the two of them, “Yes.”  Then quickly followed with his own question, “When are we going to eat?”

    “Soon son, soon,” Coralie answered in her ever loving motherly tone.

    Enzo kissed his wife gently on her forehead before he walked away, down the hall and back out the front door of his house.  As he stood there, looking out upon the sandy shore of Dunkirk, he thought about all that he had been through to get to this point.  Finally, he thought, his life was in order.  He would be able to provide for his family and be the father to his son as he had always inspired to be.  As he stood there and listened to the waves crash in the distance, he just knew that tomorrow would be the start of something amazing, something life changing.