- Chapter 7 -
MEETING THE FRENCH
s we moved forward in combat, the Infantry soldier had an opportunity to know the French under the most family-like circumstances. I had studied French for years in prep school, and at Princeton, but unfortunately, it was not conversational French. I am pleased that today students learn to speak foreign languages much better than they did when I was going to school. I knew all about the three unities of Corneille and Racine, but my ability to communicate was not as good as it should have been, although it served well enough.
I came to be an admirer of the French peasant and his family. We were never in big cities, but our battle seemed to take us through an endless series of small French towns, where we could converse with the citizens and, occasionally, live in their homes under close family-like circumstances.
I especially admired the discipline of the French children, and talked to them every occasion I could. I used to collect candy bars from the other soldiers to give to the children. I noticed how politely they stepped forward, one at a time, and always thanked me for my gift. Candy, especially chocolate, was much prized because there was practically none of it during the occupation.
We camped in a field in the little town of Lesdain, Belgium for a number of days on one occasion. We were so tired of our K rations that we were delighted to pick ears of corn, boil them, and eat them as corn on the cob.
In Europe, corn is only grown as animal fodder, and certain it is that the corn we were eating was not as tender and tasty as the sweet table corn we know in this country. However, it represented a change and we were glad to get it. On the other hand, the natives thought we were off our rockers, and they used to come to watch us. Perhaps it was because of this that the Mayor invited all of the officers of our company to have dinner at his home.
This was an occasion when I tried to play the gallant, but did not succeed. I sidled up to the Mayor's wife and asked if I could sit next to her at the table when we sat down to eat. She gave me a frosty smile and I did not understand her response until we sat down. Only the men had chairs at the table. The women spent all their time running around serving us!
It was in Lesdain that I had one of the few occasions to date a French girl. I made arrangements to take a young lady to a dance, and was quite surprised that as we left her house her Mother came walking along with us. She stuck very close by for the whole evening. However, when we found ourselves in a courtyard at one point, we, or rather I, indulged in an activity of which I hardly think she would have approved. Something only slightly sensational, mind you, but which would not be calculated to delight a mother's heart. However, the degree of cooperation from the young lady convinced me that, had there been time and I had the inclination, Mother could have been thwarted.
On one occasion, I had an experience which when recounted to my children amused them. I met an attractive young lady named Monique. I got her address and made arrangements to call on her that evening. After dinner, I found my way to the address - I thought - which turned out to be a courtyard with a number of living establishments facing it. There was a group of older women sitting around, and I asked for Monique. They looked at each other and giggled and sent somebody off in search of the young lady.
Much to my surprise, when Monique turned up, she was eight years old! I joined in the laughter and never found what went wrong with my directions. I spent the evening talking to my eight year old friend and the ladies with her, a most enjoyable evening.
On another occasion, I asked a young lady to go out with me, but she explained that this would only be possible if we were married. My immediate response was, "Ou est le pret?" They understood that I was asking for an immediate ceremony with the priest, which got a laugh, but no effective action.
Sometimes, we would have some wine, and the battle would be on again before we knew it. On one occasion, this happened in one of the larger cities we liberated. A group of us were standing around drinking wine, bumping glasses, and saying again and again, "Vive la France." It was on this occasion that I met the only fat man I ever saw in France.
He was a baker who, obviously, was able to get hold of sufficient food during the occupation.