Letters from Oregon Boys in France
Compiled by Mrs. Frank Wilmot 1918
Harrison F. Anderson
May 12th, 1918.
Yes Sir, Mothers' Day in France! And they tell us that any letter written - or, rather, posted - on Mothers' day will be rushed to its destination "tout de suite." I hope so, Motherie mine, because this will be an especial effort; I mean, to tell you of things which I think will interest you particularly.
M. Dumas, le pasteur de l'eglise Presbyterian, ici, has dedicated the services tomorrow to "Le Jour des Me'res des Americains." He's a nice old gentleman, and I've fallen into a habit of dropping into church every chance I get. You know how nearly every church at home has difficulty in getting men to attend? It is the same here, apparently, especially the one wee Protestant Temple in the city. Well, since the Americans arrived dear old Dumas has had a healthy gang out every Sunday. The six Catholic churches here haven't profited so well, but you'd be surprised to see how the Temple is visited, although, of course, the service is usually in French. We don't mind that, for like checkers [Katherine please notice] we go to absorb the atmosphere as much as anything else. I do miss the beloved service and ritual, but I'm rapidly learning to take part in the service of the French. They sing only psalms, as a rule, but they have many of our hymns, beautifully translated. For instance, the first which caught my eye was:
La nuit s'approelte et nous menace tous
Nous implorons ta pr'esence divine
Reste avec nous, Seigneur, reste avec nous!
Rayonne sans vile, splendeur de Noel!
Venez, tendre enfance, qu'un chant d'esperance
Venez tendre enfrance, qu'un chant d'esp'erance
De vos coeurs s'elance, jusqu'a l'eternel!
Createur du ciel et de la terra.
East of the Rue d' Orleans, up the hill to the chateau is a queer, twisting little street, paved with cobbles, and flanked by ginney stone houses in the last stages of decrepitude. I believe the street is called Le Chemin des Trios Marchands: the Lane of the Three Merchants. Every block or so is a flight of uneven, sagging steps of stone, lifting the tiny alley to a dizzy height overlooking La Loire [which resembles the North Platte]. And along the hillside by the alley, clinging precariously to the stony slope, is an ancient, weary looking wooded house, gabled, stanchioned and braced. It is the house of Eugenie Grandet, one of the Balzac's heroines. Remember her, Katherine?
Before I forget, let me tell you, mother, of my sweetheart. Not being an old warrior, like all the French are, I can not call the seventy-five [cannon] my sweetheart. But I have one. Oui, oui, ma m'ere! You know sugar is very, very scarce here - civilians can not buy lump sugar at all, so I give my sweetheart - her name is Aboul'ee - some every day. She eats it out of my hand, in the prettiest way! And she isn't French, either, as you see from the name, Aboul'ee [Ah-boo-lay] which is Arabian. She told me this morning that if I insisted, she would gladly go walking with me [she pretended to do so willingly], but that if I left the matter in her hands, she had much rather scamper a bit - and, by way of showing her love for me jumps a fence or two. That is her favorite sport, and she is as graceful as a greyhound. And gentle! The other day she pretended to bite my hand, while I gave her sugar, and looked at me wickedly out of her big brown eyes, but I pulled her ear and blew smoke in her face, which offended her. No lady would stand for that, I suppose. Her one vice is a fear of locomotives, and even then she is perfectly tractable. So we have a heap of fun together. I must admit that she likes to jump fences better than I, but I'll learn, I hope. It is an exhilarating sport, all right. She is six years old, and weighs about 1150; has a soft mouth, loves clover, speaks equine perfectly, and whinnies when I whistle to her. So much for Aboul'ee.
The other day, while out riding, I turned into a farm yard hidden from the road by huge thorn bushes, and asked the young woman who came to the door if I might have some milk to drink.
[Bon jour, Madame; puis-je avoid un boisson du lait, s'il vous plait?] She said I might, so I dismantled, and went in to the farm house --- a stone building, thatched roof, one large room, great beamed ceilings, with the beams blackened by the years of smoke. In one corner was a huge cupboard, in another a table, in the third a big old fashioned four poster, and in the fourth a conglomerate mass of harness, rope, brooms, everything imaginable. The cooking apparatus was a fireplace, above which hung the old flintlock and powder horn. General Joffre and the Virgin Mary divided honors of decorations. Well, Madame gave me a bowl of fresh milk and then another. I asked her what it cost, and she received a most expressive shrug, for an answer. So I gave her two francs, which was about right perhaps, and then committed a faux pas. I asked her if I might give her a box of cigarettes for her husband. Heavens! she said, in a perfectly dull voice, that he was dead; killed in the Somme. Two brothers also, and one brother-in-law. I couldn't very well have said anything worse, I suppose. She was crying, very quietly all the time, and begged to be excused for having intruded her personal grief on a gentleman, an American officer, and so on. Luckily, I had a pocket full of candy, and I gave it to a little youngster who came toddling in. I finally found that the only living son of the family was home on leave, so I left the cigarettes for him. I've learned not to ask French woman about men folks, though, for every family has lost some one. In fact, those who had no young men to give seem ashamed. And how eagerly they look to the Americans, for they expect the Americaes to end the war. I'm speaking of the peasants, of course, who know nothing except their loved ones have been taken.
There is a jeweler in the city here, a Monsieur Merle, who has always been very, very nice to me. He fixes my watch, glasses, compass, bracelet of identification, anything when it gets out of whack. For the past three weeks I've gone into his Jouallerie every day to get my specs, which he had to send to Paris to have repaired. Finally, I lost patience, and last evening started to blow him up a bit. I talked rapidly, too much for him, and I can't talk angrily in French --- so I was turned over to Mlle. R'eynal, a young woman who is visiting Madame Merle, and who is the only one in the establishment who speaks English fluently. So she talks to Americans when they get too complicated for M. Merle. She was educated in England, and lives in Paris --- came here to be away from the bombardment. Well, to get on with my yarn, I told her that I thought M. Merle was an old scamp. She was shocked stiff, and said that perhaps I was very impatient. When M. Merle, who had been listening to us, stepped away to wait on a customer, Miss R'eynal turned to me and said, "Why, M'siue, M. Merle loves to have you come in here. The other Americans are just as nice, just as polite --- many of them are far better patrons," --- says I: "Well, what's the big idea, Mademoiselle? I'm charmed, of course, to think that Monsieur likes to have me drop in, but what has that to do with my glasses?" Said Mlle. R'eynal: "You look, and talk and laugh just like Raoul." And there you are, mother. I didn't know he had a son killed at Verdun, and of course didn't know I looked like him, but she showed me Raoul's photo and we do resemble one another, all right. So I went over to M. Merle, when he was free, and slapped him on the back, not too hard, and scowled and said, "M'siue, if you don't get my glasses back, tout de suite, I'm going to wring your neck." He frowned, and shook his finger at me, and hissed "Zut!" Which means damn, or something like it. Then we both laughed --- and goodness only knows when I'll see my specks. But I'll go call on him whenever I can.
When ever the mess is bad, or I'm too late to eat there, or for any other reason I don't want to go there, I eat at the Cafe' Robin. It is some cafe'. One of my fellows, Herman Barrett, discovered it, and it's a jewel. Tiny little place, hidden away in the Rue St. Nicolas, has only one small window, and only four tables. Madame is a tiny, thin little old woman, with a gleeful little chuckle, and no teeth to speak of. She's the only person in town who dares to get familiar --- or cares to --- with the Americans. And she only knows six or seven of us, for we've kept it a close secret about knowing of her cafe'. And cook! Land, how the dear old thing can cook; quite French, the food but very palatable, never the less. And she can get it ready quickly, which is unheard of here, I believe. [The two expressions which all Americans know are Tout de Suite, meaning Right away! And Combien, meaning How much?] Well, Madame calls us all "mes enfants" or "mon enfant" or "mon cher" as the whim strikes her. She hasn't the faintest idea of prices, unless you take the regular four course dinner, which we never do. So we pay just what we feel like, and she seems perfectly happy about it. Since we've come she keeps a big pot of chocolate always on the stove, for we don't like wine and the water is absolutely unfit to drink, anywhere around here. One is forced to drink wine or beer at other places, for they won't serve chocolate, like our old lady. Motherie dear, I've just tried to give you one or two small pictures of interesting things of daily life. I can't tell a great many things, even now, and it is of no use writing about longing to be home, for it is out of the question until after la guerre est fini, and we all must think so. I don't want to be at home now anyway. It would not be honorable for one thing, and I'd much rather be doing my very small bit to end the war. One man can do so little, when you think of it --- but it is so much to withhold, just the same.
Every letter which comes from Jessie breathes hope that I return safely --- but also a pride that we can give what we have to give. She wouldn't be any happier than I, if I were "embusc'e" [slacker]. And every letter from you tells me that you know I'm doing what I can. And so, mother, I don't long to be at home until Peace has come. But then, ah, then --- to make a man appreciate heaven, give him fifteen minutes in hell. Isn't that Will Carleton's "gone with a handsomer man?" I will most certainly appreciate my own country.
Here endeth the first lesson.
God bless and keep you all safe and happy.