How WWII Saved a Family Trip in France
In a chapter from his memoir of growing up beside Fontainebleau, Thad Carhart recalls a family journey that revealed the warm heart of France.
After we had been in Fontainebleau for a year and had had our fill of day trips to Paris, my father decided that it was time we saw more of Europe. That year the world championships of fencing were being held in Rome, and my dad was invited to compete. Trying to stay on a budget with a family of seven was never easy, though, so he decided that this would be our first taste of that European approach to vacations, “camping.” It happened that there were mountains of World War II–era surplus equipment at the military post in Fontainebleau, and the quarter- master let my dad take a massive brown tent along with sleeping bags, blankets, and lanterns. These we supplemented with a few pieces of modern, lightweight gear—a propane stove, flashlights, air mattresses—for our first foray into camping, a world the French embraced with the unalloyed enthusiasm of purists.
Setting off in the car on a long-distance trip of two weeks was a serious undertaking; we’d be going across the Alps. My father bought a massive roof rack, a commonplace feature on many French cars, and had it adapted to fit the Chevy. Since the equipment we were using was World War II vintage, suitable for an invading army supported by an elaborate logistical infrastructure, all of the components were both heavy and unwieldy. Somehow my dad and Tom, my eldest brother, wrestled the mountain of material to the top of the car, stuffed the various bags within the tubular metal framework of the oblong roof rack, and covered it all with a waterproof tarp. This last they secured with an octopus-like arrangement of eight heavy-duty elastic cords, bright yellow, each of which was attached on one end to a central ring and on the other by a metal hook to the far edges of the rack. This was my first sight of a bungee cord, common enough in Europe but virtually unknown in the United States. Our car looked as if a canary-colored starfish had fallen from the sky and adhered itself to our belongings.
Once the car had been fully loaded at the foot of the back stairs, we piled in: my father at the wheel and my mom on the passenger side, with my three-year-old sister perched between them on the massive front seat; the two oldest—Sally, thirteen, and Tom, eleven—in the far backseat; and my next oldest brother, Judd, eight, and me in the slightly narrower middle seat (the right-hand end of the seat was shortened to allow access to the side door from the rear). Judd always sat directly behind my father, a choice that left me in the middle. Unsuspecting, I soon learned that this spot was strategically vulnerable when the driver flailed out with back-handed swats. It was one more lesson in the anything-but-democratic rules that governed life in a big family. Our dog, Kepi, jumped in last to lie on the floor at our feet, though he often climbed up onto the seat with Judd and me, where he sat up straight, curious and attentive to all that passed outside the window. If he was not quite a sixth child, he was certainly a member of the family.
My father folded his road map a final time so that the first leg of our journey was displayed, the route outlined with a red pen, a pilot’s habit that came from navigating and plotting his itinerary before each flight. Before we could drive away to begin a trip, we invariably observed a little ritual, solemn and quiet. My dad pulled down the sun visor over the steering wheel to reveal a large Saint Christopher medal pinned to the underside. He raised his hand to touch the image—a metal emblem of the patron saint of travelers carrying the Christ child on his shoulders—and murmured, “Now let’s all say a little prayer to Saint Christopher asking him to protect us.” And we did, eyes closed and hearts fervent with supplica- tion. “Please, Saint Christopher,” I thought with the uncomplicated reasoning of a five-year-old, “don’t let me die on this trip.” Considering what I now know about the hazards of car travel in those days—dangerous roads, no safety belts, drunk drivers at every turn—we were right to pray. After ten seconds or so the moment passed and, as we pulled away, my father announced our destination with a boyish glee that substituted the world of adventure for visions of bloody accidents on the highway: “Here we come, Rome!” We headed out of town for the Nationale 7, the national highway that descended all the way from Paris to Nice and the Riviera. A network of nationales crisscrossed France in those days, well- maintained two-lane roads like the old system of national highways in the United States, where Route 66, say, connected Chicago and Los Angeles, or Route 1 wound its way up the Atlantic coast.
The speed limit was 90 kilometers per hour, or about 55 miles per hour, but even in those days there were speeders. Passing another car on a two-lane highway always involves some risk, but with trucks sharing the road with low-horsepower French cars, the perils increased. My dad was a good driver—steady, methodical, seemingly relaxed, but with a sixth sense for anything that departed from the ordinary. No doubt this came from his experience as a fighter pilot in World War II, where hours of routine flying at altitude would suddenly explode into frenetic minutes of combat when anything at all might happen, to be followed by another long and usually uneventful leg back to base.
Our trips weren’t exactly like wartime, but occasionally the dull, predictable routine would be punctuated by real excitement and, it must be said, real danger. Early on in that drive to Italy, on the second day, we were cruising on the Nationale 7 when suddenly my father braked rapidly as he thrust his right arm out across my mother’s waist, and with his left hand steered the car off the road onto a narrow gravel shoulder. The abrupt lurch of the car and my mother’s cry of fear told those of us in the back that something was seriously wrong, but before we had registered the danger, it had passed. What had passed was a truck, bearing down on us head-on in our lane. He had misjudged the time it would take for him to pass and, unable to pull back into his own lane, he drove us off the road. The truck barreled past, honking wildly, as we rolled to a stop on the graveled edge. My brother and I looked out the right side of the car and saw that Dad had judged the distance perfectly. The wheels sat only inches from a steep drop-off to a drainage ditch; had we gone any farther, a serious accident—perhaps a rollover— would have been the certain result. Things were eerily quiet in the car for five or ten seconds as we all took in the near miss. Then, pulling back his outstretched arm and sitting up straight again, my father announced in a voice that mixed lightheartedness and relief, “Well, they didn’t get us that time!” I cannot say why exactly, but that line instantly became a family slogan: “Didn’t get me that time!” In that mysterious way that big families sometimes have of clarifying the terms of a situation, it distilled for us the brush with fate that could change everything in an instant.
One of France’s great advantages, among many, is that its geography is extremely varied. For a country whose surface area is slightly smaller than the state of Texas, it has a phenomenal variety of landscapes, from the rocky coves of Brittany, so like their geological siblings in New England, through the volcanic gorges of the Ardèche, to the mountain redoubts of the Pyrenees and the Alps, right down to the Mediterranean beaches of the Riviera. For parents on a long trip with children, this can spell salvation: a different panorama reveals itself every hour or so in France, and kids are attuned to that. There is nothing in the French landscape akin to driving across Iowa, say, and then Nebraska, where corn becomes an enemy, where the eye seizes upon anything that breaks the horizontal—a water tower, a windmill, a large tree—and then returns, sullen and disappointed, to watchful waiting as the same scenery passes endlessly by.
If there was ever any question about what particular Nationale you were on, it didn’t last long. Not for more than a kilometer, in fact, because there was a borne routière every thousand meters, a stone roadside marker painted white with a red top and the letters of the road—“RN7,” say—painted in black against the red. Their shape was exactly that of tombstones—that’s in fact what we called them at first—with rounded tops and the distance to the next town painted where the name of the dear departed would have appeared. These are still common on the rural stretches of the remaining nationales, but in those days they were everywhere. Imagined after the revolution, at the same time that the French came up with the metric system, they dotted the roads of France with that peculiarly Gallic impulse to measure, to number, and to unify.
We children counted the bornes episodically, but there was a lot more to see at the side of the road on the Nationale 7. Principally the French. There were roadside restaurants, but they weren’t all that numerous, nor were they frequented by most travelers. None of today’s “rest areas” waited alongside the road with acres of parking lots, multiple gas pumps, and clean toilets. Instead, you bought supplies—that’s what they were called, des provisions—in one of the towns, being sure to do so before everyone shut down for lunch from 12:00 to 2:00 p.m. Then if the weather was nice enough (and my mother used to joke that anything other than snow or driving rain was “nice enough” for the French), you pulled off the road onto the grassy margin, threw a blanket on the ground, and had a picnic. Everyone did it. On a sunny day at 1:00 in the afternoon, the sides of a French highway in the fifties looked as if some sort of disaster had struck the area, with many more cars stopped at the edge than moving along the road.
As at any French lunch, a bottle of wine generally made an appearance for the adults in the group. This seems shocking today—drinking on the road!—but these weren’t quick stops where everyone wolfed down a sandwich in ten minutes and then got right back on the road. In those days, lunch, le déjeuner, was said to couper la journée, to cut the day in two, and it really did. Less than an hour was considered hurried, even on a trip, and a nap was often worked in to the break for the driver. Some people sat in their cars, eating and dozing. Others deployed elaborate trays with porcelain and cutlery, as if they were in a restaurant that just happened to be on wheels. There was always a contingent of “campers,” who fired up small butane stoves and heated soups and sauces, their blue flames shielded against breezes with a hubcap or a jacket draped across a folding chair. All of this was like another planet to us, and we ogled shamelessly, until my mother told us not to stare.
By the same token, we must have looked strange to the French parked nearby. The Chevy’s doors were left wide open, as was the tailgate, and we piled out along with the dog, always on a tight leash to keep him from running into the road. By this time we had been in France for a year, and the American formula of white-bread sandwiches with either bologna or peanut butter and jelly for a filling had long since fallen away. My parents did as the French did: you stopped at a delicatessen, a charcuterie, and stocked up on sliced sausage, saucisson, and pâtés of various sorts; then a stop at a cheese store, the fromagerie, for a large slice of our favorite Emmenthal, the French version of what Americans call Swiss cheese, holes and all; and finally the stop by a bakery, the boulange- rie, for baguettes. These were often baked just before the lunch hour in larger towns, so you waited in line until they were handed over, warm and smelling like heaven. These were the essential ingredients, along with a few items from a greengrocer, the épicier: tomatoes, a head of lettuce, fresh fruit, mayonnaise and mustard in what looked to us like toothpaste tubes, and two liters of bottled water.
After eating, we sometimes played on the grass, though we were strictly forbidden to cross the road. Usually we just walked Kepi, straining at his leash, and dawdled around the other parked cars as we stole glances at their passengers. We kept an eye out for anything new or unusual by the side of the road, and soon we discovered the small markers—usually crosses, sometimes plain slabs of stone—that were placed where there had been a fatal car accident. The names of the victims were invariably inscribed, as was the date of the dreadful event. Occasionally a photo of the person who had died was affixed to the marker, usually a head shot in black and white or sepia somehow printed on a small porcelain oval. Once you knew to look for them, they seemed numerous.
Once, on this same trip to Italy, as we were walking the dog parallel to the road, we came across a stone marker with three little ovals attached to its front—a woman and two girls, their smiling faces like little pansies rising above the surrounding grass. Beneath their portraits were inscribed their names and a date and, beneath that line, four words: Perdues dans les flammes—“Lost in the flames.” I looked at the words and tried to figure out their meaning, but it didn’t make any sense. When we returned to the car, I asked my mother if it meant the three of them had gone to hell. My sense of perdition was still fairly basic, and flames figured prominently in what happened to those who strayed. I remember that she winced at my question, then said, “I’m sure that that mother and her daughters are in heaven now.” Then she changed the subject in that way adults had of pretending they had answered when no words could be found to explain the horror of something like a fiery crash.
Aside from collisions, the great fear in those days was that tires would explode. A flat tire was essentially what it is today—a gradual loss of air pressure until the tire goes flat—but a “blowout” at high speed was something else altogether: loud, sudden, and potentially lethal. Tires had inner tubes that sat inside the thick rubber casing and held the compressed air fed into the tube from a mechanical pump through a high-pressure valve. If a car ran over a jagged piece of metal debris, or even a deep pothole, the inner tube could be pierced so quickly that it exploded, “blowing out” the whole tire so that in a split second you were running on a lopsided metal rim rather than inflated rubber.
I remember only two blowouts in all our family trips, but they were terrifying, the kind of shock that kids take in and then endlessly recount with the fervor of those who sense they have been near death. In both cases, my father’s reactions were by the book: at the sound of the explosion, which sounds and feels as if you’ve run over a small land mine, you grab the wheel firmly, countersteer against the loss of pressure and stability, take your foot off the gas, and resist mightily the instinct to slam on the brakes. Strong braking with one entire wheel running on the debris of a ruined tire can precipitate a complete loss of control, a sudden catastrophe that can send the car into the path of oncoming traffic. Instead, you steer the car well off the road and let it roll noisily to a stop.
It took us three days to get to Rome, most of the time spent in the car, of course, but other long hours given over to the elaborate process of pitching the unwieldy surplus tent my dad had wheedled from the quartermaster, then striking, packing, and loading it back onto the car’s roof rack the following morning. The first night we stayed in a farmer’s field in the foothills outside of Nice. Dad had stopped on a side road of the Nationale 7 to inquire about campgrounds, and struck up a conversation with two men who were refueling a tractor. Ten minutes later we were unloading the Chevy in a field that alternated deep ruts and long rows of stubble. Now we discovered why the U.S. Army was happy to lend out surplus tents. What came off the roof of the Chevy, once we had unrolled and disentangled it, was a dark brown canvas behemoth known as a squad tent: a square measuring sixteen feet on each side, with four-foot walls and a steep-pitched pyramidal roof that gave it a purposeful air. A huge tangle of lines and fasteners dangled from this dank wad of cloth, and my brothers and I had trouble making any sense of it as we opened it flat over the uneven clumps of stubble. It was murderously bulky and complicated: my dad had great trouble steadying the twelve-foot jointed wooden center pole while the rest of us did our best to pull the canvas taut on all four sides. When at last we managed an approximation of symmetry, each line pulled to the wooden peg that had been pounded into ground about as forgiving as cement, our efforts were rewarded with the sight of a huge “U.S.” stenciled in black on two of the four upward-sloping faces of the pyramid roof. This was a tent meant for an invading army, one whose air force would have no trouble identifying it from on high. What those farmers in the uplands of Nice thought about it I can only imagine.
That night we challenged the odds for the south of France in early September, and lost: it rained. We had managed to wrestle seven air mattresses and sleeping bags into the big brown tent, mom had produced pan-fried steak and potatoes, and the frenzy of pitching camp for the first time had at last subsided into a peaceful calm. Everyone was exhausted and soon fell into the deepest of restful sleeps; all was quiet well into the night. At some point I crawled out of my sleeping bag to pee. (“Away from the tent, in the ditch by the road ”: Dad had laid down the rule after dinner.) I recall with vivid precision two things, and two things only, from my brief foray outside with the shaky flashlight. The first was visual: the night sky was awash with stars, or, rather, half of it was. The other half was hidden by something—what?—that divided the sky into a twinkling riot of light on one side, and a starless void on the other. It felt wrong, but I had no idea why. The second impression was a change in the atmosphere that flooded every corporeal sensation. As I headed back to the tent after doing my business, a sudden wind, cold and piercing, hit the field with a force as sure and frightening as the palm of a giant’s hand being swatted across the exposed terrain. The trees at the field ’s edge rustled loudly, the summer air on my face was instantly an icy draft, bits of leaves and hay whipped through the air. I scurried back to the tent and sensed more than saw its canvas expanse ballooning outward, then quickly deflating, like some enormous bellows fed by a mysterious power. Kepi, whose leash was tied to a stake at the tent’s flap, started to howl in a way I had never heard. That should have been a sign.
As I jumped back into the tent, flashlight jiggling and heart fluttering, the air was suddenly charged with a crackling illumination of light, followed instantly by a shot of thunder that shook my bones to the core. Everybody was up: alarmed, fumbling, groaning.
In one of those peculiar misapprehensions familiar to children, I felt as if my stepping back into the tent had somehow caused the simultaneous arrival of the storm; I needed to explain. “I just went to pee . . . ,” I began feebly, but the inside of the tent had become a place where explanations weren’t wanted, or needed. All the flashlights were lit, but their tiny cones of light became ludicrous as lightning turned night into brightest day with increasing frequency. Raised on a farm, my mother respected the power of lightning and sensed danger, not just discomfort. “We can’t stay here!” she announced in a clear voice, and my dad added a clipped “You’re right about that” and said we’d all “sit it out” in the car.
As we grabbed a few pillows and untied the dog, an eerie moment of calm was followed immediately by a new kind of pandemonium. A downpour opened above our heads—the classic cloudburst—and in an instant the air was suffused with moisture. Being inside the tent was like standing inside a huge drum, its canvas a flapping membrane pelted with furious rain. We hadn’t trenched the perimeter of the tent; there had been no need and, in any event, we’d have required a jackhammer to make a dent in the rock-hard ground. Now water began to flow into the tent from one side, the ground softening to a viscous mud as if a plasma shift had just occurred.
The smaller stakes holding down the tent’s four walls had by now mostly ripped out, so we cowered below the pulsing pyramid roof as rain whipped in from the sides. In circumstances like these, even children understand the need for quick and lucid action. As one, we poised for flight, my mother carrying my toddler sister, the rest of us grasping whatever was readily at hand. Then together we ran to the car. It can’t have been more than twenty-five yards, but by the time we reached it we might as well have plunged headlong into a swimming pool. We scrambled into the car—frightened, excited, and relieved, all at once—and I considered how new and strange it was to discover that the impact of rain on your skin could actually hurt. The noise in the car was deafening, its metal roof far louder than the windswept tent, but we didn’t care. Each of us found some dry clothing or bedding in the car, and within a quarter of an hour we had settled in as comfortably as possible, drifting off to occasional lightning flashes that revealed the sorry remains of our tent rising above a small lake.
The next sound we heard was Dad standing outside the car talking to the farmer, the rising sun reflecting off the yellow stone farmhouse in the middle distance. The center pole of our tent still stood, swathed in wet brown canvas like a bedraggled maypole. The sky was a deep, cloudless blue. Slowly we stirred, put down a window, opened a door.
“Ah, Monsieur,” the farmer was saying, his two arms raised on either side to shoulder height as he shrugged, “c’est inhabituel, ce temps-là!” “This weather is unusual!” He and his wife insisted that we come into their home, warm ourselves, have something to eat. My father knew when to accept a sincere invitation, and soon we were all gathered in the mammoth kitchen of the house, one whole corner given over to an open hearth where a fire crackled. Coffee and cocoa were passed around, fresh bread, butter, and jam were provided by Madame; we took turns using the single bathroom. We looked more like the survivors of a shipwreck than a rainstorm.
Gradually we regained a bit of energy and a bit of humor, too; the storm seemed like another world entirely. As we sat by the fire, munching and sipping, a distant commotion was heard, then died down. Madame cocked her head at an angle, like a bird listening acutely for a worm, and after a second or two she rose to her feet and said with some alarm in her voice, “Les poules!” “The chickens!” Just then the commotion approached the house and its constituent elements swiftly became discernible: squawking chickens in panicky flight, and the excited barking of a dog. Now it was my dad’s turn: “Where’s Kepi?” All eyes swiveled around the room, and the sounds from outside suddenly took on a personal resonance.
Everyone scrambled out the door onto the gravel-covered expanse at the side of the house. Kepi flew by, in active pursuit of a half-dozen chickens, their wings flapping frantically, feet clawing the gravel for purchase as they dashed forward. My dad yelled with imperious anger, but it had no effect whatsoever on the scene. Then, in the fresh morning air, we watched as Kepi lunged with the feral agility of a hunting wolf and caught one of the chickens in his jaws. Everyone froze: the sight of our sweet family dog with a living chicken in his mouth was beyond belief. In fact, it was one of my secret fantasies that Kepi was obliquely related to a pack of wild wolves in northern Europe, part of the great poodle-wolf continuum, a kind of canine sleeper agent using a big American family to cover his true ferocious nature. And here, before me, was the dramatic proof: Kepi cavorting with a squawking chicken at the end of his soft and gentle snout.
He may not have been a wolf, but there was certainly some bird dog in him. Reverting to some atavistic instinct, he now pranced, showing off his prize with high-stepping élan just out of my father’s grasp, the wolf/poodle in full display mode. My dad turned away, frustration and disgust playing across his features, but the farmer went down on one knee and spoke to Kepi in a voice you’d have thought was intended for a young child. “Viens ici, mon chien. Oui, viens ici. Donne-moi ce joli cadeau,” he cooed. “Come here, boy. Yes, come here. Give me that pretty prize.” And it worked. Kepi slowly approached the farmer, surrendering the fluttering bird to his hand. My dad grabbed the dog’s collar and gave him a swat, but the farmer protested with a shrug: “Non, Monsieur. Il n’a fait que ce qu’il sait faire. C’est tout.” “No, sir. He only did what he knows how to do. That’s all.” Madame then scooped up the injured bird and went back into the house, cradling it in her arms.
It is impossible to exaggerate the sense of acute embarrassment—shame, really—that now hung in the air. It was, my parents explained for years afterward, one of those situations from which no recovery seems possible: we use your field, accept your hospitality in the face of a storm, and . . . our dog kills your chickens! My father apologized, offered with awkward sincerity to pay for the chickens, and said that we should not trouble our hosts any longer, but Monsieur scoffed good-naturedly at these words and guided us back into the house. “Ce n’est qu’une poule, après tout! ” “It’s only a chicken, after all!” My parents exchanged a doubtful glance, but clearly a rapid flight would have been its own form of insult, and so we filed back into the huge kitchen with its welcoming fire. There we found Madame seated in a straight-back chair, the wounded chicken balanced on her lap, as she drew a line of thread through a large needle.
For the next quarter of an hour, as we finished our breakfast and warmed ourselves, she pulled together two flaps of feathery skin across a large gash in the chicken’s breast. While we downed more bread, butter, and jam, Madame concentrated on her work, the chicken emitting occasional clucks. I watched, mesmerized, as the glistening white patch of muscle fascia disappeared beneath feathers. Miraculously, the chicken seemed not too badly injured, and the atmosphere lightened considerably.
After feeding us, the couple insisted that we pull out our wet sleeping bags, spread out the tent, and let everything dry in the now blazing-hot sun. As we worked together, Monsieur told my father that he was delighted to be able to help some Americans. It was, he said, like being able to make a gesture of thanks that was long overdue. It happened that his family was from the farmland outside Draguignan, a town about twenty miles from the coast. In mid-August of 1944, he explained, the invasion of this part of France by the Allies saved him, his parents, and his sisters from the effects of the German occupation that had gone on for years. He himself had been hiding out in the barn to avoid the forced-labor roundups that were common. “And then one fine summer day,” he explained, “we got word that the Allies had landed near Fréjus. Within days, a column of American troops made its way up the road past my parents’ farm, and the war was as good as over for us.” The invasion of southern France is a lesser-known chapter of World War II in Europe, eclipsed by the momentous D-Day landings in Normandy two months earlier. But its consequences were significant, since within a month the 200,000 troops who landed on the vacation beaches of the Riviera had liberated the entire south of France and driven the Germans up the Rhone Valley and into defensive positions near the Swiss border. In liberating the deepwater ports of Toulon and Marseilles, the American and French armies freed up precious supply facilities to sustain the vast army that had landed in Normandy. Before D-Day the Germans had destroyed the major ports on the English Channel, and the Allied advance against retreating Wehrmacht troops was seriously threatened by critical shortages of fuel, ammunition, weapons, and food. Now supplies flooded into France from the Mediterranean, ensuring that pressure could be maintained in the ensuing battles. French units played an integral part in the invasion of the south under General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny; the French resistance disrupted German communications and supply lines before and during the invasion, which was code-named “Operation Dragoon” by the Allies. Churchill bitterly opposed the whole idea—he favored a move from Italy to the Balkans—and it is said he himself baptized the invasion since he had been “dragooned” into acquiescence. On balance, though, it was an overwhelming success and hastened the push of all German forces out of France.
The farmer’s account was direct, intense, and emotional. From the devastating defeat of France in 1940, through the contradictions of the Vichy regime and the direct occupation of the so-called “Free Zone” by the Germans when the Allies invaded North Africa in late 1942, he told us, his family and friends had all been made to drink a bitter cup. “Et puis, un beau jour, voilà les améri- cains! ” “And then, one fine day, there are the Americans!” His enthusiasm was apparent, as was his gratitude to my father, to our family, to any Americans at all. Dad acknowledged the effusive thanks and mentioned that he had himself flown combat missions from southern Italy, and the farmer stopped and shook his hand for that alone. Mostly, though, as we hauled wet gear from the car and spread it to dry, we listened to this highly personal account of what it had felt like to get your country back. I began to under- stand that Americans were in a special category when talk turned to “la guerre,” and the rules that applied weren’t necessarily simple to understand.
From Finding Fontainebleau: An American Boy in France by Thad Carhart, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Thad Carhart.
Twenty-six years ago Thad Carhart moved to Paris with his wife and two infant children. He lives there now, with frequent visits to New York and Northern California. His first book, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, appeared in 2000, published by Random House. Across the Endless River, a historical novel, came out in 2009 with Doubleday.