The Field Matrix

Rites of Passage: Voyage initiatique


What we found was the French poilu in faded blue, older than ourselves, war-weary, disillusioned but dogged, who had learned by experience how to survive. He survived the cold by wearing a flannel bellyband and a scruffy woolen uniform and by chafing his icy feet after standing for hours in the liquid French mud; he survived the German shelling by noting how methodically the salvos came in --- five shells, nine shells, so often a set number and at a prescribed time over trench or crossroads; and he survived gastronomically by always having a pot of coffee and a dark brown stew, into which he put onions, carrots, a rabbit, a pigeon ---whatever he could shoot or find in the gardens behind the demolished houses --- slowly simmering for his popote. Those from the outset were the lessons we learned from the brancardiers, the stretcher-bearers, men old enough to be our fathers, grizzled, some of them previously wounded, who had been phased out of the infantry to give first aid in the forward line, and to bring the wounded in a two-wheeled brouette or a pousse-pousse to our poste de secours, the abri twenty-five feet underground where we and the doctors waited. They taught us idiomatic French without ever evincing the faintest desire to learn English; they were curious as to why we were in the war and what we hoped to get out of it; after a harrowing night drive they braced us with coffee laced with brandy; and as time deepened our affection for each other, they gave us letters to their wives and daughters when we went on leave. They, not the doctors, were our teachers.

Edward Weeks. Chapter Two. My Green Age. 1973.


I had been presumptuous enough to sign up for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was a sort of revelation to discover at a time when nothing comparable existed here, nor doubtless anywhere on our continent, a veritable world of possibilites for advanced studies---beyond the university degree or engineer diplomas---and in applied research and technology. Hundreds of courses were offered to students who had already graduated, with for each an abundance of professors, laboratories, documents which, at that time, no one here had the slightest idea of.

Maurice Pérouse. "Memories of the American Field Service". Talk given to the Amis de Blérancourt in January, 1971.


I feel quite confident of looking any man straight in the face when 'What did you do during the war?' is brought up. For though our part has not been that of undergoing any beating like the poor infantry takes, or living in the fume-filled noisy hell of a tank, or our ears deafened by firing 25 pounders all day, or the blackout or bailout of airmen in combat, we have seen the results of this, day in and day out, when the only 'front' was a series of boxes and thrusts and counter thrusts between. Yes, I've listened to their stories and placed a cigarette or a sweet in their mouths, or held the wounded up while he hobbled out of the ambulance to answer Nature's needs. I've watched a horribly burned chappie revive under a little cognac, like a frost-dulled butterfly in the sun. I've kept magazines you sent me for them to read, and when the Italian who'd been shot by a Jerry groaned as the car lurched over the endless track, I racked my brain to remember piano notations to talk to him with. Yes, and they have died in my car, too --- silently and the next morning the quarter master furnished a three foot cross --- blank --- on which were painted the names of friend and foe alike --- while the padre in khaki threw a purple banded scarf about his neck and addressed these dead for six minutes, his audience leaning on shovels, we back at the open rear doors of the car. There have been the unknown neighbors with wine who laagered near us in the night and shared their bully and margarine or a can of Eyetie jam who got drunk and sang themselves hoarse over traditional racy English ballads. I take my hat off to thousands of Other Ranks who told me the way, pulled me out of the mud or sand as soft as down, towed me in, got under the car to help replace a spline or a spring, scrounged parts from wrecks, lent me tools and gauges, asked me to join their 'break' for tea. Complete strangers? No. Just everyone pities everyone else for being out here and you are friends for that.

Anonymous AFS driver, December 4, 1942. AFS Letters.


A North Carolina girl described her first meeting with her Turkish family. "When the plane landed in Istanbul and we were met by hundreds of people, including photographers, I didn't realize at first that the cute girl with the beautiful blue dress who kept winking at me and waving her arms was my foster sister. When she finally pushed her way through the crowd, called me by name and hugged me, I couldn't have been happier. I soon discovered that my Turkish mother and father, friends, cousins, aunts and uncles (and believe me they were all there) were just as wonderful and as understanding."

Katherine T. Kinkead. Walk Together, Talk Together. The American Field Service Student Exchange Program. New York: Norton. 1962.