“Suddenly, There Were The Americans”

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Jeeps, and the way they were driven with one high-booted leg thrust casually outside the cab, softened even the most chauvinist ten-year-old heart.

For a time it was only as the distributors of haphazard largess that the Americans impinged, though the town soon began to be surrounded by encampments of neat, weather-tight wooden huts, again altogether superior in quality to the straggling settlements of corrugated iron that housed British units; one formed a large modern hospital that was to survive the war and become the town’s alternative medical center. But gradually personal contacts were made, the first by our pretty, black-ringleted Welsh nursemaid, Annie, who had appeared soon after the evening when a drunken British parachutist had made an assault on the bedroom window of her dottily pious predecessor. Annie came to us from a convent, where she had emphatically not been preparing to enter the sisterhood. My mother’s expression, as Annie swayed toward GI territory in the center of the town on her afternoons off, her pink, plump, and rather wobbly legs covered for the outing in a bottled brown preparation called “liquid stockings” implied a nagging anxiety that Annie was flirting with another sisterhood, from which the convent had presumably been enlisted to rescue her. But though nylons materialized to replace liquid stockings, and supplies of Hershey bars and spearmint gum appeared on a scale that rapidly devalued mine, Annie was apparently asked to give nothing in return or, if asked, was not pressed. My mother’s alarm subsided. Quite soon my parents had collected an American circle of their own. One member, a major of engineers, became a lifelong friend and, in 1945, godfather of a new daughter, the second of two children born into the family in the war years. Others called for tea on Sunday afternoons, most of them seeming to want no more than an occasional glimpse into a domestic interior as a comforting leaven in their austere but enthralling military experience. A few gentler souls became more dependent and appeared more often. One, Sontag—I knew him in no other way—a thin, dark-haired, soft-eyed young man, must have been acutely afflicted by homesickness and perhaps by the fear of what lay ahead. Squirrel-like, he accumulated in a spare corner of the house a store of small, valueless personal possessions, which he called to fuss over at intervals and, on a day after which he was not seen again, asked my parents to keep safe for him. Their overheard murmur of agreement at lunch months later that “Sontag won’t be coming back” awoke in me a guilty, prurient curiosity. That afternoon I picked over his little store, found a GI torch, a webbing belt, and a Pocket Book edition, on gritty gray paper, of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It seemed a small enough stake to have put down in the country.

But by then—it must have been in the winter of 1944—there was very little left at all of the Americans’ transient presence. It had during that spring swollen to almost all-pervading proportions, so that there seemed more Americans than natives in the district (as there may well have been). American transport had monopolized the roads, American uniforms had become commonplace, American accents, much enjoyed and much, if badly, imitated, had passed as an alternative local dialect, and some of the ease, nonchalance, and generosity of American manners had permeated and softened local formality. The feudal West would never be quite the same again, and a good thing too, thought many, particularly the young. We relentlessly patriotic little prep school boys, imprinted with our idea of the paramountcy of the British Empire, to which we knew the United States represented a principle in some way antithetical, held out longest against American charm. I particularly resisted admitting that the United States Navy had demoted the Royal Navy to second place among the world’s fleets, even after the facts had told me otherwise. But in time it got to us too. There was something in particular about jeeps, and the way they were driven with one high-booted leg thrust casually outside the cab, that softened even the most chauvinist ten-year-old heart.