August/September 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 4
“We’ve got it, but I don’t like to pour it.” The couple next to me at the bar had ordered Gray Goose vodka martinis, and the bartender didn’t want to make them. I had no idea what was going on, and neither did the couple. “It’s French ,” the bartender explained. The couple nodded and settled on a vodka made by our unwavering ally Russia.
The French have gotten us sore again. As Richard Brookhiser points out in his essay in this issue, that’s no new thing. We’re always getting mad at them. Well, they can be irritating. I remember seeing a Bill Mauldin cartoon published in the mid-1960s, after Charles de Gaulle had committed some bit of austere highhandedness. It shows him standing in a field of white stone crosses, shrugging (of course) and saying, “Why do you Americans stay where you’re not wanted?” That’s the French for you: No gratitude.
On the other hand, here’s a favor rendered not so very long ago in historical time. In the early spring of 1781 Adm. François Joseph Paul de Grasse, Marquis de Grasse-Tilly and Comte de Grasse, set sail from Brest with an impressive fleet bound for the West Indies. His orders were to work with France’s Spanish allies there, but he received an urgent plea: The American army needed reinforcements, money, and every kind of help. Grasse raised the money, found the troops, and sailed north. He could, he said, stay only until October 15. Begged to stick around longer, he waited out the month, although he was in poor health, and he didn’t have to linger in the autumn seas off the Virginia coast. During his stay he fought a fleet action with the British; he didn’t win, but he didn’t lose, which meant that Lord Cornwallis did. With no help coming from the sea, the English general eventually had to surrender his army at Yorktown. (It would be nice to be able to see the scene when Washington first met Grasse, aboard his flagship, Ville de Paris . The French admiral flung his arms around the American and called him “My dear little general!” All of Washington’s staff managed to remain solemn through this except Henry Knox, who laughed out loud.)
On the two hundredth anniversary of that victory, American Heritage published a lengthy account of the campaign—and a story about a far less familiar moment in Franco-American relations. It began in 1949 with a single freighter setting sail from France bound for America, its hold full of old railroad cars.
Two generations of American soldiers had lurched toward battle in Forty and Eights, stubby French freight cars so called because in World War I they had stenciled on their sides their carrying capacity for live cargo: HOMMES 40—CHEVAUX 8 . To their amused and alarmed American occupants, used to the long, rangy boxcars of the Great Northern or the Illinois Central, they looked like toys. But they did the job, and generated a fond irony that reflected itself in returning doughboys forming Forty and Eight veterans’ organizations that lasted for decades.
After the Second World War a French railroad worker named André Picard got the idea of sending America a Forty and F’ight boxcar full of various local products as a way of saying thanks. This enterprise caught on across France. Trainmen restored 49 aging freight cars (one for each state and one for Hawaii and the District of Columbia to share), and six million families gave something: perfume and hats, the world’s first motorcycle, children’s drawings on coarse paper, wines from Alsace and the Eoire Valley, Houdon’s original bust of Benjamin Franklin, wedding dresses from the silk-making town of Eyon, and, from one romantic soul, black lingerie intended for “a beautiful blonde.” When the freighter entered New York Harbor, passing beneath the torch of another not-so-bad gift from France, tens of thousands saw the high white letters painted on its hull: MERCI AMERICA . The cars rolled into every state, and the gifts were absorbed into the nation’s capillaries, and everyone was delighted (except, perhaps, residents of the fiftieth-state-to-be; the Washingtonians had proved such thorough recipients that all Hawaii got was a boxcar full of packing straw).
Many of the little cars still survive, though hardly anyone remembers what they’re doing here. But it’s worth thinking about the French giving us that black underwear—and our independence—while the current pique burns itself out. So have a little Gray Goose to help keep you warm until we’re in love again with our gorgeous, vexing amie .