In the summer of 1942, the beginning of the novel’s flashback, the United States is fighting World War II, but the war has affected the boys at Devon very little and only indirectly. A substitute headmaster is in charge of the Summer Session, and some of the regular teachers have gone to war, but life at Devon goes on, with traditions like the Headmaster’s Tea observed as usual. The upperclassmen participate in fitness training to prepare for military service, but the younger students spend the summer free of such obligations.
When the Winter Session gets underway, the boys make their own beds since there are no maids. During the fall, the boys are called upon to harvest the local apple crop since the men who would have done it are serving in the military or away doing work in support of the war effort. Photographs in the newspapers and newsreels at the movies acquaint the boys with scenes of the war’s destruction, but the war itself seems unreal to them, far away from the peace of Devon.
As the school year continues, however, World War II becomes a reality as it seems to move closer and closer to Devon. The boys’ first personal encounter with the war occurs during the winter when they shovel snow blocking the train tracks in a railroad yard south of Devon. When the main line is cleared, they watch a troop train pass by. Looking at the soldiers going off to war, the boys see young men “not much older” than themselves.
The war becomes an even greater reality when recruiters come to the campus. Leper enlists, and he leaves school almost immediately. Leper’s subsequent psychological breakdown is shocking, and his condition is frightening to Gene in particular. After spending an afternoon with Leper in Vermont, Gene realizes that Leper is deranged and brings the news of his disturbing behavior back to Devon. Although Finny has actively denied that World War II is taking place, he acknowledges the reality of the war after hearing about Leper’s pitiful state. “Leper’s gone crazy,” Finny says. “When I heard about Leper, then I knew that the war was real …. If a war can drive somebody crazy, then it’s real all right.” Leper’s destruction, like the boys’ encounter with the troops on the train, brings the war closer to Devon.
In June, 1943, Gene watched from a window in his room at Devon as a military convoy approached the Far Commons. He understood the significance of the moment and remembers it clearly as the novel’s narrator:
The advance guard which came down the street from the railroad station consisted of a number of Jeeps …. Following them there were some heavy trucks painted olive drab, and behind them came the troops.
An Army Parachute Riggers’ school would be headquartered at Devon. The war, so far away the summer before, had finally arrived.