Mornings in suburban Chicago were depressing. As I sat in my car, in stalled traffic, I looked around me. In front of me was a hung-over professional, about my age, in an Italian suit driving a decrepit car decorated with University rear-window stickers. To my right was a thirty-something-year-old woman putting on make-up, while the commuter behind her became impatient. To my left was a handsome man in sunglasses in a Porsche talking away on his cell phone. In my rear-view mirror was a young suburb girl in an econo-mobile, sporting big hairspray hair, probably worried she would be fired from her office-temp position for being late again. In the middle of it all was me, a confused twenty-something who not only was also going to be late, but who didn't give a shit.
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2. Fort de Nogent
In Paris, I got off the train and set off on the fateful walk that many a legionnaire before me had taken. Psychologists are right when they talk about the “phases of man.” I had gone through being a student, a professional, and a bohemian to become a soldier. So far, so good! My heart was beating faster with every step. At one point, I asked an elderly man for directions. He shook my hand and croaked, “Honneur et Fidelité!” before pointing me on my way. The Fort was cold and grey, its heavy stone walls suggestive of a medieval keep. It looked like a place that kept people in as well as out. With a sense of impending doom reminiscent of Dante's “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” I passed through the gates and knocked on a large oak door. A hatch was drawn aside.
“I want to join the Légion Étrangère.”
“Passeport!” the guard barked.
I slid it through the grille. I expected that to be the last time I ever saw that precious document, property of the United States government with its small-print warning that joining a foreign army was grounds for loss ofcitizenship.
“Américain?” said the guard in astonishment. “Ready to give everything up and sign away five years of your life?”
The massive door swung open and slammed behind me.
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Walking nervously into my first interrogation, I came face to face with an American Vietnam veteran adjudant (warrant officer, master sergeant). Glancing at my university diploma, certificates and updated résumé, he verified dates and stuffed them back into a manila binder.
“Begin with the day you were born,” he said, sliding blank sheets of paper over to me, “and write down everything you've done until the moment you're sitting before me now.”
While describing graduating with a prestigious degree and embarking on a promising engineering career in the Windy City, I was interrupted and drilled for what seemed hours on every minuscule detail of my life.
“Siblings? Names and dates of birth? Do they have children? Does anybody know that you've joined the Foreign Legion? If so, what is their name and address? . . . Wait, but you said you were in Stockholm on 27 November 1996, did you not? . . . This Nadine you speak of, is she pregnant? Now tell me, why do you want to join.”
“I got tired of sitting in Chicago traffic every day, and because the Peace Corps is for wimps”
“Look,” he said warmly. “I've known men like you . . . What I'm trying to say off the record is that the Legion won't be what you expect. I'm here to help, maybe to keep you from making a mistake. You'll be holding a French passport after five years, but légionnaires take an oath to die for France.”
“The last place I'd want to die is behind a desk . . . or of an age-fifty heart attack while I'm sitting on the toilet.”
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4. The Farm
That first evening Caporal Qandil came back from town piss-drunk and lined us up for appel (rollcall). He began with what he called les tests abdominaux, by giving each man a violent punch in the solar plexus. Then, with the other sous-officiers looking on, he inspected us. Inaccurate shaving, improperly polished insteps, and any other infractions were punished with lead-weight fists to bellies and heads. When he was satisfied, he called for a US trenching shovel (salvaged from American GIs after WWII), and went down the line gonging our foreheads. The worst part was waiting for it.
He ended by having the feeble Kapelski who was slow to learn French lie on the floor to demonstrate one-stroke decapitation. Was he drunk enough to do it or not?
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Though everyone enjoyed the mornings on the range, we dreaded what was to follow. An already drunk Sergent Gagné warned that if our rifles were not spotlessly clean, the consequences would be grave. When he found carbon in places where a genius would never think to look, he didn't simply use his fist. Often he brought down the forearm-length steel legs of the FAMAS rifle on a legionnaire's head. The sound of steel crashing on bone was unnerving, especially for the man waiting after his FAMAS was found under par. Several legionnaires had the entire stripped FAMAS body come down on them. Luckily, after our first morning on the range I was hit only once, and therefore only had one lump on my forehead. Some unfortunate devils were hit on the same lump twice. Unlike in the cartoons of my youth, it didn't make the previous lump disappear.
Halfway through our hellish final seven-day march, Michaud came under a viral attack. He too was staggering about and in danger of dropping out. When we stopped for a ten-minute break, he began weeping like a child. Many of the sergents had collected bits of US matériel during marches with American forces. Knowing that they could pay for new equipment, exhausted Americans often jettisoned their heavier items, which the legionnaires eagerly picked up for themselves. Calderon was also suffering, and, in a fit of cafard (desert madness), he'd begun the second day's march in his shower-sandals. Once we'd bivouacked for the night, the only thing we, the lost and damned, had to look forward to was another day of torment. When Kapelski pried off his rangers, his feet looked like ground beef.
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6. St. Christol
The Legion's relationship with the citizens of Apt had been uneasy from the start but had seriously worsened after a sergent was brought back to base half dead after being knifed by two Arabs. Most of the régiment was about to be deployed to Kosovo but a covert call went out—the raditional rallying cry of A moi la Légion! Dressed in tenue de sortie uniforms to show everyone who they were, the 2e REG set off to wreck the town centre. The Arab community must have heard of the intended reprisal raid for they were waiting for them and a desert outpost fight on French soil broke out between légionnaires in képis and their historic enemy. Woodman and his personal merry men slipped into town in civilian clothing carrying lead pipes and bats and committed some of the most vicious hooligan thuggery—the envy of the roughest Manchester United fans. The gendarmerie was called in to quell the gang violence, and several légionnaires were arrested. One sergent beat an Arab teenager with a nail-studded two-by-four, and was sentenced to a civilian prison term—he was a Turk. Later a Russian psychotic on leave lost his mind outside Marseille. He car-jacked an Arab family and murdered them. The leftist press had a field-day that once more brought the Foreign Legion's very existence into question.
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While we were sitting in The Fitzpatrick's Irish pub, Ellison, the mad Irish boxer stormed in shouting, still in tenue de sortie and képi.
“Now this is a man's fookin' sport,” he said, watching one of the playoffs in the Five Nations Rugby Cup.
“Who's got the next round? Get that bollocks barman over here before I start breaking shit.”
The Fitz is the meeting point for the mafia anglaise of different régiments, so we were soon joined by another Irishman and a Kiwi.
“Looks like tonight we're going to have some Legion birds,” said Sijfert, as the pub filled with students.
“Where?” I asked.
“Over at the bar,” he hiccupped into his glass.
“Those skinny French ones?”
“No, the two slappers behind them. I don't give a damn if they're heavy. Grab me another Guinness and they'll suit us. But you're used to shagging those Ally McBeal types. Doesn't work that way in the Legion, mate.”
Getting louder by the minute, Ellison managed to invite a weighty English girl to our table.
“Hey, Ellison, show us how you used to slap your old fella' on the table!” the Kiwi shouted.
Ellison stood up and unfastened his trousers.
“What?” he howled at the giggling English girl.
“You think I'm joking? Are you taking the piss outta me? I said are you taking the fookin' piss outta me! Get away from our table, you worthless whore. Action!”
He noticed Woodman chatting with a male exchange student from the US wearing a Berkeley t-shirt at an adjacent table.
“Get that wanker over here,” he shouted.
The student sat down, looking apprehensive.
“Now we're going to show you how the Legion drinks . . . ”
“What's the Legion?”
“You never heard of the Legion? Steady on, you little runt, are you taking the piss outta me too?”
“It's kind of like the Hell's Angels on camels,” I put in.
Surprisingly, nobody touched the American. He got drunk with us and we taught him all about Legion traditions and customs—how to get on the piss-train and how to screw portly women.
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Though it was strictly forbidden for legionnaires to leave France, I was determined to spend my millennium leave in London. From Calais gare, I caught the Sea France ferry bus to the dockside. There foot passengers got out and queued into the ticket terminal, which also served as a customs and passport checkpoint. While the others stood waiting, I made my way outside, around the terminal itself to the feeder road where automobiles were waiting to drive into the ferry hold. With, rucksack and all, I simply walked up to the driver's window of automobiles loaded with vacationing families, businessmen, and construction workers and asked whether they would kindly take me across the channel. Two labourers in a van filled with cases of Kronenbourg, Marlboros, and ruby-red made a place for me. There remained one obstacle capable of quickly bringing my London fantasy to an end—British passport control in Dover. The crates of wine helped me overcome this, for as we approached the controls, I simply hid behind them!
“Est-ce que vous êtes française?” I shouted over the music.
“Sorry,” I said. “I live in the South of France, and noticed your Latin silhouette.”
“Partially right,” she answered. “I'm a Londoner but mother is French-Italian.”
I made the bold move of running my finger lightly down her forehead and nose. She smiled and blushed.
“Why not join us for a chat later,” she said, timidly looking over shoulder at her friends.
“What do you mean later? I'm on my way right now."
I found out that her name was Gwyneth, and that she lived in trendy Islington. Later she took me to a West End café that both she and her friends frequented. We sat there drinking the English excuse for coffee with our legs entwined as we exchanged open-mouthed kisses. The video jukebox was playing Robbie Williams' classic Millennium.
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By this time, we were all suffering from exposure, dehydration, and exhaustion. I was scooping handfuls of snow into my mouth because the water in my canteen had frozen solid. All we could think of was being somewhere else, anywhere but atop a mountain surrounded by nothing but linding white, tens of kilometres from the nearest civilization. I stared back defiantly at the menacing peaks, realizing that winter combat in the mountains is much worse than desert, jungle, or urban warfare. Up here the deadliest enemy was not the human foe but the relentless cold and the terrain. Nowhere else is a fighting man so dependent on specialized matériel. Losing a ski or nowshoe can mean death. Without them the distance normally covered in an hour would take an entire day. Losing a couteau à neige, a ski pole, or even a glove can be just as life-threatening. Blood flowing from minor wounds, especially to the hand or foot, freezes often leading to frostbite. A broken leg on a mountain such as we were on would generally be fatal.
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I woke up in a cold sweat at precisely 06.00. My camarades would be getting out of bed and realizing that I wasn't there. In a few minutes, the chef would be opening my armoire with steel cutters to confiscate my belongings. I fell asleep again and had a nightmare about the shame I was bringing on my family. For over a week, I did little more than sleep all day and get up to wait for Marianne in the evenings—a bit of an anti-climax after the Foreign Legion's rush.
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11. Quartier Vienot
“Come here, Sanchez,” Lewinsky said, gesturing me back into his cell.
“I'm speaking to you as a camarade and as a vieux légionnaire. Don't break out tonight. As you know, the jail warden has been good to us. He gives us free time and occasionally a bottle of pinard. If you, a jeune légionnaire break out while he's on duty, you'll land him in la merde. If we allow you to break out, we, too, will be landing him in la merde. The capitaine will strip him of his rank and our remaining days here will be liquid hell. If you do try to break out tonight, sure as hell, you better hope that they don't catch you and throw you back in here with us.”
I was summoned to the poste de sécurité that afternoon and ordered to face the wall without moving or muttering a single syllable. For five hours, every single move I made was carefully monitored. Considering that in the past prisoners were commonly pistol-whipped, this was a light form of psychological punishment.
“Legion too tough for you?” the PMs taunted me. “You came to the Legion naked, with one hand covering your balls and the other your ass. We clothed you, fed you, taught you French, and made you into a fine-tuned killing machine. Is this how you pay us back?”
Hours later, the capitaine came in with five PMs.
“But where am I going? You're not taking me back to the REG, are you?” I protested. "You can't!"
“We're going home, Johnny.”
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12. Earl's Court
My first task in the morning was to find somewhere to stash my belongings. I placed several thousand francs, one hundred British pounds, my temporary passport, American Express platinum card, and priceless Legion-issued SNCF carte de voyage in a Zip-Lock bag and walked through the city streets out into the open countryside. After tramping along a main road for an hour, I reached a secluded spot where no one could watch what I was doing. To the chirping of cicadas, I scraped a hole in the rocky soil for my bag. When I had filled it in again, I placed atop large rocks as markers and had a good shit over it all as a deterrent to man and beast. On the back of a TGV pamphlet I sketched myself a rough map and began the long, sweaty march to Aubagne . . .
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