From jungle to desert part 2 by thadeusz
About a month later, it was Camerone day, the big Legion feast, the celebration of the battle (and defeat) of Camerone. There was a parade in the main courtyard and I had to be part of it in a Legion ceremony uniform. The public was admitted to our feast. After the parade my comrades and I changed to the simple Legion service dress with White Kepi. We were then allowed to go and meet the civilians, and even drink beers with them. Suddenly I saw Mother among the public. I went to her, she looked at me with eyes only a mother can have, looked at my uniform and remained silent during a few instants. She then said:
"My little boy” and hugged me. I felt a little bit ashamed to be treated like a little boy in front of my comrades. Mother then said:
"You have grown my son. I left a teenager rejoicing about an outing in the jungle and I find a man. Father sends you his loves, but he could not come because of his schoolwork: in this season he is preparing the students for the BAC. And I thought that for a first visit, it would be better to leave the twins in Guiana.”
Then I suddenly felt again very bad. Normally I should also have been preparing this first part of the BAC. In reality, I was only 17, nearly 18, but the Legion considered that I was 22. I was no longer a student, I was not even allowed to study at night. Once more I realized what I had become and this time there was no Armando to help me, so I felt like crying, but seeing one of my comrades I chose not too. Mother saw how I felt and trying to console me, she looked at me and at my uniform: the khaki service dress.
Mother looked at the shirt shirt with many folds, ironed to the millimeter, the green tie and the White Képi. Then she said:
"Pierre, after all you look good in that smart uniform!”
"Jérôme, Mother, here I am only Jérôme Dromard. I know it is a very stupid name but it is mine for the time being and I want to respect it. And this uniform is not very comfortable. It is the one we have to wear when we must go to the Colonel's or another officer's office, and that is usually for a punishment. It requires a lot of ironing: I spent most of my night to have it ready. My comrades are more able to clean and iron this uniform because they wear it when they go to town.”
"Pierre, sorry Jérôme if you want, what do you wear when you go to town ?”
"Mother, I am not allowed to leave this Camp for the time being.”
"I think it is because I have been punished in Guiana because I did not accept the fact that I had been transformed into a legionnaire, or because the Colonel knows that in fact I am not 18 and wants to protect me. In any case, I am not allowed to go out and I don't care.”
"My son, are you punished ? Are you often punished ?”
"Well in a way I think, but I don't care anymore.”
Mother looked at me, took my Képi off my head and and looked at my hair. She then touched kindly my head in a way only mothers know. While she was caressing my stubbles, Mother said:
"My poor little boy, what did they do to you and to your hair ?”
"They shaved it.”
"I can see that, but why ?”
"We, as new legionnaires, have to keep a very short haircut. It is that or being seriously in trouble, so I chose to keep my head shorn.”
"How long do you have to stay like that ?”
"Well it depends on the chiefs, but probably two years after induction.”
Mother continued in her soothing voice:
"You have already served nearly one year, so that hardship is nearly over. Your hair will be even be better after that.”
"Well, it might take longer because they don't count the same way you do.”
"How did they make you join the Legion, it was only supposed to be an on-the-job training ? Is there nothing we can do to get you out of this ? Or did you really choose this life of misery ?”
"Well, they decided that since I had been with them during more than 3 months, I could as well stay much longer.”
"But how long ?”
That's when I decided to tell the whole story of my second contract, the 10 years mandatory service in the Legion. My mother was still caressing my stubbles. She hugged me again and then I started to weep on her shoulder, and I wept during a long time. Mother cried too and this is how we spent part of my free time during Camerone. Then it was time for my mother to leave the Camp and I could not follow her. So I went to our Company building, to the Company bar and I got drunk.
After that life continued as usual. I was bored by the routine of the barracks. I hated the chores which were imposed on us, the so called "new legionnaires”, those who had recently arrived. From time to time, we had a special training, in the mountains or skiing. I liked that, first because it was not the same routine and secondly because I loved sports. I lived my life as a simple legionnaire, slowly forgetting my past, slowly becoming "what I was”, a legionnaire. I was punished from time to time, and I drank lots of beer "to forget”, like my comrades. I did not like that life and I understood my comrades who said they would not sign a second contract or who deserted. But I knew I was here for a very long time. One day, in July, my Company CPT called me in his office:
"Dromard, I don't understand you. You had an excellent file when you arrived here and during the para training, but now you behave relatively badly. You do just the minimum to avoid being punished, but you don't provide that extra effort that would give you a promotion. The Colonel decided that the restrictions imposed on you will not be lifted.”
"CPT, may I ask a question ?”
"CPT, why am I not allowed to buy books and learn for my BAC ?”
"This is a decision taken by the Colonel because you have to train first, later you might be allowed to use your money freely as you see fit and thus to buy books. Go now.”
We kept training, training and training, often repeating what we had done the day before until the SGT or the LT was tired of the exercise. They never asked us what we wanted, because our opinion amounted to nothing: we were only "intelligent” Legion belongings, but not more than belongings.
Then again came Christmas, and the whole Christmas atmosphere. My comrades were glad because we would have a better dinner and a feast with a lot to drink. They liked also the fact that each of us received a little present personally from the Colonel. It was my second Christmas far from home, and it was not as dreadful as the first one. But it was not a real feast for me: I had the impression that I was now a "good for nothing”, that I had nothing to do for the society.
Suddenly, a few weeks after Christmas, we were told to get ready in a few minutes. The whole Company left the regiment and we flew to Africa. At night we reached our aim: a city in the middle of the desert, occupied by rebels. We jumped, with all our equipment and our weapons and we chased the dangerous rebels from the city. I did not see any enemy that day, but we were told that our role had been essential to free the city and its inhabitants. We remained in Africa several months and I had then many opportunity to see the enemy and use my gun. I understood then why we had trained so much, in order to become nearly machines. After all, that's what we were, killing machines, good intelligent killing machines which served a purpose: defend the innocent. Some of us were killed by the enemy, but that's what we were for. Legionnaires have no family in France, the Legion is their only family: that makes them easily dispensable.
There, in the desert, I realized that legionnaires are useful and have a role to play to protect innocent people. But did they really need me ? Did they need to take me away from the jungle and let me jump in the desert with my kit and my weapon ?
All that because I wanted to get an "on-the-job” training in photography !