From jungle to desert part 4 by thadeusz
Note: Please read the earlier stories in this Series first. I describe there how and why I joined the French Foreign Legion, how my initial 5 years contract was extended first to a 10 years contract and then to an additional 3 years contract while I was still in my initial contract. I also mentioned how I came to like the life I lead in the paratrooper regiment, after hating it, how I became CPL and then SGT. I mention that I got married and was supposed to take the entrance exam to the Officer School, when I wanted to show off and played music on my saxophone, which provoked my transfer to the Music of the Legion, the well know "Musique de la Légion Etrangère”, also known as MLE. There, the Commanding Officer, a Lieutenant-Colonel, told me that I was "temporarily” demoted to PVT because I was now entering what the CO considered as the "wonderful orchestra”. I thus had to start like all the new recruits who joined the MLE immediately after Basic Training.
I must mention here that the CO of the MLE, a LTC as I mentioned above, was not an officer trained to lead men, not an officer like the one I would have liked to become after my exam: this CO was a good musician who had received the rank of LTC simply to lead the Orchestra. It is thus normal that in his eyes, this Orchestra was the best in the world, even if it was not more than a good marching band.
When I arrived in the MLE, I was not happy: I had been forced to leave a regiment I liked and a wife I loved. I also assumed that I would not be present for the birth of my first child. But I was a SGT and as such I wore a Black Kepi. When I left the CO's office and entered the clothing warehouse, I was furious: I was no longer a SGT, not even a CPL nor a PFC, but a simple PVT. I had heard about stories of that type occurring in the Legion, but only for guys who had behaved badly. In my case, the only problem was that I was now a musician and that they would not give me a single stripe, not even the green stripe of PFC, until I had proven that the MLE was really my place. All that because they assumed that the MLE was the best orchestra in the world.
In the clothing warehouse, they "gave” me a completely new set of uniforms: they explained that as musician of the MLE, I would have to appear in public and "represent the Legion” and also "be the image of the Legion”, so I had to wear perfect uniform which would by the way be fitted especially for me. They also added that "The price of your new uniforms and of the fitting will be deduced from your next pay.” I could not care the least for these uniforms. I had to change sleeve patch and to put different shoulder boards on my ceremony uniform to be immediately recognizable as "one of the MLE”. I had now what I considered as "fancy sleeve and shoulder insignia”, with golden borders, but no longer with my SGT golden stripes. I had to stop wearing all the the badges of MY regiment and all the badges of all the difficult courses I had followed, and mastered. I really missed my para wings. Of course, I was again wearing the very honorable White Képi of an enlisted legionnaire, no longer the Black one reserved for NCOs and officers. This also made me furious because I had suffered during the sergeant course, and my Black Kepi was my pay for that pain.
I went with all my kit, placed in two big bags, to the room which had been assigned to me: I was no longer free to sleep outside the barracks like all legionnaires having my number of years of service do, but I had to behave like a new PVT and I had very clearly been told to stay "inside the barracks, 24h/24 and 7d/7”. The room looked like all French Army rooms, except that it was more comfortable: there were only four beds and four cupboards. A really "young legionnaire”, about my age, was standing there. He welcomed me, showed me my bed and, considering me as a new recruit he said:
"Welcome to the MLE. I am Guillaume and I am 23 years old.”
"My name is Pierre and I am also 23 years old.”
"With your shorn head, I can see that Basic Instruction has been difficult for you. I will help you so you can try to avoid the brig here.”
I grumbled: "I don't come Basic Training nor from the brig” but I gave no other detail.
"Well, here is your bed. There is your cupboard: be very careful when you put your things in it, you must respect a certain order. And you must also take care to iron your clothes daily, especially your shirts. You must also make your bed in a special way if you want to avoid being punished. And …”
I interrupted him and replied:
"Comrade, how long are you in the Legion ?”
He was astonished but answered my question:
"Nearly 10 months”
"Well, I have 6 years and 3 months of service. I have been twice in mission in Africa. I have been CPL and then SGT. I was supposed to take an entrance exam for the officer school, so I believe I know all you are trying to tell me much better than you.”
"But why are you here as PVT ? What did you do ?”
"I played my saxophone in front of one of the MLE conductors. That's it, he wanted me, so I have been transferred here without notice.”
"You could not object ?”
"Young Guillaume, in theory you can object, but practically speaking forget about it if you want to survive here. You are a legionnaire, and in the Legion one does not discuss an order even if the rules say you are allowed to do so. In any case, I tried to object, but my COL told me that if I continued, my departure from Corsica would simply be delayed because he would send me to the brig.”
"You don't seem to be pleased to be here, in the MLE ?”
"No, I am not, I belong really to a combat regiment. And you ?”
"I joined the Legion hoping to be sent to the paratrooper regiment, but they discovered that I had played in a band before enlisting. So they sent me to the MLE as trumpet player”
Guillaume had a closer look at me and said:
"We are of the same age and we wanted the same regiment. Can we be friends since we have to share the same room ?”
"It is OK with me, but I did not want the paratrooper regiment, but that's where they sent me. And we have in anycase to live together 24h/24.”
"I promise you, I will not forget your real rank and I hope you will regain it very quickly. But allow me to give you some advice: life in the MLE is not like life in a fighting regiment.”
"My present rank is PVT. I have no other: the Commandant who received me was very clear. First the MLE must decide they want to keep me before I can become PFC, then they have to decide that I play well before I can become CPL, finally they must agree to let me take what is considered as a very difficult exam before they let me become SGT again. So treat me exactly as your equal. And thanks in advance for the good advices.”
And good advices they were. Guillaume gave me little pieces of information which I would have gathered slowly, probably going to the brig for unknowingly violating a rule and hindering the recovery of my stripes (I had illusions that day). One advice was:
"Buy new boots, new rangers. I know that it is expensive, but you will need them. Yours might be in good shape and comfortable, but the inspecting Master Corporal will only look at their aspect: are they clean ? shiny ? without visible cracks ? Otherwise, you will be punished. And don't forget that for a concert, you will need special white shoe laces: always use bleach to keep them impeccable.”
"After 6 years in the Legion, I know how to clean and treat my boots.”
"These are no real marching boots, but a theatre costume, and you have to get used to that: from on you will be dressed constantly in a performance costume.”
"What do you call a performance costume ? my BDU ?”
"You have to wear a clean and freshly ironed BDU every day, otherwise you will get in trouble with the Adjutant commanding our section, he is our music leader and requests from us what he considers to be a perfect attitude when he gives us his music lessons. During concerts, with the public, you will have to wear your ceremony dress uniform, the one you are used to wear for guards.”
"But that is very uncomfortable and might hinder a musician's way of playing!”
"Well Pierre, you have to get used to it. Moreover you have now a small white bag, in leather, called a "musette bag”: that's to carry your music sheets. You must constantly have it with you during a concert, hanging from your neck with a small white leather strap and banging on your waist just above your left buttock, and it better remains there without too much banging.”
"That's a lot more complex than in other regiments”
"That's why the music leader wants us to consider ourselves permanently as if we were performing for an audience, to be ready when the real performance comes.”
Guillaume had another look at me and finally added:
"And don't keep that haircut. It is too short for the MLE. Here you are representing the Legion, you are part of the window of the Legion on the world, the part of the Legion the good civilians can see and must enjoy. Your present haircut might be good for a combat regiment, but here it will only lead you to the brig or let you gain some nice MLE like punishments.” He looked in his cupboard, took something and gave it to me:
"Here is some special shampoo. It keeps the hair uncurled but souple. I was told that it helps to make your hair grow. Use it, at least once a day, and get a regular haircut.”
While Guillaume was speaking, I was rapidly, but correctly, putting my things away in what was now my cupboard. I did it according to Legion rules, which are very strict and Guillaume could notice that I had certain habit of doing it this way. In fact this "storing away habit” was an "added benefit” of my forced enlistment since before that I had always left my room in disorder, which provoked the regrets of my mother and the shouting of my father. After that, we went to the Company bar where I offered him a first beer, followed by many others, while we became better acquainted. This was also the opportunity for me to meet all the other "musicians” of our group.
I told all my adventures and my whole story to Guillaume, but I made him promise not to tell anyone that I was a "temporarily demoted” SGT: I knew that this might give a bad impression. So I had rapidly decided to introduce me only as "Legionnaire PVT Pierre Delfaille”.
While discussing with Guillaume, I discovered that the legionnaires who were part of the MLE arrived there for very different reasons. In our room we had Nicholas who was a professional musician. Like several of his colleagues, he thought that it was easier to have the Legion as agent than to have to organize his professional life all by himself. Nicholas was PFC. We also had Jeff, a huge Brazilian who reminded me of Armando, my fellow legionnaire who comforted me when I was crying during Basic Training. Jeff came to the Legion because he liked being a soldier and because the army of his country offered him no future. Once in the Legion, his qualities as musician impressed some officers and they decided to assign him to the MLE. Jeff was good natured and being in a combat regiment as he had thought or in the MLE made no difference for him, provided he got his pay and could send as much money as possible to his parents. Jeff was CPL, thus the chief of our room, but in the MLE that did not mean a lot and a CPL was just a musician with a slightly better pay. The authority did not come before you had reached the rank of Master Corporal, or "Caporal Chef” as we say in the Legion, or CC. This is very different from the uses I had known as CPL in the paratrooper regiment where I had served as squad leader when I was CPL in Africa.
Guillaume was a good guy. Politically, he had extreme right ideas. He wanted to "keep France for the French people because they were catholic and superior” and that sounded weird for me after my years in the Legion: there were so many fine comrades from other nations, other colours and other religions. He tried to join the Regular French Army, in a paratrooper regiment, but because of his extremist ideas, the security refused him. So strangely enough, he went to the Legion where he was accepted without problem. When he asked to be assigned to the para regiment, he was told that the Legion wanted him to play trumpet in the MLE. He was furious, thought about resigning during the probation period, the 6 months period during which resigning was acceptable, and finally decided to stay and become a soldier this way since there was no other way for him to join the military. It was strange for me: I had been raised in a very tolerant family, oriented towards the future and not the past as represented by Guillaume's ideas. At home in Paris and later in Cayenne, there was never a distinction between people of different origin or different religion, despite the fact that Father and Mother were non believers, and so am I, without any merit. Despite all these apparent differences Guillaume and me became excellent friends, real brother-in-arms, real friends.
These legionnaires were the three other legionnaires of my room and I described them as completely as possible because from now on, we had to be together 24h/24 and 7d/7, with the exception of Jeff who, as CPL, might have more liberty than we would. I also discovered, while discussing with my companions that the barracks where we were had more comfort than my old barrack in Camp Raffalli: the MLE protected the fingers and voice of its actors !
The next day, immediately after Roll Call, I was due to appear in front of the Adjutant commanding my new section. When a legionnaire appears in front of one of his chiefs, he has first to introduce himself in way that is specified by the Legion tradition. So, having made up my mind, I saluted my new chief according to the Legion tradition and said:
"Legionnaire PVT Delfaille Pierre, MLE, 2nd section, reporting as ordered. At your command, Adjutant.”
The Senior NCO in front of me knew probably all the information contained in my "presentation”, but it is the Legion tradition to say that every time you salute a superior to show that you respect his authority. There was a time, when I was SGT, when I received that irrelevant information as a form of politeness from my men, now I had again to do it, in the same way I had had to introduce myself to my superiors years ago. Saying "Legionnaire PVT” hurt me, and simultaneously I saw as in a flash all those years, when I first hated being forced to become a legionnaire and when I finally loved it, the moment when I became SGT after a long and gruesome course, and also the very moment when, because I was then a SGT, Françoise and me had the possibility to be married.
The Adjutant looked at me and after a time said:
"At ease” and continued saying:
"You come from the paratrooper regiment and you play the saxophone. Correct ?”
"But I don't need a saxophonist for the time being.”
"Adjutant, in that case am I allowed to go back to my regiment ?”
"Certainly not, I need a trumpet player. Do you play the trumpet, legionnaire ?” In the Legion, using the simple word "Legionnaire” to address someone is equivalent to call him "PVT”. I did not like it, but I had been drilled to obey, and anyway I had no other option.
"But I have a report here here saying that you have been able to learn to play the saxophone all by yourself. Is that true or were you bragging when you said that ?”
"It is true, Adjutant.”
"Then you will learn to play the trumpet easily. PVT Guillaume, who is in your room, will teach you the bases.”
The Adjutant then had another look at the file in front of him:
"But you played mostly jazz when the CPT of the MLE heard you ?”
"I only play jazz, Adjutant. It was for my wife.”
"PVT Delfaille, as simple legionnaire you do not have a wife, understood ?”
"Are you able to play according to a music sheet ?”
"Yes, Adjutant. I showed it to the CPT when he was in Calvi.”
"Where did you learn that ?”
"At school, before I joined the Legion, Adjutant.”
"Then you will learn easily to play the type of music we play in concert. PVT Guillaume will drill you and I will check on your progresses.”
Then came something I had not expected:
"As long as you cannot play correctly the trumpet for the pieces of music we need, you are confined to barracks. You will take lessons with PVT Guillaume, with a "Caporal Chef” and with me and you will keep practicing until I am satisfied with the way you play.”
"But Adjutant, my wife, sorry the lady with whom I am, will soon give birth to my first child. Could I have a leave just to be present that day ?”
"PVT Delfaille, you are in the Legion since many years, so you know the rules. As long as you remain PVT you have no wife and no child. You will not be promoted before I am satisfied with your music. One last thing, your haircut is dreadful. It is not acceptable for the MLE. Since you have blond hair, I want your hair to be at least one inch long, remember that you are now part of the image of the Legion for the public. I give you this cream, put it on your hair daily. It will help them grow. You will also remain a PVT, and thus confined to barracks, as long as your haircut is not satisfactory. Now, you start your training immediately. Go to music class #3, I have already given instructions to the CC. I will now speak with PVT Guillaume. Go, NOW.”
I put on my White Kepi, saluted, turned as I had been told to do and left the Adjutant's office. I took a few minutes to warn my wife about my new and unexpected situation. I sent Françoise an e-mail and told her what was happening for me in the MLE, and also about the fact that I would not be allowed to be present for the birth of our first child.
I then went to the music class I had been told to join. It was a big room, with many cubicles on the sides, cubicles about which I will speak very soon. Several musicians, all trumpet players, were there rehearsing. I introduced myself to the CC and that was another painful moment since I had again to introduce myself again as "PVT Delfaille”. The CC gave me a trumpet and told me to try to get noises out of it. In order to do so and to avoid any perturbation for the others, I was lead to one of the cubicles. It was in fact a very small soundproof room where there was only one piece of furniture: a music stand. I would have to stay there on my two feet while I was practising and later, if I was good enough, rehearsing. I remained there, standing, and tried dutifully during hours to produce nice sounds. In the Legion, I had been drilled to obey all orders from my superiors, and the CC was now my superior! In the Legion, we are used to say "Brain on ‘OFF', mouth on ‘CLOSED', ears and eyes on ‘OPEN' whether you like it or not”. That's what I was trying to do, except that the mouth was open on the trumpet, trying to produce nice sounds. The CC came from time to time and checked if I was working. He told me to keep my beret on my head despite the fact that we were inside: this was a way to train me to play during a long time with my White Kepi. There was a strong lamp, a spot-light, under which I had to play: it was hot, but the CC also explained that it was a form of training for playing on a real stage. I had to stay there trying my trumpet, all alone, until lunch. Immediately after lunch, the Adjutant came to me in my soundproof cubicle and told me to play whatever I wanted. I asked him if jazz was acceptable and he said that it was permitted, but only on this day. He listened to me for a long time: he was very patient as soon as music was concerned and finally told me:
"Delfaille, you are not too bad with the trumpet. In fact you are better than I expected, but you must practice a lot and learn all the good tricks. I send Guillaume to help you.”
Guillaume came and started to explain me all the tricks I needed to know about the trumpet. Later, he continued and spent lots of time with me, trying to transform a paratrooper in an acceptable trumpet player. He also helped me to improve my way of reading notes from a music sheet, and even play from that without rehearsal.
From that day on, I started to work very hard, not the way I had done before to train and jump, but very hard in another way. I had to stand the whole day long and practice during hours and hours. The Adjutant came every day at least twice and whenever he was not pleased, he used a special conductor's baton he had in a very special way. This baton was long, solid and flexible and when the Adjutant was not pleased he used it to inflict on us an unofficial (and illegal) corporal punishment. He never hurt the hands, because he wanted to protect the fingers, but he hurt the bottom, the legs (tired of standing during hours) and sometimes the cheeks.
All the days were alike to me. Early in the morning we had "wake up” followed by a short sport session, the "roll call” and then a little bit of time to tidy up our room and have breakfast. Then time to practice music according to the orders of the Adjutant and under the constant supervision of the CC. At noon, we had the second "roll call” followed by the compulsory lunch in the huge mess hall. Then it was back to music, but this time with others: I had the help of Guillaume and the controls of the Adjutant. Later it was the third "roll call” followed by dinner time and chores, sometimes late into the night because of all the washing and ironing of clothes that was requested. Most of my MLE comrades used to buy food and have their breakfast and dinner in our room, but I chose not to do that: the food in the mess hall in the morning and evening was not good, but it was for free. This enabled me to send more money each month to Françoise, for her keep and for the future baby. I only kept enough money to pay for the cleaning products I needed for my clothes and for myself, and to buy a few beers in the Company bar. I drank a lot during my first years, but since I was with Françoise, I did no longer feel such a need to socialize with other legionnaires. Nevertheless, some socializing was necessary if I wanted to remain a human and not only a wind blower for my trumpet.
During this period, there was no weekend for me, no Sunday and no Saturday. I did not have free time, except a few minutes I stole each day to send e-mails to Françoise and to read her messages. I really needed time to wash and iron my clothes everyday, to do chores like a real "young” PVT, fresh in the Legion. I tried to do my best: I knew that this is the only acceptable policy in the Legion. In fact, I did not realize how much time I had already spent in the MLE but I missed Françoise and my paratrooper regiment.
One day, I received a very short message from my wife: "Baby is born. It is a boy. All is well.”
We had agreed by mail that if the child was going to be a boy, we would name him "Bernard” and we kept "Charlotte” for the case it would be a girl. I immediately went to the CC, the first person to whom I was supposed to speak in order to be allowed to go to the Adjutant and ask him for a special leave:
"Caporal Chef, during meal time I got a message from my wife saying that our baby is born. It is a son. Am I allowed to speak to the Adjutant and ask him for an exceptional leave ?” The CC did what I was afraid he would do. He simply said:
"PVT Delfaille, you have no wife and no son. If you insist I will send you to the brig for serious disobedience. Go back to your stand and resume practicing.”
Since I had no choice, I did as I was told. I played very badly that afternoon, I was not concentrated and I kept thinking of my wife and my son.
When the Adjutant came to me, he listened during a short time and said:
"What happens to you, Delfaille, you never played so badly ?”
"Adjutant, I cannot concentrate because my wife just gave birth to my first boy. Could I have an exceptional leave ?”
"PVT Delfaille”, he had insisted on the word ‘PVT', "you know what I said about a PVT having a wife or a son. Anyway, your music is not satisfactory yet and your haircut is not great. So you remain confined to barracks. As far as concentration is concerned, I know a great way to help that. Turn your back to me and take the position of attention.”
I did what he told me, knowing what would happen. The Adjutant took his special conductor's baton and I received that day, very discretely, invisible from the others in my cubicle, 10 of the juiciest on my bottom. That was more than usually when the Adjutant was not pleased with our music, and I felt each of them very seriously through my solid BDU. It is a fact that after that, I played better. The Adjutant was used to give one or two discrete blows with his baton when he was not pleased with our music, but this was the strongest reminder to "concentrate on music” the Adjutant ever gave me. I received several others, less important reminders, whenever he was not satisfied.
Françoise, luckily, understood the situation and the predicament I was in. She sent me numerous pictures of our beautiful little Bernard. I showed them to my new comrades until Nicholas said:
"You can't have a wife and a kid, you are only a PVT legionnaire”
Guillaume wanted to defend me and corrected:
"He was SGT in the paratrooper regiment before being sent here”
"So, he his a demoted legionnaire” remarked Nicholas
"Yes”, replied Guillaume, "but only because he has to start from scratch as a musician.”
"But he is demoted”, added Nicholas, "from now on I will call him that way ‘little demoted', is that OK with you, Pierre ?”
"It is a fact that I have been demoted”, did I say then, "but not because I behaved badly. It is only a temporary demotion, and not a disciplinary one. My CPL and SGT brevets are still valid.”
"OK, in that case I will call you ‘temporary demo', I think it suits you well”.
That was exactly what I had tried to avoid. Later I told so to Guillaume but I stopped showing pictures of my little Bernard.
Time went by and every morning I took a shower with the shampoo suggested by Guillaume, and every evening, even before all my chores and ironing were finished, I put on my hair the cream suggested by the Adjutant. I let my hair grow. Every week, I went to the hairdresser (no longer a "barber”) who looked at my hair and, in despair, mentioned that "nothing good could be done yet”. Nevertheless, my hair was growing and it was now longer than it had been for years. I felt uncomfortable with it, but Guillaume kept telling me that I was "on the good road”.
Christmas came, with the usual compulsory Legion Christmas dinner. I was far from those I loved and I felt nearly as bad as during my first Legion Christmas. Armando was no longer there to console me, but I decided that since I had to be a musician, I could as well try to give the impression that I liked the feast.
After about three months in the MLE, the CPT who had heard me in Calvi wanted to hear me inside the MLE, while playing the trumpet. He instructed the Adjutant to organize a sort of exam for Guillaume and me. I first had to play the music of "Le boudin”, the traditional Legion song. Then other traditional musics which I had learned to play by heart. After that, Guillaume, who was an excellent trumpet player, alone or in an orchestra, was told to play with me to let the CPT see whether I was able to play with others. It went well. The CPT looked pleased and asked my Adjutant:
"Can this PVT read music or does he have to learn everything by hearing it ?”, which was indeed the case of most of the members of the MLE.
"CPT, I think he can read music sheet but I don't know how much time he needs to use that information”, said the Adjutant.
"Let him try”, reacted the CPT.
He gave me a music sheet and told me to play. I took the piece of paper, it was a music I did not know. But I soon realized that after all these months of training and practicing, I could hear in my head the notes I was reading. So I started to play and it also went well.
The CPT appreciated the fact that I was able to read notes, and even to play while reading from a music sheet. I had followed a course for that when I was 14 or 15 and that's the type of learning you don't lose. So this good CPT wanted to make me PFC immediately and give me my first green stripe back. The Adjutant objected and told the CPT:
"This PVT is still very new to the MLE and he has never played with the whole band. I don't know if he will be able to play in tune with the others.”
"Let him try” replied the CPT. But the Adjutant continued:
"Anyway, he still has to pass the ‘haircut exam' ! We cannot let a legionnaire with a shorn head play during one of the MLE concerts.”
The MLE special hairdresser was still trying painfully to transform what had been my shorn head into something acceptable for a concert. As long as my hair remained too short, I would not be allowed to play with the band in concert and that forbade me to really get that first stripe, and the pay raise going with it. It was rather frustrating for an ex-sergeant who had now several years of service behind him. So I wanted to speak:
"Permission to speak, CPT ?”
"Permission granted, PVT Delfaille.”
"CPT, in my former regiment, the paratrooper regiment, I was told that a legionnaire must have very short hair.”
"You are in the MLE now” replied the CPT. "Here we don't want that any of our musician looks like one of the brutes you have seen in the paratrooper regiment.”
I don't know what passed through my head then, but I went on speaking, nearly pleading:
"CPT, with all due respects, my wife likes it most when my hair is very short. I am very unhappy because I have not been allowed to see her for such a long time. She recently gave birth to our first baby, could I at least have a short leave to see them ?”
"PVT, how long are you in the legion ?”
"6 years and 6 months, CPT”
"In that case you should know that a PVT with your time of service can only get married with a special permission of his COL. You did not ask for such an authorization. So for me, you have no wife.”
"CPT, I was SGT when I got married.”
"You are a PVT, this means that you have been demoted. Probably for an excellent reason. I will give you some time to think about the respect you owe to your superior. 8 days in the brig, with as motive : ‘lack of respect for a superior officer'. Continue learning to play the trumpet, you remain a plain PVT. And get a better haircut.”
This punishment was after all well deserved: I had replied to my CPT. I had forgotten that for a PVT, the first thing to do was to respect the "Mouth ‘CLOSED' attitude” I mentioned earlier and I was now only a PVT. I had contradicted my chief, trying to show him that he was wrong, which is never the case when a CAPT gives an order to a PVT. I clearly showed that I did not like his orders. I would never have accepted that a PVT spoke to me in that way when I was a SGT. This is never acceptable in the Legion, so I was not astonished to hear that the CO, our well know musician and nevertheless LTC, confirmed immediately the punishment: he sent me to the MLE brig, adding 4 days in the brig on the way. Which made 12.
I thought that these 12 days, added to the 28 I already had, made a nasty total for a future promotion to CPL which I still hoped to get relatively soon: my brevet was still valid. Even if most of these days in the brig had been given for bad reasons. Nevertheless, I thought it would be 12 days without trumpet ! 12 days of rest! That was a mistake. Legionnaires of the MLE sent to the brig spend most of their time cleaning all the instruments and other tools used for concerts, so that the musicians have only to play. I also learned that winter night can be very cold in Aubagne, even if the days are very hot. That is especially true if you have to sleep in a "room” where windows are only holes in the wall, with thick bars but without glass, and where there is no roof.
When I came out of the brig, the Adjutant changed slightly the practicing routine: he told me to come now every afternoon dressed in my ceremony uniform. This is the uniform we use for parades and guard. In the MLE, musicians also use it when they play in public. The Adjutant's purpose was to get me use to play in that uniform in public; unluckily for me, this nice uniform is not very comfortable. Moreover, this meant that I had to iron my shirt with the many folds every evening: these folds must have a special width which is measured by the CC. I had had to do that many times since I was in the Legion, so it was nearly a routine for me, a boring routine but an easy one. Guillaume had also to be in ceremony uniform and he was not yet used to this ironing process, so I helped him a lot. The worst part of it was that this uniform was hot and that we had to play in our cubicle, or with others in the classroom, always with a spot above our head (as on the stage) and our White Kepi on our head.
It is then that Nicholas came back from the Corporal course. He considered now himself a superior man and his attitude with me was really unbearable. Jeff, who was also a CPL, tried to calm him, but to no effect and Nicholas kept ordering Guillaume and me to do special chores for him. I had been trained to obey, so I did what he told me to do. But Guillaume contested his authority several times and Nicholas tried, without success, to have him sent to the brig.
It was about then that the MLE hairdresser accepted for the first time to do something serious with my hair. I was happy, because I fell untidy with a nearly 4 months old haircut. He started to comb my hair, trying to organize them in such a way that he could give me what considered a good haircut. I told him that the most I would accept, as a change, was a not too short buzz cut, but he told me that he used only scissors and that a buzz cut would be difficult in my situation. After a few more weeks, he finally started sculpting my hair. He turned the chair so that I could not see anything: he did not want me to react and protest while he was busy. I felt that he combed my hair, organized it and then started to use his scissors. It was no longer the game of "push and pull, turn left, turn right” in order to let the clippers pass easily. On the contrary he told me to remain still. Each time I moved as much as eyelid, he gave me a strong slap on the top of my head. It took a long time, the hairdresser was turning around me like a hunter around his prey. The hairdresser used his scissors to cut one single hair at a time, here or there. He kept turning around me, slapping me when he had the impression I was moving and finally, he took his clippers and the usual game of "push-and-pull, turn left, turn right” started. I felt more comfortable because I was on known grounds. But I soon realized that he was only using his clippers on the side of my head and on my neck. After probably nearly an hour, he told me:
"You are a new man now. Have a look PVT Delfaille.”
I looked and I saw a guy with a nice tapered haircut, but it was not really me. It looked like a boy's haircut, the way a schoolboy was looking in an old fashioned British school, years ago. It was maybe shorter, but it was too long for me. It looked much too classy for the legionnaire I had become. I did not recognize me in that legionnaire wearing my uniform ! I had now the sides of the head neatly shaved, but not completely shorn as usual. One could still see some blond hair on my head. On the top of my head, this devilish hairdresser had left a thick bunch of hair, not too long, not too disorganized, but not completely equal either. The idea was to give the impression that my hair was floating like my music. I looked like a nice obedient little boy ! The hairdresser promised me that with time he would succeed to have a long lock of hair on top of my head, hair that he would then arrange on my forehead "to give a nice artistic impression”. I did not like what he had made of me, certainly not a true legionnaire, but the hairdresser was CC and I was PVT, so the only thing I could do was to thank him and accept to pay double for this specially long haircut.
Finally I made PFC 8 months after I joined the MLE, Guillaume was already PFC since 6 months and in our room, when we were alone, I used to salute him as my "superior”, although a PFC is not really a superior for a PVT. That made my life a little bit more joyful and Guillaume liked it, but in fact I missed dreadfully Françoise and our baby. Until that moment, I had not been allowed to have free time outside the barracks, and I had to keep practising the trumpet every day of the week. This first stripe gave me a better pay, but not less chores and not really more liberty. I knew that Françoise and me had now a nice baby, a boy named Bernard, but I had not yet been allowed to go out of the barracks on my own in order to see my son. The only images I had from him were the pictures sent by my wife via mail.
Eventually, I was warned that I would have my first free time outside the barracks: 4 hours during a Sunday afternoon. I sent a message to Françoise and she arranged it to come to Aubagne for the weekend, with Bernard. My free time started after lunch, which we had to take together. I got ready early and immediately at 1 pm, I went to the gate. I still had to pass the "correct dress control” in front of the CC in charge of the guard. That day, it was the CC in charge of music class #3, my music class. He was a legionnaire I did not like. I went without fear: I had my dress uniform on and I had taken care to have it especially clean and well ironed. When I reached the gate, the Master corporal looked at me and said:
"Not clean, second try”
I went back to my room and tried to find out what was wrong, found nothing and went back to the gate where the Master Corporal simply said:
"Go back, you are not clean”
I knew I only had three chances and I was afraid of what this guard could invent, so I asked Guillaume, who was also ready to go out, to find Françoise and tell her I might be delayed and even not be able to come. I cleaned again my all clothes and then brushed my hair (something I had not done during years). I then went to the gate where the CC finally said:
"Not clean, go back. 4 days in the brig for untidiness”
"But Caporal Chef, it is the first time in months I can see my wife who lives in Calvi, and the first time I can see my son. please let me go.”
"4 more days for lack of respect for a superior. Go now if you don't want to have more.”
I knew I had to obey. This time I kept my mouth shut. I was licked. I went to my room. Guillaume came back later and told me that Françoise had understood the situation and that Bernard was really cute:
"He looks like you”
Considering the seriousness of the motives used by the Master Corporal, the CO did not only confirm the 8 days in the brig, as he could have, but again added 4 more days for "lack of respect for the musician's uniform”. Which made again 12 days of punishment. Luckily, the CO did not demote me to PVT. He told me:
"PVT Delfaille, you have now many days in the brig on your counter since you joined the Legion. I do not understand why they gave you a second contract. I know that you have a CPL brevet still valid, but considering your tendency to disobey, I will make sure that you are not promoted CPL during at least two more years. I warn you, if you get one single more day in the brig, I will demote you definitely to PVT and thus cancel all your remaining brevets.”
He then added :
"Delfaille, I leave you your PFC stripe, not because you are an excellent trumpet player and a good soloist with your saxophone but because it is not good for the public to see that in the MLE there can be a PVT playing during a concert. All my musicians must have at least one stripe. And your CPT want to use you during concerts. So I leave you this first stripe, but I consider that you don't really deserve it as musician in the band.”
I could have reacted in many ways, saying among other things that the CC's behavior was simply unfair, that he was cruel, and so on. But I knew better: I remained silent looking in front of me, as I had been told during Basic Training. I understood that, being an ex-SGT, I was a good prey for the CC. Since I was now a simple PFC, I had to live as such if I did not want to suffer: as legionnaire I was not a free man.
The CO continued:
"You must learn to have a good haircut suitable for the MLE, a more complex haircut which will make of you a nice musician. That's your essential role now”.
Concerning the haircut, even if I disliked mine, as legionnaire I knew that I had to obey the slightest whim of my CO. In the paratrooper regiment, at least, there was a fighting logic behind all the rules imposed on us. In the MLE, the only logic that was used was a logic based on one single aim: attract people to concerts, showing them that the soldiers of the Legion were not only fighting men. That these fine musicians (and they were very good musicians) were nice men with stripes and a golden rim on their shoulder board and not too short haircuts. But I had become a fighter, not a puppet used for a show. I nevertheless accepted the order to have a more complex haircut.
A little bit after I came out of the brig for the second time in the MLE, the Adjutant and the CPT organized a special exam. All musicians of our group had to play together, and to play with others using different instruments. We were all in ceremony uniform. I first had to play alone musics I had learned in my cubicle. Then we had to play, all together, musics which I also knew. Then we had to do the same, but while marching. Finally we stopped moving and a music sheet I had never seen was placed on my music stand and I was told to play, and to play in tune with the others. This exam was apparently organized for each new musician and I passed without any problem. The fact that I was able to play directly while reading a new music sheet impressed the CPT once again because I now had proven that I could play with the orchestra, and more important that I could replace any trumpet player at any moment, if needed. The CPT asked me:
"Delfaille, I know that you learned that way to play music at school. Would you be able to teach it to the other legionnaires of your group ? If you could do it, you might get CPL stripes.”
"CPT, permission to ask a question ?”
"Permission granted, PFC Delfaille.”
"CPT, with all due respect, is there a chance that I might be punished if I try and do not succeed ?”
"Delfaille, you know very well the rules in the Legion. But considering the difficulty of the task, I promise you that you will not be sent to the brig if you fail to teach reading correctly the notes.”
"CPT, may I think about it during a moment and try to remember how it was done in my school ?”
"You have time until tomorrow afternoon. I want to have your answer then and it better be positive. Go now.”
At night I discussed this new situation with Guillaume who started by saying:
"Pierre, it is obvious that you are now a fully accepted member of the orchestra. You better be ready to play good music in public, while going to many different places. Forget about going back to the paratrooper regiment”, which was indeed my dream.
"Guillaume, I realize that. But should I accept the CPT's proposal and try to teach others to play while reading the music sheet.”
"I can do the "read-and-play” thing, but I never told the Adjutant. You always need to show off. Now you are cornered.”
"I did not show off: a question was asked once and I replied honestly.”
"Pierre, how many years do you still have on your contract ?”
"Many, Guillaume, slightly more than 5 years because I have been tricked to sign two 5 years contracts at the start. I also signed a 3 year contract when I became SGT. I had just 6 years of service when I was transferred to the MLE!”
"In that case, my friend, if you accept to teach the others, they might promote you to CPL, but they will never let you go back to your paratrooper regiment: you will be too precious. You will enable them to drill all of us into becoming replacement machines. So they will keep you prisoner here.”
"But if I refuse, I feel that the CPT will punish me and send me to the brig. In that case, the CO, that beast of LTC, has promised me that he will definitely demote me and cancel all my brevets. Moreover, they will not promote me: the CO said that he would stop any promotion for me because I have too many days in the brig.”
"Listen Pierre, I did not tell you but I asked twice to be transferred to a combat regiment. The first time the Adjutant stopped it saying that for the time being he needed me as a trumpet player, and the second time the CO told me that he would never let me go before the end of my contract.”
"What am I to do in that case ? I would really like to go back to my wife and my kid, and stop playing music for people who just like to see men in uniforms giving the impression that they can play music.”
"I have an idea: the CPT said that if you fail, he will not send you to the brig. So say that you are ready to try to do it, but that you are not certain of the results and do it badly.”
"I never worked badly since I am in the Legion. Anyway, it might work.”
"Try with me. I know how to do it, and I will purposely fail. If you don't do that you will not be reunited with your wife and you will not see your son growing.”
"But you will be punished and sent to the brig, Guillaume.”
"That my friend”, replied my friend Guillaume, "is my problem. I don't have a wife and a child yet. So I want to help you.”
These last words convinced me. The next day, I told the CPT that I was ready to try, but with no guarantee. So in order not to bother another legionnaire, I suggested that I first tried with Guillaume who was also my roommate. The CPT congratulated me on my decision and accepted the choice of Guillaume. I tried, afternoon after afternoon, to teach him the bases of "playing-while-reading”, as it had been taught to me: the Adjutant checked constantly that we were really doing that. As promised, Guillaume failed when the test came. He got 8 days in the brig for "insufficient music study” and the CO, always so kind, added 4 days for the poor Guillaume. I only got 50 pushups to do every morning, during these 12 days, plus 30 min of Croatian bridge while chanting "Le boudin” during the first day. When you have to do the Croatian bridge, you must make a bridge with your body, using as pillars only your head without beret and your feet. The hands must remain in your back and it really hurts because the floor is in concrete.
So, I was not promoted but thanks to Guillaume, I was not considered as an essential asset for the MLE.
After that, I started playing in concerts. Most of the time, I was not really playing: I was there as a reserve and I also had to load and unload our stuff. A very pleasant job for a legionnaire who had been fighting twice in Africa. We often went to different parts of France, or even to foreign countries: for that we received a special passport with no real legal value, except for the Legion. From time to time, I had free time out of the barracks. Whenever it was possible, Françoise came with my little Bernard.
After a little bit more than 2 years with the MLE, and after another Christmas far from my family, I felt really tired to play the trumpet from the second place left of the third row of the orchestra, and all that while marching ! I had never wanted to be part of a band, and even less of a marching band. I still had to sleep in the barracks, except when I received a special permission to go outside and sleep with Françoise who was now, considering the length of my stay in the Legion, accepted as "wife” while my son Bernard was accepted as son. But my wife and my son lived in Corsica while I was "barracked” near Marseille. I could only see them from time to time, and only during a few hours at a time. I was 25 years old and although I had found a purpose to my life in the Legion when I was in the paratrooper regiment, I had the impression to be a slave serving no real purpose in the MLE. So I did something very difficult for a legionnaire and I asked my Adjutant the permission to be heard by the CPT concerning a possible new assignment. In fact, the MLE was technically part of the Legion administrative regiment and the CO of the MLE, the LTC who was there since many years, was placed under the authority of the COL of the administrative regiment. This COL had changed recently: in the Legion, officers change place every two years. This was my best hope. I knew that it was risky, but it was my only chance to go back to Corsica, even if I had to go there as PFC.
It took a long time. I had to submit a request in writing, explaining my motives to change regiment. After about three weeks I was told while unloading a truck full of stands and other tools, that I had to go ‘urgently' to the Colonel's office. I ran to my room, put my dress uniform on and went to the Colonel's office. The COL told me:
"I have read your request and looked at your file. Explain again, in details why you fon't want to stay in the MLE and would rather be transferred to the paratrooper regiment, PFC Delfaille.”
I explained him, as briefly as I could, the exact situation and he listened carefully, he did not say "NO” before I had started. I then waited and he spoke:
"It is obvious that you are unhappy here, PFC Delfaille. An unhappy man cannot make really good music. Moreover, you keep being punished here for bad reasons. On the contrary, you were considered as a promising element for the Legion while you were in the paratrooper regiment. You are transferred. I spoke with the COL of your former regiment: as of now you are again a paratrooper. You will leave your room and go where the new legionnaires stay. You will go with them to Calvi. One last thing, you arrived here a SGT and you are now PFC, I cannot change that: only your new COL can do it, but I will send him a message about your rank. You may go now, PFC Delfaille”.
I saluted, put on my White Kepi and left the Colonel's office. I then ran to my room, prepared rapidly my bags and went to another building waiting for the new legionnaires. As soon as I had placed my things where they belonged, I called Françoise and told her that I would soon be back. I knew that I was only a PFC and that as such I would have to sleep in the barracks, but at least I could hope to see my wife and my son more frequently. I then went back to my truck and finished unloading it: duty first ! During lunchtime, I told Guillaume what was happening, he looked sad:
"I am losing a friend, moreover a more experienced legionnaire. You are leaving me with Nicholas and Jeff: they are both CPL now, and very authoritative! If you can, once you are again a SGT, try to have me transferred to your regiment.”
The next thing I did, was going to the MLE hairdresser: I asked him to shave my head. At first he refused. He even said that no PFC had ever asked him that:
"Delfaille, do you really want to destroy my work ?”
"Yes, CC. Now that I am a para again, I need it.”
"Do you realize that I consider it as an insult ?”
"No offense intended, CC. I simply need it for my new regiment.”
The hairdresser finally accepted. He told me be seated, caped me and with a sort of rage he got hold of my hair and started to cut it as short as possible. He then took his clippers and I felt the wonderful "push-and-pull” game start again when he manipulated my head in all possible directions. I came out of his room with a gloriously shorn head, leaving him nearly crying. But I could not care less.
After a few days, the new legionnaires arrived and I joined those who were going to the paratrooper regiment, again MY regiment. I was only a PFC, but I felt I was an "ancient” and I had already my wings on my uniform, with all my medals. I had not been allowed to travel earlier and alone since I was not on leave and I was only a PFC. I did not mind, I was going home !
When we arrived in Calvi, we were greeted by a CC who had known me when he was PFC and I was his SGT. He gave me the permission to go first to the flat where Françoise and Bernard lived. For the first time since ages, Françoise and me made love during a long time, in a very comfortable environment and no longer in a hotel. I then went to the Camp Raffalli where I was told that I had to go to appear in front of the COL. I went there and introduced myself respectfully as "PFC Delfaille Pierre”, expecting the COL to reinstate me immediately in my SGT status. The COL was not the same as the COL who had known me just before I left, most of the officers had also changed. So the COL simply told me:
"Delfaille, you have been far from the parachutes during several years. You will start training again with the new legionnaires. You know the rule: during this training period you are all confined to barracks. Go now.”
I left his office, without a word. I knew this was a possibility. I trained with the new legionnaires and I saluted respectfully our training SGT, who had also known me as SGT ready to take the officer school entrance exam: he had been promoted to SGT after me. My reflexes came back very quickly and I was even able to give good advices to my comrades, the new legionnaires. When this training was finished, a small ceremony took place during which the new paratroopers were supposed to receive their wings. The new paras were together in front of a monument and I had been told to stay on the side. The COL came, gave his wings to the best new paratrooper, with the stripe of PFC. Then the SGT in charge of our training should have given the wings to the other new paratroopers, but the COL modified the order of this ceremony. He turned towards me and said:
"PFC Delfaille, I have now had time to review your file. In fact you are SGT Delfaille and you were deprived of your golden stripes for a stupid reason. In fact, technically you remained SGT all that time and you will get back pay for that. You will put on immediately your SGT stripes.”
He gave me back my stripes and my Black Kepi and then gave the following order:
"The SGT most ancient in rank from those present will now give their wings to the new paras.”
I looked, and it was me. I was very moved and all the other comrades, SGT and CPLs were smiling. I did what was ordered and this was the end of the ceremony.
Needless to say, the following night, I slept in MY own apartment, outside the barracks. I think that's the moment when we gave a little sister, Charlotte, to Bernard. The next day, the Colonel called me in his office and said:
"I was asked if I could accept from the MLE a PFC who was an ex-para. I said yes. I received a message from the COL of the administrative regiment reminding me that you are in fact SGT, but I have no place for a SGT. Reviewing your file, I discovered that just before leaving you were preparing the exam for the officer academy. You will thus function as SGT in the administration of this regiment, and your task is to prepare this famous exam. You know what will happen if you fail, but I do not think that you would do that.”
"COL, I will do that. But there is in the MLE a good legionnaire, Guillaume, who has also been trapped there. He would like to be transferred here. It would be great if you could do something for him.”
"A friend of yours ?”
"Yes COL, he was in the MLE when I arrived and was temporarily demoted. He helped me a lot to survive.”
A few months later, PFC Guillaume was also a paratrooper and was very thankful for the help given by a SGT. He proved later to be a good legionnaire, fully adapted to the paratrooper regiment.
I prepared the famous exam, took it and passed with flying colours. I spent two years studying as Candidate Officer and came back to the para regiment as 2nd LT.
I am back in Africa, in the desert, as LT and group leader. Guillaume is now CPL in my platoon. He behaves well and signed a second contract. The COL promised him that if he keeps behaving well, he will be sent to the SGT course.
I will not sign a new contract: as officer in the French Army, I don't need to anymore. I am here for life now ! Françoise, Bernard and Charlotte like that, but I don't want any of my kids to make his choice of life too early.