Three names and a haircut : part 1 by thadeusz
I was born in California and my parents, Maria and John Portiletto, christened me Robert Patrick. I started thus my life as Robert P. Portiletto on November 7 during the last part of the XXth century. That enabled me to start school at the tender age of 5 ! Was it an advantage ? I still don’t know !
I also had an uncle, my father’s brother, Patrick Portiletto, who was my godfather. He had a small factory and remained single.
My parents moved to San Diego where they opened a small shop near the Naval base. But the shop was not a good business. When I was 8, my parents decided to move to Twentynine Palms and its military base: they opened another shop there. They worked a lot and had a hard but happy life. They sent me to school hoping I would have a better life.
Twentynine Palms was full of US Marines and very early, I decided that I would be a soldier. At the end of my 5th grade, I was 11 then, I joined the Cadet Corps of the American Cadet Alliance. I naturally chose the Marine option and became a happy Marine Cadet. I was really decided: I wanted to become a US Marine.
Later, I asked my parents to send me to a state military high school where it was compulsory to be member of the Marine Corps Junior Officer Reserve Training Corps, which made me a MCJROTC cadet. I liked being everyday in uniform, I loved this military activity and got used to be smartly dressed in uniform. I liked the discipline, the rigor and the respect we had to show to our teachers and supervisors since we had to respect military like rules. I felt that this helped me to study better than my friends who were going to a civilian school. I also liked the adventures we lived when we were taken, by real Marines, to camps during the holidays. The best thing was the friendship I found with cadets from other schools and other units.
During these years, most boys had long hair but as MCJROTC cadet we had relatively short hair which distinguished us from the rest of the boys and girls.
When I reach the age of 15, I discovered that my country, the US, was not always behaving very nicely and that it used its military for purposes I really did not like. I was disgusted and decided that I would not join the USMC, as I had decided before. I was not disgusted by the military in itself: I had seen too many good soldiers and I liked too much the way they behaved, but I did no longer like the government that was giving the orders. After a period of reflection, I reached the conclusion that I should join a Corps in an Army which was not the Army of my government. That’s when I decided to join the French Foreign Legion.
I was 16 then and I told all about it to my parents, but they objected: they did not want their only son joining another nation army. They told me that I would be able to do what I had planned, but only when I came of age, at 18, and if I had enough money to pay for the trip. It is then that I started to work part time to get some money.
I got my high school diploma when I was still 17 and started to work in my uncle’s factory. As soon as I was 18, I applied for a passport and I left my country certain I would be accepted for a five year stint in the Legion. I landed in Paris and reached easily Fort de Nogent where I knocked at the big door, entered and said: "I want to be Legionnaire for five years".
A Sergeant looked at me, then at my passport and replied:
"You are barely 18, are you sure you want to commit yourself for five years ?"
"Yes, Sir" did I reply, not knowing his actual rank.
"Well, in that case, as of now you are Marc Piletti, born in New York. Marc, sign this enlistment form." After I had signed using my new name for the first time, the Sergeant continued: "Marc, we are going to test you and if you pass the first test here, you will be sent for selection to Aubagne. Remember, it is not every candidate who is accepted. And as of now, no communication with the rest of world."
After a few tests, I was shipped with some others to Aubagne. I was the youngest one of the group. In Aubagne, we joined another group and the real tests started. I had an interview with a Lieutenant who asked me about my motivations and I told him why I wanted to join the military and how I admired the Marines, but also that I did not want to join the USMC anymore. He then asked me:
"Why not the USMC ? Do you have a police problem ?"
"No Sir, but I don’t like what my government is doing with its soldiers."
"You don’t want to obey your government ! That’s a weak motivation to join the Legion ! You don’t seem very mature and you might be tempted by desertion ! GO NOW."
I left his office and had very little hope left about my selection.
I was thus very surprised and pleased when my name was called on the last day of the selection process. I ran to join the others new accepted "Engagés Volontaires", the EVs. A Sergeant made us run to the barber and there I was briskly told to sit in one of the chairs. The barber was a Legionnaire who briskly pushed me in the back of the chair. He then got hold of my head as if it was a simple object, he moved it any way he wanted in order to shear me like a sheep. I realised that I did not exist any longer as individual, but only as element of the Legion, as a tool ready to fight and obey order. This filled me with glee more than I can say: I had the impression I was finally becoming a man and I felt my pennis getting harder. It was a wonderful erection, with the consequences that could be expected for the tracksuit I had been told to wear during selection. The barber noticed that. He simply smiled and said:
"Your first, boy ? You will have more opportunities in the Legion, but with girls ! The stain does not matter now since you are going change into your new battle dress, but I will give you an extra shaving for that."
He did as he had promised and when he was done, after several brutal moves and passages of the clippers, there was nothing left of my dark hair. When he told me I could leave the chair, my first move was to pass my hands on my head and I could barely find a few stubbles. I was happy, I was a man now !
We received our uniform and all our kit and were shipped to Castelnaudary to start our Instruction, our initial training. We were sent to a place called "the farm" where the basic elements of military behavior were taught to us. The place was dreadfully uncomfortable and the discipline terribly strict, but after all that’s what I was hoping to find, punishments included. After one month we had the "Képi Blanc" march and those who succeeded got their White kepi and became Legionnaire. I was selected by my chiefs to recite the Legionnaire honor code in front of the other members of my group. I was mighty proud of this honor and I felt even more man !
The rest of Instruction was easy as pie for a guy like me, since I had been during years in a military school. At the end of Instruction, I came out first of the group. The Lieutenant who had told me that I was not really matured was surprised and I was pleased. I hoped to be sent to the para regiment, 2 REP. But the Colonel decided to keep me, and the two next ones, in the instruction regiment as assistant corporals, as is usual with the first Legionnaires of the instruction group. Life was hard, but it was awesome. Obviously, I kept my haircut very short, just a little bit longer than my initial Legion haircut.
After one year of service, I became PFC and after 5 more months, I was sent to the corporal course. 2 months later I finished this stage and was again first of my group. I had no merit: I had been well trained in my military school and during the MCJROTC activities. I was very young: exactly 19 years and 7 months.
The Legion sent me then to an infantry regiment considered to be "smooth": 2 REI. Life was good for me ! These were my best years since I had started to be a cadet, ages ago.
When I was 22 years and 2 months old, I was ordered to go to the Colonel’s office for what we call in our jargon a "rapport Colonel". The Colonel told me that he considered me as a good Legionnaire and he thus suggested that I became Sergeant. I had exactly 3 years and 6 months of service. The Colonel added that in order to be promoted I should go to a "Sergeant course" and sign that I accepted to serve longer in order to have at least three years of contract left after I became a Sergeant. Since I still had more than one year on my initial 5 years contract, the Colonel told me that it would be sufficient for me to sign a two year additional contract. I had no plan for my immediate future and this meant living slightly longer this awesome life, I signed immediately and was congratulated by all my officers. It was my day to pay several crates of beer to my comrades. That did not create a problem for me: the Legion had provided me lodgings, food and clothes during more than 3 years. I had my Corporal pay and no opportunity to spend it, which meant that I now had more than enough money to entertain my friends.
One week later, I received a letter from my mother. The letter had been opened, as was usual then in the Legion and I did not mind, I was used to that "kind" censorship. In the letter, my mother asked me why I had not answered her previous letters concerning my uncle and godfather. She reminded me that my uncle wanted to retire rapidly and that he was ready to leave me his business provided I came and worked with him immediately after my contract with the Legion was finished. For my mother, that meant in one year and six months ! But I had just signed a new two years contract ! I then realized that I had never received my mother’s previous letter concerning my uncle’s retirement. I also noted that the letter I had just received was nearly one month old ! At the first opportunity, the same evening during my "free time", I called my mother on the phone from outside the barracks. I explained her the situation and she told me that if I was not back in 1 year and 6 months, my uncle would give his business to somebody else. She really urged me, for the sake of the family, to be back in time: my parents really hoped that I would have my uncle’s business, which was an excellent one, because their own business was very bad.
The next day, I had made up my mind and I asked to be allowed to cancel my second contract. It took a certain time, and many hours of questioning by my superiors, many sessions during which they tried to convince me to stay, before I was told to go to the Colonel’s office where I would here the final decision. After I entered this office and saluted in the appropriate way my Colonel, he spoke to me:
"Corporal Piletti, I thought you like the Legion ?"
"Colonel, I do like the Legion but there is an important familial reason which forces me to renounce to my second contract."
"But, you cannot ‘renounce’ that easily: a contract is a contract and you signed it, hoping to become Sergeant."
"Yes Colonel, but I do not want to become Sergeant anymore. I want to finish with Honor my present contract and then go back to my country in order to help my parents."
"It is too late now, you signed this additional contract, Piletti."
"But Colonel, my mother’s letter was purposely given to me with a great delay and others were not given to me. If I had received them on time, I would never have signed this second contract."
"Corporal Piletti, are you accusing the Legion to have mislead you ? To have cheated on you ?"
"In a way, Yes Colonel."
"Piletti, the Legion is always right. You are demoted to Private First Class and sent to the brig for 12 days. Your second contract will remain valid."
I lost my stripes without regrets since I was now angry and disliked the Legion. I served my 12 days in the brig and after that, on my first "free time" in town, I went to the Legion bank where all my money was under my assumed name, took all of it away, and left for Marseille: I had decided to desert. All together, I had served 3 years and 8 months. I had loved every moment I spent there, despite the harsh discipline, but I could not stand their cheating.
I reached easily the American consulate in Marseille. I told them that my passport had been stolen, with all my documents. They wondered if I had money and I said that I had more than enough to pay my ticket back to California. The guy in the consulate looked at me, looked at my very short haircut and said:
"I understand the situation. Do you have any US document ?"
"No, but you can take my fingerprints: they were taken when I got my driving license, and also they have my pictures and more information in the MCJROTC documents."
The guy took my fingerprints and a double picture of me, front and side, as if he wanted to book me. He told me that he would send all that to Twentynine Palms, which I had mentioned as hometown. He promised he would get a rapid answer. He then told me to go to a nearby hotel and added:
"Don’t go out, not even for a drink. Stay in your room just in case somebody you don’t want to meet might recognize you. Come back in two days."
This man had obviously realized that I was a deserter from the Legion and wanted to protect me. That night, I did not sleep well: the word ‘deserter’ kept coming in my head as if I had committed the worst crime, which, for a Legionnaire, was the case. Two days later I went back to the consulate and found there a provisional travel permit with my real identity. The guy in the consulate finally told me:
"Take the train to Italy or to Germany, the trains are not really seriously controlled. Don’t take a plane in France."
I did as he had suggested and one week later I was back home. I was 22 years and 2 months old. I started immediately to work with my uncle and life had completely changed for me. I did never tell my friends that I had deserted.