Daniel - p4: military service by thadeusz
Because of a train ticket - p4: the regiment
This story is "part 4" of a set of 5 stories. It is suggested to read them in order.
I left the Commander’s office very sad and I met Paul who was on the contrary happy. He noticed my unhappiness and asked me:
"Did you fail ?"
"No, I passed, both, but I must stay here as prisoner."
"Upon request of my father, the judge had decided that I would not be free before the end of my military service, and now I must wait till they call me. And then two more years in uniform !"
"I think my guardian can help you. He is really marvelous. He is officer in a para regiment. He will be here next Saturday. You should meet him, there should be no problem since you now have your BAC, they will let you meet him."
"Next Sunday, I must meet Brigitte."
"Well, you shall meet two persons ! My guardian is really wonderful."
"What did he do for you ?"
"He told the Judge that I am a good learner thanks to you, and he got a place for me in a military boarding school. I will have the possibility to work full time for school and to prepare for university."
"But you will have to be a soldier then ?"
"My guardian told me that it would only be for 5 years, and in his regiment."
The next Sunday, Brigitte came to visit me. I told her that I had my two diplomas and she kissed me furiously, playing with her right hand in my cobweb-broom haircut. I told her that I was not yet allowed to leave the reformatory, thanks to my father, and that I had to wait till the Army called me, which could take a certain time. She felt sorry for me and started to kiss me even more furiously. We remained together longer than usually (the Chief had given us one full hour to celebrate my success) but we were interrupted before the end of the allotted time. The Chief came and told me:
"Cadet Ferrière, you are required to go immediately to the Commander’s office where you will meet Lieutenant Vanlaere who is Cadet Roulle’s guardian."
I gave a last kiss to Brigitte, as if I wanted to show that I now dared to disobey the Chief’s orders and rushed to the Commander’s office.
There, I met for the first time Lieutenant Vanlaere. He was in para outing uniform and told me that he was Paul’s guardian, that Paul had told him about my problems with the waiting time and of my wish to complete my military obligations as soon as possible. He then said:
"There is one possibility. Enlist in the paras, and you will be a soldier in less than a month."
"Sir, I do not really wish to have a military career. Just get rid of my military obligation to be a free man again."
"In that case, write immediately a letter asking to do your military service in a para regiment, my regiment, and to start as soon as possible. I will check your file with the Commander of this institution and submit all this to my Colonel. But you must do it now, and state in your letter that you are ready to submit to all the obligations foreseen for paratroopers."
Strangely enough, Lieutenant Vanlaere had not shouted, but his words had conveyed more energy and authority than the shouting of the Chief, not to mention the policeman who had driven me to the exam center.
The Commander gave me a piece of paper and I wrote on his desk what Lieutenant Vanlaere had requested. I then saluted both officers and left the office.
Three days later, I was called again to the Commander’s office. The Commander explained that my request had been accepted by the Colonel of my future regiment and that the Judge had accepted to place me, from now on, under the authority of Lieutenant Vanlaere. I had to change into civilian clothes which had been prepared for me, have a last goodbye haircut, and wait for the para Lieutenant.
Lieutenant Vanlaere arrived about one hour later: I had now the possibility to check, my watch had been given back, but it was in poor shape. Like all the things I had had to leave in the hands of the Guards. My new Lieutenant looked at my clothes and my haircut. He said nothing, but I could guess that he did not like it either. Neither did I like my new civilian clothes. The Lieutenant told me to sit in his car and we left for the barracks of his regiment. I had not been chained, not even handcuffed and the doors of the car were not locked. I was so astonished that it was probably visible on my face and Lieutenant Vanlare asked me:
"Anything wrong, Ferrière ?"
"Well, Lieutenant, you forgot to handcuff me and you left the doors of the car unlocked."
I had not even realized that the Lieutenant had not used the word "Cadet". He then replied with three words:
"Do you mind ?"
And as usual, i shouted my answer : "NO SIR"
"In that case, stop shouting and keep silent, soldier."
It took a long time before we reached the regiment and I had several opportunities to escape, but I did not even think of trying to do it. As soon as we arrived, the Lieutenant led me towards a less decorated soldier, and told him:
"Sergeant Nairin, this is the new guy I told you about. Give him a uniform, let him have a decent haircut and find something he can fruitfully do before the rest of his group arrives here."
The Sergeant took me with him. I was soon in Army uniform, without beret (that would come, the sergeant told me, after the instruction was finished) but with a jungle hat. The sergeant also took me to the hairdresser, a CPL, who killed my cobweb-broom haircut: he made me sit in his chair, caped me and turned me away from the mirror. At least there was a mirror. He started with his big clippers on the side, telling me that he was using the clippers with a small guard. First left, then right and finally the neck. He then took smaller clippers to clean around my ears and in my neck. He even cleaned underneath my nose, in the place where ages ago I had had a moustache. In the meantime he had defined a clear horizontal line and he told me so when he reached that step. He finally attacked silently the top of my head, creating what he considered was a nice a High and Tight. A special one: nearly nothing (but still something) left on the sides and a short flat one on the top of my head. I considered also that it was better than my cobweb-broom, but I did not know how Brigitte would like it.
When that was done, Sergeant Nairin showed me a place where I would sleep and have my cupboard and he told several paras to help me making my first bed and putting my things in my own cupboard. After the Borstal, this looked like paradise.
I spent my first evening as soldier with my new comrades and I drank beer, something I had not done since I had been arrested.
The next day, Sergeant Nairin showed me how to salute and march as a soldier, how to wear neatly my uniform and how to make my bed. He also taught me the different ranks in the Army. I would have to review all these things in details once instruction had begun. He then asked:
"You have a diploma as mechanic, but do you have a driving licence ?"
"No, Sergeant," I had been drilled in the reformatory and it was easy for me to speak in a military way.
"Good. You have nearly three weeks to spend here, without pay, before the others arrive. That’s more than enough to get your Military Driving Brevet. Let’s start now."
Indeed after two weeks I was able to take the exam and I got my Brevet. I also went to the barber who asked me why I came, so I had to explain to him that in the reformatory, I had to visit the barber every other week. He laughed, looked at my hair and sent me back to the Sergeant who gave me lots of chores to keep me busy. All in all, I was happy in my regiment. I wrote to Brigitte to tell her that I now had my driving license (I was allowed to write to her or to call her on the phone, which was not the case previously). I also stopped writing my compulsory stupid letters to my parents.
Lieutenant Vanlaere asked me once more if I did not want to sign a full contract for five years, and thus have a much better pay and a real job, but I kept telling him that I only wanted to do my military service.
As soon as the other future paratroopers had arrived, life changed. We had all to go through many induction steps, which included several steps I had already done. We were then all rushed to the barber. I felt confident, since I had already been there and since I now had a military haircut like that of the confirmed paras I had been with during nearly 3 weeks. I was shoved inside first, my new comrades knew that I was already familiar with the system. The barber made me sit on his chair, caped me and turned the chair away from the mirror. He then briskly grabbed my head, placed one hand on top of it and started to use his clippers. This time he used his clippers without guard and I could feel it. He went rapidly over all the possible places on my head, pushing, pulling and turning my poor head in all possible directions. He then looked at me and said:
"You have a nice baldy now. No need to use the small clippers for the finishing touch: I did it last time. Go, now Private Ferrière."
I left the chair and looked at my image in the mirror: with the uniform, it was worse than everything I had had in the Borstal. Since I had already been in contact with the barber, I dared asked him:
"Corporal, will I have to keep this haircut during all my military service ?"
"No, Private, only during instruction. And since you like to ask questions and stay here, I give you a special chore: take the broom and stay here cleaning the floor."
I thus stayed and could see all my new comrades, feeling anxious and being taken rather briskly by the Corporal. All of them had to endure the torture of the small clippers cleaning their ears, neck and also their nose for those who had remains of a moustache. None of them dared say a word. In the end, with our baldies, we looked even more alike. I had the impression that we all came out of a machine making identical copies. Nowadays, one would say that we were identical photocopies, but photocopies were not easy to get then !
We were then all told go "on the double" to a big hall provided with tables and chairs. That was the hall where we would have "to learn ou lessons" said Sergeant Naigin, who was now less friendly since we were all like identical twins, his "baby paratroopers" as he called us. We were told to sit and wait for the Colonel. When our big boss entered, in all his glory, we all spontaneously rose and remained in the position of attention until our "father of the regiment" told us to sit. He made a short welcome speech, starting with these words:
"I congratulate you, boys, for choosing to serve in a para regiment: you chose the difficult but wonderful life of the paratrooper and you did not hesitate to choose to serve longer, at least one more year than other boys, and in foreign countries, far from your home."
I did not listen to the rest of his speech because I had not been warned that my military service would be longer and that I would have to stay far away, far from Brigitte.
As soon as the Colonel had finished his speech, I turned towards Sergeant Nairin and I told him that I had never been told about this third year of service before I asked to be a paratrooper. The Sergeant told me to speak to Lieutenant Vanlaere.
I went to the Lieutenant, saluted him respectfully, and asked him:
"Lieutenant, you had not told me that the military service in this regiment would take more time. Can I change regiment ?"
"Ferrière, you have signed for the paras now. It is too late to change your mind. In fact I thought that you knew about the 3 years of service and about the fact that you will be far from your girlfriend. I know your file. But think about it for just two seconds. Otherwise you would have had to wait about a year, or more, before being called by the Army, and then you would have had to serve during two years. Here it was immediately, because I chose to help you after hearing your friend Paul’s request. So the total time will be the same, and here you will have a wonderful regimental life. DISMISS."
I left Lieutenant Vanleare and went back to my comrades. I discussed my case fully with them and my roommates convinced me that the Lieutenant’s reasoning was correct and that I should better stay. This is how I started, with them, my Basic Training. It lasted three months. At the end of this period we all went without reservation to the barber in order to have our last baldy. After that, there was a short ceremony presided by the Colonel who gave us our red beret, but without our cap badge: we were supposed to receive this cap badge after we had proven that we deserved our paratrooper wings. I was feeling well. I was happy because I knew that each of us would have a one week leave during which I had planned to go and stay with Brigitte.
Just before I left the regiment for my leave, Sergeant Nairin told me that Lieutenant Vanlaere was waiting for me in his office. The Lieutenant explained me carefully and kindly that, because of my father’s request to the Judge, I was still considered as a minor placed under his supervision. I was thus supposed to go back to the Reformatory and spend my leave there. Nevertheless, the Lieutenant had prepared another possibility: I could renounce my leave and stay in the regiment during this week, provided I accepted to obey as usually the orders of my superiors. At least I would be well fed, I would remain in Para uniform instead of going back to my former Borstal uniform, and I would have the possibility to receive visitors when I was not on duty or doing chores. As could be expected, I decided immediately to accept the Lieutenant’s offer. I also explained the situation to my roommates who concluded that my father was "a beast" and Lieutenant Vanlaere "a wonderful officer". With these comments, I could see them leave the garrison without being too sad.
During this week, I had a lot to do: Sergeant Nairin gave me many chores "to keep you busy" and now I realize that he did well. I also had two visitors.
My friend Paul came. He was now boarder in a military school and had a very elegant uniform. He told me that he was doing well at school, that just after I left Thomas got his Middle School brevet and had been authorized to stop studying and to concentrate on his work in the carpenter workshop. Paul himself expected to get his BAC after one more year in the Military Boarding School and he wanted to study later and become a teacher, but before that he would have to serve in the Army during at least 5 years to "pay" for his studies. Lieutenant Vanlaere had convinced him to try to be admitted in the NCO school in order to have more opportunities during his stay in the Army. Paul was really radiant and did no longer look like the poor boy in rags who had stolen a bread because he was hungry.
Brigitte also made the trip, from Paris to the little town in the South where my regiment had his barracks. She stayed there for some sort of holidays and came several times to the regiment: I was allowed to receive her but not to go out with her. The first time she came, Sergeant Nairin simply asked:
"Ferrière, did you show your room to your friend ?"
"No Sergeant, and in any case there is nobody there."
"Precisely ! And there will be nobody there during the whole afternoon. Go quickly."
We went to my room and spent lots of time there, but we were not only discussing the future of France while resting on my bed ! I did not know whether she would like my new appearance, but she simply said:
"You look great, dressed as a soldier," she then passed her hands on my bald head and added "but I hope you will not have to remain bald for ever."
I reassured her, explaining that the baldy was part of the basic training and that as soon as this was finished, thus immediately after my ‘leave’ ended, I would be allowed to let my hair grow longer. Brigitte asked me:
"Please love, get back your round haircut like the one you had in the Borstal."
When my comrades came back from their leave, we were all told to go to our usual classroom. The Colonel entered the hall, followed by Lieutenant Vanlaere and other officers. The Colonel explained:
"The situation in Africa is now very bad. The Government has decided to send all the conscripts there, and not only you, the brave volunteers, the great paratroopers. In order to give the other conscript a solid training before they leave, the Government has also decided that the length of Military Service is now 3 years and no longer 2 years, but it has also decided that for conscripts serving in the paras regiments it will be 5 years instead of 3. You have the possibility to ask to be transferred to another regiment, but you will have to start your 3 years at zero. You will also lose one advantage: since you now have in this regiment 5 years of compulsory service ahead of you, you can ask to enlist immediately and you will have a 5 year contract starting today, with of course a much better pay than a conscript. Questions ?"
There were no questions: we were all stunned by this brutal extension to 5 years of service as conscripts. Lieutenant Vanlaere spoke then:
"You now have 30 minutes in this room to evaluate the situation and to discuss it among friends, there will be no officer or NCO present. You will then come in my office, one at a time, and tell me what you have decided. Questions before I leave ?"
One guy of my my group asked: "If we ask to change regiment, do we have to do Basic Training again?"
"YES ! And you will have to go through induction again."
Another asked: "Can we choose this other regiment since we had chosen the paratroopers ?"
"NO ! You will go where the Army sends you, and after waiting a certain time to be called."
We were all silent then. The Lieutenant left and we were called, one at a time, in alphabetical order.
When I was told to appear in front of the Lieutenant, I had not completely made up my mind. The Lieutenant helped me alot:
"Ferrière, you are now a good soldier and you could be a good paratrooper. I have here the results of your Basic Training, and they are excellent. I strongly advise you to stay here."
"I am not sure I want to stay in the Army during 5 years, Lieutenant."
"You can ask to be transferred, but remember that, outside of the Army, you are still a minor and a prisoner. I really would hate to lose a good soldier like you, but I cannot stop you. In any case, if you decide to leave, I will arrange things so that the Army will let you wait for at least a year if not more before you are called to another regiment, where you will have to serve during 3 more years. I will also arrange things so that your regiment will be very far from Paris. This means that the ‘extra activities’ you had here during the leave period will be impossible during at least 4 years, if not more. Is that what you want ?"
I thought about Brigitte and I made up my mind:
"Lieutenant, I would like to stay in this regiment during 5 years."
"Good, Private Ferrière. Are you going to enlist also ?"
"Lieutenant, I do not intend to stay in the Army, so why would I enlist ?"
"As conscript, you have a very bad pay and you will have no promotion. As enlisted man, you will have a much better pay, even double as soon as you get your para wings ! You could also be promoted. With all that money, you could organize a trip in order to meet your friend Brigitte during one of your leaves. BUT, you will have to serve 5 years as of now."
"This means that I will have to stay in the Army, altogether, during 5 years and 3 months, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, Private Ferrière, but probably not as a Private during all that time."
Many of my comrades chose to enlist, as I had done, but several opted for the transfer option. 21 of us remained, occupying two rooms, and forming a closed knitted group of friends.
Paratrooper training started soon and took all our time. I must admit that I liked it and that I did my best. Finally, we had our first real jump and that was a great moment. Immediately after, on the landing field, the Colonel gave to each of us his final red beret with the para badge on it. I was mighty proud !
Then came 5 more training jump.
After that, there would be a final test jump, a night jump with all our equipment and our rifle. We all knew that there would be a graduation parade on the next morning and that at the end of this parade each of us would receive his para wings and the regimental fourragère, the colored cordon we had to wear on our dress uniform shoulder pad, to show to which regiment we proudly belonged. So just before the night jump, we all spend time getting ready for the great day. This meant cleaning and ironing our dress uniform and going to the barber.
I had carefully avoided to have any haircut since my last complete shaving. I wanted to have as soon as possible a haircut Brigitte would like: getting back my cobweb-broom haircut in order to let Brigitte run her fingers through my hair. The barber made me sit on the chair and caped me. I placed my hands on the arms of the chair, remembering the first time I had had my hair cut in the Borstal, when the Chief had decided that I should be strapped. I also deliciously remembered that I fought against that punishment by evoking silently my girl. That’s exactly what I was ready to do again, despite the fact that I was not strapped. The barber interrupted my thoughts and asked me:
"How do you want it ? Shorn to the woods as usually ?"
"NO, Corporal, I would like you to make a real round head, a sort of cobweb-broom."
"Why do you want that ?"
"Because my girlfriend likes it that way, she loves to caress my hair, all over my head."
"Well, such a haircut would be against regulations and it would be uncomfortable with your helmet. But in any case, I know what you need, let me do as I feel."
The barber turned my chair away from the mirror and put his big clippers on. He started using them and I could feel that he was using no guard. He started to shave everything below a very straight line, high above the ears. I could not see him, but I could feel the metal. He pushed my head as usually in all possible directions in order to achieve this part of the haircut. He then took smaller clippers to finalize the neat line he had created, to clean completely all the corners of my neck and the folds around my ears. He then went back to his big clippers, I could hear the difference in noise, and he started to shave and equalize my hair above the line he had created. I could feel that he had put a guard and I did not ask him any question, simply thinking of Brigitte and of the joy she would have caressing the top of my head.
When the barber was done, he turned the chair and told me to look in the mirror. I now had a nice high and tight, sides were white walled up to a straight line above the ears, but above that the barber had left me with hair of equal length, probably using a #3 guard. There was no fade between the top and the sides and it gave me a very military look, but after all that’s what I was now. I thanked the barber and I left the chair. The top was small and the barber made me notice that it would be completely hidden under my beret, which would give a uniform appearance to my head, although it was not completely shaven. This gave me a very neat appearance.
We all did well on the night jump test and were very high during the rest of the night: we were paratroopers now ! The next morning, we assembled on the parade square in a well organized way with our weapon, as soldiers must do, to receive our para wings. The Colonel came in front of us and called my name:
"Private Ferrière, three steps forwards."
I did not know what was happening but, obediently, I moved still looking straight ahead and my rifle in the correct position on my chest. The Colonel continued:
"You behaved well during Basic Training, and even better during Para Training. Your Sergeant and your Lieutenant consider that you were the best learner of your group, always willing to do more. For all these reasons, I promote you now to Para 1st Class."
He gave me the symbols of my promotion and told me to go back to my place, which I did walking backwards three steps. He then addressed himself to the whole group:
"You behave all very well and it is only because of our tradition that we had to pick one 1st Class among you. Follow his example and you will soon be promoted too. Congratulations Paras. You now have a 10 days leave. DISMISS."
My comrades turned towards the crowd that had gathered there. Most of them had friends or relatives greeting them. I felt abandoned. Suddenly I discovered that Brigitte was there, waiting for me to kiss her. Lieutenant Vanlaere passed by and simply said:
"Congratulations, Para 1st Class. You really deserved this promotion. I assume that you are staying in the regiment during your leave and that you are not going back to the Reformatory ?"
"Yes, Lieutenant, especially if things can be organized as they were for the previous leave."
"For a 1st Class, much can be done, Ferrière."
Then the Lieutenant seemed to go away, but he came back and said:
Automatically I replied: "At your command, Lieutenant."
"You know that you are still a minor and cannot leave the barracks during your leave ?"
"Yes, Lieutenant, and Sergeant Nairin promised lots of chores especially for me."
"Well, there can be no chores for a freshly promoted Para 1st Class, so you will have to keep busy all by yourself. UNDERSTOOD ?"
"Yes, Lieutenant" was my answer, but in fact I had not understood what he meant.
"Ferrière, you are not allowed to leave the compound and you know that. But, since we all leave soon for Africa, there will be nearly no NCOs or Officers in the neighbourhood. So nobody would notice you if by any chance you went out, provided you were in for the morning and evening roll call, and if you slept inside the barracks. But you know you are not allowed to do that. UNDERSTOOD, Para 1st Class ?"
"Yes, Lieutenant, I would never do something that bad," in fact I did not understand what the Lieutenant had in mind. Luckily, Brigitte was there and told me:
"Come with me, love, and I will explain you what you don’t understand."
She took me by the hand and … we left the barracks for her hotel where …
This way, I spent a wonderful leave: alone in my barracks room at night and with Brigitte, in the city, at day time. I even encountered Lieutenant Vanlaere while I was outside the barracks. We were both in uniform and I saluted him. He simply asked:
"Having a good leave, Ferrière ?"
"At your command, Lieutenant," was my answer.