Green clothes : part 2 by thadeusz
Section 3. The transformation
My head was now completely shaved. I was stunned. I was in a state of shock. As a result I became now completely submissive and obedient. In fact I hated what had happened to me, but I soon realized that I should have tried to escape earlier when I still had my own clothes. Even that might not have been enough: in those days fathers had nearly an absolute power on their young children, and this was precisely what we were trying to change with our protest marches. But for me, it was apparently too late.
The Corporal took me through a long corridor and we reached a big room full of clothes. A Master Corporal was working there. He had already received a copy of my file and had prepared name tags for "J. Vandoren". That’s also the place where I discovered my Matricule number : 141 729, "my" Corporal told me that I was supposed, as of now, to introduce me using that number and that name. The Master Corporal, a quartermaster, was in charge of issuing uniforms to the newly arrived Legionnaires. He gave me my new uniform. My usual Corporal told me to undress completely, put my underwear (the last pieces of clothing I had) in the big bag containing my clothes and personal belongings. This bag was then sealed and my new name and Matricule number were written on it.
After that, I had to get dressed with the Legion underwear, pants and t-shirt plus vest. I also had to put on the Legion green socks. I then received black uncomfortable rangers and was told that from now on, I had to wear them unless instructed by a Chief to do otherwise. In these days Legionnaires wore gaiters and "my" Corporal showed me how to put my gaiters on in order to have the bottom of my trousers solidly fixed to the rangers. All that was painful and uncomfortable.
Finally, "my" Corporal pushed brutally on my shaved head a green beret with a Legion badge showing my regiment number, 4 RE, the training regiment which was in Corte, in Corsica. He then told me how to wear it and added:
"Vandoren, you will never wear this beret inside, except if you are instructed to do so or are on guard duty. Outside you must always wear it. This means that if you go from inside to outside or from outside to inside, you must rapidly change the place of your beret. In any case, when you are inside, you must place your beret in your left leg-pocket in order to be able to take it out rapidly if you have to salute a chief".
I now had on my vest my new nametag, with my new name: "Vandoren". I also got a big green bag with my legal Legion belonging, including soap, a towel and the necessary shaving kit (I mean an old type razor and nothing mechanical with it). My Corporal finally told me to follow him, adding:
"In step now that you are really dressed like a Legionnaire should be".
I was in despair but I did not know what I could do except obeying this order. So I tried to follow the Corporal and to march in step.
The Corporal led me through many more corridors until we reached a staircase. There he told me to follow him upstairs, and then through another passage and finally to the second floor. There he made me enter a room full of beds and stopped in front of one of them:
"That will be your bed. There is a cupboard next to it, you will have to put all your things in it according to my instructions."
He gave me my bedding and showed me how to make my bed "the Legion way" and told me how to put my things in this cupboard. It was only a small cupboard, but it took me a lot of time because all my stuff had to be placed in a very specific way. There were very strict rules and it was unthinkable to place a t-shirt two millimeters away of the place foreseen for it ! When all that was done, the Corporal told me:
"Vandoren, this was a hot day. Get undressed and take your first Legion shower."
I did as he had ordered me to do. I discovered that this first Legion shower was also my first cold shower without soap.
When I was done, and that was fast as requested (and as expected since it was a very cold shower), I got out of the shower, took my towel to get dry, placed my towel back where it belonged, not a millimeter left or right. Finally, I put on once again my uniform, mechanically, without thinking. I was now completely depressed. The Corporal lead me then, without problem, as if I really wanted to become a Legionnaire, to a big courtyard where many new Legionnaires, about 50, dressed like me, were waiting. They were doing all kind of things and exercises in order to kill time. The Corporal left me alone and I went in a corner of the courtyard where I started to cry.
A young guy dressed exactly like me approached my corner. He had the same shorn head. On his nametag, I could read "C. Verdi". This young guy was alone and addressed me as follows:
"You are new here !"
"Yes, how do you know that ?"
"You are outside and you left your beret in your pocket. Put it quickly on your head, otherwise you will be punished on your first day !"
I did as he told me. This young guy showed me the proper way to wear a Legion beret, and to adjust its rim using the leather ribbon fixed in it. This was especially important on a completely shaved head and he explained much better than "my" Corporal. The young guy continued:
"What’s your first name, mine is Carlo."
"My name is Jacques Valmont and I am only 16."
"That cannot be, on your name tag it is written ‘Vandoren’ and there are no Legionnaires aged 16 only."
"Well, my real name is Jacques Valmont and my father put me here this morning saying it would be a boarder school."
"Don’t ever use your real name again, except if the chiefs tell you to do so. Did you start selection only this morning ?"
"Yes, I think it was dreadfully fast."
"You should say that it was abnormally fast ! I spent several days waiting and doing tests before I heard I was accepted and got my uniform."
"In my case it was very fast. I think that my father, who is a retired Adjudant Chef, had arranged everything in advance." And I started to tell this guy my complete story, including the fact that I was convinced that my father had placed me in a military school until the MD said otherwise.
Carlo interfered at the end :
"Never tell this story again here, nobody would believe you. A Legionnaire aged 16 only is impossible. The other guys might think you want to dodge, to find a way to get away before the fun has really started. Moreover they might really believe that you are only 16 and then you would be in trouble."
"Why in trouble."
"Some of these guys are locked in here since days, or weeks. I am waiting here since 3 weeks to go to instruction in Corsica. So these guys have not seen a girl during all that time, and in that case a boy aged 16 is fresh meat. Thus keep quiet and stop sobbing."
"OK. Now you know why I am locked here with you. Why are you here ?"
"Never ask that question to a Legionnaire : it is his secret. But since you told me your story, I will summarize mine. I always wanted to join the Army, and I am French. But I had a small problem with the law and I paid dearly for it. Now I cannot join the military except the Legion. That’s why I am here."
"You are French and not Italian ?"
"Another question you should not ask. But yes, I am French. My grandfather was Italian, so my name sounds Italian and I speak Italian. The Legion gave me this ridiculous name: Carlo Verdi and they made me Italian in their papers. What nationality did they choose for you ?"
I looked for the paper I had in one of my pockets and said "They made me Belgian"
"Do you know your Matricule number"
"Not yet. Is it important ?"
"You must know it perfectly and be able, when you salute a chief, to say in one sound : ‘Legionnaire Vandoren Matricule blablabla. At your command and the rank of the chief’ Got that ?".
"Yes Carlo, thanks."
We were thus, whether I liked it or not, two new Legionnaires and we stayed together. We exchanged several ideas about our future, with Carlo explaining me what I had to expect.
At 17h00, all the Legionnaires were called for roll call
I nearly forgot to answer "Present" when "Vandoren" was called, but Carlo gave me a push and everything was OK.
After that we were called for dinner (mess 3). Carlo told me seriously and much better than the Corporal how to march in step and in file, how and when to take off my beret, how to stand in front of my seat at the table waiting for the order to be seated and finally how to behave and sing during the meal.
During the evening some Legionnaires, who had money, succeeded to get a beer or cigarettes, but I had nothing in my pockets. So Carlo lent me a few franks
At 20h00 we were all told to go to our respective room, I mean all the 50 new guys. We had to get ready for the night and for the next morning. At 21h30 it was light out and compulsory silence. When the lights were turned out, I was in my bed weeping again and cursing simoultaneously my fate and my nasty father. I was also thinking of the wonderful night I had spent with Linda and wondered when and where I could have another one. Carlo, who had succeeded to get next to me, whispered in my ear:
"Don’t cry, you can’t change it and you must get ready for the next five years. Try to be mentally ready and strong."
The next day, a bugle woke me up very early. I now know that it was 04h30 but then I had no watch to know how dreadfully early it was. I woke up, saw that I was in a room of 20 and suddenly remembered that I was no longer a student but a Legionnaire. I passed a hand on my head and that reminded me that I had lost all my hair. So, I started to cry once more. Carlo, the volunteer, who was in the next bed told me:
"Peter, don’t cry, you know that it serves no purpose. It will only provoke the rage of the Corporals and you will be punished."
I realized that he was right and I decided to try to make the best of it, and by it I meant my life ! So I stood up, got washed, put on my blue pants and t-shirt like Carlo. After that, I followed all the other new Legionnaires as we went for a long sport session in the courtyard. After this sport session, we were told to go back to our room. There we cleaned everything and put on our green uniform (and I still hate that colour). It was then time for the morning roll call followed by the breakfast, called there mess 1. The roll call and mess routine were identical to those I had lived the previous evening.
After mess 1, all Legionnaires went to the courtyard and waited there. This gave me the opportunity to have a better look at the place where I was now locked in: it was an old fort. It reminded me of something I had read about an old fort in Marseille used as recruiting center and I assumed that I was waiting there. I did not dare tell anybody that my father had dragged me into a building I completely ignored.
After a certain time, A Master Corporal gave us today’s orders. We all had to accomplish several chores. Since there was not enough to do inside the fort, the Master Corporal selected some of us he apparently trusted and sent them to an outside location for more work. I had to stay in the fort while Carlo, and some others, managed to avoid all chores. Carlo told me later that those who were in the fort since a certain time and who had shown their willingness to accomplish chores from the beginning were now exempted.
Around noon, the bugle called again the Legionnaires to form in ranks and stand in the position of attention. It was time for a second roll call and then mess 2. After that, the new Legionnaires were abandoned to themselves in the courtyard of the fort. From time to time, a new guy, dressed as a new Legionnaire, joined us and many others ran to him trying to know in which language he would speak. Nobody ever asked him "Why did you come here ?" or "What is your real name ?". Carlo gave me a cigarette "to kill the time". I smoke: it was my first cigarette. In fact the Legion kept us provided with alcohol, cigarettes and later with opportunities to f*ck.
During the afternoon, a Corporal gave us a ball and tried to organize a football game. Then came the roll call and mess 3.
After mess 3, Carlo told me:
"I hope they will really transfer us rapidly, if they don’t I will try to desert."
"How ?" was my hopeful question.
"You just climb on top of the high walls and jump on the rocks downwards. A nice way to commit suicide in uniform".
We both laughed.
The next day was identical to my first complete day in the Legion. I wanted to write a letter to Linda, but the letter was snatched by a Corporal who told me that I had to remain "out of contact" until the end of instruction. In order to help me understand this essential principle, he lead me to the brig where I was locked for the night in one of the old cells of the fort.
Finally, on my third day in the Legion, we, the new Legionnaires, were told to take all our belongings and to board trucks. Each of us received a field ration to place in his bag. As soon as a truck was full, the truck was completely closed and left the fort. Two Corporals remained in the back of the truck to make sure that none of us tried to leave.
When the trucks reached the harbor, we were told to leave the trucks and get on a big ship, in a specially marked zone where we were more or less parked on the deck, without alcohol on that moment. The field ration was our only food. The Corporals guarded us to make sure that none of us tried to desert by springing in the water and when we were all on board, the ship left the harbour. Carlo told me that we were going to Corsica where instruction would take place. He regretted that instruction did no longer take place in Algeria "as before", but Algeria was independent now and did no longer accept the Legion on its soil. After slightly more than a day, the ship reached Corsica where we all had to leave the ship, form in a column and start walking towards other trucks which led us to the camp foreseen for our basic training, called there "instruction".
Upon arrival in this camp, placed in an old Corsican fort, we were told to appear in front of a Sergeant and to introduce ourselves to this important person. This had to be done according to Legion regulations. With the help of Carlo I had learned now how to do it properly. At that precise moment I still had my bag on my back. I saluted militarily the Sergeant and said:
"Legionnaire Vandoren Peter, Matricule 141 729. At your command Sergeant"
"You are not yet a full Legionnaire, only a candidate. Give me 50."
I knew what that meant : my father had told me that many times when he was angry, which happened often. So I plunged on the ground, leaving my bag on the side, and gave 50 perfect pushups, keeping my body perfectly flat. The Sergeant did not like that, so he added:
"When I say ‘give me 50’, you do it immediately, as you are and you don’t take time to put your bag on the side. Start again, Vandoren."
I did not hesitate, picked up my bag, put it on my back, plunged once again on the ground and gave again 50 perfect pushups.
The Sergeant liked that and smiled. He spoke as thus:
"Good. You have already learned to do push ups. Do you like your new life, Candidate Vandoren ?"
I wanted to say no, but I knew that ‘NO’ was not the expected answer. I felt I would be punished for it, so I lied and shouted:
"You are Belgian, are you French speaking ? Do you speak well French ?"
"I am only French speaking, Sergeant" was my reply: I did not understand the purpose of the question.
"Good, Candidate Vandoren. The next one on my list is Candidate Carlo Verdi. He is Italian, so I don’t think that he speaks French. Vandoren, you are going to stay with him and teach him French, if needed. UNDERSTOOD ?" The last word had been barked by the Sergeant.
"At your command, Sergeant." In fact I was glad to hear that I would stay with Carlo.
"Good Vandoren," concluded the Sergeant, "you learn fast. You and Verdi will be in the same section and even in the same room. And that will be MY SECTION. DISMISS."
I saluted as I had seen my father do on certain ceremonies and left to rejoin Carlo. I suddenly realized that I was now used to my uniform, even if I still hated its color and the fact that it had made me a Legionnaire, or a Candidate Legionnaire according to the Sergeant.
Later, the Sergeant asked briskly to all those who had curly hair to step forwards. All the heads were shaven but six new Legionnaires and me stepped forwards. The Sergeant told us that curly hair were a nuisance for a soldier, especially for a Legionnaire. We were thus ordered to have a complete hair shave once a week, for the others it was only once a month.