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Daniel - part 5: back to the regiment by thadeusz
Because of a train ticket - p5 : the regiment for ever
This story is "part 5" of a set of 5 stories. It is suggested to read them in order.
After this leave, we left for Africa. We were stationed in a big and relatively comfortable camp, in the middle of the desert. Every four months, we had a 2 weeks leave and my comrades went back to France, trip paid by the Army. As usually, I was not allowed to leave the camp. In fact, I was allowed to go and walk wherever I wanted inside the village next to our camp: that was considered as ‘safe’. Going further alone was dangerous and, still being considered as a minor, I was not allowed to go back to France because of the damned judgement my father had obtained against me.
After two years of service, I was told to go to the Captain’s tent. It was no longer Lieutenant Vanlaere, who had been promoted to Captain and transferred to another para regiment, but my new Captain, Captain Dejong, who knew all about me. In his tent he told me:
"Ferrière, I have good news for you. But first tell me how you like your life as paratrooper."
"I like it very much, Captain."
"Good. Then I can tell you that you behaved very well on the battlefield and received a decoration for that. It will be given to you to morrow, in front of all the other paratroopers of the Camp."
I started feeling red in the face for that.
"You have also been promoted to Corporal and will receive your stripes with your medal."
I did not know how to behave or what to say, so I remained silent.
"I have another good news: did you realize that you are 22 now ? The Colonel considers that you have fulfilled your military obligation as conscript and he has decided to treat you now as a completely free and adult paratrooper ! Go and have a last drink as Para 1st Class with your comrades, tomorrow you will start commanding them. Next time you have a leave, you will be sent to France with the others."
Receiving my medal and my corporal stripes was a great moment. It was a ceremony similar to that I had lived when we were recognized as paratroopers. I am not going to describe it here. I am simply going to say that, since I knew what would happen, I wanted to have a perfect haircut. We had no barber in the Camp and I asked one of my comrades to help me. He decided that the easiest for him would be to shave my head completely, using a #1 guard everywhere. It was not as great as the haircut I had received for my promotion to 1st Class, but it was a very neat haircut in the middle of the desert. The next day, as Corporal, I offered to all my comrades lots of beers and I started to fulfill my new duties.
A little bit later I met ‘little Paul’ in Africa. He was no longer "little" and he had obtained his BAC. He was now serving his five year military obligation, having been a boarder in a military school. But Paul was serving as Sergeant and tried to convince me to do the Sergeant course and then stay in the Army. He did not plan to stay, he wanted to study and become a teacher. But he was convinced that the best for me was the Army. I saluted him since he was now my superior and refused his offer. I did not want to remain in the military. I simply accepted his offer to pay me a drink with his higher pay.
Paul also told me that Thomas had finally obtained his brevet and then tried again to escape. He had immediately been sent to a disciplinary regiment for a five years stay in the desert, without any leave and with reduced pay. Later, I heard that after his five years in disciplinary he joined the Legion where he made a full career ending as Sergeant.
After slightly more than three years in Africa, interrupted by several short leaves in France, I was told to go back to the regiment in France. I had now 3 years and 6 months of service, and only 1 year and 9 months left of my "special ex-Conscript" contract. I was told to stay in France and take part to the Basic Training of new recruits. I had to work with Sergeant Nairin, now Master Sergeant Nairin and another Sergeant. Apparently I did well with my first batch of raw recruits. I was told to go to the Colonel’s office: it was now Colonel Vanlaere. The Colonel congratulated me for the work done and told me:
"You are good, you have a BAC, you could easily become Sergeant. Simply sign this form."
"Colonel, what would I get from that, with all due respect for the sergeants ?"
"You would have a good job for the five coming years, and more if you keep doing well."
"But, Colonel, that means that I would have to stay in the Army !"
"Of course Ferrière, what would you do else without diploma or specialisation ?"
"But Colonel, I have my diploma as mechanic."
"Without any real experience, and with many other young men who try to get a job with the same diploma ? Listen to me, CPL Ferrière, stay in the Army and become Sergeant."
"With all due respect, Colonel, I would prefer to go civil."
"Corporal, you will have more opportunities to change your mind. DISMISS."
That was the end of this interview. When I mentioned it to Brigitte, she told me that if I chose to stay and become Sergeant, at least I would have a job and we could get married, but she said no more.
When my contract, and that of my comrades, came to an end, each of us had a last interview with the Colonel. Several, but not many chose to reenlist. I was the only one to be offered the possibility to reenlist and become a Sergeant. I refused, respectuously, and the Colonel simply said:
"Good luck on civies street. If you feel to reenlist later, the door will be wide open for you because you are really a good soldier."
I left the regiment where I had after all been happy during these 5 years and 3 months. I had my Corporal stripes as souvenir and several medals for good behavior and bravery. I intended to start a new life as mechanic with Brigitte on my side. I felt rich: as paratrooper I had had a double pay, and being in Africa the pay was doubled again.
We first spent two weeks holidays in Brittany. We went then back to Paris where Brigitte had a good job and where I started desperately to find one. I soon realized that the Colonel was right. My BAC, which seemed so important 5 years ago, was not enough to find a job in an office: at that moment there were many young men with a simple BAC trying to find a job. My diploma as mechanic was "too old" for the modern cars and not sufficient. Moreover, all the good jobs had been taken by ex-Conscripts two years ago and the year before. After 6 months all my savings were gone and I did not want to depend completely on Brigitte’s job. So, I reached the only possible solution: I asked to be readmitted in my former regiment, hoping now to become rapidly a Sergeant and to make there a full career.
I had to go to the local recruitment office where, after a security check, I was invited to sign a new 5 year contract starting on the day where they told me to rejoin my regiment. I was treated by them as a new candidate paratrooper. As a result I arrived in my regiment, with my new contract, 7 months and 3 days after I had left it. I was there with a bunch of totally new guys sent by the recruitment office. Master Sergeant Nairin greeted all of us and told the other guys to go and get a uniform, and then continue the induction process. He led me, still in civvies, to the Colonel who was no longer Colonel Vanlaere and who did not seem to know my case as well as his predecessor. Master Sergeant Nairin told him:
"I brought you immediately this former Corporal of our regiment who has chosen to reenlist"
The Colonel replied:
"Congratulations young man, but why do you bring him here, Master Sergeant ?"
"Because your predecessor had promised him that if he came back, he would have the possibility to become Sergeant rapidly. This man, Corporal Ferrière, was an excellent paratrooper and has many medals."
"Ferrière," asked the Colonel, "how long ago have you been out of the regiment ?"
"7 months and 3 days, Colonel"
"In that case, you will start again as a Private and go through the normal induction process. Your past does no longer exist. You are no longer Corporal and I forbid you to wear your medals. DISMISS."
"But Colonel …"
"Stop, Private. Do you want to be punished on your first day in the regiment ?"
Although in civvies, I saluted, made a perfect about turn and left … for the clothing room.
After the clothing room, when I was again in uniform, I followed the other recruits to the barber who asked me:
"So you are back ?"
"Yes, Corporal ?"
"As Sergeant now ?"
"No Corporal, as Recruit. Please treat me as such, like all my new comrades."
"That’s because you did not accept to reenlist, boy. Too bad for you and I’ll do my job with this recruit !"
The barber got hold of my head and shaved it completely, to the woods, as if I had never been in the regiment. He disapproved of my behavior when I first chose to leave the regiment. He took his revenge: this new induction haircut was done brutally, the barber pushed, pull and turned my head as usually, but he did it each time very briskly and the whole thing was painful. I tried to concentrate on Brigitte, but was so perturbed by the Colonel’s decision and the barber brutality that could not even have her image in mind.
Three months later, Basic Training was finished and I got a one week leave, after going once again through the haircut imposed by the barber. I was thus ready to rejoin Brigitte with a baldy and, like all my comrades, I had been warned that as soon as we came back to the regiment, we would have another haircut to start "clean" the second part of our training, the actual Paratrooper Jump training.
I was unhappy about this turn of events, but that’s finally the life I had chosen, in agreement with Brigitte. Anyway, during my leave we decided that we should not wait any longer and that we should get married during my next leave.
When I came back to the regiment, ready to be shorn completely and have a baldy during three more months, I asked to be allowed to see the Colonel. I wanted to ask him, as required by the rules, his permission to get married during my next leave. I could not speak, the Colonel interrupted me:
"Private Ferrière, you are a good soldier. You accepted the disciplinary restrictions I imposed upon you. As of now, you are a Paratrooper: there is no reason to make you learn again what you already mastered. Moreover, you are again Para 1st Class and as such you don’t have to go to the barber now. That’s what you wanted to know ?"
"Not exactly Colonel, although I am pleased to hear what you just said. Permission to formulate a request ?"
"Permission granted, Para 1st Class Ferrière."
"Colonel, this Private, sorry this Paratrooper 1st Class asks respectfully the permission to get married during his next leave."
"With whom, Ferrière ?"
"With Miss Brigitte Lemaire, Colonel, my girlfriend since more than 7 years."
"I will make a security check on her and give you my answer then.
By the way, next time you come, don’t forget to put all your medals on your chest. DISMISS."
I was partly pleased when I left, being again Paratrooper 1st Class, but I could not stop thinking that my former Colonel would have known in advance who was my best beloved and also that he would not have told me that the regulations required a security check on my future wife. But this was a time when the communist danger was seen everywhere.
Two weeks later, the Colonel gave his agreement for our marriage. This was rather fast and I did not know why. I asked Paul, who was still Sergeant in the Army, to be my witness, my best man. Brigitte told me she had her own witness. When the great day arrived, I realized that her witness was none the less than Colonel Vanlaere. I was still Para 1st Class only and we organized a military marriage, in uniform ! It was a wonderful moment. I had 8 days to be with my wife during my leave ! During these days we really started life as a married couple.
After one year in my second contract, without asking for it, I was promoted to Corporal. Brigitte was expecting a baby and that was more important for me. The promotion ceremony was again very impressive, but not as much as the first time ! This time, Brigitte was present !
After three years in my new contract, the Colonel sent me to the Sergeant course and I was finally promoted to Sergeant. Our life was great: Brigitte had found a good secretarial job near my base and she had moved with our baby girl, young Pauline. We tried to give her a brother or sister but were not successful.
I did not hesitate to sign a new contract. The Colonel suggested that I should go to officer school, but that meant study hard for the entrance exam and then study during two years in an officer school. I did not feel like doing it and asked the Colonel to be allowed to stay Sergeant.
Shortly after this promotion, Brigitte told me that we would have another another baby. This time it was a boy and we named him Martin. We asked Colonel Vanlaere to be his godfather and he accepted.
After a few months thinking, we decided that my pay would be sufficient and Brigitte stopped working to take care of the children. This was possible because I had a double pay as Paratrooper and because we lived in a small apartment belonging to the Army, rent was thus very low and Brigitte did most of her shopping in the Army supermarket !
Pauline was an adorable little girl, looking like her mother and studying well at school. Martin looked more like me, which was not bad, but also behaved like me and studied very badly at school. We discussed that with Paul, who was now a teacher, and he suggested that we should place Martin as boarder in the Military School where Colonel Vanlaere had sent him.
So, at the end of his 5th grade we prepared Martin for this big change and he started his 6th grade as boarder and in military uniform. In the beginning, he was very happy when he changed his clothes and said:
"I am now dressed like Daddy."
But he was then sent to the barber who kindly but firmly shaved his long blond hair, leaving enough to be proud of, but still the new haircut respected military regulations. Martin did not like that too much, but he smiled again when he received his beret, blue and not red like mine. Then came the difficult moment: we had to leave the school and leave him alone. We had told him that he was going to a boarding school and what that meant, but I think that he had not completely realized that. Now, we were leaving the main courtyard and he was blocked inside by a guard, also in uniform. Martin did not cry, but obviously he did not like it. A Captain, attached to the school told us that this was a normal reaction and he consoled Brigitte who was openly crying. I was also sad, but I did not show it.
The problem was that Martin did not accept the school strict discipline and did not work well at school. We got reports mentioning that he was obviously very intelligent but also very disobedient and had to be "molded into the Army model". Martin was punished several time, according to Army rules. This included being locked for a few days in an Army like cell, but worse of all, having his head completely shorn. This happened twice and Martin was not allowed to go home for the Christmas holidays. He had to do chores and to study more during this usually peaceful period.
Martin was not stupid, and when forced to do so, he learned well. He simply refused to do so usually. The Colonel commanding this school took then the most extreme punishment: our boy was no longer allowed to leave the school compound for a period of two years. During the summer holidays he had to stay in a military camp with other "bad boys" and do military exercises combined with study periods.
We received progress reports showing that Martin made real progresses. Brigitte visited him every 6 weeks, I went when I could. Colonel Vanlaere did his share, as godfather. Finally Martin was on good tracks, as well for his schoolwork as for his military attitude. When Martin got his BAC, Brigitte, Pauline and me attended the ceremony organized at his school. The ceremony was presided by Colonel Vanlaere. We met him during the reception that followed the official ceremony and he told me:
"Your son, my godson, is brilliant. He will be a good soldier. Maybe too brilliant and too good a soldier. He has asked to stay in the school and prepare the entrance exam at the officer school. I think you should apply to the officer school for NCOs. You will easily be admitted."
"Colonel, I am now Master sergeant," (I had been promoted recently), "and I don’t want to study more."
"Ferrières, listen to me, one day your son will be your superior and he will make you feel it."
"Colonel, my son is too nice to do anything like that to his father."
When Martin was promoted 2nd LT, we all went to the promotion ceremony. I was very proud of my son. I then discovered that he had chosen to be assigned to my own regiment. After a short leave Martin was back in our town but refused to live in our home: he wanted to live in the officer's quarters. The first day he spent in the regiment, he came to me and I wanted to greet him as a father. He stopped me and said:
"Master Sergeant, this is an unacceptable behavior. First salute me and I will then tell you what I require from you."
Sadly I saluted my son, now my superior and said: "At your command, Sir". I had been drilled to obey orders and I knew Martin was now a person I had to obey without reservations.
Martin gave me then some demeaning orders, like supervising if young soldiers accomplished correctly the chores he had assigned to them.
Martin was always respectful of those who were higher up, but he was frequently brutal with those placed under his authority. He never had a good word for the Privates or the Para 1st Class. He also considered me, the senior NCO of the regiment, and all the other NCOs as second class soldiers, just good to be treated like dogs. The Colonel saw all this and did not react.
One day, Martin had been especially brutal with a young and new Private, I told him that he was overdoing it. I added that his behavior was not the behavior I expected from my son, an officer. He reacted immediately:
"Master Sergeant, you forget yourself. First salute me as you should salute to show your respect to a superior. I will then tell you what your punishment will be for speaking like that to an officer."
I saluted, sadly, my superior and I heard him say:
"Eight days in the cell to learn you the proper behavior with an officer, and during these days you will do all the required chores, like any Private. You are not better."
"Lieutenant, may I appeal to the Colonel ?" was my immediate reaction, my only possible move.
"NO, and you will have your head properly shaved, completely, now ! I will write a negative report on you asking for your reduction in rank. DISMISS, punished soldier."
I went to the barber and asked him to shave me completely, which he did very kindly because I had told him why. I also asked him to warn Brigitte and I went to the cell building, punishment which does not exist anymore. As soon as I came out of the cell, after 8 humiliating days working as a Private in front of my young son, I asked for an interview with the Colonel. My plan was ready.
As soon as I was told to enter the Colonel’s office, I asked him:
"Colonel, permission to make a request and to speak frankly ?"
"Yes, Master Sergeant, but I must tell you that I am not responsible for the sad event that happened with your son. He is after all your superior. He asked that you be reduced to Private, but I blocked his report."
"Precisely Colonel. Until now, all my superiors have treated me decently, sometimes with severity but always honestly. In this case, one of my superior will probably try to bother me as much as possible. During my stay in the cell, I thought about this situation. I guess that my son wants a revenge for the years we forced him to spend in a military school. The school where he learned to become an officer. There is no way to make him change his mind, therefore I respectfully ask your permission to retire immediately."
"Ferrière, you are my best NCO, more than that: without you, I would not be able to run this regiment. You cannot do that. How many years of service do you have ?"
"28, Colonel and I had hoped to go up to 40, which is the limit for my rank. But I think that the present situation would be bad for the service: I cannot give orders to young men who have seen me in the cell or doing chores. Especially with a shaved head."
"Ferrière, I don’t want to lose you. I don’t know what I can do to convince you. Except maybe one thing which is in my immediate power."
The Colonel started to scribble several things on several pieces of paper, all of them were in fact official forms and I recognized my name among the words he wrote. He gave me then these papers and said:
"Well, as of now you are Adjutant Ferrière and you are also on the short list for Chief Adjutant."
"Colonel, I thank you very much for this honor which I accept" (It was good for my pension) "But I don’t want to stay in the same regiment as my son. The least I could accept instead of retiring would be to be transferred to another para regiment."
"Now you say that I treated you well, Ferrière, so please let me try a last thing. As Adjutant, I give you for your promotion a 2 weeks leave. We will discuss the situation when you come back."
"I will not come back, Colonel"
"That would amount to a desertion, Ferrière !"
I knew that I could not avoid to come back, but for the time being I left his office, and then the regiment.
Slightly less than two weeks later, I received home a letter from Paris giving me the order to come immediately to the Ministry "for urgent matters concerning my regiment". I had come to really love my regiment and discipline and obedience were now ingrained in me. I took a small bag with my dress uniform and went to Paris, as ordered. I put on my best dress uniform, with my new stripes of Adjutant, and went to the Ministry.
In the Ministry, a young Sub-Lieutenant took my letter and told me:
"The General Chief of Staff will receive you in a few minutes, Adjutant Ferrière. He was really hoping that you would accept his invitation. Please sit here."
An invitation ? I never considered that "order" as an invitation ! I did not know the General Chief of Staff, so I sat ready to keep saying that I wanted to retire if that popped up in the conversation.
When I was told to enter the General’s office, I was stunned when I discovered who the General was: it was Colonel Vanlaere, now General. He told me to sit, which was new for me in front of a superior. He then told me that he new all "the facts of the case" and added:
"Ferrière, I told you several years ago that your son might try to humiliate you. I also suggested several times that you become officer. You always refused because you did not want to study more, and I can accept that. Nevertheless I need your help for my former regiment, your regiment since many years. Ready to help me ?"
"At your command, General," these words came before I had time to think about them: I was so used to obey orders now !
"First of all, you must know that as soon as the events started in the regiment, the Colonel sent me a report asking for help. When it became too bad I told him to get you immediately out of the brig, but he replied that he could not disavow a new young officer. That’s when I gave him the formal order to free you and to give you a well deserved promotion. Sorry if I did not give a formal order immediately."
"General, I only want an early retirement."
"That is something I cannot accept because we need soldiers like you, who started as Private and know all the ropes of their regiment. "
"General, I cannot serve in the same regiment as my son who is now my superior."
"We will deal with that in a few moments ! In any case, the Colonel was too weak and has been transferred to another regiment. It is now a relatively young Lieutenant Colonel who is in charge, the problem is that he does not know the regiment. In this context, you can help since you are there since so long. It is the only way to save the regiment from the Colonel’s weakness."
"In that case, I will go back. I think it is my duty."
"Indeed it is. This regiment gave you a lot, you owe him also a lot ! But you cannot be senior NCO after having spent a full week in the brig. I have a solution for you, are you ready to hear it ?"
"I am here to obey, General, but only to obey all respectable orders, especially concerning my son."
"Ferrière, first of all, Martin is no longer your superior: you have been promoted by the Minister to the rank of Lieutenant and placed on a short list to be promoted Captain for special services rendered to your regiment. This promotion is effective as of now: you ARE Lieutenant Ferrière and you will soon be second in command of your regiment, the new Lieutenant-Colonel has been advised of all that."
"And my son, General ?"
"Martin is also my godson, so I told him to come here. I explained that his behavior with you and with all the other soldiers of lower rank was unacceptable especially since he wanted to be an officer. I thus gave him a choice: either resign from the Army immediately, or ask to suspend his commission and continue to serve, but as Private. Martin chose the latter option. He is now serving as Private in a disciplinary regiment where he will stay at least one year. You are not authorized to communicate with him."
"General, did Martin know that he would be sent as PRIVATE to a DISCIPLINARY REGIMENT ?"
"And he accepted that ?"
"YES, Lieutenant, by love for the military life. He is now Private somewhere in the desert and his head had now been shorn to the bone."
"In that case, I have nothing to say for his defense, General"
"When Martin will have served his time in his present regiment, I will decide with his present Colonel, what the Army can do with him. Go now, Lieutenant Ferrière, your new Lieutenant Colonel needs your help. And this is an order from the Chief of Staff of the Army."
"At your command, General."
"Good, Lieutenant. Oh, by the way, don’t have such strict haircuts anymore: as officer you must give the example, show the men that an officer is also a gentleman."
"It will be as you ordered, General."
"Go now, the regiment needs you. Don’t forget to pay for your train ticket this time"
For those who want to know more, after his first year in disciplinary, Martin was ordered to stay for a second year. After that he was promoted to Corporal but General Vanlaere refused to give him rapidly his officer's rank back. I ended my career as Lieutenant Colonel, always in my para regiment.
I never again stole anything !!!