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Searching for a barber p4: postface by thadeusz
A reader’s comment has convinced me that a more joyful ending would be more appropriate. Here is my attempt to show that after sorrow there can be joy, even in the context of Army life !
Summary of part 1 - 3.
I was press ganged into my country’s Army at the age of 15. At that time I hated Army life. In any case, my presence in the Army was the result of an error: this press gang operation concerned poor destitute boys and not me, a good student who lived with his maternal grandparents after the accidental death of the rest of the family.
I was captured because I was walking where my grandfather had told me not to go. Since they did not like me, my grandparents were glad to be rid of me. And that was final since I had a 30 years military obligation after my 3 years in Military School, this was the way I was supposed to repay the Army for their good education.
In the Military Academy, I learned to obey all the orders of my superiors, even stupid orders !
I learned to wear a uniform, which included a tight leather soldier collar (which I called a dog collar) to be worn 24h/24 and 7d/7.
I also learned to react rapidly when my Matricule number was called: I was no longer "Sacha Botcharov", but "Drummer 205.176".
I finally learned to be beaten, receiving more lashes than I wanted or deserved, but the Sergeant Instructor liked to sentence "bad" Drummers with the knout and since the first day he considered me as a "bad Drummer" because he knew I did neither want nor need to be where this press gang had placed me.
But I also made good friends : Piotr Dragan and Dmitri Nikonov.
As far as school work was concerned, I was much better than my friends and I helped them, but their disciplinary and military behaviour was perfect while mine was considered so bad that at the end of my three years as Drummer, I was considered as non promotable for the rest of my 30 years of service. Piotr was promoted to Sergeant and required me to salute him, forgetting that we had been friends. Dmitri was promoted to Corporal-Technician, requiring the same from me. They were freed from their dreadful leather collar but I remained a Private and I had to keep it.
When Piotr was promoted to Lieutenant six years later, he asked that I be assigned to him as ordinance. I was then Lance Corporal and hoped to be promoted to full Corporal, despite my "bad behaviour" during my first year. I thus hoped to get rid of my soldier collar. The Colonel decided otherwise: since a Lance Corporal was not supposed to be an ordinance in my country, he decided to demote me to Private without special reason and to make me the ordinance of Lieutenant Dragan, my former friend Piotr who clearly forbade me to address him otherwise than "Lieutenant" or to say "At your command, Lieutenant" whenever he gave an order. The Colonel also instructed me to have, as a sign of my demotion, a special haircut, i.e. my head had to look like a billiard ball. I hated that because the barber used first clippers with no guard and then an old fashioned razor with water on my head but no real foam. Since the military barber knew that it was a form of punishment, he was brutal and cut my head regularly.
I lived now in a reasonably big room with three other Privates. The main difference was the fact that they had enlisted for five years only. Nevertheless we had the same uniform and the same soldier collar, but they knew that after their five years they could either be promoted and get rid of their collar or simply leave the Army. In any case, the discipline was the same for the four of us and none of us was allowed to go out of the barracks ground. It was not necessary: we had a shop, a bar and even a brothel inside the military grounds. We could go there during our one or two hours of "free quarters" every evening.
Next to our room was the room of the Corporal directly commanding us. He did not have a soldier collar and was free to go out of the barracks during his evening free time. Further down was the room of the Sergeant commanding our section. This section consisted of four groups of Privates and Privates First Class with their respective Corporals, thus 20 soldiers. Three such groups were placed under the direct authority of an officer, a Lieutenant.
Part 4: postface
When my former friend Piotr was promoted from Sergeant to Lieutenant Dragan, our own Corporal was selected among all the Corporals as new Sergeant. There was a solemn ceremony during which the Colonel gave the new Sergeant his third stripes and greeted him among the corps of NCOs. For that ceremony, all of my roommates had been told to have a serious head shave. This means that they now had a very short buzz cut more or less kindly given by the Corporal Barber. I had been told to renew my "special haircut" to show that I was one of the non promotables. Once again, the Corporal Barber rejoiced to have to treat my head: he first cleaned of all possible visible bits of hair, a head that was already a nearly perfectly clean head. This required the brutal use of clippers without guard with the commands I was now used to hearing: "chin on breast", "head on left shoulder", "head on right shoulder" or simply "head erect no move". He then used tons of water to wet my poor head and then sharpen his big old fashioned razor on it. It was brutal, unpleasant, but since 9 years that I was wearing a military uniform, I was used to this treatment now.
Two days later, Lieutenant Dragan, my ex-friend Piotr, decided to replace our ex-corporal, now Sergeant, by Vladimir, one of my roommates. He clearly hoped to convince Vladimir to extend his contract which was due to expire in 2 years. Vladimir had served for 3 years. My two other roommates, Anton and Mikhail, had joined the Army on the same day as Vladimir and were not really pleased by the Lieutenant’s choice, but they could only obey. None of them had a highschool diploma. In any case, I was the only Private who could have been really jealous: I had already 9 years of service and a highschool diploma but the Colonel had told me that I was not promotable because of my behaviour during my first year of service. The best I could hope was a late promotion to Lance Corporal, and only after 33 years of good service.
There was again a ceremony, a smaller one, during which the Lieutenant cut himself Vladimir’s soldier collar and gave him his Corporal stripes. The two remaining Privates and me did not have to entrust our heads again to the hands of the brutal Barber. Five days later another Private, another volunteer, was assigned to our room. It was a certain Igor, a very young guy who had chosen to join the Army because, despite his highschool diploma, he could not find a good job. His parents were poor farmers and he believed the recruiter who told him that "in the Army, you will get good food, clothing and housing. With your diploma you will soon be promoted".
This time we, the three remaining Privates, witnessed how Lieutenant Dragan forced a soldier collar on Igor’s neck and sent him to have the same haircut as I had, transforming the young and hopeful Igor into a simple Private object of all possible disciplinary measures. I will always remember the look on Igor’s face when he received what I kept calling a "dog collar".
Igor came back from the Barber’s with a big cut on his forehead. His first words were: "As soon as I can, I will get away from here." We all told him that he had either to wait five years or to get ready to go to prison for the rest of his life.
The two other soldiers in my room, Anton and Mikhail, were rather pleased to see the "new boy" mishandled to that extent by the Corporal Barber. They were obviously angry because they had not been chosen as the new Corporal. In fact, I could understand them: they had served as long as Vladimir and they were much nicer people. Vladimir was known by us to be a brute and a liar, but he always behaved well with our superiors. Obviously, nobody was jealous of me since it was well known that I was "non promotable". The problem was that Igor had a high school diploma that the others did not have and a clean and new reputation in the Army. Anton and Mikhail had no diploma. They could not change the diploma situation of our new comrade, but I immediately felt that they wanted to change his "clean slate" situation.
In fact Vladimir was a drunkard and the fact that he was now a Corporal did not change the situation. He took with him a bottle of Vodka in his room and tried to hide it: such behaviour was strictly forbidden. Igor and I did not know about it, but his two friends, Anton and Mikhail, knew all about it since he offered them to have a drink in his room. That also was strictly forbidden, but now that he was Corporal, he did not hesitate to do it.
One day later, Vladimir opened his cupboard and found his bottle empty. He asked the four of us:
"Who dared touch my bottle ?"
Anton replied: "It is Igor, he did not know the rule but I saw him obviously drunk."
Mikhail confirmed that and I could only say that it did not seem possible, but that I had not seen anything since I was ironing the Lieutenant uniform in his apartments.
Vladimir concluded that Igor was the culprit and asked the Sergeant to sentence him to 5 lashes of the knout for theft. The Sergeant considered that such a punishment was not enough and asked the Lieutenant to sentence the poor Igor to 10 lashes. Lieutenant Dragan was furious and finally sentenced the poor Igor to 10 lashes, 10 days chained in a cell and no pay for these days: the pay would be given to Vladimir to compensate for the theft. Finally, Lieutenant Dragan decided that Igor was not promotable for 2 years and most importantly, that the poor Igor should as of now have the same haircut as I had: a zero cut completed with a razor, and that every week. Igor was completely surprised by such a harsh punishment. He was mentally destroyed since he hoped, in good faith, to make a good career in the Army. He was now reduced temporarily to a situation as bad as mine, and that was not a good situation. I had come to accept it, since I had no way out, but Igor kept saying that as soon as his contract was over, he would leave this dreadful place. I carefully explained to him that for "non promotable" soldiers who worked well, the Army had the possibility to extend their contract in order "to give them a second chance". He might thus be "in" for much longer than the expected five years. He then asked me:
"What if I choose to work badly ?"
"Then you will be constantly punished, get more lashes of the knout and possibly you will be sent to jail for a very long time."
"Is that your case ?"
"No, I have been press ganged which compels me to serve a total of 33 years. If I don’t have a perfect behaviour, they will throw me out without any job at the tender age of 48. Otherwise, they will keep me doing what I do now and I will have some kind of food and shelter."
"So, they keep you on a sort of leash, as a slave ?"
It was the first time this dreadful word had been used for me, but I could only say:
Igor got his 10 lashes in front of the full section, was chained and started to serve his time in the brig. He did not say a word, which pushed the executioner to hit him harder every time. Igor was a brave kid, but only a kid.
The next day, while I was helping Lieutenant Dragan to get dressed, I dared tell him that Igor could not be the culprit and that the punishment was too harsh, according to my experience of the Army.
"Is that what you really think, Private ?" asked the Lieutenant.
I smelled a rat: when my ex-friend called me "Private" instead of "Sacha" it was always bad news. But I replied honestly:
"That’s why you are not promotable, Private ! You are not really a soldier. There has been a theft in my section. I had to find a culprit and to punish him in order to restore military order. I found a culprit and punished him. That’s all."
"But Lieutenant, if he is not guilty after all ?"
"That’s irrelevant. If you don’t like me punishing Igor and helping him become a good soldier, I could punish you instead: you are a lost soldier in any case."
After that I considered the discussion as closed and chose, not very courageously, to keep quiet.
The Lieutenant rewarded my silence by the following instruction:
"You don’t need to have a ‘special’ haircut any more, I only require you to have a short buzz cut every week in order to remain clean when you are helping me or cleaning my clothes or my rooms".
When Igor came out of the brig, he was changed. He told me once that he had understood what Army life was about: being as quiet as possible with the chiefs, working as little as possible and being dishonest if it was possible. He kept coming with me every week to the Barber where he got a "special" I did not get anymore. On the contrary, the Barber felt that he had another victim and chose to let me have a rather long "short buzz cut". Anton was more or less silent now and apparently a good soldier, but he spent most of his free time with Anton and Mikhail.
Two years later the Lieutenant decided to promote the three of them to Private First Class which only gave them a better pay. The Lieutenant decision was based on the fact that Anton and Mikhail were now very good soldiers and that Igor had adjusted to military life despite his bad start which was compensated by his diploma. Anton and Mikhail had just signed another five year contract, but Vladimir had not. When he left the Army, with a good conduct certificate, the Lieutenant chose Konstantin, a Private First Class in another room as new Corporal for our small group. He told us that Anton and Mikhail had only 5 years of service while Konstantin had nearly 10 years of service and had already signed a third contract. He added:
"Private First Class Igor, your behaviour is excellent now and you have a high school diploma, but you are still in your first contract. You will have to wait a little bit."
He did not say a word about my situation and I remained the only Private in our room. I had 11 years of service.
The next morning, while helping the Lieutenant to get dressed as was my morning duty, I dared again ask a question to my ex-friend Piotr, now my superior Lieutenant Dragan.
"Lieutenant, permission to ask a personal question ?"
"Go, Botcharov, but be as short as possible."
"Lieutenant, I have now 11 years of service in the Army. I know that my behaviour during my first year as Drummer was very bad, but since then I tried to behave as well as possible and you have witnessed all my steps towards this. Nevertheless, I am still non-promotable. Is it impossible for me to become promotable like the others ? Is there no redemption for me ?"
"Private, you were declared non-promotable temporarily because of your bad initial behaviour. It could have lasted only for a few years, like it was the case for Igor. But as soon as I became Sergeant and later Lieutenant, I insisted that you remain a Private in order to keep you permanently as an ordinance. I was right, you do your job as an ordinance perfectly well."
"Lieutenant," I was then adjusting the garments on his cape, "do you mean that it is at your request that I have been barred from any promotion ?"
"Of course, Private, during our Drummer years you were much better than me at school. I know that it is to you that I owe my high school diploma and I hate that situation. So I want you now to repay for that. You are my ordinance and you will remain so forever."
"But Lieutenant, I could do this job as Corporal and thus have the possibility to go out of the barracks, from time to time. I could have a more pleasant life, Lieutenant and continue to attend to you."
The Lieutenant started to shout:
"I don’t want you to have a pleasant life. I want you to continue to serve me. I want you to remain my slave. I have been writing bad reports on you, and I will continue to do so, in order to quash any attempt to promote you. As a result, when you will have finished your 30 years military obligation, either you will accept the extended contract for life or you will go to prison FOR I DON’T YET KNOW WHAT CRIME. But be sure that I will find one. DISMISS."
I was done with my morning duty and I left to start obeying my Corporal’s orders. I also started to hate the Lieutenant, my ex-friend Piotr, and I started to think about ways to get my freedom and my revenge.
Life went on as usually for us, soldiers of an old garrison, used to imperfect but relatively comfortable barracks. We had to obey orders transmitted by a drunk Corporal and we had to accept the stupid punishments he invented with or without reason.
One day, the Colonel decided that there would be a big field training exercise: we left the barracks and lived in tents, with all our kit, for a whole month. The weather was bad and rain was pouring, leaving us with wet uniforms. During that period of time I had to remain clean enough to attend to my Lieutenant’s needs while creeping and crawling with the others during the rest of the time in the mud of the close by river and the wet maïs fields. None of us, from Private to Sergeant, knew why this crazy exercise had been ordered by the Colonel: did he want to let us start a new war where creeping in the mud would be essential ?
At the very end of the month, the Colonel gathered us all in the field, under the rain but in formation. He told us that this exercise had one purpose: determine who was the best Lieutenant of the regiment. It appeared that it was my Lieutenant who won the big prize: as a prize for his efforts, he was immediately promoted to Captain and sent as military attaché to our embassy in Paris. He was free to choose anybody among the Privates and Private First Class to accompany him as ordinance. Guess who he chose: it was me ! I did not like the idea to be from now on 100% of the time under the sole supervision of a superior who had confessed that he hated me for my brains. He hated me because in the past, he had needed my help. In Paris I would have no possibility to ask for help if Lieutenant Dragan exaggerated.
As soon as we were back in the barracks, the ex-Lieutenant, now Captain Dragan, called me and gave me special instructions for our trip:
"Private Botcharov, you will come with me to Paris. I might need you to get something for me from a shop, but that does not mean that you are allowed to stroll through Paris. It simply means that you must rapidly go in uniform to a shop in order to do what I want to be done."
He hesitated for a few seconds and added:
"My family will not come with us: I want you to gather information for me about leisure in Paris. I authorize you to use the officers’ bar computer to go through the internet and find me likely pleasures in Paris. Start immediately, Private. DISMISS."
I replied as he expected: "At your command Captain."
I immediately started my search and I discovered many possible leisures for a young officer, with money in his pockets and without his relatives near him. Especially without his wife. I made clear notes of all that. But I discovered more: I discovered the French Foreign Legion, the possibilities to join that corps and the easiest way to go there from our embassy in Paris. I also realized that I was now 27 years old and according to the documents I could see, that was still a reasonable age to start a career in the Legion. Having all that in mind, I quit looking through internet pages for myself and in order to leave no traces, I went through many pages of shops for men in Paris.
Two days later, we left by train. The Captain travelled in 1st class and I was supposed to travel in 3rd class (in my country it still existed), but I had been instructed to stay with the luggage, which implied a very uncomfortable trip in a very cold merchandise wagon. As a good soldier, I obeyed that order. Once in Paris, we immediately went to the Embassy in one of their cars. As soon as the grids of the Embassy were closed behind us, my normal service for the Captain started again. The Embassy was enclosed by high walls provided with barbed wire. All gates were closed by high and solid grids. I now felt that I was really in a prison, worse than the barracks I had known since 12 years.
I took care of the Captain suitcase, of his lodgings, of his dinner before taking care of myself. The chief military attaché had foreseen for me a small room near the rooms of the other guards. It was better than anything I had had since I had been press ganged, even if all the other guards were outranking me. In any case, they were pleasant guys but they required me to serve them immediately after waiting upon my Captain.
Two days later, my Captain sent me on an errand: he wanted me to find for him cigarettes of a special brand. I tidied my uniform, went to the grid and explained to the guards that I had to go on an errand. They let me go easily. I disappeared in the first possible metro station and went to a general store I had found during my previous internet search. There I bought a jean and a t-shirt, changing clothes and abandoning the rest of my uniform in a dustbin. I disappeared again in a metro station and went to Fort de Nogent, the recruiting post for the Legion.
Once in Fort de Nogent, I wanted to enlist in the Legion, despite the fact that I was technically a deserter.
I arrived at a big gate where I knocked. A Legionnaire in grand uniform let me in. He showed me the way to a NCO who was on duty. That man took the piece of paper that the Embassy clerk had given me, to serve as identity paper, in order to let me go and buy cigarettes for my Captain. He then told me that according to Legion rule, my name was changed. I was no longer "Sacha Botcharov, Private" but "Serguei Belinsky, civilian with no military past". I was then led to a place where I had to abandon my "civilian" clothes and all my other possessions (nearly nothing) in order to put on the usual Legion blue jumpsuit. After that I was led to a place where I had to wait with other candidates.
The next day, we were all transferred to a little town in the south of France. That was the final selection center.
We had to take a set of tests: there were physical, medical, psychological and intellectual tests. Every time, after a test, some of the candidates were sent home. I was afraid that such a thing could happen to me: I did not really know what would be my next move. I was also confident because of my military training !
Finally came the most important test: an interview with an officer about my motivations. In fact it was very simple for me: I wanted to escape the slavedom situation promised by Captain Dragan by doing the only thing I had been trained to do, soldiering ! I thought this would be simple for me and when this interview started, I was very confident. I told the officer all my reasons to join the Legion. He asked me to describe in great details my past and I did so. Finally he said:
"If I understand well, you still have an active contract with your country’s Army ?"
"So in fact, you are a deserter ?"
"Technically yes, but a deserter for a good reason: my Captain promised to treat me as his slave."
"Because he was jealous of my brains, Sir."
"Do you know that we never accept deserters in the Legion ?"
"I did not, Sir."
That’s when I started pleading by adding the following: "Sir, in my case it is my only way to avoid being treated as a slave."
The officer told me to go away and to wait with the other candidates.
Most of the other guys were either sent home or had to go two or three times at most and visit the inquiring officer. I had to go and visit the inquiring officer 6 times. On the third time he asked me to tell him my complete story, which I did. But that did not satisfy him. Finally he told me to wait while the others were definitely accepted. The guys who had joined with me were sent to start their instruction; I had to stay waiting in the Camp.
I waited serving as barman for the officers and doing all kinds of chores. In the meantime I set up my mind to learn as much French as I could, just in case I had to survive alone in France without ID.
Finally, there was a seventh visit to the inquiring officer. It was now more than a month that I had deserted and attempted to join the Legion. I still had my blue jumpsuit, my only piece of clothing which I kept as clean as possible. I was also still wearing my soldier collar, the only remainder of my previous life.
The officer first congratulated me on my rapid acquisition of basic French. He showed me a newspaper asking me if I was already able to read French (in my country, one uses another alphabet). I had to confess that I was not able to do so: I had focussed on conversations in the bar, conversations I overheard while serving the officers. The inquirer then read for me the title of an article in a newspaper. It simply mentioned that a military attaché, a young Captain, had been arrested by his superiors because he was assumed to have sent his ordinance to the French in order to give them some secret papers.
"You were that ordinance ?" asked the officer.
"Yes Sir, but I had no secret papers."
"I know, we made a search through all your belongings here. Is that officer the one who wanted to keep you as a slave ?"
"What will happen to him ?"
"There will be a judgement and since they cannot prove that he was a traitor he will only be sentenced to a very long term of imprisonment in a hard labour camp."
"You don’t pity him ? After all he has not done anything wrong."
"Sir, I might appear as a bad person, but after our years in the Military Academy, this Captain did everything he could to keep me as a simple Private without any hope for a promotion. He told me that he wrote bad reports on me. I cannot pity him, Sir."
"What would happen to you if we sent you back to your Embassy ?"
"Sir, I would be arrested. Then I would be judged for high treason, sentenced to the knout and be sent for life in a hard labour camp where I would remain in permanent chains."
The officer did not react, but his face showed me that he believed me but did not like what he heard.
"Why do you still have that strange leather collar on your neck ?"
"Because I am only a Private in their Army. I would like to get rid of it, but I have nothing to cut it off."
"That satisfies me. Go and rejoin the new batch of candidate legionnaires."
The next morning, the candidates were told to stand in formation. Some were still hesitant about the correct way to do that but I knew very well what it meant. A Lieutenant appeared with a list of names. He called some of them, but not all: they were told that they had not been retained for the Legion. My name had not been called: I was in.
The Corporal who supervised us, a Legionnaire I had learned to know in the bar, made me a sign. He took me with him and cut nearly brutally my soldier collar, sorry my dog collar. He threw it away. For me it was a liberation: I had worn that collar since the age of 15, I was 27 now.
The corporal pushed all of the "winners" to the barber where we were rapidly and efficiently shorn to the wood by young legionnaires. The fact that they were real legionnaires simplified the matter: they had been shorn before us and knew what it meant. The legionnaire who got hold of my head had probably suffered when that was done to him, but he did not want to inflict that to another candidate. He looked at my skull and noticed many scars. He asked me: "How did you get that ?" and I replied: "As a good treatment in my country’s army." The barber did not ask any other question, but he was very careful to avoid hurting me any more !
I received my new uniform and the basic instruction started. It was hard, it was rough but I had freely chosen this mode of life and that changed everything. Moreover, I no longer had that humiliating soldier collar on my neck. Life was great.
My first great moment came when I received, with my companion, the order to put my White Kepi on my head. As of now, I was a real legionnaire, Legionnaire Serguei Belinsky !
At the end of the four months of instruction, we had to appear, one by one, in front of the Captain and of the Lieutenant who had led the Instruction. This was the great moment: each of us would be assigned to a regiment. I was the first one to be called and the Captain told me:
"Belinsky, you were the best one during this instruction period. Normally you would be selected as assistant corporal for the next batch and after that you would be directly sent to the Corporal course. All present know your special situation. We thus decided that you will go to 3 REI, in French Guiana, where you will stay for two years."
I obeyed this "suggestion": I had obeyed so many "orders" before that.
I went to french Guiana and discovered that life as a Legionnaire had nothing in common with life as a soldier in my original army. The job was more interesting, more useful also. Between intensive job sessions, we were more or less at rest and free to go wherever we wanted, provided we remained available for the authorities.
One of the things I kept doing, a "souvenir" from my previous military life, was getting regularly very short haircuts. In the jungle of Guiana, it was much more comfortable. Each time, the barber wondered about the cuts on my skull. In the beginning, I told them my story and tried to explain. At that point, the barbers used to treat my head as fragile porcelain and did their best not to hurt me. After a certain time there were no questions anymore and then the barbers started to shave my head slightly more brutally. They did not hurt me like the barber in my original army did, but they rapidly moved my head, without asking me to initiate the moves, so that they did not have to change the position of their clippers: they were shaving a moving head with movements adapted to their needs. In fact, it was not nasty: I had simply become a "normal" legionnaire.
It was also in Guiana that I was rapidly promoted to Legionnaire First Class. About 18 months after my arrival there, thus about 2 years after I had enlisted in the Legion, I was sent to the Corporal course. This course was very difficult considering the nature of the Jungle and I was really pleased to have kept a very very very short haircut. My comrades with a longer haircut had some problems. Finally, I passed all the tests and was promoted Corporal, first of my group: my very long and very hard former training was starting to pay ! I had reached something I had not achieved in so many years in my own country.
After two years in Guiana, I was sent back to mainland France and assigned to the paratrooper regiment. This regiment barracks were in Corsica: my chiefs considered that it was safer for me to be as far away as possible from Paris.
After a few more years I signed another contract with the promise to be promoted to Sergeant, and this promise was respected. During all that time I met several girls in Corsica, and I got the authorization to go on vacation to Paris. Finally, I got the authorization to ask to get my real name back. It was complex because I did not want to risk losing everything by asking my own country for a birth certificate, but my superiors arranged everything very discreetly. This finally enabled me to get married with the lady I now loved. We live in Corsica, near my chosen regiment, in a small house. My wife works in a grocery shop and raises our two children. I am still a soldier, a legionnaire, and I love my present job with all its disciplinary requirements.