THE LAND UNDER TROUBLED SKIES
Prior to being drafted into the French army, there was a three day examination. I was stripped naked, scanned from head to toe for parasites, deformities, cancerous growths, enlarged prostate, but essentially the aim was to humiliate. A general aptitude test which covered everything from street smarts to science was also required. Unbeknownst to me my 198/200 score was rarely reached.
I was a pacifist and an intellectual; a communist in a purely ideological sense. The army represented all that was wrong with humanity; I wanted none of it. Unfortunately I was healthy, so I was deemed fit for combat.
The brass must have been impressed by the scores, as I received a letter shortly thereafter bringing to my attention that I had been selected to train for 3 months as a cadet, and move on to join the elite group of temporary officers known as aspirants, a rank just below lieutenant. In brief, it guarantied that my time of service would be made somewhat comfortable, while I was to enjoy private quarters and meals served in the officers’ mess hall, and I would receive a small but acceptable allowance.
I took offense.
My return mail to the army’s offer was probably not the response they expected, and I was instead drafted to the disciplinary 13th Regiment du Genie in Trier, Germany, a stone’s throw from my hometown south of Metz. Few people I knew were capable of shooting themselves in the foot like I could.
On my first day in, a hysterical fool spat all over my face with the obvious intention of trying to impress me with the factoid that I would be the first to die in time of war, then grabbed some of my hair and yanked it off my scalp before sending me to the barber for a crew cut. In a purely reflexive move, I separated some of my civilian clothes into a bundle and hid them in a bush with my ID card, some cash and the guitar I had brought with me. A few hours later, the army collected all of our belongings to be stashed away until our time was up. On the second night at around 11:00 pm, an hour past inspection, I exited through a dormitory window, grabbed my things from the bushes, dressed up, jumped the iron work of the barracks wall, lit a cigarette and proceeded in the direction of Luxembourg.
I had plenty of time to make it to the border before reveille, and the freshly laid out plan was to cross into Belgium and then catch a train to Amsterdam. Later, I would have to figure out how to board a merchant ship to Venezuela where I would be joining some US friends who ran a commune outside Merida.
It was a glorious early summer night full of stars. I walked briskly along the sparsely driven country road. I felt liberated in the face of social and psychological ambushes, but the spacious present was so deep and timeless that nothing mattered beyond the joyous sensation of spiraling into inner peace. I was within viewing distance of the small German custom outpost, and beyond it spread an uncharted reality.
Most folks can be trusted to a point, but there are the very few that will turn their own to the enemy for motives that run deep into the darkest recesses of their irreversibly corrupt psyches. I knew something had gone awfully wrong when instead of returning my papers, the custom officer made me wait as he engaged in a lively phone conversation. It turned out that some low life had leaked my escape act, and the dogs had been on me from the get-go. For some foolish reason, I almost convinced myself that the custom agent would let me go based on the simple fact that I was an ex-German province native and that the French forces’ presence in his country made for an ever-growing subject of diplomatic embarrassment. Instead he looked at me with a broad smile and vociferated: “Ha Herr Vogner, ich habe auf dich gewartet!” In other words, I had been expected.
“Brilliant” I thought, as it seemed my troubles were just about to pick up in momentum. I was firmly whisked into the small cell separated by bars from the tiny office whilst we waited for the French military cops to arrive and haul my ass back to Trier. As it turned out, it was a first for the occupying armies as no-one had ever gone AWOL with less than 48 hours of service. I was sentenced to 90 days in the tank and my guitar was impounded. Losing the axe was the real heartbreaker but the armed forces have never been known for their love of troubadours, and so it went.
Fate had it that my battalion was in dire need of able hands that could put some order into their dirty laundry and that by some mysterious turn of events, a kindred spirit would dream that these hands should be mine. I was prematurely released and briefly trained to dispatch fresh garbs and bedding supplies. It also miraculously happened that my new job description included supervising the facilities where all civilian belongings were stored, hence I was reunited with my guitar, my jeans, a pair of Converses and my bomber jacket, and I made sure that they would never leave me again.
And so, in a room on the top floor of the main service building, I collected the soldiers’ “dirties” over a small counter, exchanged them for clean clothes; threw the soiled items into chutes while the freshly cleansed threads were lifted from the underground bowels where the washers, dryers and presses were operated by German personnel. I counted, sorted and shelved as I blasted rock and roll all day long on the recently purchased Grundig cassette player, practiced the guitar and wrote tunes during the multiple breaks. One of the many peculiarities of the job was that it also came with its own digs, certainly a gross oversight on the part of the French army, and I used the opportunity to make myself increasingly invisible, as I dodged the required responsibilities and duties that all were painfully subjected to, including morning parades and inspections, guard duty, battle training, weapon maintenance, and the panoply of vicious practices that made the Machiavellian mindset of the military so effective in all of its abusive splendor. I took my meals off hours in cahoots with the cooks and showered in the boiler rooms where I had befriended the German operator in charge. I existed in between and behind the scene. I stopped shaving, my hair grew long and I was now wearing a US Army uniform I had unearthed from the depths of the never ending layers of laundry reality, items probably left behind after one of the obligatory exchanges between allies.
Life was good. My only interactions were with a small group of rebels; musicians, poets, politicos and writers; free spirits in a world of oppression imagined or instigated by those who feared and bought into the game. I had arranged for all of them to be returned their civilian belongings. We, by chance, had located a forgotten presentation room with a small stage and a hi fi system, annexed to the kitchens of the officers’ mess hall, but which could only be accessed from an outside entrance behind an abandoned and unkempt part of the building. We were in possession of the only key that one of the guys had “borrowed” from a dusty board in one of the many unused office rooms of the administrative center. We gathered there nightly, played guitar, listened to the Mothers of Invention and Debussy, dreamt of better days on the other side of hell; maybe we would regroup in the future and start a collective. But we never did. For some time, we had been wondering about a one small locked door inside the room that appeared to access a closet, but we managed to refrain from breaking in.
Then one night, one of the boys brandished an old style skeleton key, bragging it was a pass for the lock, and sure enough, it did open that door! It swung on the gaping darkness of a descending staircase down into a stone cellar meeting a corridor dividing two equal rows of rooms filled with fine wines, conserves of foie gras, caviar and innumerable varieties of delicacies reserved for our officers’ palates; a discovery that highlighted the nature of these men’s lifestyle and joie de vivre. There was a symmetrical arrangement at the far end that led to the kitchens. We had scored! Every meeting was from then on a feast, an indulgence into the embrace of the divine amid a wasteland of political and moral bankruptcy. We felt no shame. We disposed of the refuse in German territory by hauling it over the main wall. We took turns on who would be on the other side to receive and discard into public trash cans; operations meticulously choreographed in rhythm with the routine of the armed sentries. We never were caught.
During my entire service I never left or entered the base through the main gates unless it was in a correctional vehicle. The way in and out was over the wall; the only realistic method if one was to don street clothes. The French soldiers were prohibited from looking inconspicuous on German soil. They were forced to look French, act French, and were essentially despised by the natives. They were confined to designated French digs, drab bars that played shitty music and that preyed on the misery of moral and intellectual devolution; places where these soldiers relieved themselves from their hang-ups and frustrations by getting absurdly drunk and making a mess of the little that was left of their dignity. These types of men were not allowed into most German establishments and they and the rest of the French forces unwisely contributed to the exaggerated prolongation of a conflict which had long lost its plausibility.
Our group never associated with “the rest of them”. For all intents and purposes, we were civilians. We spoke German and English in public, never French. We favored the attendance of hip clubs, hippie hang outs, student gatherings and rock concerts. A few of us frequently participated in political meetings and debates with the German chapter of the Internationalist Communist party, and we were generally received with open arms anywhere we went. We acted appropriately and we showed our respect, it was that simple. All that socializing on the German side would come handy later under much dire circumstances, but until then there was a sense of frivolous nonchalance among us in the sense we felt we had cheated the system in a bold brush stroke on the grand canvas of probabilities, and the cards had beautifully played in our favor.
For nearly four months, I lived a reality within a reality; the latter which without any prescience on my part, had been slowly closing in. One day, all came to a halt, very much at the command of a giant snap of the fingers. Someone called me from the distance, a sub-officer who had been kind enough in the past, but who now was spewing his deep rooted bilious hatred at me as he demanded to know where the fuck I had been, and that I elucidate on how in Hell I were allowed to look the way I did on French army grounds wearing a goddamn Yankee uniform. The veil of invisibility had fallen and the ugly face of reality was now breathing hard an inch away from my own.
It was a shock to the system, and the loss of the cushy job and the privacy was an incommensurable downer. Luckily, my civilian clothes and my guitar were safely stashed in our secret hideaway, but now, equipped with a lowly toothbrush as my one and only scrubbing tool, I had been assigned to latrine duty in perpetuum. Deep into my time in the forces, I had not yet touched a gun or crawled in the now icy muck of the training grounds. So I learned to shoot, and soon I walked the customary one hundred kilometers burdened by a heavy backpack, a sub-machine gun and a tripod until my boots filled with blood. I was then put on night guard duty on an ammunition camp with two starving German shepherds patrolling in the opposite direction, beasts that were trained to kill at the slightest hiccup in the pattern of rotation. That meant no stopping, no lateral movement and if I needed to relieve myself, it had to better be while moving. All that barely a week after one of the sentries and a couple of the dogs were shot dead… It did not take long before I devised ways to sneak meat out of the kitchens and feed the guard “wolves” on duty, an act that exponentially improved my working relationship with them.
The outings over the wall and the meetings with the Germans continued, but the politics started to shift. Our comrades felt we were in a position to do some serious destabilizing damage to the core of the French military and my school teacher friend Jose Rodriguez and I took it upon ourselves to start birthing a revolution from within. It required convincing some key individuals on the inside, connecting a few heavy players at the public end, bulking up the discontentment amid the troops by leaning heavily on Marxist ideology and the reality that the military was no longer a power machine of the people, but of a small elite. With the help of the Germans, we printed flyers, sent mail to political papers, wrote manifestos and educated the curious souls, until we finally reached the conclusion that we had convinced and trained enough bodies to do the deed and take care of business. The date was close but yet unspecified. We refined the strategy of the planned night penetration of the armory, by taking advantage of the fact that most of the officers would be off the base with their families. We would then arm ourselves and tactically bar the brass from returning to their posts in the morning. The aim was to raise an army controlled and operated by civilians for the protection of civilians. In perspective, it was insanely reckless.
The key word here is SNITCH.
Yes, a fucking snitch leaked the whole thing to the dreaded military secret service! A maggot from the boonies; I remember his shifty little eyes and his horrible complexion. He had this phony sneer that showed his rotten teeth and made his face look like it was made to be used as a punch bag. He was scum, period. That landed Jose and I in some serious trouble. They didn’t have anything on me but they had inculpatory evidence against my buddy and he was hauled away. They tore through my stuff, looked everywhere for clues and then one day, an agent pulled a sheet of paper out of the jacket of the Duane Allman anthology, and his look and grunt-like utterance made it clear he had found what he was looking for. It was an open letter to the French defense minister listing violations within the military that vividly exposed the latter’s deep disregard for civilian enacted rules and regulations. Somehow it was left in there in spite of my best efforts at sweeping the tracks. This was big and I was the enemy.
Interrogations went on and on. The MP had also arrested innocents, inconsequential players in the scheme of the planned takeover, and the cops beat the crap out of them for no rhyme or reason. Somehow they were careful not to touch me because of their uncertainty as to the nature of my connections. They played nice, asked for names, for links to other organizations on other bases. I knew what they knew, and that is what I fed them. That seemed to confuse them and they somewhat tripped all over their own game. Eventually, after weeks, they deemed nothing would come out of me and they had me sentenced without trial to 5 years in “fortress”, short for solitary confinement in a heavily guarded military facility. But as part of a backup rescue plan, a letter went out to the German group which in turn sent compromising info and proof of military malfeasance to most French mainstream newspapers, high ranking political lawyers, as well as all left-leaning ex and future presidential candidates. Then the Germans did something never heard of in the history of the French presence in Germany, they demonstrated in front of the base demanding the release of two French soldiers, namely Jose and I. The army’s biggest nightmare had just unraveled before them. They finally dropped the towel when the coup de grace came in the form of an ace lawyer from the High Court who apparently had been waiting to take on the army, and thus decided to hire himself as our attorney. The entire military institution was abruptly exposed and became extremely vulnerable, but that did not necessarily impact its ability to still pull all kinds of dirty tricks.
Jose was transferred to a far away battalion as they tried to break up what they considered to be the nucleus of the insurrection. They kept me in Trier for they were not quite done with me. Apparently I had hit a raw nerve. They had me watched 24/7 anticipating the mishap that would send their abject little paranoid minds reeling. But then came a series of strategic maneuvers with first the German army that promptly turned into a drinking contest and ended with soldiers from both camps sharing beds, followed by an enforced temporary ban on alcohol within the barracks, then we were dispatched to another base to work with returning US Vietnam vets. That’s when I snuck on the “wrong side” and spent all of my time hanging out with the allies at the “US troops only” brew hall.
In some respect, it all made perfect sense; except to the French military, of course. Some brass got wind of my escapades and I returned to Trier in handcuffs to face yet another mock trial. This time they got vicious and went for broke. They threw me in an underground rat infested slammer to rot. I remember the shitter. It resided at the end of an elongated tunnel with a ceiling that tapered down, so that one was forced to crawl to get to it, and arch over painfully to crap. Only a very sick mind could have devised something that vile. There was one single low wattage incandescent bulb that shone its jaundice glow around the misery of the cell. The walls were covered with mold and the mattress and flea infested covers were always damp and musty. Soldiers died there, and since the place did not officially exist, accountability was not an issue. My health deteriorated and if it were not for the goodness of a young medical officer who turned out to be an insider for a civilian watchdog organization, I would not be writing these words. When he discovered what was happening below, he arranged to have me transferred to the psychiatric ward of an outside medical facility owned by the Germans but leased by the French forces’ medical corps. It was to only be a brief relief as protocol was tampered with and I was fed a hefty diet of uppers and downers in an apparent attempt at breaking my psyche and possibly killing me, in what would be inconspicuously reported as common heart failure. My mind didn’t break though and my heart did not fail, but I inherited a bad case of the shakes and a horrific addiction to the junk they had pumped into me. After a month, they returned me to the base under the assumption that I was no longer a threat, and left me to spend the rest of my time, which was now six months over the standard year, subdued on valium and Mandrax in the nursery ward. I occasionally still did some outings over the wall and joined what was left of the group in our secret room, but I had gotten weary of the whole thing and I suffered spells of intense fatigue.
Eventually I was set for release but not without being met once more with a dose of military irony. I was asked into the Colonel’s office and offered a chair. These were his words: “There are patriots and there are traitors. If war were to break, I know I could entrust you with the welfare of my family over the majority of the hypocrites that plague this place. You will leave this camp with an honorary mention. God bless!” I could not argue with him; he was right. I saluted and left.
In the end, I could have walked through the main gate like all the lads that beamed at the illusion of their fresh return to freedom. Instead I connected one last time with my favorite part of the wall, threw my bag over it, carefully lowered my guitar case to the ground with a piece of packing rope, and jumped. I lit a cigarette, picked up my things and started to walk in the direction of France.
Francis Voignier, April 11, 2014
Edited by Elisabeth Zenker