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I apologize for the dreadful layout. It’s a work in progress, a difficult one on this blog. The book itself is perfect. (If I say so myself.)
How I Helped Win World War Two
A column of trucks flooded the avenue as a far as the eye could see. (The small body that held the head that held the eye was in my mother’s arms.) The trucks overflowed with big, loud, laughing men in distinctive dun-khaki uniforms. People were shouting greetings and waving flags. It seems that an American soldier jumped off his vehicle, swept me up into his arms, and kissed me on both cheeks. That may have been because my mother, who had wanted her second child to be a daughter, processed my long blond hair into Goldilocks-style ringlets. That I am straight today is a testimony to the robustness of genetic programming. My mother always insisted the kissing soldier was black. On the one hand, she may have made up this detail for colorful effect; she was that kind of woman. On the other hand, there were so many trucks the soldiers may have belonged to a transport unit and hence, probably to a black unit, in the segregated US Army of the day. It was August 1944. I was two–something and my family lived in one of the better city projects right on the periphery of Paris, near one of its main access roads. One thing that bothers me about this visual and auditory recollection though is that we lived on the east side of the city. American soldiers should have been arriving from Normandy, in the west; yet, the memory is clear.
Parisians knew from London radio of the slow advance of the Allies after D-Day. All fabrics had been strictly rationed for two or three years. Nonetheless, before the American forces reached Paris, my mother had sewn a makeshift tricolor French flag. The blue came from my father’s old military service flannel sash (a forgotten and now incomprehensible item of clothing). The red came from a Nazi flag. My father was a policeman. He had stolen it from a German general’s car he was supposed to guard. The Germans were packing up at the time and very nervous. He might have been shot on the spot if he had been caught. At a loss for white, my mother made the middle band of the flag out of one of my cloth diapers. That’s why I have always felt I played a part, although a small one, in the liberation of Paris, a symbolically important phase of World War Two.
I was born and conceived during the Nazi Occupation….
I had my first revolutionary encounter at another Cub Scout camp near a different lake. We were organized in squads of six, as I said, each with its appointed leader. One day, my squad leader gave me an order I did not like. Or maybe, I just did not like his tone. I said “No.” He insisted. Our voices rose. His authority contested publicly, he shoved me lightly. I shoved back and I called him out formally. We repaired out of sight to the lakeside. It was not the Clash of the Titans because I must have been nine and he, eleven. The leader must have lacked faith in his own charisma, or else, I got lucky because I gave him a bloody nose. This stopped the fight in accordance with the ancient dueling rule of “first blood drawn.” He washed off the blood in the lake. We walked back to our tent separately. It was sunset; everyone went to bed. Nothing more was said.
I remember the fight clearly and I remember well that the squad leader was the furthest thing from a bully. He was not a bad guy and I did not even dislike him. I just did not like hierarchies. I was a natural anarchist in the true, etymological sense of the term: I did not want to have a chief, or a leader, or whatever you call them these days. This trait never changed. I am just the same as I was at nine in this respect. I have never had any desire to exercise power over others either. Most exercises of power repel me viscerally. I suspect many or most are unnecessary. Moreover, I now think coercion is the worst way to obtain the orderliness that is necessary to a good society. I am pretty sure coercion causes more disorder overall than it eliminates or avoids. Its costs are usually too high.
“Growing up” did not help me in that department either. I never “learned through experience;” life did not “beat it into me.” In this respect, as in many others, I keep marveling at the constancy of individual characters from childhood, perhaps from infancy. I don’t know why there isn’t more mention of this constancy except that it contradicts the namby-pamby liberal faith in environmental determinism. If you believe religiously that societal influences – such as poverty, emotional abuse, being deprived of cookies, being fed the cookies of the wrong color – decide what the adult’s character will be, it’s hard to notice that much of the character was already in the child, or even in the toddler. It’s difficult to even imagine that it was possibly already in the zygote. This possibility was an academic taboo subject for the best part of forty years. Hardly anyone felt free to study it.
Our Daily Bread and a Horse’s Ass
A little later, the old man harnessed his plow horse to the cart. The women climbed with great caution onto the wooden benches in the back, all three in their Sunday best, including hats, and leather shoes instead of the usual wooden clogs. The old man motioned me to the seat near him, up front. While this seemed the normal place for a boy, I was suspicious because he kept cackling unnaturally and his wife reprimanded him in dialect several times from the back of the cart. Before we had gone a hundred feet, the horse started blowing powerful and odoriferous farts right into my face. It never let off until we reached the church. The old man had deliberately fed him a breakfast of oats to which the beast was unaccustomed. Everyone thought that was a good joke but the old lady was concerned about my big city sensitivities. I just thought it was the old man who was the horse’s ass but his precise planning and his foresight impressed me all the same, not to mention his control over the animal’s gut.
Even More Sex
My mother routinely spoke irresponsibly in front of her children, as if we did not understand the language. Many times, in my early years, I overheard her describing a wayward female movie star, sometimes even a neighborhood woman, as “a prisoner of her senses.” She did not say this in a censorious manner but sympathetically, with a tinge of envy perhaps. The repetitiousness of the assertion loosened high expectations in me. In adolescence and even later, I kept looking for such “prisoners.” It took me a long time but, when I recognized one, I married her without hesitation.
I am not sure when my mother tried to provide formal sex education per se. I may have been eight or nine. I declined her instruction, not because I was prudish about the facts but because her pompous language style, derived on that occasion from bodice-buster serials in her weekly newspaper, made me uncomfortable. I would have been more at ease with concrete descriptions of the exchange of body fluids.
On other, more casual instances her wording was often quite vigorous. When the first blue jeans appeared in Paris, I may have been about twelve, or so. My mother declared then and there her opposition to this new type of garment on the ground that they were explicitly designed to emphasize men’s private parts thus inflaming the young women. One of her many off-hand remarks that contributed to make me optimistic about women’s erotic vulnerability and the ease of their conquest. My mother could describe an innocent, practical article of clothing as a kind of more or less gratefully accepted form of public rape. For this talent, I forgave and I forgive much that she did that was truly evil.
A Bad Teenager
…..I repeated my senior year in a high school closer to home that was not nearly as good as the first. I don’t know why I did that. I was like a sheep walking insouciantly and sure-footed to the slaughterhouse. There was no reason to think I would do better the second time than the first. I had not failed from bad luck, or because I did “not test well,” in the mealy-mouthed gobbledygook of today. Rather, it was because vast blank, empty steppes overlaid my mind. I doubt one year would have been long enough to fill up the blanks even if I had tried. At any rate, my heart wasn’t in it. Someone should have yanked me out and sent me to work full-time. I could have learned something useful, like the basics of charcuterie, for example. Perhaps everyone around me got caught short and no one had an alternative plan. At this distance in time, I have trouble evaluating to what extent my parents would have thought such a pragmatic solution to my aimlessness socially unacceptable. I went back to high school as the default solution. I performed just as badly the second time around. That second senior year would have been a total waste except that it changed radically the trajectory of my life. I was the beneficiary of a positive injustice. (I went to California a first time, on a scholarship.)
A digression about hitchhiking. In time, I was to become a master hitchhiker. I am still the only person I know (this means, middle class person, not a hobo) who has hitched across country from coast to coast, round-trip, twice. (That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, one childhood friend of my offspring, Ryan McHenry, from Aptos, ran from his house in Santa Cruz County, California to Atlantic City in 2011. The lazy bum drove back though!)
Hitching to Sweden at 17
Anyway, on that first hitching trip to Sweden, I had some hard times because I looked ordinary. Hitchhiking long distance, it turns out, serves to steel you against a childish sense of injustice that lingers long after childhood among some people. On one occasion, somewhere in the northern Netherlands, I had been standing on the side of the road for two hours when two Highlanders in full kilt regalia including furry sporran passed me and politely started signaling from behind me. (That is, they took their proper place in the queue.) Soon, they were followed by a guy in complete white Saharan outfit, with turban, white flowing robes, and all. The Highlanders were gone in ten minutes. Before the Saharan got picked up, he had the time to confirm that he lived in Paris, that he did not dress that way to work or university, and that he had bought the outfit for the specific purpose of hitchhiking to Sweden to meet girls. I felt under-dressed in my plain cotton pants and my short-sleeved blue shirt. Later, I made myself understand that my travel slowness was not a result of bad luck but of inferior knowledge and skills.
I was led into a large cell with an arching stone ceiling I would have called a dungeon except that it was harshly lit. There were about twenty-five men in the room, mostly in their late twenties. They greeted me loudly in their language. An older man who looked vaguely middle class because he wore a suit (without a tie) asked me in Italian where I was from. There were five or six blankets altogether. A tall, bony guy with the ravaged face of an operetta brigand requisitioned two and handed them to me. Then, we all lined up for whole-grain bread and soup. (Yes, whole-grain used to be the cheapest before it became fashionable, in the seventies.) The brigand pushed me to the head of the line. Then he showed me that you had to dunk the hard bread into the soup to soften it. After dinner, I had a long, civilized conversation with the old man, he speaking Italian and I, French. He told me that most of my cellmates were returning from Germany where they had gone to work without a proper Yugoslav exit visa, and that they were awaiting trial for that low-grade offense. “Why don’t they look more worried?”- I asked. (The mood was, in fact, downright merry.) He told me each would get a few months in the poker but that the cars they had bought in Germany with their earnings would be awaiting them when they got out. In fact, he said, the jail had a parking lot reserved for that usage. Real communism, communism as it existed, communism with a small “c,” was not simple!
As evening came, the inmates prepared for bed in their own rudimentary ways. There was tenseness when the brigand signaled for me to set down my two blankets next to him, on a raised wooden platform. I was old enough to doubt a free lunch existed. I perceived that I was the cutest thing in the joint, and the youngest! With no gracious way to escape, I did as he suggested. Tension turned into panic when he took my head into the crook of his arm. I withdrew brusquely. He delivered himself of a vociferous and loud speech that I guessed was at once re-assuring and reproachful. There was probably no ambiguity in his gesture. Yugoslavia was the beginning of the mysterious Orient, deep into Western Europe, with different customs. Later, I saw soldiers, and once, a pair of policemen, walking peaceably hand in hand. The brigand had just adopted me as a brother. He was no jail predator. For all I know, he had protected me from the real thing.
[Then, I spent about two years in the French Navy. It was a poor Navy. You had to know how to swim well. Also, first lesson in sociology there.]
First year in California for good, as an immigrant
I met other interesting characters at the Moulin Rouge (a bar in San Francisco where I spent much of my time after immigrating for good). One was a Frenchman in his early forties who told me he was a pirate on vacation. He said he owned an old surplus US Navy PT boat armed with a machine gun he used to prey on Chinese ships in the Celebes (Indonesia). “How come you are not in prison for 20 or 25 years? How about the police, the local coast guard, the navy?” I asked. “Nobody cares about the rich Chinese in Indonesia; besides, we never, never kill anyone. We wave big guns at them, my crew and I, and they always pay up. Sometimes, they bargain a little with me. I am not unreasonable,” he explained. He invited me to join him in a piracy campaign on my next summer vacation. I told him that I would like to but I would probably have to study in the summer, too. Even at a young age, seasoned as I was by military service, I had my values straight: junior college first, piracy second, and the latter, only if there was time.
Read the pleasant rest of this old-fashioned narrative sociology in my book. See below
Copyright Jacques Delacroix 2014
The book: I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography
is available from me by email :
Please, send me $17 so I can buy fishing bait. Please, add $1.50 for taxes and $4 to help support the US Post Office. Total: $22.50
This is cheap for much entertainment and a little bit of enlightenment. The book contains many items of esoteric high-brow trivia you will be able to use to make yourself sound brilliant at cocktail parties (Marin County) and at barbecues (elsewhere).
The electronic version is also available in the Kindle Store at:
On reading devices other than Kindle: August 2nd
The electronic version costs only $7. (Every time you buy one I can afford another cappuccino with my $4 share.)
Other unimportant news: My slim collection of stories and essays in French will be on Amazon (electronic only) soon. It’s entitled: Les Pumas de grande-banlieue.