I joined the French Foreign Legion to avoid talking to my boss. Our yearly evaluations were fast approaching and I was anxious about my possible future with MicroBio Nicotine and Ice Cream Flavoring, Inc. While I am usually a reliable and productive employee, I’m not sure my boss appreciated the mannequin-cum-soap-box-derby races through the halls of the main offices which I single-handedly devised as a way to ‘boost morale’, or my well-intentioned, however ill-timed observation/comment/joke regarding the whereabouts of his wife at the recent company picnic and ‘did she divorce him for another man’ (which I later found out was partially true; she had run off with a man 20 years her junior to become part of a magic act in a traveling circus that sells Tupperware on the side). I have no stomach for confrontation and try to avoid it whenever I am able to, so, instead of enduring the inevitable bad review, or possibly the humiliation of being fired and having to walk through the halls with the proverbial box of personal belongings tucked awkwardly under my arm for all to see, I didn’t come in to work that day and decided instead to sign up for the French Foreign Legion at the local branch office. The forms that I had to fill out were thankfully brief, and smelled faintly of lavender and fresh bread. The entire process of entering the Foreign Legion was amazingly streamlined, nothing like my last trip to the DMV which lasted several days after becoming lost while in line (I was found several days later by a couple of brave DMV rescue workers near the computer road test stations, slightly dazed, having survived on a packet of half-eaten Tums I had in my pocket). Within one week the elite of the French army had trained me to become a part of one of the and best dressed fighting forces in the world. I learned how to fill a puff pastry at 100 yards, disarm a dancing bear and grow a mustache that would curl nicely at the ends when properly waxed. I was ready for adventure!
My first assignment however, was not the sort of gallant undertaking I had envisioned, least of all did it resemble one of the scenarios that had been pictured in the Legion’s colorful brochure (dropped into combat against a horde of plainly dressed Lithuanian accountants or pitted against a cult in Ohio that worships the tangerine, for example). My particular unit was sent to the south of France to guard a 100×75 ft. piece of Brie that was to be hauled across the countryside by dozens of groundhogs ropes cinched tightly around their furry torsos. That summer the government of France was staging a particularly obscure episode from the French Revolution which mostly involved barnyard animals and maître d’s of certain social breeding and temperament. The reenactment, Le Voyage De Fromage, is mounted every ten years, or whenever a piece of Brie of this magnitude is available for transporting. Due to the vulnerability of this moveable production at the hands of various bands of robbers, who often make off with segments of the Brie, the Foreign Legion has been assigned to protect the colossal cheese from the predictable assault for the last five decadal reenactments. Our unit walked alongside the groundhogs in the profuse, stifling heat for days, sometimes moving only a few feet in a span of several hours. We frequently stopped to rest, exhausted from pure boredom, sipping brandy or whiskey from ornate flasks that we had secretly stowed in our boots. The groundhogs dragged the immense cheese over the lush topography of southern France, the increasingly flaccid and fetid Brie slowly making its way up the side of steep hills, the spectacle of which in previous reenactments had become the focus of documentaries and films ( see: Achtung!: Brie!, directed by outstanding German eccentric, Werner Hertzog).
Then, a few weeks into the pilgrimage, a gaggle of French chambermaids fell upon our haggard unit. They gleefully surrounded us, purring like kittens at the sight of a large bowl of milk. They tickled us with well placed feather dusters, leaning us back, gently prying open our mouths with perfumed fingertips and tucked mints under our tongues ever so carefully while the rest moved around to the back of the cheese, out of sight, absconding with chunks of the Brie which is known for its curative powers, in addition to being delightful when spread over a cracker. The chambermaids giggled like French chambermaids are known to do, then disappeared into the countryside.
Finally, a few days later, we arrived at the end of the march, exhausted, our uniforms badly in need of ironing (this is one of the points stressed in the Legion Code of Conduct: all uniforms must be expertly pressed, at all times; you never know who you might see in battle) and the rear of the cheese, the rind, almost entirely gone. We were reprimanded by our commander and sent to bed without dessert.
* * *
After this first tour of duty was completed I was then assigned to the latest installment of The Conquest of Algeria (staged sporadically). Finally, I could prove that I was made for the scathing ground of battle, not the Berber carpeted halls of my languid office existence!
This year, The Conquest of Algeria, for reasons of budget, was staged in Trenton, New Jersey in the parking lot of the Ramada Inn near the airport. The Algerians were played by the Trenton Mime Theater Group, Local 204, a jovial bunch even for mimes. Our unit mostly milled about in the hotel lobby or bar, occasionally grappling with the Algerians/mimes when we ran into one another, the abridged face-off always ending with the mimes creating an invisible box to hide in. The mimes proved to be unworthy adversaries and I found myself loitering around the hotel’s breakfast buffet in the mornings, just to occupy a few stray hours. I drank copious amounts of terrible coffee and gorged myself on uniformly voluptuous and over-frosted Danishes, tasteless and rubbery from their lengthy residence beneath a heating lamp. I watched local TV weather reports in my hotel room, switching between stations frequently to see how they differed from one another. One weather person had a hair piece while the other was simply bald. I noted the difference.
* * *
On the last day of the Conquest, I was approached by one Reginald Wittenbaum the Third, rabid entrepreneur and manufacturer of innovative gadgetry including the steam-powered vacuum cleaner and nose hair removal system. He was in town attending the local Scientific Inquiry and Gadget trade show sponsored by Intel to present his latest invention, a small contraption that harvested anti-matter and transmuted it into a delicious marmalade suitable for bottling. He was looking for someone to run the device, to test its limitations, a dangerous endeavor according to Wittenbaum. I must have appeared somewhat reliable in my uniform, even though it sported a few errant coffee stains and the occasional Danish crumb dangling precariously from a lapel like a climber hanging from a cliff face. I was in doubt as to my future with the Legion; the previous assignments had proved to be tiresome and I subsequently developed a slight case of French Legionnaires’ disease, characterized by sudden bursts of ennui and cravings for monogrammed handkerchiefs. The offer was intriguing. Wittenbaum was surely mad; however he did have nice trousers. A person with trousers that nice can’t be all that bad I reasoned, and I readily agreed to abandon the Legion and join him in the pursuit of scientific enlightenment.
We were about to board his unicycle-powered flying machine, when I thought of my goldfish, which I had purchased some months back in a spontaneous burst of responsibility. I had never owned a dog because I knew that I would forget to feed and walk it. I never acquired roommates, because, at some point, I would forget to pay the rent or my half of the cable bill or clean up discarded toenail clippings in the living room. This was also why I was never able to commit to anything beyond dating; marriage was a giant warship of responsibility that I was unwilling to board, much less co-pilot. Fish, however, seemed fairly straightforward; they could be my own small attempt at commitment.
Of course, it had been almost two months since I had abandoned my job and joined the French Foreign Legion. I wasn’t overly familiar with goldfish, but I was reasonably positive that they wouldn’t last that long without food.
As Wittenbaum and I took off from the parking lot of the Ramada Inn, I knew that I wasn’t quite ready to settle down, to fully embrace the routine of leading an average life. I just wasn’t that sort of fellow. It was adventure that I was seeking!
Besides, I could always buy more goldfish.