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Legion of the Lost
The Legion takes every sort of man who may have any reason for joining. A smaller class is drawn from the romantics, born adventurers, the type who form the subject of a poem we learnt in childhood, the soldier of the Legion who sang ... But I was aye a truant bird and thought my home a cage.
P. C. Wren, Beau Geste
How did a well-heeled yuppie like me get into all this? I couldn't blame the Legion. They hadn't asked me to join. They told me it was going to be hell.
After graduation from Purdue University with a degree in mechanical engineering, I could take my pick from a list of Fortune 500 companies looking for recruits. I set my sights on Siemens, the vast German conglomerate that makes everything from nuclear reactors to light bulbs. At my interview, I took a gamble by telling them that what I hated most was losing. The following day they offered me a job package in Chicago paying more money than I had ever dreamt of.
A handful of crème de la crème recruits and I were signed up for the executive sales program, the fast-track career path to outside sales. Wed be taught in months, we were told, facts and techniques that took other employees years to learn in the field. But most of us didn't give a shit. We were all armed with bulletproof university degrees, and the American economy was booming. We were invulnerable.
But disenchantment with corporate America set in during the first week. After the introductory handshakes, cliques formed, and ringleaders emerged. When we were given access to expense accounts and fat signing bonuses, we began gossiping about each other — who was bending the rules and how much the others were ripping off the company. Individuals became alienated. I began to see my colleagues less as engineers and more as rats, turning on each other when there was nothing else to gnaw at. On a personal level, it was difficult to relate to anyone — I didn't own an SUV and didn't fancy spending my weekends swinging golf clubs and tennis rackets.
In an attempt to conform to the values of my peers, I decided to purchase a car very different from the 1977 Toyota that I'd driven around campus. For the first time in my life, I was buying something big with money I'd earned by my own efforts. I was raised by uneducated immigrant parents from Mexico. They worked hard, but as a kid, I'd gone without new toys, proper snow boots, and even gloves. I hoped that my BMW 535i would bring me the respect and happiness that I felt I deserved.
The training program itself was both intense and mind-numbingly boring. I started propping my feet on chairs during lectures and occasionally dozing off. During the second training module, our instructor came down on us like a crate load of printed circuit boards. When he declared how disappointed he was to notice a trainee sleeping in class, I squirmed and avoided the others' eyes, but I wasn't the only wrongdoer. He went on to complain about trainees who were abusing the expense report. There were trainees who had expected the company to pay for an extra night in Atlanta because of a birthday. Others were chronically late. Some were making personal use of the car privileges. Then there were those who came in with obvious hangovers. We held our heads low and whispered to each other about who in particular we suspected did what. I owned up to being a "sleeper" and then joined in on gossiping about who had fudged their expenses.
When not attending training sessions, I took refuge in the isolated back office I'd been assigned to. I shared it with a couple of overworked senior sales engineers who left me more or less free to do my own thing. I was able to spend hours daydreaming and reading The Legion of the Damned by Bennett J. Doty. I concealed that tome behind the covers of the personal development workbooks I'd been given on Table Etiquette and Telephone Efficiency.
Whenever I had an opportunity to chat with my officemates, I realized that the executive administrative assistant, a graying woman in her late fifties, was listening to every word from her neighboring office. She made it clear that she disliked me, especially when I got up and closed the interconnecting door.
Corporate hierarchies have eyes and ears. That woman knew more about me than Ronald, the Chicago regional manager. Hardly anybody had seen, much less spoken to him. I often wondered whether he really existed. Perhaps he was simply a mythical creation intended to keep us on our toes.
"Ronald would like to have lunch with you this afternoon," the admin informed me one morning.
I supposed this was his way of getting to know the new trainees, but when I asked the others where Roger was taking us, none of them knew anything about it. I went up to his office. Instead of real lunch, he told me to follow him downstairs "to grab a sandwich." On our return, I braced myself for the kiss of death.
He started by asking how I was getting on in the company. My response was textbook interview babble. I was happy with the daily challenges confronting me, enjoyed working in a team environment and was eager to contribute. In reality, I was bored off my ass.
"So in what ways do you feel you've contributed up to now?"
"I uh ..."
"There's been word that perhaps you're not as motivated as you could be. I have reports that you've been dozing off during training sessions, that you often arrive late, and haven't shown the proper company attitude toward the material presented. What's your take on this?"
I made no excuses and attempted a counterattack. "Well, okay, I may be a bit rough around the edges, but I'm in this business to sell. I can sell sand to Arabs in the Sahara."
He held up a copy of my Telephone Efficiency test. "In the fifteen years that I've been with this company, nobody has ever failed this before. Just let me ask, as your regional manager, whether you're really happy working for Siemens?"
"Oh yes, of course, very," I lied.
Pride comes before the fall. I promised to clean up my act, but knew that my honeymoon period with the company had come to an end. From being a star recruit, handpicked for the Chicago office, I was now seen as the one most likely to be "invited" to quit. My world was beginning to fall apart, and I was becoming more and more uncertain about where my life was going.
One morning on my way to work, I was sitting in my car, stalled in the early rush-hour traffic. In a Porsche ahead of me was a seemingly hung-over professional in an Italian suit slumped in the driver's seat. To my left was an impatient soccer mom in a SUV yapping on her cell phone. An attractive career woman on my right was applying makeup. In the rearview mirror was a young suburban girl in a subcompact, sporting big hairspray hair, probably worried that she'd be fired from her office-temp position for being late again. In the middle of it was me, a bewildered twenty-something who was not only also going to be tardy to work, but who didn't give a shit.
"Am I really any better or more useful than the man cleaning the street outside my apartment block?" I asked myself.
Ecclesiastes seemed to have gotten it right: "Vanity of vanities. All is vanity!" I realized that if I dedicated my entire lifetime to the company, I might eventually end up with a six-figure salary and the title of vice president of some obscure division. I'd become a small tile in the corporate mosaic, and then I'd die. My descendents would gobble up their inherited trust fund, and a few years after that, Id be forgotten. "For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool ..." I would never be the president of Siemens or ExxonMobil, much less the next Bill Gates. Was an uninspiring, white-collar job in a company of 400,000 employees really what I had been working for all my life? "A living dog is better than a dead lion."
Oddly enough, just as our formal training was winding down, my professional rating began to go up. I had learned to make my superiors feel important, and my assertiveness made me stand out as a trainee who was ready to take on any challenge. Ronald's "prodigal son" was even invited to assist in seminars and assign tasks to the other trainees. I went as far as charming our executive admin. Machiavelli would have been impressed. At our end-of-training celebration, Ronald drunkenly put his arm around my shoulder and introduced me to the topless strip club waitress. "Meet my star recruit! Jaime Salazar, our Purdue graduate. He's a daring kid who's going to do amazing things."
But behind my façade of commitment to the company, I was counting the days until I'd have enough money to quit. I planned to run to a part of the world I'd gotten to know during summer vacation at the end of my sophomore year. I hadn't a clue what I'd do in Europe, but I was prepared for anything — living in a tent, selling burritos on the beaches of Greece, or waiting tables in Spain. Anything, just so long as I could feel I was living a real life with genuine people.
Finally, I went back to see Ronald. "But we've seen such a change in you over the past months," he protested. "It comes to me as a complete surprise to hear that you want to leave us. After all this company has done for you and the opportunities we're offering, I expected a minimum of loyalty."
Senior management spent the entire afternoon trying to talk me out of it. I replied with standard "broaden my horizon" responses. My family thought I was mad for walking out on a high-paying career. One of my sisters even thought that I had been diagnosed with a terminal disease. The ailment, though, was my meaningless existence.
I bought myself a cheap transatlantic flight. The day before I got on the plane, I bumped into an ex-colleague who told me that Ronald had left Siemens for a pay hike with a competitor. What the hell! I was off to places unknown and felt great telling the world to fuck off, blissfully unaware that the world often says fuck off back.CHAPTER 2
FORT DE NOGENT
The Legion expresses some essential need of the human spirit, the belief that one can break with life and begin again, that salvation is to be found in the quest for danger and suffering.
"Oh my God! You threw away your j ob just like that?" Katarina was the first person I tracked down after I landed at Paris-Orly. I'd fallen for her in Dresden two summers earlier. When I returned to Purdue, we went our separate ways, but stayed in touch. She had become a blonde mother-figure for me and was happy to let me sleep on her sofa in her tiny but pricey apartment on Rue Marx Dormoy.
"Hah! What is money, after all?"
"Well, this is a side of you I never saw in the old days, when your mission in life was to climb the corporate ladder. Now I'm the one who's busy building a career. Anyway, what are you planning to do over here?"
"I mean, it's not that I mind you crashing here. Stay as long as you like, but my boyfriend was asking a lot of questions this morning."
"I understand, and won't be here long. I have to keep moving. It's like I'm trying to find something without knowing what it is that I'm looking for. Does that sound crazy?"
"Sounds like you're frustrated."
"By the way, how far is Marseille from here? I've never been there. Hopefully it's warm enough to sleep outside. Camping out will save me a good fifteen bucks a night for a hostel."
I arrived in the steamy port city of Marseille late one evening, tired and hungry after hitchhiking all the way down. I curled up on a beach and fell asleep to the whispered murmurings of the Mediterranean. In the morning, I awoke soaked in sea mist, and then went off to find something to eat. I was chewing a leathery baguette on the terrasse of the Buffet de la Gare St. Charles, when a lean man in uniform strode past. He was wearing the white képi blanc of the Légion Étrangère.
The Legion always fascinated me, so having nothing else to do, I sneaked onto his train. Fifteen minutes later, I got off where he did in Aubagne. I followed him up the hill to the headquarters of the French Foreign Legion, the Quartier Viénot. The 1er Régiment Étranger was also the senior regiment and home to the world-famous band, Musique Principale.
My legionnaire had gone into an official-looking building, so I followed the signs to the Musée du Souvenir, the Legions museum. There I admired the collection of regimental flags, armaments and uniforms of various eras — sombreros for the 1860s expedition to Mexico and képis with white Beau Geste neck flaps for the Moroccan campaign of the 1920s. The act creating the Légion Étrangère was signed on March 9, 1831, by King Louis-Philippe. It had the twofold purpose of mopping up throngs of political refugees flooding into France, and liberating the educated classes from military conscription, allowing them to get on with making money. The early Legion was a ragtag lot that included many criminals and other social outcasts. Recruits were shipped straight out to the colonies, where they had to serve for five years before being allowed back to metropolitan France.
The Salle d'Honneur contains memorabilia of the 35,000 legionnaires who laid down their lives for France. For me the most moving exhibits were the Croix de Guerre and Médaillé Militaire awarded posthumously to my hero, the poet Alan Seeger, who died fighting in the Great War. Born in New York in 1888, he had studied Italian at Harvard and later moved to Paris' Quartier Latin to live and write among the American expatriates. As the bright sunshine of the belle époque became overcast by ominous portents of war, Seeger joined dozens of other American patricians who answered Madame la République's call to arms by enlisting. The Legion was not particularly impressed. He wrote that the superiors were as brutish with gentlemen volunteers as they were with "refugees from justice and roughs." The more things change, the more they stay the same, I was to discover.
During the battle of the Somme, Seeger's company was ordered to retake the occupied village of Belloy-en-Santerre. As they advanced, they were caught in the crossfire of six German machine guns. Seeger was cut down, as he waved his camarades on, and fell screaming into a bomb crater. Before dying, he cried out for water and his mother. He had written in one of his letters to her: "If it must be, let it come in the heat of action. Why flinch? It is by far the noblest form in which death can come." One John F. Kennedy's favorite poems was Seeger's prophetic I Have a Rendezvous with Death, which eerily foretold of the poet's passing. It was published posthumously.
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips North again this year,
And I to my pledged word I am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.
Beyond the Salle d'Honneur is the Foreign Legion's Holy of Holies, the Crypte, off limits even to legionnaires except in the presence of an officer. I leaned in over the velvet rope to read the names inscribed on the wall panels of the 903 officers killed in action. Among them is Lieutenant-Colonel Arnilakvari, an exiled prince of Georgia and commander of a Legion unit attached to Britain's Eighth Army in North Africa. Blown away by German shellfire in 1942 during the battle of El Alamein, he is remembered for his words: "We, foreigners, have but one way to prove to France our gratitude for the welcome she has given us: to die for her." Here, too, encased in a glass reliquary, lies the Legions most sacred relic, the wooden hand of Capitaine Danjou, killed in 1863 at the legendary battle of Camerone in Mexico. The place reeks of heroic death.
After leaving the museum, I walked along the street to a scruffy Aubagne bistrot where I started a conversation with a group of képis blancs. One was a Canadian, a disabled paratroop sergeant now serving in the Musique Principale. "Thinking of joining, huh? Well, think hard. I know all about you Alan Seeger types. You think you could shoot to kill without having second thoughts? Just remember, your sergeants and corporals are your divine natural law. As a professional soldier, you kill on demand. If all you want is a change of scenery, hell, go back to Purdue and get an MBA. France refuses to accept her second-rate military status and sticks her nose into all sorts of dirty places like Africa. Ask yourself what you can expect to get out of joining the Legion and weigh that against a whole lot of pain and humiliation."