It was madness, I tell you, nothing but madness. Why else would we have followed that slavering martinet Sergeant Delgado over miles of molten dunes into the heart of the Sahara — and us with nothing to drink but our own saliva? And then to come suddenly upon the impenetrable fortress of Nad Elyauq, to fix bayonets and charge its granite walls screaming our lungs out, only to realize it was a mirage, a vapor steaming from our heat-crazed brains — I ask you, were these the actions of healthy men?
But such is life in the Legion. One minute reclining at the Casbah beneath waving palm fronds as dark-eyed concubines ply you with figs and potent liqueurs; the next minute finding these same sweet maidens have parted your hair with a scimitar.
Like so many others, I first joined the Legion to forget a woman: my wife. In fact, most of the men in my company had enlisted for the same reason: to forget my wife. After a few hellish days of basic training, we had forgotten all about forgetting her and tried instead to forget our tormentor, Sergeant Delgado.
Delgado was a Spaniard, with olive skin and pimento eyes and jaws like castanets. Rumor had it that he was a former bullfighter who had been ejected from the ring for goring a fellow toreador. In the Legion his native cruelty was given free rein, yet he was capable of surprising tenderness and concern for our well-being. Once a private on the verge of starvation stole a crust of bread from the commissary (a serious offense in the Legion, where snacking between meals is forbidden). Delgado assembled us outside the mess and confronted the thief.
“Which is the guilty hand?” the Sergeant asked.
The man held out his left hand, which trembled violently right up to the moment Delgado lopped it off with his saber. As the Sergeant wiped the blade on his pantaloons and turned to leave, the man hissed through teeth clenched in agony:
“Begging your pardon, sir, but the mistake is all mine. I’m afraid my right hand is the real culprit.”
The whole company fell silent, waiting for Delgado’s customary obscenities and the poor thief’s instantaneous decapitation. Instead, the Sergeant wept inconsolably and apologized, accepting all the blame and calling himself “a first-class knucklehead.” Then, with infinite regret, he cut off the man’s other hand. We were profoundly moved.
We learned the meaning of the Legion motto, “March or die,” by carrying the heaviest military backpacks in the world. Each was a carefully designed desert survival kit containing blankets, sheets, a down comforter, embroidered pillows, an easily assembled four-poster brass bed and canopy, 2000 rounds of ammunition, an extra rifle and bayonet, enough bricks to build a walled fort, two liters of water, eight liters of whiskey, a copper cooking pot, a side of beef, a side of pork, a side of hydrolyzed vegetable protein, two complete extra uniforms and an extra Legionnaire.
A man could march about five feet with this monstrosity on his back — a distance that increased to 50 miles at the point of Delgado’s bayonet. To his credit, the Sergeant led us every step of the way, though due to a severe case of corns he had to be carried on a velvet litter while we marched and sang.
Legionnaires love to sing, particularly their theme song, “Le Boudin” (literally, “the blood sausage”). During Maurice Chevalier’s little-known enlistment in the 1920s, higher-ups considered changing the theme to “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me.” But then Chevalier was dishonorably discharged for creating an “obscene public display” (he removed the veil from the wife of a local sheik), and the idea was dropped.
For many, the Legion is the only alternative to a jail sentence. It will overlook petty crimes such as homicide and kidnapping if a man has something substantial to offer — say, a cold case of Coors. It is an open secret that, while the Legion enforces strict prohibitions against practically all other vices, it has no rules against drinking. Alcoholism is indeed the real “Legionnaire’s Disease.” Moonshine was common. I remember a home-brew made of fermented cactus rinds and camel droppings, with just a pinch of cinnamon for flavor. We would sip this concoction until we saw two of everything, including our paychecks. Then we would cash the extra checks and send the money home to mother.
I hope my remarks have not given the impression that life in the Legion was an unending round of degradation and torture. Far from it! A Legionnaire is as fond of fun as the next man — even more so, for in the Legion the next man is usually maimed or deceased.
Our favorite holiday was the Feast of Camerone, held every April 30. This commemorated the massacre at Camerone, Mexico, in 1863, when Captain Jean Danjou and his force of 46 held off 2,000 attackers, finally perishing as Danjou led the last desperate bayonet charge. To celebrate this brave occasion, Sergeant Delgado organized us into teams of “attackers” (the enlisted men) and “defenders” (Delgado and his staff) and had us re-enact the battle. Strictly speaking, these games were played more according to the spirit than the letter of historical reality. That the “defenders” were armed with real bayonets and the “attackers” only with camel-hair brooms we put down to the Sergeant’s innate sense of fair play.