INTRODUCTION: The chapter below comes from the unfinished draft of my “sorta memoir” titled “WHAT HAPPENED: Confessions of a Failed Boulevardier.” The book recounts some significant, untold chapters in my life, including colorful and checkered times abroad. They are told through the lens of what my sorta memoir coach, Jane Vandenburgh, an accomplished memoirist and novelist, calls “fictionalized non-fiction.” The action below takes place in Winter 1987. I worked then at a chantier or workcamp for international youth volunteers in France’s volcanic heartland, renovating a 17th century farm. I’ve just returned to the camp — where I’d worked the prior Summer — after toiling in Winter 1986 in a Paris suburb, helping to build the Vietnamese Buddhist temple Le Pagode Tinh Tahm. The camp in central France, called La Ferme du Gran Mas, attracted a wide range of characters from many lands — some of them more alarming than others.
“Stormtroopers & Grandmothers”
by Douglas John Imbrogno
“S.O.D. rules!” says Aleksander.
January turns to February. The Danes — Aleksander and Casper — return to noise up the place.
We’re done with our breakfast of hot chocolate and buttered baguette dolloped with strawberry jam. It’s a chilly February morning. Alex hovers over the chantier’s battered boombox in the dining room A prior workcrew has thickly plastered the room’s corners, rounding them like the inside of an egg. As a result, acoustics in the salle à manger are favored by boombox DJs and those of us who wield guitars for half-baked songs and sing-a-longs.
Alek tries to evangelize me on the import of S.O.D., the acronym for an American hardcore/ thrash band conspicuously named Stormtroopers of Death.
“You know how you feel angry about everything sometimes? Like you want to punch things?” he tells me.
I do know that feeling. More often than I’d like to admit, I agree. Trying to be helpful with anecdotes about ‘punching things,’ I describe the time in the Miami University student paper newsroom I punched the inside of my IBM Selectric in some rage. It tattooed one-fifth of the alphabet on my knuckles for a week.
“Well, S.O.D. makes those feelings feel better. Especially, when you dance to it! Like you can get them out of you!”
The balls of his black pupils stare at me intently. They are oddly echoed by the round marble of what looks like a self-shaved head, its yellow stubble hinting at what must once have been luxuriant blonde hair.
Moments later, I have second thoughts about my diplomacy as lyrics to the band’s “Speak English or Die” batter the room. The stone hallways of the old farmhouse helpfully amplify the sound across the compound:
“You come into this country / You can’t get real jobs / Boats and boats and boats of you / Go home you fuckin’ slobs / Selling hot dogs on the corner / Selling papers in the street / Pushing, pulling, digging, sweating / Where you come from must be beat. / You always make us wait. You’re the ones we hate / You can’t communicate. Speak English or die!”
Casper role-plays the rockstar, strapped into an un-amplified electric guitar bought from his home in Odense, Denmark. He lashes at the instrument, head whipping to the combative beat, his shoulder-length blond locks blurring into a curtain of gold.
Alek shares with me a music magazine profile of S.O.D. and I wonder whether he has taken in the remark deep in the story by a band member: “The lyrics aren’t intended to be serious. Just to piss people off.”
In this, they succeed.
I can’t help but think of Mrs. Phuong. The Vietnamese grandma came to Sunday services at Le Pagode Tinh Tahm. She was part of a generation that fled her war-torn homeland after 1975, floating away by boat. In her case, landing in a south Paris suburb, feeding the faithful come to a half-built Buddhist temple.
A young Vietnamese acquaintance introduces me to Mrs. Phuong one Sunday.
“Her name means ‘phoenix,’” Dominique says into my ear, before the old woman and I duck heads in greeting. How fitting a name, I tell Dominique later, her life resurrected again in France out of the fire of the Vietnam War.
Mrs. Phuong speaks no English. So, in baby French I praise the leftovers she and the other cooks leave at our construction trailer door, after cleaning up from the Sunday feast that follows La Venerable’s morning service.
“J’aime particulièrement le panpan d’œufs,” I tell Mrs. Phoung.
I am secretly thrilled to be able to converse with an actual, complete French sentence. She looks momentarily confused. A grinning Dominique leans in toward her, says something in Vietnamese. I quiz Dominique later. “I thought I told her: ’I especially like the egg dishes…’” — meaning the omelette-like egg dishes whipped up by Mrs. Phuong and the other ladies.
“You meant to say ‘J’aime particulièrement le plat d’œufs’ Dominique says. “What you said means “ — here, she nearly doubles over in laughter — “I especially like the egg spanking.”
“‘Le panpan’ is baby talk for ‘spanking.’”
My infant lingo does not deter Mrs. Phuong. After the ladies clear out that Sunday, on the porch of the construction trailer I find the usual ceramic bowls of leftovers. One cellophane-wrapped bowl looks to be the egg dish, this time with a note taped to its top.
“Pour Douglas,” it reads in a spidery scrawl.
From my Italian grandmother wishing to fill-out my skinny boy’s body in her kitchen near the shores of Lake Erie (“You look-a so thin!”), to Mrs. Phoenix on the southern skirt of Paris, spanking me with eggs …
So, as much as Alek may wish to put “Speak English or Die” in heavy boombox rotation at Gran Mas — and at excruciating volume — I and Yanis, the Algerian immigrant work supervisor, set some limits. The Danish duo may play the cassette one hour in the evening. Or while doing renovation work.
In a room.
Alek looks grim when Yanis and I deliver the news to him and Casper before the start of one workday. He mutters in French and then Danish. Swiveling, he storms across the compound, a hand grievously pawing his shorn head. Casper, a happier spirit who appears to just want to be a rockstar, looks on sheepishly.
“Alex says he is ‘un soldat chrétien.’ A Christian soldier,” says Casper. “I do not know him that well. I met him at a concert in Odense. He talks about ‘the Big White Revolution’ all the time.”
Casper grins through the curtains of his curly, blonde locks, which half conceal his face.
“I just wish to play the music,” he says.
The curve of a smile can be glimpsed through his hair.
“Guitars! And girls!
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