INTRODUCTION: The chapters below come 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 some colorful, checkered, and deeply troubled 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 then worked at a chantier or workcamp for international youth volunteers in France’s volcanic heartland, renovating a 17th century farm. I have just returned to the camp — where I had worked the prior Summer — after toiling during the freezing Winter of 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 a little more alarming than others. ~ Douglas John Imbrogno
“Stormtroopers & Grandmas”
by Douglas John Imbrogno | copyright 2022
January turns to February. The Danes — Aleksander and Casper — return to noise up the place. One chilly morning, we wrap up our breakfast of hot chocolate and buttered baguette dolloped with strawberry jam. Alek makes a beeline for 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.
“S.O.D. rules!” he tells me. “You know how you feel angry about everything sometimes? Like you want to punch things?”
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 day in the Miami University student paper newsroom when 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!” Alek responds. “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 hints 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 Tam, where I’d worked the previous Winter in Sevres, south of Paris. She was part of a generation that fled her war-torn homeland after 1975, floating away by boat. In her case, landing in a 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 they clean up from the Sunday feast that follows the weekly morning service by the temple abbot, known to all as ‘La Venerable.’
READINGS: “When ‘Frankenstein’ Came to Town”: “Edgar Winter,” Tommy says, almost reverently, as the record scratches to life. “Johnny’s brother. A song called ‘Frankenstein’ by The Edgar Winter Group…” | Excerpt from the work-in-progress “WHAT HAPPENED: Confessions of a Failed Boulevardier” by Douglas John Imbrogno
“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. Yet Mrs. Phuong 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…’”
I am referring to 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.’”
‘Baby talk’ also is a good description of my French at the time. Yet 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 in Ohio (“You look-a so thin! Come-a to the kitchen, I feeda you …”), to Mrs. Phoenix on the southern skirts of Paris in a half-built Buddhist temple, spanking me with eggs …
‘Guitars! And girls!’
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. Seeing him stalk away, I wonder of we have made one problem into another one.
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!” he said. “And girls!”
He, too, gets up to go, tossing his last remark over his shoulder as he strolls dreamily away.
We awake the next day to find Alek cleared out of the dorm room down the hall from La Chambre de Feu. His sleeping bag is gone, his backpack no longer leaned against a bunk bed near a window overlooking the Allier.
With my Chinese guitar strung across my chest, I had wandered into the room to get the troops moving. We are back to a regular work schedule — an 8:30 a.m. breakfast, with renovation work starting 9:30 a.m. I have taken to rousting sleepyheads by strolling into the dorm rooms playing guitar.
I cease strumming chords to Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” to assess the Aleksander matter.
“Hej hej!” sounds from the top bunk above what had been Alek’s bed.
The sound comes from a lumpy tangle of musty tan blankets and a blue sleeping bag. Casper’s tangled blonde hair falls over the side of the bed as he rouses, turns on his side. He glances down at the empty yellow foam mattress below.
“What does that mean — what you said?” I ask Casper.
“Bye-bye,” he says, falling backwards onto his bunk. “In Danish.”
He does not seem perturbed that his traveling mate has vamoosed.
“Can I have the Danish candy?” he says to the ceiling.
On an overturned white plastic barrel beside the lower bunk, Alek has left a half-eaten package of ‘Tom’s Orangegrene Mork Chokolade.” From the package, it looks like pretzel sticks dipped in orange-flavored milk chocolate.
“Long as you share in the Fire Room,” I say. “See you over at the Shed. Did you see him go?”
Casper retreats beneath his blankets, nuzzling into his sleeping bag, which move as he wags his head.
“No-no. Too much rodvin last night in the Fire Room. How you say in French: Trop de vin rouge? Ay-yay-YAY! My mind is swole.”
I puzzle over his final words, yet appreciate the sentiment. Red wine overdose is a daily hazard in France, at least for us amateurs.
Then, I get it.
“‘Swollen’ is, I think, the word you want, Casper.”
Arethia has requested a meeting that morning at her office in the camp. I am the oldest volunteer living at Gran Mas, so she has made good on her suggestion from last Spring in Paris that I might finally be a “voluntary” supervisor. It seems a rare English miscue for her, which she corrects after we reconnect at Gran Mas. It’s as if she recalled for half-a-year her slight verbal error and is keen to correct it.
“I mean to say, of course, ‘volunteer’ supervisor when we speak in Paris about you helping with the jeunes volontaires at the chantier. Let us make that now happen.”
I tell her of the departure of one of the Danes. She waves a dismissive hand in the air.
“Some are not suited for this work, this — how you say in English? Experience? We have his money. He won’t be returned it as he did not finish his work.”
As Spring and Summer roll onwards, the camp will grow with more young volunteers, come to live and work for a few weeks from countries across Europe, Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa and North and South America.
It’s a decent deal. Spend a few hundred bucks, work to renovate a historic farm compound for awhile. Get to hang out in the French heartland. Given my Gran Mas tenure as one such volunteer last year, I appear to have passed muster with Arethia, who now wishes me to help keep the camp humming as some kind of on-sight overseer.
Plus, I get the sense, to train a slightly more adult eye on things after business hours, since she lives a town away. Which forces me to consider something.
Exactly how adult am I at age 29?
Arethia sits in a maroon-padded chair behind a wooden desk in a spartan office on the ground floor of the main farmhouse building. I wonder how many bosses, supervisors, monsieurs, madames, and local patrons have conducted meetings in this room, while French history swirled about the 17th century property through the ages.
The desktop features two neat stacks of papers in low pinewood boxes at either of its sides. An IBM Selectric rests exactly between them. A single, framed, black-and-white photo of an unsmiling, although not unfriendly-seeming, young girl on a swing faces the typewriter.
A big, four-paned window over Arethia’s shoulder offers a line of sight through the farm’s main gate to the small Roma encampment in the surrounding fields. Were I to train my attention, I might spot the gypsies’ horse cropping grass in the morning sunlight. On the wall beside the window hangs a poster showing a rank of pine trees emblazoned below with a quote in white script:
“La vérité vaut bien qu’on passe quelques années sans la trouver.” Jules Renard
I nod my head toward the poster.
“What does that mean in English?”
Arethia glances over her shoulder. Looks back, fixing her gaze on me through tortoise-shell glasses. Her pinned hair — which in Paris featured chopsticks appearing to hold an auburn bun in place — now shows what look like a small, white, live orchid bloom.
“It means to say: ‘Truth is more valuable if it takes you a few years to find it.’You are perhaps still too young to know the full meaning. But I have maybe fifteen more years than you? And appreciate its meaning more every day.”
I like being seen as still young. Not so much being seen as clueless. But whatever. Smiling, I move my eyes from the poster, grazing the photo of the girl.
She chin nods towards it.
“Ma fille. My daughter, Madeline. I call her ‘Manon’ …”
She seems to stare over the frame into some middle distance for a moment. Snaps out of the reverie.
“But … how you say in English? Enough of me! We have La Ferme du Gran Mas to bring into this century! And the next one to come! There is much work to do.”
The meeting lasts a little over an hour. I have my marching orders. Keep the volunteers working at their assigned tasks. Coordinate with Yanis, who is supervising all the work.
“He is very good. He has the whole plan in his head,” says Arethia, approvingly.
I am also to be the adult in the room when they are not on site, I take it. She does not put it that way. Arethia sometimes overestimates my schoolboy’s grasp of French and will utter whole sentences in her language. Only my crumpled forehead signals to her that my brain is taking time to parse her utterance.
“J’ai besoin d’une personne mature ici. C’est toi?”
“I mean to say …”
I catch up, translating back at her.
“You need a mature person here,” I say. “When you or Yanis are not here, oui?”
‘And is that me?’ she is wondering.
“Oui,” she says.
“C’est tois,” I respond, confidently.
Arethia arches her left eyebrow, high as the Arc di Triomphe.
I catch my bumble.
“C’est mois!” I say.
Her chin lifts and falls. A slight smile at one end of her mouth.
In truth, I am not totally sure that ‘mature’ describes me at this exact moment in my life. In truth, haven’t I fled all the ‘mature’ elements of my life back in America ? But I do like the vote of cross-cultural confidence. And I have been projecting confidence my entire life that I didn’t really have at that exact moment.
It’s a life skill, really. For getting to the Next Big Thing.
Arethia studies my face, the gaze of a surgeon or a no-bullshit professor.
Released from the interview — and it feels like one and that I have passed, at least for now — I exit her office. Trundle over to the kitchen. Pour into a brown ceramic mug a cup of coffee drawn from an industrial aluminum coffee pot that looks like a small artillery shell.
I walk back across the courtyard towards the gate. The morning air feels like cool silk against my skin. The rising sun illuminates the Allier, still misted with wisps of steam. It looks like clouds of fireflies sparkle on its sliding surface.
I blow a breath across the surface of my cup, bending its rising steam horizontal. I come to rest one shouder against the left side of the main gate into Gran Mas and gaze out of the complex. The farm’s old stone walls entirely encircle the mouldering estate. They are maybe 12-feet high. The wide entryway connects to the serpentine road curving through the fields and onwards to Issoire’s tiny downtown, crossing overtop the nearby A71 highway. along the way.
The estate’s front gate is big enough, I imagine, for a horse-drawn carriage to enter with room to spare back in the day. That was when ‘the farm of the big or great house’ — as the name translates — was once a dominant local estate in Napoleon’s time. Even further back than that, actually, Yanis tells me.
In the field, I spot the small Roma encampment. Maybe five to seven folks live there, although none show this morning around the small white traveling caravan centering the camp. Silence reigns, except for the whoosh of traffic on the highway.
Were I to put my thumb out along the northbound lane, I could be back in Paris by dinnertime. Hitchhiking south, I’d plunge deep into the heart of the ancient volcanic hills of Gaul. Keep going and I’d come to Montpelier, Aix-en-Province, Marseille, and the Mediterranean Sea.
The French follows in my head a beat later.
Le Mar Maditerraneo.
I wonder which direction the Christian soldier has gotten off to.
I spot the Roma camp’s shaggy brown horse, whom I have christened ‘Major.’ He crops grass in the dewy fields. His two front legs are tied with a corded rope with just enough slack for him to hop and forage grass, yet not enough to wander off.
His head pops up. Peers my way. Major snickers, his head shaking side-to-side. As I have done since I was a kid with animals whose language I can vaguely mimic, I talk back to him with a matching snicker.
He freezes a moment.
His ear rotate forward as he peers my way. Then, as if remembering the grass at his pinioned front feet, Major ducks his head.
It’s breakfast time.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: To read another chapter in this “sorta memoir,” check out “Happy Again,” in the Longridge Review. For news of the publication of “WHAT HAPPENED: Confessions of a Failed Boulevardier,” please free subscribe to my email newsletter: WestVirginiaVille.substack.com
When “Frankenstein” Came to Town: “Edgar Winter,” Tommy says, almost reverently, as the record scratches to life. “Johnny’s brother. A song called ‘Frankenstein’ by The Edgar Winter Group…” | An excerpt from the work-in-progress “WHAT HAPPENED: Confessions of a Failed Boulevardier” by Douglas John Imbrogno