Doris Lessing’s name came up in conversation last night. The computer was right there so my lady-love and I addressed Google Brain. As is usual in these forays the Lessing search expanded to everything from a Chicago union activist and official Commie with whom she shared a relationship once to sufism and other disciplines the Persia-born author explored, her life in Africa, all her books we missed or never heard of; a respectful obit in The Guardian that offered many leads to lovers, friends, other writers, and people she mentored. We saw a dozen books by her and others we want to read now.
Lessing’s name surfaced in a conversation about French accents, French attitudes, tense times observed over decades of separate visits or stays in France. Which led to this story of mine and its reference to Lessing. (I never knew if M. Chaigneau completed his translation of “The Golden Notebook;” he said it was difficult going. “Tres difficile.” Last time I heard from Dow he was home in New York, packing for Paris and said he was never coming back. Hope he made it as an expatriate.
WORKINGS OF MEMORY are a mystery. When I woke up today I was thinking of the word Rochelle. Just that: Rochelle, a French town. Quickly followed by New Rochelle, in New York State.
I had thought of neither for years, yet here they were, linked as always by a decision of the imperious Charles DeGaulle.
Monsieur Chaigneau’s craggy, distinguished features swam into my mind’s eye. He was the only native of Rochelle I ever knew; dead loyal to DeGaulle but appalled at his politics.
We shared an office at an American garrison outside Paris the spring President DeGaulle kicked NATO out of France. I had transferred from the MPs and come down from Germany to edit the garrison newspaper; M. Chaigneau was the post’s community liaison.
Next a second, less-distinguished, callow and New York sort of face came to mind; the only resident of New Rochelle I ever knew. I’ll call him Dow. The two Rochelles — deux Rochelles — always are connected if I think of them at all.
M. Chaigneau was dismayed at tension between old allies. He attempted futilely to smooth things over by organizing Franco-American cultural events that were attended only by West German and British NATO officers; the French military gave them a pass because DeGaulle had informants in every battalion.
M. Chaigneau stood to lose his livelihood when NATO left and would find it difficult finding work as a former employee of the Americans. He shrugged eloquently; nothing would be as bad as life under the Nazis. His stories of near starvation and survival in Rochelle under Nazi occupation were stark.
Dow was an American GI with his own bone to pick with DeGaulle. I met Dow when we both washed up at North Fort Lewis, Washington, exiles to the other side of the world from the City of Light. North Fort was a ghost town: abandoned temporary barracks from the Second World War stretched, empty and lightless, for miles.
Huge wooden mockups of troop transports, still wreathed in rotting embarkation nets, showed where soldiers practiced for MacArthur’s island-hopping campaign against the Japanese. Civilian contractors swarmed the barracks, preparing them to serve one more conflict; Vietnam. The plumbing didn’t even work. The trick was to take a roll of toilet paper, find a toilet not yet used by another GI, do your business and leave it for the contractors to clean up.
One small cluster of barracks had been provided lights and running water and a mess hall but they hadn’t got around to toilets even there. There was not an officer to be seen. We were roughing it the Army way until things were up and running. Senior non-coms liked this just fine; officers would only slow things down. And being assigned as cadre meant their odds were good to avoid Southeast Asia for at least another tour, maybe long enough to retire.
For amenities we had the main fort, fully operational and crammed with Fourth Division soldiers, a short bus ride away. Theaters, PXs, Class 6 Stores, snack bars and doughnut shops; everything a small town had. But that wasn’t enough for Dow.
His previous billet had been heaven: clerking in an Army office in Paris and required to wear civvies, to avoid offending French sensibilities. The Army rented a Paris flat for his squad; no barracks for him. In the jargon of the day, he had it knocked — until he didn’t.
The ghostly North Fort was a long way to fall from Paris. We swapped Paris stories as an antidote for the grim surroundings. Dow was fascinated that M. Chaigneau took on Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook to translate. A Lessing fan who spoke French, Dow wondered if the old man could pull off such a difficult feat. M. Chaigneau had been impressed that I remembered French Rochelle as the scene of a rollicking adventure in The Three Musketeers. Dow thought every literate person must know that.
But transition from life on the boulevards to baggy fatigues in a fort without plumbing preyed on Dow. More than once he said he was going over the hill. More than once he said he was losing his mind.
His harping on mental illness led me to tell him the Army legend about a soldier always searching for a particular piece of paper. The legend goes the soldier one day started picking up and examining each piece of paper he came across. He would shake his head sadly, say “that’s not it,” and move on. He did this day in and day out. His sergeant worried about his obsession. His captain worried. But he kept on examining every piece of paper, even trash during police call. “I’ll know it when I see it,” was all he would say.
So they sent him to an Army shrink. He examined every piece of paper the shrink let him touch: “that’s not it.” The legend is vague how the shrink tried to plumb his obsession. He never stopped searching. Eventually the Army concluded he was unfit for duty and gave him a medical discharge.
“That’s it,” he said when they gave him his discharge.
Dow laughed at the story, but lapsed back into melancholy. Days went by. Little by little the cadre got North Fort up and running. Regular assignments replaced cleanup details. The first recruits arrived for processing. I lost track of Dow and thought no more about him.
I was editing the North Fort news out of a former dispensary when I heard about a GI who had been AWOL for a long time and showed up at headquarters in the middle of the night. He was dressed in European clothing and had hippie-long hair. This apparition told the astonished duty officer he had to find his father right away — and named our general as his father.
Told the general didn’t have a son his age, he confessed he had memory issues — couldn’t remember where he had been lately. But Dad would fix it. The MPs came and took him to the mental ward. Eventually somebody ran his fingerprints and discovered he was AWOL. He calmly denied his identity and kept asking for his father, the general. Dad would straighten it all out. He was tractable and friendly even when they put in him new fatigues and escorted him to a military barber who nearly scalped him. He just kept asking for his dad and smiling peacefully. Drug screens were negative.
Our major, the commanding general’s public information officer, just shook his head. The kid was so plausible he said, some senior staff secretly wondered about the general’s earlier life. The better part of valor was to issue the freshly shorn soldier a medical discharge and ship him home to New Rochelle without comment.
New Rochelle, New York?
Do you know any others? my major asked. Just the original Rochelle in France, I said.
A couple days later, in the brand-new North Fort snack bar, somebody hailed me from across the room. It was Dow with a fresh crew-cut, neatly dressed in civvies, lugging an AWOL bag. He said he was waiting for the bus to take him to the airport. We both ordered burgers and Cokes and chatted about nothing in particular. He said he was going back to Paris soon. We exchanged addresses, finished our burgers and sipped our Cokes.
“Finally out of the Army, huh?” I said.
“I got an early discharge,” he said. “Thanks to you.”
“What?” I didn’t think I could have heard him right.
“Remember the soldier always looking for a piece of paper?”
“Well sure.” I suddenly had a very bad feeling.
He laughed happily. “I elaborated on your theme.” Then he leaned in and very quietly told me he thought amnesia and paternity were more elegant, because he didn’t have to stay on-post to pull it off. He unzipped his AWOL bag and produced his discharge papers.