Is what my lady-love asked me when she read the following sort-of poem, copied from a notebook that was my constant companion during two years of servitude in the United States Army. Penned one sunny spring day in Fontainebleau gardens around the big chateau after Charles DeGaulle announced he was kicking NATO out of France. Everyone I knew in the Army garrison post where I worked was bitter about this. Including civilian employees; we were the single largest employer next to Peugeot, and the clerks had spent careers writing American shorthand. I watched them struggle with instruction books for the French equivalent.
Some would follow NATO to Belgium, but not many. From what a civilian female photographer told me one rainy day in Paris, Belgium and Belgians were not held in high regard. Her expression and tone when discussing the prospect of moving to Belgium reminded me of Huckleberry Finn passages about being “sold down the river.” She said she’d take unemployment first.
Perhaps bitterest about Le Gran Charles’ dictum were Army veterans my father’s age and older, nearing completion of twenty- and thirty-year careers. The sturdy garrison sergeant major, bald as a billiard and built like a fireplug, almost had thirty in. When he arrived on post someone had asked if he’d ever been in France before. His laconic reply would have done the Spartans proud: I walked through here with a rifle…In the dying days of our presence there, his bitterness surfaced: we came over here once to kick the Kaiser’s ass back to Berlin, and once to beat the Nazis. He’s an ungrateful asshole — I ain’t coming back a third time to pull their fat out of the fire…
Over half a century later no invading force — if you don’t count hordes of immigrants — controls l’Hexagone. But back then the Soviet Union and its global ambitions loomed large. Khrushchev had vowed a Red Star on the White House by 1980, and France would be a logical stepping stone, with ports the Red fleet could use as the Nazis had, gearing up for their abortive invasion of England. So his comment was received with knowing nods from other veterans.
I went for a stroll in the gardens and watched young French matrons pushing strollers on the groomed paths, and French soldiers enjoying ice-cream cones from a vendor’s cart that leaked the smoke of dry ice. A hundred or so yards away, a French toddler approached a huge swan gliding in a decorative pool with audible cries of glee. The swan bowed its neck and attacked, viciously pecking the toddler’s face as his shouts became shrieks of terror.
Grownups rushed to counterattack with shouts and flung gravel. The big white bird reared up, wings spread, long neck snaking and feinting, daring them closer. A second swan led two young-of-the-year cygnets from shoreline cover into the water, and away. A microcosm of misunderstandings that lead to wars? I sat and wrote the words prompting my lady-love to ask what was I thinking?
Short answer: I don’t know. What do you think?
FONTAINBLEAU, APRIL 1966
The road to the Emerald City is guarded by the Forts of Folly
And Four Horsemen ride Looking-Glass Land.
Alice, that Apocalyptic Beast, has Startled the White Rabbit
And Omar’s tents are all folded.
The coffee spoons were melted in furnaces in the Forts of Folly,
Forged into staples for the Orwell gun.
The Hobbits died afraid in exile and Treebeard, that old Ent,
Fell on a darkling plain.
We all seek our own road to Oz
And find our own way to Hell.