Friday, October 14, 2011

The Mercenary

I was in the south of France in the summer of 1978, riding my Morini 350 twin and it was hot and sticky and dry and I was not ready to ride far. With frequent stops and a lot of lane splitting I got stuck in traffic in all sorts of exotic places, St Tropez heads the list of any self respecting tourist in the South of France, but I was not impressed. My bike had clip-on handlebars forcing me to ride in a crouch, while my tank bag kept flopping from side to side so that I had to hold it in place with my forearms which got sweaty from the contact. Thus it was that all I could think about was finding shade and water, trapped in the long line of cars inching to nowhere. Shade and water meant I had to escape to the hills, so I abandoned any pretensions of hanging with the rich and infamous on the beach and I rode for the hills.It was hot work even when I gained elevation and there were still slow poke cars on the roads to prevent me moving smoothly at speed, but I got more of a cooling breeze the higher I went so things improved gradually. Besides, even loaded with luggage the Morini was great fun to ride. Nowadays a 350cc V-twin on tires that seem no wider than beach cruiser bicycles tires would not appear to be much good for riding anywhere out of sight of home, but that Morini took me to North Africa and all over northern Europe over the course of three years that I owned it. Eventually a friend of mine rode it off the road after he nagged me to death asking to ride it and that was the end of that.

I found a campground much like the one pictured above, a bunch of camping trailers mixed in with space for tents and tons of people everywhere on their much anticipated summer vacations. I picked a spot and put up my bright blue two person tent. Inside I lay next to my belonging and everything was suffused in blue but it was not restful. It was hot and airless and bright under the southern sun under a blue plastic flysheet. I stood outside the tent and breathed in fresh,untainted hot summer air.

"Hey! You hot?" the man in the cool shady awning stretched out next to his roulotte waved a piece of delicious looking red fruit. Sure I said, sucked in to his orbit by the shade and his smile. I was young and innocentg and took everything and everyone at face value. We sat and talked while his wife, unseen, clattered dishes in the travel trailer behind us.

We talked about where we were from, me from Italy he from Paris. We talked motorcycles and I told him how bored I was by life down on the farm. "I escaped that," he said, "by joining the Legion." Huh? "I've been everywhere," he said. He talked about the Congo and Algeria, he talked of fishing in the Indian Ocean and driving trucks in jungles and deserts. He saw me looking at his hand. "That was never a problem," he said and I could believe it as I had not noticed his weird lobster claw fingers for the longest time. "I grew up like that," he said looking at the huge deformed pink thumb and the wadded up single finger that grew out of the stump of his hand. "The Legion never minded when they understood I could do anything anyone else did." He spoke in answer to my unspoken question.

His wife, a pretty, slim woman in a summer dress with the good manners of a middle class Frenchwoman came out and invited me to dinner. We ate at the table under the awning by the light of a gas lamp and the conversation continued late into the night. My host was what we call a "contractor" who ran his own company providing services and "personnel" around the world. I was fascinated and a little scared. "He isn't always so kind," his wife said smiling, as he told a story against himself of some close shave in as former French tropical colony. Implicit in her comment was the suggestion of severity if not savagery. he grinned the mirth of the amoral.

Had the Internet existed back then I could have looked up the hereditary condition called ectrodactyly which is caused in hands or feet by some chromosomal alteration. I could have looked him on faceboomk perhaps, under gunmen for hire, governments overthrown on demand... As it was I watched his lobster claw in open fascination and admiration of his ability to ignore daily complexity even when using a deformed hand. He was amused by my fascination at his stories of derring-do and by his dexterity with the hand. "You need to get out of the farm and see the world. Come and work for me." The suggestion shocked me.

He renewed it the next morning. "I'll show you the world," he smiled as he poured me a coffee. I got on my motorcycle and fled after thanking him profusely.

I wonder what might have happened to me had I thrown my customary caution to the wind. Probably nothing much as I never did see myself as a dog of war. On the other hand...who knows what lies within any of us and perhaps I would have made a bloodthirty mercenary with the best of them. How odd are the crossroads we pass, and ignore, in the journey of life.


Chuck and the Pheebs said...

That's a most excellent story - Bravo!

I like the Morini reference; I have wanted one for many years due to the Heron head configuration.

My mercenary story is up also - a bit darker than yours and sans motorcycle, but I will share this with you...

The mercenary in question was a little down and out. I'd bought an old motorcycle for $50, which I'd planned to give to him after it was running. He came over to the house, I introduced him to the bike. He hopped on, went for a spin, upon returning to the house, he approached too hot, locked up the front brake, lowsided the bike, hopped on it and surfed it to a stop at the curb.

He politely declinded the bike; I said nothing about his performance, as one does not cross a man who has lost track of the number of people he's killed.

And no. I don't have to make anything up, for life is strange enough as it is.

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Sir:

Now I enjoyed this post thoroughly... Here was a story a man could sink his teeth into... What did the wife look like? Did the guy strike you as the "Legion" type?

Isn't it amazing how far a primitive motorcycle is capable of taking you? Especially, when you are a kid.


Conchscooter said...

I did not get to see her nipples and he was ...what you might imagine. Built like brick shit house.
There are too many weird people in the world.