Figuring out the eyes is probably the hardest part. What they see when they look at us. There, in the middle of the airport, clad in combat fatigues with an assault rifle slung across our chest, patrolling slowly, methodically through the terminals. A strange sight, admittedly, one more suited to the airport of a country in conflict as opposed to Charles de Gaulle airport – the portal to the city of light, the city of love. An unfortunate sign of the times, I suppose.
Some stiffened as we passed, a sense of unease as their gaze locked on our rifles, following it unflinchingly until they were safely out of ours. Others gawked rather unashamedly in queer curiosity, not necessarily perturbed but not uninterested either. The most interesting and rather humorous scrutiny came from young men who rather determinedly took to staring us down as we sauntered by them and their unimpressed girlfriends. A loose smirk occasionally slipped across our face, half hidden by the drooping green beret. Not one of superiority, but rather one of bemused resignation. Such a shame, we thought, that they have no idea what lies beneath the rifle and uniform. Oh well.
Our reason for even being deployed on such a mission was a directive initiated by the French government back in 1978 – VIGIPIRATE; a sort of metropolitan alert system involving differing threat levels and appropriate responses to each level in the form of the deployment of police and military personnel throughout areas of the country thought to be in most danger. At the present moment, our presence is purely a preventative measure and no actual threat is currently considered imminent. Alas our ability to explain this to ill-at-ease onlookers was practically non-existent. Surveying for suspicious or abandoned luggage was the order of the day. Not much time (or authorization) for pleasantries with passers-by then.
Patrolling CDG retained its novelty for all of two or three hours before the repetitive patterns, hip-and-back-pummeling hard tile floors and the inevitable questions from tourists demanding directions we were not yet able to offer all came crashing down on our wide eyes and sweaty palms. We craved change, and fortunately for us our weekly timetable obliged with rotating duties and patrol responsibilities that scattered us throughout all three terminals as well as affording us the chance to sit back and either cruise through the heart of the immense concrete sprawl or else tour the 30-kilometre-long perimeter in our very own Land Rovers. With a schedule stipulating two days work followed by one day free, no one patrol route was repeatedly encountered more often than once every five to six days, giving us the chance to keep any crippling boredom sufficiently at bay for the majority of the mission. I did say crippling boredom. The bog-standard everyday “This is fucking bullshit!” boredom quickly found a home inside our beret-cladded skulls (as is the norm) and simultaneously irritated us while also giving us something to grumble to one another during the 18-hour shifts. As the unrivalled Mr. Vonnegut so famously said, “So it goes.”
The days passed and we encountered our fair share of alerts (all be them false, well…mostly). Abandoned luggage was the bane of our very existence during the three or so weeks we spent on duty. French law stipulates that any bag discovered unattended will result in a €450 fine and, if not recovered in time, the destruction of the bag in question. The drill was straight forward enough; if our little team of three legionnaires stumbled across an abandoned item of luggage, we were to set up a very simple and small perimeter and wait fifteen minutes. If nobody came for the bag within that time, we’d report in to the police who’d arrive with staff members from the airport to enlarge the security perimeter in anticipation of the arrival of the bomb disposal team who would examine the bag, open it carefully and then either give the all clear or – if the bag was especially difficult to open (padlock, code-lock, etc) – set a small neutralizing charge to smother any possible explosive before rummaging through the remains. This full scenario played itself out only once during the entire mission, several plastic packets of heroin found inside an exploded suitcase. A mule with cold feet, apparently. Otherwise it was just a long line of temporary terminal closures while we waited for the bomb squad to arrive and dig through old bus tickets and lipstick before giving the all clear and letting increasingly impatient travellers hurtle onwards to their departure gates.
On one occasion, one of the legionnaires in my team spotted a handbag sat all alone in the basket of a luggage trolley. At this point, already beyond exasperated by several “alerts” earlier that day, I took the very ill-advised yet understandable (trust me) step of walking over, unzipping the handbag and rummaging through it. Underneath the flip-flops, cotton wool and countless receipts lay a tan wallet. Wallet cracked open and what do I find? – a TGV train ticket and a passenger loyalty card with name and photo. No bomb, no anthrax, just the usual random shit found inside a lady’s handbag. I promptly brought it to the nearest information counter, making sure to state that I’d found it open with the TGV ticket jutting out (covering my ass and all that). Case closed, nothing exploded, and the monotony and inconvenience of these abandoned bags was reaching fever pitch.
Fortunately the alerts waned somewhat towards the end as our timetable leered more favorably towards the motorized patrols as opposed to those on foot in the heaving terminals. That’s not to say that driving around the outskirts of CDG or through its heart wasn’t stressful. Parisian taxi drivers, for example, are quite probably the most aggressive and unapologetic motorists in the history of the universe. In fact, a major stress factor with our motorized patrols was filling up the tank. The service station exit was about 500 metres from the exit we needed to take in order to enter back into the airport and avoid slipping on to the highway leading straight to Paris. The exit was four lanes across the other side of the road with an endless roaring, deranged cavalcade of said taxi drivers bearing down on you as you tried to snake, speed and skid your way safely across to the other side. My worst scare involved almost being side-swiped by one taxi doing over 120km/ph in a 70 zone (I know because I was already doing 100 myself in my desperation to get across to safety). However the meek little Lithuanian in my team, when called upon to relieve me of driving duties so I could rest up a while, managed to miss the exit altogether and bring us about 20 km south heading straight for Paris centre before a slip road presented itself and afforded us the chance at a U-turn. I didn’t let him live it down in a hurry.
The Gold Medal of cock-ups, however, was to be reserved for a Corporal Chef with 12 years service, a sorry excuse of an obese man whose Chilean accent is so thick and capacity to master the French language to thin that he ends up speaking 75% Spanish. While stopped at the service station, he inexcusably opted to pump 50 litres of petrol into his Land Rover – a 4x4 with an unavoidably advertised DIESEL engine (“Diesel” was even written on the cap of the fuel tank). Ironically he had been –up until this “mishap” – one of the more vocal challengers of the younger legionnaires found to have committed even the slightest little error. We didn’t hear another peep out of him for the remainder of the mission.
The thing that stuck with me the most though, after we’d packed up and returned down south to our increasingly bitterly cold regiment, was the sense of unease or presence created among the civilian travellers. Apart from one single elderly woman who approached one day to thank me for being there, protecting her, the majority of onlookers seemed clearly unsettled by our presence. There was no way around it, no denying it. Our appearance, our rifles, our uniforms, our green berets and cold, distant scanning stares all screamed DANGER as opposed to SAFETY, or SECURITY. Inevitable, I guess, but disappointing. Surprising, actually, in the profoundness of the disappointment.
Perhaps labeling it a lack of appreciation would be harsh on the people concerned. The mentality of a soldier is a hard one to understand, to convey or to decipher.
I guess I’ll just have to up the effort for as long as I remain in here.
I guess I’ll just have to up the effort for as long as I remain in here.