I don't know what triggered the memory, but the other day I was suddenly overcome with a wash of humiliation. Sometime in my early twenties, at that point in the wilderness years where I was so deep in the woods that I couldn't remember which way I came in and couldn't possibly see a way out, I decided that the most logical way to fix things was to . . . wait for it: join the French Foreign Legion.
So I got on a plane and flew to France.
We all have a wilderness period in life — that time of confusion and self-doubt when every decision turns out to be a bad one. For me, that time occurred between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-four. I was stuck. The years were not marked by the calendar or watch, but by the coming of the pale autumn sunlight and the smell of orange blossoms in the nearby orchards — both of them a reminder that another year had passed and I was going nowhere fast.
At some point I secured a job at a small tech firm. It was my way out of the restaurant business and a dipping of the toe, so to speak, in respectability. In a scenario that would repeat itself a few years later when I got my first post-collegiate corporate job, I was shown to a cubicle, with its desk and computer, and given a list of jobs to perform.
Bear in mind that up to this point in life, I had thought the purpose of finishing college was to achieve all that. There was a linear progression in my head: elementary school, high school, college, college graduation, real job, marriage, children, retired at the age of 65, and then whatever came next. But as I settled into my first week in that cubicle, thinking that the progression was being fully realized, two things occurred in rapid fashion.
I got bored. Very bored. So incredibly bored that I could not possible imagine how people lived this lifestyle for decade upon decade until retirement.
The second thing was a thought that clearly resonated through my skull: Is this all there is?
See, the belief that something magical happened once you finished college was fundamental to my thinking. I imagined adventure, travel, a nice salary, and an exciting job that made me want to wake up each morning and charge out into the world. Instead, I was passing time and clock-watching, feeling my dreams retreat into a bunker, soon to become unreachable and then disappear completely.
So after much thought, I decided to revive those dreams in one bold stroke. I would fly to Corsica, home of the French Foreign Legion, enlist, undergo the mandatory name change to ensure anonymity, and live the life of a vagabond soldier. I quit my job and bought a plane ticket.
I made it as far as a buddy's apartment in Chicago before I realized that I would never join the Legion. Running from my problems wasn't solving anything. If I was going to live the life I longed for, I would have to return home and make shit happen.
At the time, becoming a writer was just a delirious fantasy. All I knew was that I liked to read and that I had a pretty good idea of how to put words together to make a nice sentence. But the path to becoming a writer involved all the misadventures I've tried to forget and the memories that mortify me in retrospect. So I've buried my little French Foreign Legion flirtation somewhere deep in the recesses of my brain.
But you know what? It was an important step. Nothing came of it, but even that minor failed attempt was romantic in its own way. It told me that I had just enough moxie to do something bold and stupid — two traits that would later propel me into the writing life. So I'm going to turn that memory around, have a good laugh at it, and cherish the time that I almost joined the French Foreign Legion.
Hoping you can do the same with some of your buried memories.