MOTHER TONGUE back story ~ The author and the Foreign Legion

unknowncrewFor a look at the REAL La Légion Etrangère’s 2ème Régiment Étranger de Parachutistes fighting today in Afghanistan, watch this Youtube video. This elite international intervention force is still based in Calvi, Corsica.

The back story for MOTHER TONGUE involved a wild adventure I had at nineteen involving, a British yacht, The Wigeon of Fearn, a “crew” of thirteen dissolute young people, a drunken skipper (seen in the rear of this photo taken at Portofino)–all of whom sailed the Northern Mediterranean, and, among other things, tried to sneak two Foreign Legionnaires off of the island of Corsica! We failed in our mission but I never forgot the many stories of intrigues and foolishness that would evolve eventually into the story of MOTHER TONGUE. I even wrote a poem about our adventure shortly after the voyage ended.

EXCERPT from MOTHER TONGUE: Liz Fallon has just met they mysterious French police officer, Philippe LeClerc, who presents himself as much less than he really is. Their early morning chat takes place on a granite outcropping amid the maquis on the Cap Corse peninsula just after sunrise. They surprisingly find a connection between her mother, his father and the Foreign Legion.

“I have my own story about conscription by the French military,” I said. “My mother’s story actually.”

Vraiment? Tell me.”

two legionnairesI sketched out a few details about my mother and the crew of the Wigeon of Fearn trying to liberate two Foreign Legionnaires from the island, careful to leave the impression that my mother was just another American college kid.

Not until I uttered the words Bonifacio and summer of ’63 did LeClerc respond. “Incroyable! My father was a Lieutenant Colonel in the 2me Étranger du Parachutists, the second airborne of the Legion. He was sent to Bonifacio after the exodus from Algeria in ‘62.”

“Do you think he could have been the officer over the men my mother and her friends tried to sneak off the island?”

He looked off into the distance. “Je ne sais pas.

“So you lived in Corsica then?”

LeClerc paused as though he wasn’t prepared to answer questions about his personal life. I quickly apologized to keep the buttering-up process on track. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t pry.” Or at least do it more carefully.

“Not at all. The fact is that we never lived where my father was stationed. Although, we visited him that summer. I was nine.” Philippe hesitated again and then changed the subject. “Were your mother’s friends successful?”

“No, someone snitched. It all fell apart. They felt badly because the Legionnaires told them that they woke up with a bad hangover in Marseille and found themselves signed up for six years in the Legion.”

Impossible. The paras were the elite of the Legion, a special intervention force, even back then. No one would have been shanghaied from a bar.”

“And if they’d gotten caught trying to escape?”

“They would have been stripped, placed in solitary confinement, probably suffered a beating. Attempted desertion is still treated very harshly in the Legion.”

I shifted my position on the rock and broke off a nearby stalk of rosemary, twiddling it between my fingers, pleased that I had gotten LeClerc talking about his family. Find out about the father and you’ll find out about the man. “And your father would have allowed that sort of thing?”

“He would have ordered it.”

I wasn’t shocked. I’d known other men, like Briana’s stepfather, with that same sociopathic streak of cruelty.

LeClerc ran his hands over his knees and stared at the rising sun. “My father was something of a legend. He survived Dien Bien Phu and then fought in Algeria against the FLN. He treated his regiment like personal property. He would not have taken it lightly if two of his men deserted. He might even have ordered a corvée de bois.”

“A what?”

“You tell a prisoner he is free to go and then shoot him in the back.”

Now I was shocked. “You’re kidding?”

He looked at me and broke into a sliver of a smile. “Of course. But it makes for a good story, n’est ce pas?”

New life for the historic and infamous Wigeon of Fearn

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Wigeon of Fearn 2014

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In 1963

It has been great fun to learn that the Wigeon of Fearn, the yacht which took my on an infamous cruise around the Mediterranean in 1963, it not only still alive but very well, having been purchased and restored by Anne and Jim Foster who live on the West coast of Scotland. The Wigeon is now their home and has been entered into the UK National Register of Historic Vessels.

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St. Monans

The Wigeon began her long life as a Gentleman’s Yacht built in 1936 by J.M. Miller & Sons of St. Monans, located just over 12 miles south of St Andrews and the smallest of the East Neuk fishing ports. It was powered by a diesel engine and was of timber carvel construction with a hull of teak and oak. Her design was based on a fishing trawler (which is why she survived during a terrible mistral storm tossed us about on the crossing from Italy to Corsica–a storm which sent six less sturdy Chris Craft vessels to Davy Jones’ locker). She measured 56 feet in length, 14.6 feet breadth, and 5.9 feet depth with a gross tonnage of 37 tons.

She served with the Royal Navy from 1939 to 1945 as a Senior Officer Armed Patrol Tender at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys Islands when private yachts were commandeered to by part of the anti-submarine fleet on the lookout for German U-Boats.

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Spithead Fleet Review 1977

In 1977 she took part in the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations on the River Thames and in the Spithead Fleet Review.

Fitted with new engines in 1996 and outfitted as a floating home, she has taken on an elegant look with her new canvas sidings. IMG_0011

 

close up underwayAnd as you can see, she is still as seaworthy as ever. My thanks to the current owners for all the great photos.underway spray

 

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The interior still features that gorgeous polished oak table and benches that we gathered around to share meals of broiled eel and bourbon soaked birthday cake back in 1963.IMG_0006 But with some new decorative touches by the current owners. What a marvelous 78 years of sailing history with an adventure or two thrown in.

Guest Blog Series ~ Tales of the Wigeon of Fearn

From Guest Blogger Robin Williams ~ no, not THE Robin Williams, but the intriguing teller of tales, travel guru, and man of perpetual curiosity who concocted my adventure of a lifetime aboard the Wigeon of Fearn in 1963. Robin resides in Laguna Beach and after decades of organizing and filming travel tours around the world, and at an age when most men have gravitated to their Barco-loungers, still conducts Hollywood guided tours and drives a private limo for fat cats!

Tale #1 by Robin Williams ~ PAHT YAH JHELHMM

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The Wigeon of Fearn

In the spring of 1963, I found an ad for a British yacht, the Wigeon of Fearn, in a yachting magazine that I purchased in a magazine shop in Hollywood (it’s still there) and put together a yacht cruise of the Mediterranean for a group of college students. Back then I was a young adventurer and would do just about anything without thinking too deeply. I just did things that were wild and wooly and never thought about problems that lay in wait. I just forged ahead.

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Skipper Jim in the background with a few of the college students

I hired a Skipper named Jim from Dorset. I think he might still be alive because he certainly lived a healthful life as a charter boat captain. He got plenty of exercise and fresh air. He did “drink” but not drastically. Except in Bonifacio, Corsica where he suddenly wanted to move the ship to the end of the dock. He instructed us to push her along the dock and he got her going too fast. He could not stop her. He was holding the warp, and we could do nothing. So she banged into the right angled dock ahead of her and put a big dent in the bow timber. That was the only damage that we caused the Wigeon.

ships lightBut back to the start of the adventure. We left from Poole to sail to Le Havre late in the afternoon in July.  As we motored across the English Channel the Skipper Jim came down to the saloon and took me on deck. He asked me to take the wheel so he could get some sleep. He had a bunk right behind the wheel. I had been a Sea Scout when I was 16 years old and had a little experience at the wheel of a ship about the same size as the Wigeon. We immediately entered the shipping lanes of the strait with ships coming from both directions. Luckily I could tell they were in single file and following each other. Within a few seconds I had two ships bearing down on me but I could tell which direction they were heading by their lights. So, I just timed my passing in front of the ship on my left and then I planned to fall back and let the ship on my right pass in front of me and I would pass through her wake. The skipper woke up suddenly with a start and SCREAMED at me, “PAHT YAH JHELHMM!”

Okay, can you tell what he is saying?  I could not understand a thing he was saying. His Dorset accent was too thick, especially in his acute state of angst. The poor guy had never learned to swim so when he looked up and saw the huge ship bearing down on us, he went berserk. There was absolutely no way I could decipher what he was screaming, so I kept the ship on course.

He screamed the same thing a second time. I held to my position, still unable to determine what he was saying. I had suspected that he would bother me when he initially asked me to take the helm. People have done nothing but bother me all of my life. But I just followed my own instincts and kept the ship moving on course–straight ahead. Skipper Jim fell back onto his bunk and kept his mouth shut as I continued to pass behind the ship on my starboard side. Then he fell back asleep and did not wake up until the light of dawn.

Of course, what he was saying was PORT YOUR HELM, but, I did not find that out until the next morning when we arrived among the sunken ships in the port of Le Havre. If I would have turned that ship we would have been run over by the ship on my left side coming toward me but obviously going to pass behind me. I was on course and had the speed to cross his bow with plenty of room.

Aside from that first night, Skipper Jim was very competent. In the River Seine he dropped anchor and it held us in the current. We slept soundly in the river as we made our way to Paris. That impressed me greatly. I would never have thought that our anchor would hold us in that swift current. He handled the ship well in the canal to the Saone and on to the Rhone to Marseilles also. But, we did take a pilot on board for the rivers.

cows on canalJust an aside. When we were traveling the Canal Central to the Saone, I would wake up early and have a conversation with the cows next to us in the pastures. The college kids on the ship woke up to my voice making cow sounds and the cows actually answering back.They broke out in hysterical laughter. I thought it was just natural to speak with the cows.