28 Aug 2013

A Frenchman in New York

In order to grow into our own, we need to surround ourselves with non-judgemental individuals, usually close friends and teachers/ mentors, who give us the space to become who we are truly meant to become, who take us as we are and who are supportive of our talents, skills and abilities, ideas and life essence and ambitions. In his recent newsletter, The Daily Love's Mastin Kipp referred to his entourage as his Tribe. This resonated with me and so did the realisation that my small tribe of respected and carefully-chosen close friends may even extend to one family member who truly understood me, even though he is no longer physically around: my beloved maternal grandad, Armand.

My grandad as a dashing 18-year-old French Navy Radioman

My grandad was an unconventional world-travelled freespirited chap who happened to be misunderstood and mocked by the fools of the world. As a slight 'misfit' myself, I can't help but greatly admire him for what he stood for. Born in Brittany, he was of pure Celtic heritage, tall, slim, handsome, blue-eyed, softy spoken and elegantly dressed. I am adamant my grandad could have been a silver screen actor on looks alone. In the early 1920s, his family left Brittany for a northern French textile town. Post-war, the north of France was crying out for labour to rebuild its towns and infrastructures and my grandad's dad worked as a carpenter. Unfortunately tragedy struck as he slipped off the roof of the Chamber of Commerce and died, leaving a 14-year-old son (my grandad), a very young daughter and a handicapped wife (my great grandmother had contracted polio). Without hesitation my grandad decided to head back to Brittany and join the navy, as his wages would help support his mum and sister. Hats off to him for his amazing courage!

The navy became my grandad's new family and he dedicated nearly 20 years of his life to it. He specialised in transmissions, first on submarines, then promoted to la crème de la crème of French naval warship fleet, Le Richelieu, the most powerful, streamlined and technologically-advanced WWII battleship ever designed, highly coveted by the US Navy to the extent that the design of USS Missouri is allegedly inspired by Le Richelieu.

Battleship Richelieu in action (pict source)

During WWII Le Richelieu operated off French territorial waters, mainly across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, responding solely to ally strategic commands and to Général de Gaulle, as opposed to the occupying power in place. This sent Le Richelieu to strategic battle locations as diverse as Norway, Mers-el-Kebir (French Algeria), Dakar (Senegal), and to regroup in the USA (Boston and NYC) before heading to Scapa Flow (Scotland), then on to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Sabang and Sumatra, back to Europe, Casablanca, and the Far East again, i.e. Java & Sumatra, Singapore and Indochina (Vietnam), via Trincomalee (Ceylon) and Durban (South Africa). From memory, my grandad also stopped over in Australia at some point.

In 1943 Le Richelieu spent approx. 6 months in NYC for refit, and my grandad acquainted himself with the American way of life. He is alleged to have had a girlfriend in NYC, despite having a wife back home (my grandma) and a baby daughter (my mum). As strange as it might sound, I would have liked to trace his girlfriend back, to hear her tell me about my grandad. I would have liked to hear that he had been happy at some point in his life.

My grandad travelled the length and breadth of the world at a time when this was a rather daunting thing to do. He would pique my curiosity with his descriptions of the dense dark jungle woodland-fringed shorelines of Borneo. I recall him telling me how he got to walk up 32 storeys to see a mate in NYC when the elevator had broken down. Little bits of everyday life would delight me more than facts and numbers off some history book. My grandad lived history, he was a part of it, and his account mattered more to me than some second-hand narrative by some historian.

After the war, my grandad got promoted to a land-based Navy role on the French riviera but he had difficulty adjusting to a sedentary semi-civilian lifestyle and quit his job, putting an end to his Navy career. His addiction to alcohol became problematic. My grandma suggested they live in Corsica (her native island) and he got a customs post. I am not sure he enjoyed the Corsican lifestyle after years of journeying across the planet, but what I know for a fact is that certain ill-intentioned individuals encouraged his drinking, and his condition deteriorated further. As a last resort, my grandparents and my mum moved to the northern textile town where his mum still lived. They left behind a somehow comfortable southern lifestyle for a cramped bedsit with no mod-cons. To make a living, my grandad had no other option than to labour in factories, while his addiction spiralled out of control...

This is a man who probably wasn't surrounded by a tribe of benefactors, well-wishers and an encouraging community of close friends. It seems he'd had the time of his life all those years back, from Brooklyn to Melbourne via Trincomalee, and he now was kinda lost, with no "save the world" superhero mission. He felt redundant, invisible. The unsung war hero became typecast as the drunk who can't hold his drink, as the worker who can't hold a job, and nobody seemed aware or cared that here was a man with an illustrious past, who had risked his life, on call 24/7 in the elite French Navy, who had put his fears behind him to support his family as far away from the comfort zone as can be. He wasn't the only one to feel misadjusted after the war. Even high profile figures like Général De Gaulle and Sir Winston Churchill notoriously struggled to stay popular and purposeful once back in civilian life.

Years went by. As his daughter (my mum) was about to get married, the universe lent a helping hand to my grandad. His employer wasn't going to sack him because of his drinking. He had seen potential in my grandad, a man who was smart, gifted, meticulous and keen to learn. The employer sent him to rehab. My grandad went to rehab like a silver screen actor would have: with acceptance and renewed dignity. He came out clean, his head high, resumed his job until retirement. He never relapsed.

My grandad holding my hand at the beach in Brittany

I came into the world a few years later. Something tells me I was his second epiphany and I am certain that my presence helped him stay afloat. He gave me so much attention, so much of his time, I was the apple of his eye! He took me everywhere, he believed in me, in my talents, skills and abilities. He read me like a book and identified what made me tick, more than anyone else in my family. He spoilt me rotten: educational comics, book series on how to draw, beautiful coffee table books on fauna and flora, top of the range boxes of high-quality pencils, invitations to the pictures, elegant dolls, etc. He would write me beautiful cards and letters whenever we were apart. When my parents were busy with their own lives and had little time for me, he had all the time in the world to listen to me, to advise me, to preempt, to guess what I was trying to say, to chat with me, to take me places, to tell me about the ways of the world. My grandad was my best friend.

Just as I embarked on those troubled teen years and needed emotional support more than ever, life got iffy. I wasn't even 14 and my grandad suddenly died, without warning. He collapsed in the street, in town, round the corner from that fated Chamber of Commerce where his own dad had died when he was just about 14. My grandad's death crushed me. It literally tipped me over, and all those years later I still find it hard to keep my composure.

Somehow I know that although he isn't physically around, he is giving me protection. I can feel his presence. I keep him alive by thinking about him daily. Armand is a definite component of my personal tribe: as an unconventional, world-travelled, spirited, independent, handsome, smart yet misunderstood and mocked chap, he is definitely one of mine!

"It wasn't until I realized that I belonged to myself and figured out what my values were, what I wanted from life, what my purpose is and the like, that I found my Tribe." - Mastin Kipp, The Daily Love 

July 2015 update: A few months ago, I came across the 'French Battleship Richelieu enters New York City - February 1943' video and am including it to this article. It was an emotional experience for me to view it for the first time ever: -

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