In his second article for #itchysilk, Matt Jones, Canadian veteran and born-again bohemian, brings the first of a five part series. In it he is recruited by a troupe of artists in the town of Ouzouer-sur-Trézée, South of Paris, to carry an enormous puppet in the Bastille Day parade. The troupe consists of dozens of performers and musicians, and the parade will culminate in the ceremonial trial of a long-suffering papier-mâché catfish, the scapegoat on which we pile our ills.
It all makes sense once I see the map of operations, with routes and clear labels – follow the oiseau, they said, but still I walked the path early, investigating the hanger where my massive puppet would be stored, the narrow street and cobblestones, the zigzag pattern to the water for the catfish’s trial.
But the ops brief brought me back, standing around a map and listening to some Major explain the upcoming CLEAR of a Taliban hotbed, aka a village, except this time the Maj was replaced with a puppeteer wearing an outlandish hat. This whole operations was masterminded by a troupe of French artists, known as Demain On Change Tout – Tomorrow we Change Everything.
The objective was not killing – it was delight – as the townsfolk would be herded along the path/through the town, recovering a giant’s lost clothes: shoes, hat, pants, underwear, each piece stitched together lovingly from the parts of lesser selves, the same way we stumbled forward in life, clothes helplessly baggy, crotch dragging the ground and our asses showing.
They don’t know me, the things I’ve done. That once I was the puppet, a General the puppeteer. A spoken word artist slapped me on the quadricep and then on the shoulder and that was the job interview. During the ops brief, the troupe called me le costaud. The strongman. Or, more unkindly, the beefcake. Fine. They were gentle humans and I loved them.
It wasn’t combat, and the symbols on the map weren’t infantry or tanks or Troops in Contact or Small Arms Fire or Rocket-Propelled-Grenade attacks on helicopters. Instead if was like, “meet the giant fish”, “find the giant’s pants”, “follow the oiseau.”
And no one died. Not that I knew of anyway, but there were explosions, at the end, in the form of fireworks that burst in shades of blue and green and copper. The blasts sizzling like frying bacon, then raining down scandalously on the town, and that sent me back in time and space to Kandahar and a band was flown in to entertain the soldiers – the toughest grimmest concert of all time – no glowsticks, no beach balls, no afterglow banging.
While the band was playing, two huge mortars fired from the base, launching glowing balls of phosphorescent luminescence across the sky, because beauty and danger are tied together like that, and the light stripped away our shadows and revealed the hard edges of our faces – the band sang “Ain’t it good to be alive” and it was true.