Stealing a Cycle in France
I used to have a holier than apostle St OM’s attitude, that I did not steal anything while in uniformed service, I was wrong. Court Marshall of a friend brought back forgotten memories of another day, of stealing a Cycle, that too in France !!
Sometime beginning Aug 1983, after I had turned from pupa to a Sqn Ldr, I was deputed to attend the experimental test pilot’s course in France, at a very charming village called ‘Istres’ (about 40 km north of Marseilles). The very modern and most impressive test pilot’s school (EPNER) was located on a nuclear air base, about 10 km from the village. Since the circumstances pertaining to my selection and despatch to France was rather strange, and in a matter of 24 hrs, I arrived in Istres with just a pair of jeans, 2 T shirts, no extra underwear, a toilet kit and about 40 Francs in my pocket. I had no option but to skip wearing an underwear, a most useless piece of dress and no match for a ‘langot’.
The TP school was kind to house me in a guest house, much like a 5 star hotel, located 300 mtrs from the school (it had everything, including a washing machine and fully equipped kitchen, but no support staff and no food). Seeing the pathetic look on my face, they emphasised that it was gratis till I could make my own arrangements for stay. There were 3 other occupants of the guest house besides me, two Egyptians and an Iraqi. My batch of TP trainees, about 29 besides me, all of them engineers as well as pilots, had around 8 Frenchmen and the rest from all parts of the word including Americans, British, Germans, Dutch, Brazilians, etc, all of whom promptly hired castles and palatial houses all over south of France and drove around in brand new fancy cars, making me very jealous. They were paid incredible sums of money and lived it up. I was perhaps on parole from IAF jail !!!
The Egyptians and the Iraqi promptly bonded, had their own equally fancy cars and dined out in the village. It was too far for me to walk to the village and back. Hence, for couple of days I subsisted on bread, butter and jam that the Iraqi was kind to bring for me when he went to the village. For lunch the entire staff and students of the school used to go across to the Marcel Dassault (Mirage) factory in another part of the air base where we got a sumptuous lunch. Before the course started in earnest, for about ten days, I had ample of spare time with nothing to do and did ‘time pass’ by walking / jogging around the nuclear base, morning and evening, even to some parts of the restricted area. That is when I discovered that just behind the main building of the TP school, there was a cycle stand with six brand new sports cycles with gears, a technology that was yet to come to India.
For a day or two, I ignored the cycles, presuming that it belonged to someone, or the other. After two days I noticed that they were unlocked and had not been moved. There was no body about, and no one watching. On the third day, curiosity got the better of me and I took one cycle and placed it at some distance away from the others. That evening I went to see whether the owner had parked it back to it’s original place. It was right there where I had left it. Curiosity got the better of me. I took each of the cycles and parked it randomly and haphazardly, even laying one cycle on it’s side. For two more days I waited to see if the owners had come by and sorted out the messy parking. The cycles lay as they were, just the way I had left them. On the fifth evening, NDA habits got the better of me and I decided to steal one of the cycles. ‘What the hell, if the owner comes to claim it, I could always say “Mercy Becoup” and return it to him’. What I did not know was that there were CCTVs all over the place and my strange behaviour with the cycles as well as walking / jogging around the base aimlessly had been noted by the security staff and it was reported that the Indian seemed a bit crazy. I pedalled about happily on the stolen cycle, even going to the village to explore and buy myself a few knick knacks including W-front underwear which I found was necessary to avoid embarrassment because of the 44” bust of the waitress who served us lunch and who was fond of thrusting it on my face when she came to clear the plates.
Another week passed by. And then thunder struck.
Around 3 O’Clock one afternoon, I was called to a room in which I found four Frenchmen TP colleagues in uniform, sitting around a table. I was made to stand at the foot of the table, there were no extra chairs. I realised that something was wrong, it looked like a ‘Court Of Enquiry’ back in India. I started to feel shitty, and the shit started travelling upwards towards my head (a phenomenon called ‘Hicum Foocum’, very common amongst combat pilots).
The inquisition was initiated by Capt Robert Abriba of l’Arme De Terre (French Army).
‘Dit Moi, S’il Vouz Palit’, he started the questioning in a very offensive manner, though polite. ‘What the f*** were you doing, roaming around our Nuclear base ?’, he asked in French.
‘I was bored, required some exercise, and so I was just doing sightseeing around the base’, I stuttered and stammered in broken French, with a vocabulary of a ten year old child.
‘You went around looking at our secrets’, Capt Patreek, on deputation to Air Bus Industries, interjected with undue hostility.
‘Did you steal any secrets?’, Capt Bernard Berthod of L‘Arrme De L’Air (Air Force), questioned with authority.
‘No, no, no, s’il vouz plait, I only stole a cycle’, I stammered truthfully, looking miserable. I began to wonder whether they would march me up to the Commandant, blow the bugle and relegate me.
‘What cycle, the secret of fission or fusion ?’, Patreek asked with a straight face.
‘Mon Amis, I just stole one bicycle from behind the school’, I said dolefully, ‘I am very sorry, I will return it immediately’.
Everyone seemed quite stumped. They looked at each other for mutual support. My ‘Hicum Foocum’ was really beginning to bother me.
‘For your misconduct, there is only one punishment, the Poe’, Robert announced with finality, in a gravelly voice, like a Supreme Court Judge. I crapped, a wee bit, right into my brand new W-front underwear.
All four of them pushed their chairs back and got up. Robert and Patreek grabbed my biceps and marched me through a side door.
The shit in my brain was beginning to ask what a ‘Poe’ was. I had no idea. I had visions of Count of Monte Cristo, of being marched away and incarcerated in a terrible underground jail in some far away island.
We entered the room next door and all hell broke loose.
All my 29 TP course-mates, staff of the TP school began singing, ‘He is a jolly good fellow, so say all of us’. I suddenly remembered that it was my 33rd birthday.
Someone sprayed me with Champaign, like Michael Schumacher after the Formula – I race. The ladies including the 44” inch burst came and kissed me, ‘what a nice, simple man’, she said.
It was the most elaborate prank ever played on me in my life.
‘Poe’ was a working day office party, on special occasions, usually after 1600 hrs, celebrated with Champaign.
The cycles behind the school were meant for entertainment and to break monotony, when someone was bored, overworked, or could not solve an engineering riddle, he could take a cycle and go around in the lovely sunshine for a while to clear his head, stop ‘Hicum Foocum’. The cycles belonged to the school, for use by one and all, free. In it’s history of three years, the cycles had never been used, I was the first one to use it (steal it !!!). ‘Hicum Foocum’ was generally resolved by everyone by driving upto Cote d’Azur nearby to see naked women sunbathing on the beach.
After an hour of the Poe, when I was quite drunk with Champaign, Capt Bernard Berthod of L‘Arrme De L’Air caught my biceps and steered me out of the party, through the front door and out to the parking lot, to a new looking Duex Chevo (literally means two horses), a two cylinder Citroen car, much like the Tata Nano, but looked more like the Volkswagen Beatle. He gave me a Key ring. ‘All yours, have a ball’, he said to me in French.
‘But I cannot accept gifts’, I moaned, remembering the stern briefing in Air HQ before I left India.
‘You can’t go around riding a cycle, it is bad for the image of the test pilot’s school’, he reasoned.
‘Besides, it belongs to my wife who fell of a horse and broke both her legs, she will not be needing it for quite a while’, he said with finality. ‘You use it, as long as you want, and when you are finished with it, crash it so that I can claim insurance’, he said with finality.
I returned the cycle to the cycle stand. When I got ‘Hicum Foocum’, like everyone else, I drove the car to Cote d’Azur. During my time in EPNER I never saw any one using those cycles, ever.
At the end of my stay in France, I went to Bernad’s house to return the car.
‘Merde’, he told me. ‘I told you to crash the car and help me claim the insurance’.
I looked around and saw a small mound of sand left over from some construction. So I reversed the car to about 200 feet, accelerated, and hit the mount at a top speed of about 65-70 kmph. The car climbed over the mount, rolled over, hit the ground in a 90 deg dive and finally fell on it’s back, completely crushing it. Bernard immediately rang for the police and an ambulance. While I was being removed from the scene on a stretcher, I heard Bernard telling the Cop, ‘These f***ing Indians, they are bloody crazy’.
I got a cut lip and Bernard got his insurance.
I am told that all 29 of my Test Pilot friends worldwide, still narrate the story on weekends over beer, ending the joke with ‘‘These f***ing Indians, they are bloody crazy’.
Perhaps that was the last time I stole a cycle, or anything else.