It’s a Long, Long Way to the Champs Élysée by Paul Lavrakas and Kim Peter Kovac

Prologue.

            This year the 101st Tour de France
            coincided with the 100th anniversary
            of the World War numbered One
            and six days of the route traced
            all 643 kilometers of the Western Front.

1.

The first Tour de France was in 1903. It was trumpeted as a tribute to endurance and a celebration of pain. The riders wore spare tires over their chests like bandoliers.

From the Tour’s beginning up to 1914, seven of the winners were French. Three of these were killed in the Great War.

            The Great War, as it was called in the midst,
            was named by HG Wells ‘the war to end war’,
            more commonly ‘the war to end all wars’,
            not called One until Two. 1919 marked
            the Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty
            of Versailles, which strove to create
            a ‘lasting peace’. Which it did. Until Two.

In photos the three doomed champions deceive us with their sculpted mustaches and expressions as self-consciously dignified as cabinet ministers. They are, in fact, very young and finely proportioned athletes, although if we met them today the first thing we’d think is “Jesus, they’re short.”

This year the Tour de France includes a procession through wheat fields in a district called Le Chemin des Dames—The Ladies Road. In 1917 a spunky little field marshal named Nivelle launched an attack here that produced 100,000 casualties in one day. (A record!) French rage over this bungle was only slightly softened by the fact that a good percentage of the dead and maimed were from Senegal.

There are no Senegalese in this year’s Tour.

            There is, however, one rider from China,
            the first ever, named Ji Cheng. A hundred
            years previously, 140,000 men,
            members of the Chinese Labor Corps,
            helped the French dig trenches and
            ten thousand died, which no one
            remembers today. Ji Cheng finished
            dead last, winning La Lanterne Rouge.

In 2014, on hard roads next to large cemeteries, young men of many flags topple off their bikes and scrape skin and break bones, and I for one will not miss a minute of it.

2.

On November 11, 1919, there was a parade down Les Champs Élysée to celebrate the first anniversary of victory over Les Boches.

            The big dog of the Cabbage-Heads
            was Kaiser Wilhelm the Second,
            complete with killer sculpted ‘stache.
            Olympic gold medalist, ‘97
            Tour winner and doper Jan
            Ullrich, a big blonde German,
            was known as ‘the Kaiser’.

By tradition the final day of Le Tour de France is little more than a ceremonial procession down Les Champs. A parade supposedly free of strain and struggle, nonetheless a few crumpled forms will dot the cobbled streets, as happens when young men race.

In 1919 a pack of marshals and generals in red képis and blue jackets slathered with gold braid rode near the front on horseback. But the place of honor at the foremost point was granted to four men. . .

. . . men who had been placed in over-sized baby carriages and were the first to march–no!–to be rolled under the Arch of Triumph. These were Les Grands Mutilés, men without arms, legs, or features, who, unless they were also deaf, heard a pattering of applause from the crowd and thought . . .

Who could possibly imagine what they thought?

            Robert Service’s ‘Les Grands Mutilés’
            Is drop-dead serious despite comic
            anapests and a galloping beat:

            “I saw three wounded of the war:
            and the first had lost his eyes;
            and the second went on wheels and had
            no legs below the thighs;
            and the face of the third was featureless,
            and his mouth ran cornerwise”.

This year, those who survived to the last day of the Tour got to circle around L’Arc de Triomphe, and none of them, even the homeliest or most battered, would make you look away. The four in their prams are a different story.

(Do not confuse these four with another veterans’ group, Les Gueules Cassées [translation: The Smashed Faces]. That bunch stared at the camera with bold eyes displaying facial wounds surgeons could never repair. Some tied white cloths tied over craters that were half a face. Some wore copper masks thin as paper shaped to match old photos. These fellows ask a lot from us).

I have never seen a photograph of a Grand Mutilé [translation: none needed].

When bike riders crash and slide along the asphalt, I disapprove when the bloodshed exceeds a scrape or a trickle. Carnage belongs in the past where I can survey it through parted fingers—like watching a horror movie that is doing its job.

I am writing all this because today we are bombing people again.

            Poppies are a symbol
            of sleep, peace, death;
            the Flanders brand
            are very red.


Paul Lavrakas & Kim Peter KovacAfter many years in Washington D.C. writing nothing more creative than speeches and press releases, Paul Lavrakas decided to become a playwright. His first commissions were from the National Archives to create historical plays, followed by many productions nationwide of plays for young audiences. As Lavrakas intended to be the next Eugene O’Neil, being best known for a version of The Princess and the Pea came as a surprise. From all this he has learned to forget categories and write for whatever comes along. Lavrakas lives in Northern Virginia and is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America.

Kim Peter Kovac works nationally and internationally in theater for young audiences with an emphasis on new play development and networking. He tells stories on stages as producer of new plays, and tells stories in writing with lineated poems, prose poems, creative non-fiction, flash fiction, haiku, microfiction, and three-line poems, with work appearing or forthcoming in print and on-line in journals including Vine Leaves Literary Review, Elsewhere, Frogpond, Mudlark, Counterexample Poetics, and previously in cahoodaloodaling‘s The Repeat Review Issue. He is fond of avant-garde jazz, murder mysteries, contemporary poetry, and travel, and lives in Alexandria, VA, with his bride, two Maine Coon cats, and a Tibetan Terrier named Finn. Connect with Kim on tumblr.

 

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