I was rusty on the French Revolution

FOR 24 consecutive years, Bill and I have fervently observed Bastille Day far up in the Maine north woods - Bill makes French toast while I whistle ``La Marseillaise'' and we go fishing right after breakfast. But this year our enthusiasms were somewhat diminished by ``the truth.'' This all began when Bill's daughter went looking at living-room furniture and asked my son if he liked this better than that, and with anticipation of becoming joint grandfathers we thought we'd best get acquainted. I suggested gear and wanigan and a week at Baker Lake, which came to pass. Baker Lake is a beautiful asset, and we pitched our tent right where the outlet becomes the St. John River.

Our outing, as July after July gave it tradition, has become The Grandfathers' Retreat, and we dignify our frivolity by feigning academic purposes, laudable pursuits designed to elevate the cultural level of the million or so uninhabited acres we have (kindness of timberland owners) as our own.

There are those who shudder at the thought of two old fogies, tottering and fragile, going off into the wilderness to rough it, but that one week in the tent was the only week worth a shudder. The timberland management decided to be prudent and invited us to use a ``camp'' otherwise used by workmen but usually vacant in July. They would thus know where we were and could keep a corporate eye on us, and we haven't unfolded the tent since.

This camp was, some 60 years ago, the boss's home for a lumbering operation at Cauc Lake Dam, and boss's camps were noted for their superior appointments. The other buildings - cookshack, bunkhouse, dingle, smithy, cockshop, hovel - have disappeared, but the boss's camp was kept in good shape for the occasional timber cruiser or other company man who needed shelter for a night. Bill and I enjoy comforts hardly to be termed as ``roughing it.''

So, along last spring, thinking to prepare for the seminars and conferences Bill and I program to edify the area, I picked down a book to refresh myself about the Bastille. I felt we really needed some new material, and I was rusty on the French Revolution. I hoped to find a few things that I might develop into a two- or three-hour lecture, augmenting and expanding our customary observance of Bastille Day. I expect a good many people will be astonished to hear that the story of the Bastille is pretty much a bust. I pursued the subject in amazement.

The first part of the story goes along rather well. Built in the 14th century at the order of King Charles V, the Bastille was a prison fortress with towers and turrets and (from old prints) a formidable height. It served its purpose with docility enough until the time of Cardinal Richelieu, when it became a place to tuck away anybody Richelieu and his policies didn't like. The infamous lettres de cachet sent many a poor wretch, great and small, to its dungeons. Richelieu also founded the French Academy. The Bastille became the symbol of terrorism.

But by the time of the French Revolution, 12 July, 1789, the Bastille hardly qualified as a horrible example of anything. Just for fun - ask somebody offhand how many prisoners were liberated when the Paris mob stormed the Bastille and, to some extent, fomented the big Revolution? ``The truth'' confounded the insurgents that day - they didn't believe what they found inside. There were seven prisoners being cared for by four jailers.

Of the seven prisoners, four were by no means victims of any terrorism but had been convicted of forgery by due process and were serving their sentences - not much on which to erect popular emotionalism. One of the three was Count Solages, who had been put away at the request of his family as ``mad,'' and when he was released he went to a hotel. Tavernier was also mad and went to an institution. Whyte, an Englishman, came out with a long beard that the crowd much admired, but after the excitement subsided he, too, was sent to an asylum. He was the one who gave Dickens an idea with his ``Tale of Two Cities.'' Just seven.

And the ``torture machine'' found by the crowd and played up for all it was worth was really a printing press, a waif of history probably worth more than passing thought.

So here were Bill and I celebrating Bastille Day all these years in remote fervor and zeal, and ``the truth'' was not in us. It is not easy to whistle ``La Marseillaise'' desultorially, but I tried, for it is overexuberant in light of the facts. Bill was stirring the mixture for the toast, had the bread ready, and the frypan was hot. ``Give it another egg,'' I said, ``'twon't hurt it none.''

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