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15 seconds to die

By Gérard DE CORTANZE Sofitel Agadir Thalassa Sea & Spa

In the autumn of 1958, rewarded by his superiors for having perfected a process to transform amorphous carbon into graphite, my father became the engineer in the Carbone Lorraine factory in Gennevilliers. In the months that followed, I discovered a city within a city, with its own streets, houses, plazas, street signs, its own laws and taboos. On Sundays, I would wander through this vast industrial landscape sprawled over two suddenly deserted hectares and dotted with drowsy metal monsters and fierce-looking scaffolding now tamely sleeping. I wandered through a dead city whose streets were littered with dinosaur corpses and reclining robots, their jaws agape. An occasional worker might pass by, wearing a hard hat and boots, hands protected by thick gloves. Lights blinked here and there amid intermittent bursts of steam, while in the background there was constant noise, a strange mix of snores, shrill rattles, growls, and other quieter, more muffled sounds.

“Do you want to see my office?” my father asked me one day. For years I had wanted to enter his secret hideout, the hidden cave where he battled the monster. We crossed several workshops, walking through tall buildings with red brick chimneys. Finally we entered my father’s office. It was the only place in the whole factory that was not covered with a fine coat of gray dust. I don’t know why, but I had imagined that it would be a place apart from the rest of the factory, a sort of haven of peace, with carpet and a minibar stocked with an unlimited supply of ice cubes and whisky, with in the middle a desk of polished walnut or with Plexiglas legs and a glass top… In fact, the room was much more austere, all in stainless steel and oxidized metal, unprotected, open to the furnaces, enormous brick parallelepipeds only a few meters away
that could explode at any moment. My father’s explanations were always extremely clear, so simple in his eyes, yet so very complicated for me… “This workshop makes exhaust tuyeres: after the gas has been burned in the combustion chamber of the reactor, it has to be accelerated, in order to create the forward power – by reaction. The ejection canal through which it passes is the tuyere. And in the tuyere there is graphite, which we produce here, in those big red ovens over there,” he said, pointing out his office windows to the enormous parallelepipeds from which tubes equipped with meters rose.

 

While he was talking, I looked around, trying to understand how my father lived when he was not with his family. A photo of my mother sat prominently in a dark wood frame, teetering amid piles of folders, along with photos of us children. There were many other objects, too — a mahogany ruler, a bone-handled knife, mechanical pencils, a cube-shaped glass ashtray, a little leather book that in fact held a cigarette lighter, a chronometer, a hard hat, protective gloves — which all provided the link between the working man and the family man.

A number of these objects are now sitting on my bookshelves, along with many others — random trophies, good-luck charms, assorted trinkets, all in apparent disorder, which is in fact my true order. Trivial souvenirs, perhaps, but they are all that remains of those graphite-colored years, and among them is a dagger with an engraved silver handle and a rifle with an inlaid butt and an interminable octagonal barrel, gifts from my father’s Moroccan workers, “my Moroccan workers,’’ as he called them, men who were his guards, his phalanx. He defended them relentlessly, virulently against the factory management, which viewed them as nothing more than unskilled labor, and against the unions, which used them as fodder to plump up their ranks during protests. He protected them when one or another grew faint during Ramadan fasting, he allowed them to pray if they felt the need, he helped them with their administrative formalities. It was by watching my
father’s actions that I learned tolerance.

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