'The Best Days' — a best read
James M. Berklan
Where to start when discussing Jean Rene Champion's engrossing memoir is a difficult question, rivaled only by the struggle of where to stop. His self-published “The Best Days of My Life: Memories of a Hobo Soldier” deftly paints the adventures of an essentially parentless vagabond who makes the character Forest Gump look like a listless mope.
A French-born child of the 1920s, he made an art of hopping freight trains as a teen in America during the Great Depression. He volunteered to fight with the French Free Army in World War II and later wound up living among a secluded Indian tribe in Mexico for his Ph.D. before becoming a Cold War defense expert and college professor.
Along the way came abject poverty; brushes with millionaires; harrowing escapes from predators, Nazis and other ne'er-do-wells; his active role in the liberation of Paris; the bestowal of France's most treasured honor; corporate leadership posts; the creation of two American families; a successful road-running career he started as a senior citizen; and much, much more.
Now, 93, Champion spends his days largely unaware of his heroic feats and swashbuckling days. He resides at Wind Crest, an Erickson retirement community in Highlands Ranch, CO, where Alzheimer's disease has clamped especially hard over the last six months. He and his wife, who died three years ago, moved there in 2007.
Last October, his sons opted to self-publish “The Best Days,” which Champion wrote before taking ill. They had offered it to numerous big publishers who — incredibly — asked them to further dramatize the tale before they would run it.
The sons wisely demurred, sticking with the insightful ruminations of a man who was so scarred by the physical and repeated emotional abandonment of his mother, he declined to visit her for the final 50 years of her life. Eventually, he would regrettably break his own and others' hearts in Europe and America as loves were gained and lost. The author makes sure the reader sees the full him, warts and all. (Pictured at right in eastern France, circa 1944, and below left in 2009 at Wind Crest.)
The bulk of the 400-page book occurs before his 25th birthday, when he is finding his way as a charming, fatherless youngster. This was a man who would run between the enemy's falling bombs to deliver mail to his fellow soldiers, who could sleep on top of a moving train without falling off, who suffered third-degree burns on his face when Germans blasted a rocket through the side of his tank — and went AWOL from rehab to rejoin his unit near the front.
“The Best Days” is engrossing for its portrayal of an America when a creative boy could make his way from Coast to Coast hitchhiking and hopping freight trains, with literally nothing in his pockets. He labored at the most menial of jobs simply for a place to sleep or a few bites to eat, learning the names of countermen and other workers along the fabled Route 66. It is an action tale that relives less frequently heard threads, such as how he and other Frenchmen anxiously trained for years in England and North Africa before being sent into combat as a part of DeGaulle's Free French Army.
“He was an extremely smart native French speaker who used the English language better than most native English speakers,” his 47-year-old son, David, told me. “He was doing the Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle until about five years ago. He was a brilliant man. This [book] is the last product of that mind.”
Many times as a youngster David Champion heard vignettes that are skillfully stitched together in the book. But, he hastened to add, while his father did not mind the attention, the former tank commander would open up only after visitors would prod him to explain some framed award, news clipping or other detail of his life. He was quoted in a famous best-selling book, “Is Paris Burning?” and appeared in a documentary with Peter Jennings in 1995 about the liberation of Paris. Countless acquaintances urged him to write his memoir until he finally relented after retiring for the final time.
“The Forest Gump analogy is apt,” David agreed. “He kept popping up in the midst of great historical events.”
Later, as an American executive, he was able to return for military and war reunions in Europe. Often, he was able to reconnect with army comrades and civilians from his war days. Once he even met the midwife who delivered him decades earlier in France. She still would not tell him the name of the father he never knew.
Luckily for us, Jean Rene Champion has opened up and allowed us to get to know that unnamed man's son, an adventurer for the ages.
“The Best Days of My Life: Memories of a Hobo Soldier” is available in digital form from numerous online booksellers, including iTunes, for $9.99. All proceeds will go to charities. “Half will go to an organization that will benefit research on the disease that has ravaged my father's brain, and the other half will do some good right here and now in Denver, at Meals on Wheels,” said David Champion.