"Ha!" I said, pointing. "Napoleon is funny."
My husband is an obsessive student of military history. He cannot remember to put a new roll of toilet paper in the bathroom when he uses up the old one, but he can recount the precise troop movements and the senior officers involved in almost every battle in western history, from Napoleon's campaigns through the World Wars. John stopped in his tracks, shocked. "Napoleon is not funny."
John is really sexy when he gets so worked up that he spits on himself, so I said, "You can't tell me that it's not funny that Napoleon got defeated in a flush toilet."
"You know. Water Loo."
I had several long seconds to admire the way John's eyes flashed as he sputtered. Then it started. For the entire remainder of the shopping trip, I got a play-by-play review of Napoleon's defeat. Somewhere in the produce section, though, while John was using grapes to represent Blucher's forces, and pintos pilfered from the bulk beans bin to represent General Ney and the rest of Napoleon's men, my attention started to wander.
I've eaten the remains of battle reenactments before, so while he pulled a box of Pop Tarts out of our cart to represent Wellington's British squares, I mused a little more on the man I still think of as Europe's tiniest dictator.
Nowadays, we might look at a man like Napoleon and attach a label like "does not play well with others." Back then, they cut to the chase and dubbed him "the Enemy of Humanity".
From 1793 to 1815, with rare exception, Napoleon was constantly in the process of slapping someone around.
He thumped the Austrians in Italy, got bored, then tried to take over Egypt. He wandered around there for several years, defeating forces that sometimes outnumbered him ten to one, surviving the plague twice, and discovering the Rosetta stone. Still, his supply lines had been cut and the British were swarming in behind him. So Napoleon went back to France, leaving behind his troops and his mistress of two years (it's hard to tell which of the two was more surprised).
There was actually a year or so of relative peace, during which Napoleon hung around Paris, updated civil codes, escaped a precursor to our modern car-bombings when someone tried to blow up his carriage, and dated a few actresses. But power, fast women and exploding vehicles weren't enough for him. He got bored and proceeded to stomp all over Europe, invaded Portugal for trading with Britain, and took over Spain for no good reason.
Noticing that he still hadn't beaten up Russia, Napoleon kicked and bit his way up north, all the way in to Moscow. When the Russians chose to burn themselves down rather than surrender, the campaign turned into a staring match. A match where one side had heavier coats and more vodka than the other. Rather awkwardly, Napoleon excused himself and discovered what almost everyone who invades Russia seems to forget: Russia is very big, and very cold.
Frozen, hungry and plagued the whole (long) way by Cossacks doing drive-bys, the French army was seriously weakened. Good thing they weren't going to encounter any nations that might hold grudges against them, or they might have gotten their backsides soundly... oh, wait.
He fought all the way back to France, and still had enough sauce left to stave off an invasion, but the math was pretty clear. He finally allowed himself to be exiled.
Now get this. The coalition of nations against him decided that for his punishment, he would be made Emperor of Italy's third largest island, an enchanting little paradise with crystal clear turquoise waters that stay about seventy degrees warm well into October. It's a beautiful island of white beaches and chestnut forests, covered with flowers and wild rosemary. He was allowed to take his staff, 600 of his Old Guard and rule over the 110,000+ inhabitants of the island. All he had to do was stay put and stop conquering people, and he could rule this cushy little paradise forever.
Napoleon stayed there nine months, then escaped. To do what? To retake France. Within two months, he had a full sized army and was off attacking the British and the Prussians. Who knows how far he might have gotten if it were not for the sad errors made in Belgium...
"Ah, Ney," my husband sighed, holding up a pinto bean. "What were you thinking?"
They shipped him ten weeks deep into the South Atlantic, where he lived out the remainder of his days antagonizing the British governor of the small island he was exiled on.
And now the man who thrashed everyone in and around Europe for twenty years running is reduced to appearing on cans of baby corn (Slogan: "Guaranteed to overwhelm your taste buds and take your lower intestinal tract by force!") and causing grown men to foam at the mouth and get kicked out of grocery stores.
You tell me that's not funny.
Comments and vegetable/historical figure parallels to Alex.Queen@gmail.com.
This article first appeared in the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin.