"I think I will just run away and join the French Foreign Legion."

I've heard men say this at this season of the year - when, once again, they have stepped on the cash-and-credit land mine of the Ho-Ho-Ho season. And the eggnog has hit the fan.Men who bellow this at home may get a roar back from the family: "Great, we'll help you pack, Jack."

For those in this state of mind, I offer a public-service announcement. A kind of put-up-or-shut-up set of facts. At the suggestion of my wife, I have been in contact with le Lieutenant-Colonel Hogard, Chef du Bureau de Recrutement de la Legion Etrangere in Marseilles. Want to join the French Foreign Legion? Here's how.

First, you must go to France at your expense. Race, creed, nationality or language won't disqualify you. Just show up at any one of 16 recruitment offices (open weekends and holidays). Hint: Pick the office in Nice. Even if the Legion doesn't want you, how bad could a few days on the Riviera be?

Second, you must pass the initial tests of aptitude for the Legion, which are:

1. Sound body. Your physical condition must be ready for duty in any climate in the world.

2. Sound mind. You must be mentally capable of following orders.

Also, you must be over 17 and under 40 years of age. So? You may have to lie.

Knowledge of French is not required - you will soon learn all you need to know: "Oui, mon sergent," "Non, mon sergent."

Third, you must understand that the Legion is not a hiding place for unhappy lovers, fallen noblemen or derelict criminals. They are "neither mercenaries nor outlaws, but men of action - Elite Soldiers with young, dynamic spirits, ever prepared to do its required duty." Are you sure this is you?

If so, and if you pass further medical, physical and mental tests, you will receive a five-year contract. The contract is permanent. Whatever you do or they do, you're their guy for five years.

They are careful to note that a legionnaire receives free food, shelter, clothes and health care. Legionnaire style. But of course. Plus pay. Exactly 1,500 francs a month. That's about $250. However, the recruitment brochure states, "All money received must be considered savings." Which is the polite French way of telling you that you won't have a chance to spend it, anyhow.

You are free to choose a new name, by the way. And the Legion will never tell anybody who or where you are. Your past is erased. Now you are only a legionnaire. You will take an oath to serve the Legion, not France. The Legion's motto is "Legion Patria Nostra" ("The Legion is Our Fatherland").

During your five years of service, you may receive training in a trade, as may be required by the Legion. All the obvious things an army might need are listed: radio operator, vehicle driver, mechanic and so on. But they also will train you as a musician, medic, cook, photographer, sport instructor, diver or cartoonist. I assure you I am quoting directly from the brochure. What kind of cartoonist do they need in the French Foreign Legion?

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Forget the North-African-fort-in-the-sand-dunes image, by the way. The Legion left Africa at the end of colonialism. Now you will serve in places like Southern France, Corsica, French Guyana and Tahiti. Not bad.

Retire in 15 years with full benefits. Become a French citizen if you wish. Or come home. Maybe by then, your family will be glad to see you again. Maybe by then, the Christmas bills will all be paid, the mess around the house cleaned up, and your children grown up and on their own. Lots of luck.

Perhaps a week in a motel until Christmas blows over would do. Get a sun lamp, grow a handlebar mustache, eat some cheese and watch "Beau Geste" on TV.

But keep this information just in case. You never know when you will need to write le Lieutenant Colonel Hogard. His address is: Commandement de la Legion Etrangere, BP 38, Marseilles Armees. Vive la France.

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