I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself. ~D.H. Lawrence
After my nineteenth consecutive great summer at The Camp (much more on that later), I went to Waterloo University for part of first term when I was told by my Father that he would not be helping with the expense. He had always told me that I would be the only one of seven to go to university and that he would pay my way. Well, he was wrong on both parts of that sentence. My little brother Luke finished with a degree or two, with no financial help. I made it to university but was left high and dry when he refused to help with the fees. In desperation, I even called my Grandfather, whom everyone knew to be well-off and with whom I had always had a strong relationship. He flat-out refused me, saying that all his money was ‘tied up’ in certificates. There was no where else to turn.
So there I was, nineteen, at a large and serious school of higher education, two hours from home, with their very persistent accounts receivable people hounding me to make a payment. I had worked the previous summers and had plowed every penny of my savings into the first payment for residence, tuition and books. I had nearly no money left. I tried to find a job but that too fell flat, as campus jobs were not meant for first-years and the Waterloo campus was a distance from downtown, which meant money was needed to get there. Why not just apply for student loans you may be asking? I DID apply and got refused because my Father made too much money.
Thinking very, very hard about my options, and not wanting to just walk away without a plan for my next move, I sat down to contemplate…then an idea struck…THE ARMY!
Recruiters had come to my high school the previous year with posters and glossy pictures of the kind of life you could have in the army. (It was just like that scene in the 1980 comedy Private Benjamin when Goldie Hawn looks at the glossy pictures of what she thinks of as military yachts and she is SOLD on joining the US Navy.) I had been told, after an aptitude test years before, that I would do well in uniform. Hmmm. That caused pause for reflection. I pulled out the phone book for the city of Kitchener-Waterloo and found out the location of the recruiting centre. I put on some nice clothes and smoothed my curls into a braid, hopped on the city bus and made my way there. I walked in to find a young man in uniform sitting behind the desk. He asked me all about my high school life and extra-curricular activities. When he heard that I was active and sporty and had good marks, he told me that I was, in his words: Officer Material.
‘Wonderful,’ I said. ‘What next?’ He told me to come back with a thousand-word essay about why I wanted to join the Forces. He said there would be an aptitude test when I returned and a medical which was more of a formality.
I went back to residence on a mission. From there, I penned the required essay in my spiral notebook while sitting in the autumn sun outside my residence, friends asking why I wasn’t attending my kinesiology classes and me indicating a mysterious new ambition that I would tell them about ‘later’. I then took and passed the aptitude test and the medical. I scored high on the medical except for one little thing, the doc told me. He began telling me I couldn’t get into the forces because of it. The tears had already erupted as I felt my new focus beginning to blur. ‘You have nearly flat feet’ he said, matter of factly. (I think he didn’t really think I wanted to get in, or something. Maybe I was doing this as a joke or for someone else, like an overbearing parent?)
“Excuse me, Doctor Numbnuts but, did you just say nearly flat? So, NOT flat then, right?” (Today it is the norm to say a word twice if wanting to emphasize it, as in flat flat and I was going to write it like that but then realized, we didn’t say it like that in 1985.) He got it. He checked the box and I grabbed the form before he changed his mind. I then promptly withdrew from Waterloo University – all my hard earned few thousand dollars vanished into nothing at because the big business of universities certainly did not give a refund. A friend that I had made at the camp (again, more on this later) gave me a ride home to Barrie.
The week I arrived back in Barrie, I moved in with my Mom and her alcoholic, ex-navy boyfriend, Earl. We called him Earl-the-Pearl. He was a nice enough man when sober but a binge drinker, so unstable, away for a few days at a time when on a bender and ultimately not a great choice for my mom. In my Mom’s flat I had no bedroom. I slept on the couch in her one-bedroom tiny apartment which was in an old Victorian. Mom’s place was accessed by a steep dark oak stairway above the Knights of Columbus Hall which was across the street from St Mary’s school which I had attended for nine years and from which had received Top Academic Girl some five years previous.
I found two jobs serving tables almost immediately. One full-time at a five-star restaurant called LaFayette and the other part-time at a bar on the opposite end of town. Sleeping on the couch, looking out to my old elementary school, sweet hard-working mom, binge-drinking Earl-the-Pearl. Living in this way brought me down. A few times I would buy a big bag of chips and eat the whole thing while laying on the couch reading Stephen King novels. I disgusted myself but that’s where I was. It was a tough winter. My group of high school friends were away at school except my best girl-friend Kelly who was at Georgian College for nursing and had very little time for me and my pity party.
Thankfully I had a good steady job to go to every day. My boss at the five-star was a womanizing prick from North Africa who would lean in to talk to me just a little too closely, and constantly comment on the breasts of female customers. At least I had a steady gig and it got me up and out and talking to people and making a bit of money every day. The chef at the five-star restaurant taught me one or two things about the joy of good food. He was extreme in his thinking and very sharp and loud in his opinions. He always had a hot lunch set aside for me.
Then, in April, at the restaurant, just after lunch when it was quiet, the phone behind the bar rang. The voice on the other end told me, ‘You have been accepted into the Regular Officer Training Program of the Canadian Armed Forces. You will need to swear in downtown Toronto. We will mail your instructions to you. Do you understand?’
I nodded my head while saying quite simply, ‘Yes, I understand’. Holy shit. I got in! My mind began to race…what will this entail???
Earl-the-Pearl let me use his red pickup to drive down to the recruiting centre. On the way down the multi-lane Highway 400, something terrifying happened. On a dirty-weather day with all kinds of slush and dirt on the highway, I ran out of windshield wash. My windshield suddenly became dark brown and opaque. I couldn’t see a thing and I was in the middle lane. I rolled the windows down and while praying, white-knuckling and sweating, moved over to the shoulder. Breathing heavily, I realized that I had just escaped a very bad situation. I sat with the hood up and waited for a few minutes, thinking. Just then, a good Samaritan came along and filled my reservoir with windshield wash fluid after helping me clean my windshield with a handful of snow. I vowed to one day be as kind as this man. I made it to the ceremony on time and met some folks who are still my friends today, thirty plus years later.
Basic Training was to begin in June and last for six weeks. If I passed Basic, the Forces would send me to university and I would receive a salary while at school. So they would feed, dress, house and educate me, as well as pay me. Geesh. That sounded promising!
Basic Training took place in Chilliwack, British Columbia on Canada’s west coast at the Officer Candidate School. The six weeks was a blur of early morning running, push ups, inspections, weapons training, map and compass training and combat field training. There was also marksmanship, and the beginnings of how to issue Orders, among many other things like military indoctrination through the Queens Regulations and Orders and SOPs – Standard Operating Procedures. Sleep deprivation (I recall five of us getting into a cab to head out to dinner and all of us falling fast asleep in the cab, the cab driver shaking us awake upon arrival at our destination) was ever present. We learned how to work hard and play harder the army way (drink your face off with all the other cadets as soon as training ended at the week’s end – drinking in the mess hall was highly encouraged for esprit du corps or for good morale). There was combat first-aid – using that field dressing which was duct-taped to your ruck shoulder strap by SOP!. There was also introduction to code and de-coding, tight bed-making with sharp corners, folding shirts into an exact square and taping them into your layout drawer (never to be touched), precision sock-rolling, knot-tying and long marches in single file in combat gear with rifle at the ready and full rucksack, never really knowing when it would end and never daring to question or complain.
One exercise saw us climbing a huge steep cliff face out in the rather beautiful forested training area. We were told we would be rappelling down the face of the rock and had received the lecture to teach us how to do it. Most of my course mates were absolutely fine with this task and were even eager to go. There I sat, petrified, wishing and praying that I would not actually have to do it. This is the picture taken just before we started to take turns getting on the rope to drop a few hundred meters down the mountain. Thanks to my fear of heights, my bowels were basically turning to fluid as I sat there waiting. When my name was called, I staggered over to the cliff’s edge trying not to peer down down down that rock face. I had my rope Swiss seat with steel carabiner hook on and somehow willed my shaking hands to hook onto the rope. Even now, I feel a bit sick thinking of how scared I was. I searched the eyes of the Sergeant telling me to ‘get the fuck on the rope Cadet’ but then with a quieter, ‘you can do this’ (which today would have been ‘you GOT this’). I shook my head subtly but I did the friggin’ rappel anyway and I did not scream dropping down. I was frozen stiff. I’m surprised I didn’t smash into the wall and hurt myself because I sure as heck didn’t have my legs at a ninety in order to bound off the rock. At the bottom I kissed the ground and vowed to NEVER do that again. Some of my mates were heading up the cliff face for another turn. Oh sweet Jesus. That was a difficult moment and it may have been the single most challenging item on my course for me.. (A few years later I forced myself to rappel again – oh, but that’s another story.)
One piss-off moment on training that I will forever think of as completely humiliating and border-line sexually offensive was the day of the swim test. We had all been issued a little green somewhat see-through Speedo bathing suit and make no mistake, the supply techs made sure our suits were a couple of sizes too small. My suit was so far up my butt it hurt and looked pornographic in my eyes when I caught my reflection in the changeroom mirror. Shit! I did not want to go out on the pool deck where sixty young men and a few Sergeants were all waiting for us half dozen girls to parade out. They were pretending not to be staring at the door, but trust me, they were. These green Speedos left NOTHING to the imagination. The guys looked bad too, in their noodle-benders but the difference was, they just didn’t care. I wished I could just not care like them. After the swim test (which was easy for me), they then sat us all down on the pool deck and one by one we were called up to do chin ups. Again, complete mortification at reaching up to the high overhead chin-up bar while my bathing suit ran even further up my nether regions, and my nipples stood at attention. There were upwards of one hundred and forty eye-balls studying every move. My anger was hot and my face red but I got it over with and went to change.
Basic Training in the heat of the summer of 1986 was tough. We were at times digging ditches and unrolling and installing lethally sharp razor wire, wearing way too much clothing plus protective leather gloves, with slung rifle, helmet on our heads and wool socks in combat boots. These simulated war-time tasks would take place while the sun beamed down over Cultus Lake, where civilians swam and water-skied within sight and ear shot, their laughter bouncing off the lake and mocking us. Meanwhile, we sweated, chafed, thirsted and laboured with slung rifle hitting the back of our steel pot helmet every time we bent to retrieve something.
We were yelled at more than anyone would believe with phraseology such as, ‘CADET, IF YOU DON’T MAKE THAT KNOT TIGHTER PEOPLE WILL DIE!!!!!’
‘CADET, STRAP THAT STEEL POT (ie helmet) ON YOUR HEAD AND ROLL DOWN YOUR SLEEVES (in this 95 degree weather) OR PEOPLE WILL DIE!!!!’
‘CADET WHERE THE HELL ARE YOUR CANADIAN ARMED FORCES ISSUED WOOL SOCKS?! WE DO NOT WEAR COTTON SOCKS IN THIS ARMY OR PEOPLE WILL DIE!!!!’
‘CADET MOVE WITH A SENSE OF URGENCY AT ALL TIMES OR PEOPLE WILL DIE!!!!’
Fortunately, coming from where I came from (one tough, out-doorsy and quite masculine family), I found basic training mostly fascinating, as I was thankfully not one of the underdogs who was picked on incessantly by the Sergeants. I actually did well on this training, as I decided early that I would find something to laugh about daily to keep me positive and achieving. With this, I passed in the top third of my platoon: Nine Platoon – DOGS OF WAR!!! Next step, university paid for by the your tax dollars and endorsed by the Canadian Armed Forces…