The word came down that after Basic Training, I would be going to Royal Roads Military College outside of Victoria, BC. I was told that the first month, or, ‘Recruit Term’ would be very difficult, but, that I should stay positive and it would pass quickly. ‘Difficult’ was a gross understatement: Recruit Term was hell on earth. I cried myself to sleep every night. And please note: it wasn’t until a few years after writing this account that I remembered the other aspects of milcol. I wrote about that in ‘A Can of Worms’.
A typical day of Recruit Term began with pounding rock music at 5:30 am. The wake-up song for our flight was April Wine’s What a Night. What a Night starts with a fire alarm bell mounted on a cymbal stand being rang at a fast pace. It truly was the perfect harsh sound to get the heart racing and the panic started for the drills of the day. We had until the end of the song to be up, dressed, to the bathroom, bed made and ‘layout’ ready for inspection. Everything in the room had to be prepared to specific, exacting standards. For instance, our uniform shirts had to be folded to exactly 25 x 30 cm, ironed and TAPED into our top drawer. Socks had to be rolled into a tight little ball, in a specific manner that we were shown and TAPED into the drawer. Same with pants. Boots and leather gators had to be polished and spit-shone to a high-gloss. We had three uniforms in our closet which had to have all buttons done and all lint removed and hanging exactly two inches apart with all sleeves perfectly positioned. The problem was, there was absolutely no free-time to do these things. So, we did them in the middle of the night and we were all quite sleep deprived already from basic training.
After morning inspection, we were run, that is: we ran over to the next building to the mess hall for breakfast where we would try to choke down some food but we were constantly being screamed at and ‘steadied up’ by our superiors.
‘RECRUIT, DON’T YOU KNOW THAT YOU ARE NOT TO USE YOUR LEFT HAND TO EAT YOUR TOAST??! STEADY UP WHEN I ADDRESS YOU.’
At this point, with his face millimeters from mine, and he breathing terribly hard, hot breath, I would have to sit at attention with arms straight down my sides and with tight fists say, ‘YES MR SMITH. NO MR SMITH. I WILL DO BETTER MR SMITH’…suffice to say, with all of the interruptions and the stress of being inspected so closely by our superior cadets, it was nearly impossible to eat. After a couple of weeks of Recruit Term, my uniform pants were falling down as I ran. Running with your pants falling down and senior cadets screaming at you, well, this was not so fine.
After breakfast there would be hours of panic drills where we were made to complete some task and then stand for inspection. It may be to lay out our stripped rifle with all parts displayed, by the end of the song. It may be to put on our dress uniform and then stand for inspection by the end of the song…remembering that our rooms and beds, trunks, cupboards, sink, desks and dresser had to be completely perfect, inside and out, not just our person. There was a lot of insults and yelling:
‘RECRUIT, YOU ARE A COMPLETE BAG.’
RECRUIT, YOU ARE AN EMBARRASSMENT TO THE CANADIAN ARMED FORCES. RECRUIT – GET DOWN AND GIVE ME 25 PUSH UPS ON YOUR KNUCKLES.’
It went on for hours. There would be another run over to the next building for lunch and a parade muster before lunch where we would have to stand in completely straight lines and have our uniform looking sharp – which was impossible after the previous activities. We would all be sweating and salt-stained, shirt tails hanging out, pants drooping, laces untied, baret atilt on our heads, and females’ hair buns falling out. So more yelling and insults.
‘YOU PEOPLE ARE A MESS, A COMPLETE MESS.
YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELVES.
This is where we would march in place with knees as high as our waist, sweating profusely. Next, into the beautiful mess hall with white linen, silver, crystal and table service. Now, try to eat while being examined and corrected by the Senior Cadets. Not likely.
After lunch, we would be taken, you guessed it, running, sometimes with rifles (called a rifle-run), for an hour or so in the woods of the College grounds. The woods were absolutely peaceful and beautiful. A temperate rain forest. But sweat was dripping down my face and fear was in my heart. Our physical fitness instructor was Mr Snellwood. He was a kinder soul and once, at the beginning of Recruit Term, he sat us all down in the woods and tried to reassure us that we would all pass recruit term, as long as we stayed diligent and showed that we were working hard. I was sitting there thinking about the three more weeks that had to be endured and a tear escaped, rolling down my cheek. I thought he was sweet and kind, but, I also had serious doubts about whether I would pass or could ‘keep up’ with this system.
We were allowed a two-minute shower after running and then we were back at the panic drills. Every now and then, something not-so-hard was offered. Like: Chapel visit, uniform fitting, tour of the incredible Japanese Gardens, or of the boat shed, or of Hatley Castle and then there were mini lectures like: etiquette in mess hall. This was instruction on how to use all of the various cutlery and glasses that were part of a mess dinner function. As Officers, we would be attending these nice dinners several times per year, and we needed to know how to sit properly at a formal table and how to use the formal dining setting.
One time, they got us all out of bed at first light. We were blind-folded and we were taken out into the back woods. This was the Escape and Evasion exercise. Our superior cadets were talking in bad Russian accents and we were to pretend that we had been captured by enemy forces. In the woods, they had us get down on our bellies and they told us that we would be set free and that there would be a prize for the first recruit to make it back to barracks without being re-captured. They left and we, the captured, all got up and removed the blind folds. We started wandering around. I gathered with a couple of flight-mates and we began to walk through the rainforest. We had no idea which way to go and it was a large area, acres and acres of woodland. After walking through the forest for a couple of hours, we came upon a huge blackberry patch just completely laden with huge, shining, juicy blackberries. We fell on it and started to gorge ourselves. I must have had blackberry juice all over my face. The berries were better than delicious. And no one to ‘steady us up’….we thought.
All of a sudden: RECRUITS HALT. HANDS UP. TURN AROUND! We were re-captured and would not be winning any prize today. The berries were worth it though.
After supper, we were given two-hours of study time, or time to do some tasks that they wanted us to do. One evening they told us to write an essay about our former lives so that our section commanders could get to know us better. I started off with the COSSA Basketball tournament that my Dad was coaching when I came along and then into the camp details and high school sportiness. I had heard our section commander say he was originally from Huntsville, Ontario which is just south of where the camp is. So, I made sure to mention Huntsville. Later that evening, we gathered with our sister flight and some of the essays were read aloud. Mine was picked. I read it aloud and when I came to Huntsville, I looked up at Mr. Smith. He grinned at me. I had made a connection. Now I was a little more hopeful that I would make it through this hell month. Mr. Smith was a behemoth in my memories. Well over six feet tall with huge shoulders and muscles. This guy would strap the largest weights possible to his body then with veins bulging in biceps and face of stone, pump off chin-ups. Many chin-ups. Geez. At this point I couldn’t even do one chin-up.
At bed time we had another routine to endure. We had to do 100 sit-ups in the hallway, wearing vinyl raincoats (because we were half dressed underneath and noone had a robe) by pinning our toes under the heater and with knees bent and fingers laced behind the head, pump them off. There was a catch. We had to do 100 sit-ups, take a shower AND brush our teeth by the end of our ‘goodnight’ song: Stairway to Heaven (8 minutes). Consequently, I did not wash my hair for 30 days. I kept it tightly braided and would wash just my bangs. There was one shower and two girl recruits on our flight. The two of us showered together while brushing out teeth. Writing this thirty years later, it seems bazaar that we would shower together. But we did. We just did. And, to call it a shower was a stretch. We had a bit of water for about 30 seconds and then RAN back to our bunks.
On the final day of Recruit Term, we had the obstacle course and all recruits had to pass this final test. The Obstacle Course was a 5 km course through the woods with obstacles the whole way. Most of the obstacles involved dunking the head fully under into mud to say, get under a barrier or to jump over a barrier only to land fully in mud. There was a rope wall to climb with a fall into a muddy pond; balance-beamed crossing of a mud river with a necessary dismount into…you guessed it…MUD. I looked up at one obstacle to see a boy from my street back in Barrie (he had actually been a serious boyfriend for a while). Anyway, that guy was yelling at me, ‘GO! YOU CAN DO THIS MARTHA VALIQUETTE’– he kindly was not using the word recruit to cheer me on. I remember thinking in my exhausted haze that that was very kind of him. My exhausted mind flitted back for a brief second to Barrie North High-school gym where we both had attended and where he cheered me on through many a tight basketball and volleyball game. We had both been jocks in school.
The final obstacle, when knackered and with mud in every orifice, was to swim across a deep, weedy, lily-pad covered pond in combat boots. This was an individual test. Ironically, we were not allowed to help each other on any part of the obstacle course. Ironic because up until that moment it was ALL team work: ‘RECRUITS – STAY TOGETHER — YOU’RE ONLY AS STRONG AS YOU’RE WEAKEST LINK’, they would scream at us. I recall thinking, when I got to the pond, this will be a piece of cake. This was due to all the swimming in my childhood and even in lily-pad covered ponds. Thank goodness I passed it. Afterwards I showered for 30 minutes but still had mud in my ears. I ended up passing Recruit Term toward the top of my flight. No idea how.
We then had a big celebration down at the cadet mess called Decks. We had a big supper and lots of drinks. We had been told to dress up in nice civilian clothes or, ‘civvies’. Now we females were visually checked out by the senior cadets. As a young woman with certain healthy curves, long dark wavy hair, green eyes, nice smile, I was accustomed to turning some heads. For this celebration I wore a blue knit, V-neck dress with a wide belt synched tightly around my tiny waist and leather pumps – and yes, I turned some heads. (I was not beautiful, nor was I pretty, but, I was certainly attractive and the ratio of women to men was 1:8, so easily done). What a difference a shower, clean hair, some lipstick and civvies can make. It was a fun night with dancing and hilarity. We were so glad to be finished with Recruit Term!
The academic year began with classes, assignments, essays, exams and social experiences. The difference, at Military College is that almost every weekend was jam packed with compulsorily attended military or varsity sport requirements in the form of parade and parade practice and athletic events and competitions. The schedule was brutal and cadets get very close, due to it. One weekend we lost four cadets. We were shattered. (I wrote about that in ‘A Theory of Loss).
One long weekend, the following year, a friend – Cindy and I, decided to get off campus and away from it all. We had been more or less locked up and scrutinized for months and ready to just wear our jeans and hit the open road for a wee adventure. With a back pack each, we hitch-hiked a couple hours up island to Lake Cowichan where we had booked a cabin for two nights. Our first ride got us most of the way there. Then, we were stuck for a bit on some country road with the sun going down over the next hill.
‘This is nothing,’ I thought. ‘We’ve just passed through hell and found some freedom. Nothin’ is getting me down now.’
On that note, a red pick-up pulled over to offer us a lift. The man inside was more than a little scary looking with wild eyes and crazy hair. Cindy and I looked at each other, shrugged, and hopped in. He turned out to be a decent fellow and he dropped us at our rented cabin.
Next: what should we do with our free evening? We had heard tell of a dance in a countryside hall nearby. We gussied ourselves up and with blue jeans and jean jackets and big hair (this was 1986 after all), off we went…only to find five or six of our classmate cadets already there. Not sure how that happened exactly but it was sure to be fun. When you work hard, it only seems natural to also play hard. That is what we did. We basically started dancing and didn’t stop for hours. At one point during Rock Lobster, we were all down on the hard-wood floor doing the worm. Yes, just like it sounds. Squirming. Full-body contact with the floor. It was hilarious. Likely one of the most fun nights of my entire life due to its spontaneity, timing, serendipity and remote location and laughter. We ended up meeting a couple of sweet-natured local fellows that night and took them back to our cabin, giggling all the way.
Next Army Part 3
(All photos are courtesy of google images.)