At some point in our lives we have all fallen victim to being cold, wet and hungry. But all of that pales in comparison to being military cold… wet… and hungry. My introduction to this tripod of misery happened in a place called: Farnham. A marshland that’s nestled within the rural landscape of Quebec. A storied place replete with lore that was shared generously among the junior ranks of uniformed recruits. A place that when spoken of sent shivers down the spines of those destined to set foot on its uneven grounds. As a Canadian soldier, it is a requirement that we spend time in this place of wooded perdition. Perfecting and honing our newly acquired survival skills as gifted to us by those with booming voices and superior rank.
I was eighteen years old. And for the first time in my life, I was about to authentically play war. The weapon in my hand was not a stick or wooden simulacrum of a rifle. It was a real, true to life standard issue C7A1 5.56 calibre firearm. The gear on my back, necessities of my newly minted life. The life of a soldier. Camouflaged corpuscles designed to keep me fed, hydrated and safe. The weight of these things is beyond that of description.
Near the end of basic recruit training, soldiers must spend time in the field demonstrating proficiency in all that we have learned over the past months of rigorous training. Hence—Farnham. A carved-out sect of land owned by the military. Sidebar here: If you are thinking of joining the military and the recruiter asks if you enjoy camping, know this—field training is NOTHING like camping! First off, you’re not even allowed beer or bacon! I’m not saying it’s all bad. Well… it is. At the time. Given retrospect though… some of the best moments of my life have been spent, cold… wet… and hungry.
It was first light when we all lined up outside. This was to be the last time we felt the comforts of base life for 7 days. Now, admittedly, that does not sound like a long time. But think of military time in terms of dog years—each passing minute is more akin to that of a thousand aching ones.
We all stood nervously alongside one another, waiting for our drill instructors to arrive and belt out further orders. One squad-mate, Dewtee (yes… that was his name), shuffled in place, standing with his gear piled at his feet. He seemed excited for this venture. Though I am not sure why; if any of you have ever seen the Stanley Kubrick classic: Full Metal Jacket, then the name: Gomer Pile should be familiar to you. Well, think of Dewtee as a less homicidal version of one Private Pile. He was the guy who always asked late questions just before weekend furlough, thus keeping us behind for longer than any of us wanted to be. Some of the classics in his repertoire of queries were as follows:
“Hey, Sarge… can my wife mail me my swards so that I can polish them on my down time?” To which the Sgt responded: “Private Dewtee, are you asking if you can have weaponry sent to the base so you can have free access to it when on off duty hours?” And Dewtee said: “Well… yeah. But only so I can polish em and make em look real-nice. You know?” Yes, this was a real question. Some of his other staples included:
“Excuse me, Master Corporal; do you know what kind of insects we can expect to encounter while in Farnham? Are they presumed hostile?” I should mention that Dewtee had a lisp. Not that that means anything, but it does add to his character. The response to this question was: “Jesus Christ, Dewtee… it’s Quebec, not the Australian outback!” And in reliable Dewtee fashion he jotted down some notes: “So… no then. Okay. Great. Nothing else.”
Yeah… Dewtee was a real character. Something scripted as opposed to born. He was a great guy, don’t get me wrong. I love him! But dear god did I hate him! All 5 feet and 4 inches of him!
“Hey, Henny…” Dewtee said, calling over to me.
“Yeah… what’s up?”
“Do you think they’re going to give us sunscreen? Or should we have bought some from the kit store?” My mouth fell into a gape before responding. “I have no fucking clue, dude.”
“Yeah… they’ll probably give us some,” he said as he visually inspected the rest of his gear.
“GROUP!” A voice cried out. This was the call to attention. It meant that a senior NCO was approaching. Our bodies stiffened into rigid immovability.
“Alright, fuck sticks… You have 3 minutes to unfuck yourselves and get your gear on those buses. You fail to meet that timing by one fraction of a cunt hair, I promise you pain and misery the likes of which you have never seen. MOVE!”
In a flurry of decisive action, we scrambled to hoist our gear and place it militarily on the buses. Meaning it had to be neat and organized, all the while casting anxious gazes at the ticking seconds on our watches. The threat that had come from our sergeant was not one to be taken lightly. The man was built like a tank. If tanks had six-packs and anger management issues.
We met the timing and filed onto the buses. For the next 30 kilometers, we sat in tremulous reticence. Watching as the base faded from view. This was it: the toughest test of many of our lives. None of us knew what to expect as the stories handed down from graduating recruits were often inflated with hyperbole. As such, scenarios of what was to come ran wild within the confines of our shaved heads.
When we arrived, we were quickly and aggressively ordered to flee the bus—and we did. I was now confronted by vast wilderness and an unwelcomed hum of varying airborne insects. The heat was stifling. There was no civilization to be heard nor seen. We stood in rows along a pot-stricken dirt road, awaiting what came next.
Over the next several hours we would dig defensive positions known as: shell scrapes. Alongside those we were to set up our sleeping quarters. These luxurious structures were made from a military issue ground sheet, some rope and ground spikes. Literally a tarp over our heads, mere inches off the ground. We would be attacked at random by a fictitious enemy. These attacks came in the form of thrown arti-sims (a mock artillery round with a wail unmistakable to those that have heard it), blank rifle rounds clattering ubiquitously around us, and a multitude of screaming voices from our instructors. Things were tense. The mood was set and it was undeniably heavy. They were drilling the seriousness of what we could expect to come with an indefatigable repetition. The thought of “taking my ball and going home” most certainly crossed my mind. And likely the thinking space of many of my peers. But I stayed. So did they. There was no way I was quitting on them, or me.
I told you that we set up sleeping quarters—I should have just said “quarters,” because sleep was something that they did not give us a lot of. Barely a wink. We would be “bugged out,” meaning we had to pack up and move to a new location as the one we were currently in was “compromised” by the enemy. And when we did get to our new location and set up our sleeping bags and overhead tarps… attacked. Rifle rounds, machine gun bursts and simulated explosions. Things got bad. I mean real-bad. We were all so sleep fucked that hallucinating was not out of the realm of possible. At night while on nightwatch, I thought I witnessed enemy soldiers heads bopping up and down as they neared our position. Turned out to simply be the tips of trees swaying as silhouettes against the night sky.
We each took turns performing routine duties throughout the camp. These duties ranged from patrolling to day/night security watch, land navigation and topographical planning and radio relay. We were given a security challenge and word each day, so that when a returning patrol came to the camp entrance, they could be asked to speak the phrase. If they got it correct, they were friendly and thus allowed entry. Get it wrong and it was on!
I had the displeasure of performing a nightwatch and patrol in the middle of a deluge. Springtime rain was no joke in this place. Sopping wet, tired and hungry, myself and another private performed deliberate walkabouts of a designated area. Keeping watch for an ethereal enemy for a predetermined amount of time. When our watch was drawing to a close, it was our turn to go and wake one of the other fireteams and then crawl into our hooch’s (sleeping tarp) and attempt a few restless hours of downtime.
Myself and my fireteam buddy approached the entrance of our camp. We were halted by an authoritative command coming from the shadows.
“Stop! Don’t move or you’ll be shot!” I recognized the tone and pitch immediately—Dewtee.
“Dewtee, it’s us… Heneghan and Hood!”
“Shut up! Nazi scum. What’s the password? Thunder…”
“Wrong. Get on your knees!”
“Dewtee, yes it is! Thunder—flash! Flash is the answer. You fucker!”
“That was yesterday, not today…” He said unconvinced of his own assertion.
“Dewtee, you know it’s us. I am not getting on my knees in the pouring rain. You cunt! Let us the fuck through!”
In reality, we could have just walked through and gone to bed, but we were hardwired to take this seriously. Because of this, the back and forth continued.
“Get on your knees, jobber. Or I will sound the alarm. Then you’ll be sorry!”
“Dewtee, what the fuck? Are you a 1930’s bad guy or something? Shut the fuck up and let us in!”
“Nuh-uh! Not until I know it’s you… Heneghan.”
“You scrotal sack… you just said my fucking name! You know it’s me! Don’t be a fucker!”
Thing is, Dewtee wasn’t doing this to fuck with me. He literally forgot the passphrase and felt as though he was performing his security duties. Which I suppose he was. But there was no way I was getting on my knees in this downpour. Eventually I just walked past him and glared through the dark with daggers beaming from my eyes. I could hear him speaking beneath his breath… “Jeez, you’re not even pretending to take this seriously. I could have shot you, bro. Bro… Henny… are you mad?”
We would visit Farnham two more times after that week. Upon completion of that, we would graduate and become privates in the ranks of the Canadian Armed Forces. And you want to know something? You want to know what Dewtee’s wife brought him as a graduation gift… a sward. Yeah, she brought a medieval piece of blacksmithing to a graduation ceremony. I have never seen a grown man’s face melt into childish glee before. But his did.
Hey, Dewtee… if you happen to read this, I want you to know something—I love ya, brother. I hope wherever you are, you’re happy as hell. But the fucking answer was flash! Asshole!! Thunder—Flash! Simple.
*muttering beneath my breath* Fuckin… get on my knees! Fuck you. You get on your knees, you fuckin’ ass gobbler!
See ya around, Dewtee.