BANG!, or How I Inadvertently Joined the Canadian Army and Other Hasty Decisions
I actually haven't gotten this story completely written yet, as it's been commissioned as a serial for our local weekly art/culture magazine, but I just heard your G.I. podcast, and thought that you might find this very different perspective interesting, or at least amusing. The first two episodes have already been published, and can be read here: 1st, http://f5paper.com/article/bang-and-other-secrets-canadian-army; and 2nd, http://f5paper.com/article/hey-nice-hats-quickly-now-let’s-join-canadian-army. I'm pretty much finished the 3rd and 4th episodes, which I'll paste it below. Love the show, btw!!! My husband and I listen to it while we jog together every day--we set our ishuffles to exactly the same place, count down from 3 and press play, so that we're perfectly synched and feel like we're listening to it together. We often call "pause!" and then discuss a particular story--these 'discussions' often turn into 'debates', but it all works out in the end!
Due to what I felt was a regrettably poor gymnastic showing the week before, the acceptance package, stuffed with forms and checklists, that I soon found in my postbox came as a complete surprise. The moment of incredulity was short-lived, however, as I was simultaneously studying for five exams, finishing up a semester's-worth of drawings (keep in mind this was before AutoCAD: one inking mistake, and the whole drawing must be started again from scratch. I was not a particularly able draftsperson), building impossible models with balsa wood and an Olfa knife, mopping blood off my drafting table and bandaging cuts from said Olfa knife, endeavoring to preserve a relationship with a boyfriend who found me “cold” and “not present”, surviving on shrimp-flavored ramen and sleeping perhaps 4 hours a week—I didn't really have time to absorb any new information, nor did I have the desire to. So, I filled everything out in a dazed panic, sent it all off, and thought no more on the subject. I simply did not have the capacity to conceive of a future that existed beyond my next bowl of chemically-infused noodles.
A few days later, I found a message with a phone number taped up next to the phone at the studio—I wasn't home enough anymore to use my home number as my home number—that when called, ordered me to appear at a bus-stop downtown at 0600 hours the following morning. Since I rarely got to bed before an hour that didn't start with an 0, this struck me as being a tad unjust, but I imagined that I'd be able to sleep on the bus and then catch a snooze while I was waiting for whatever the next phase of this interminably long and complicated process was: there appeared to be far more involved in this whole standing-still-and-letting-people-kiss-you gig than I had at first surmised.
Sleeping on the bus was not easy—the Greyhound I had assumed would whisk us off on our sightseeing excursion was actually a refurbished school bus, painted white and meticulously clean, but still as drafty and uncomfortable as I remembered from my elementary school years. Further fueling my grumpiness were several loud men in silly berets up at the front, who maintained a lively one-sided conversation with their passengers for the duration of the trip. There was much discussion of fulfilling one's potential, and being all that one could be, and acquiring leadership skills and confidence, and finding strength in camaraderie, and leaving my boyhood behind to become a man, and all kinds of other bollocks that seemed to be about as relevant to my lifestyle as learning to Tuvan Throat Sing.
A very long hour later, we pulled into a parking lot full of jeeps and trucks with camouflaged bunting, a few rocket launchers and a couple tanks (the day suddenly became slightly more interesting), and uniformed men carrying rifles who waved us through a checkpoint. We were marched from the bus into a huge hanger, where it took my eyes a second to focus. The light was blinding, and tables piled with what looked like clothes and camping equipment were arranged in an unending 'S' snaking all the way to the back. Someone thrust a green canvas rucksack into my chest and ordered me to move forward, so I stumbled after the head bobbing along in front of me. The first thing I was given was a green tarpaulin and can of waterproofing spray. I must have looked aghast (I am, even at the best of times, an unenthusiastic camper), because the guy behind the table sarcastically offered the advice that I would have to learn to care for my own tarpaulin all by my own self. He had misunderstood that I was not so much concerned about having to waterproof my own camping equipment, as I was astounded that camping was even part of the job description. Were we going to pitch tents on the front lawn of Parliament Hill? Were the tarpaulins for people to hold over our heads if it started to sprinkle? The mystery deepened as my rucksack filled up.
After being given, and demonstrated the packing procedures for, the aforementioned tarpaulin, a small camp stove and pot, a first-aid kit, a compass, a trowel (the purpose for which was inconceivable, so I ignored it), three pairs of thick grey wool socks, dark green mittens (summer temperatures in Ottawa rarely dip below 70, so I likewise ignored the socks and mittens), an undoubtably unflattering dun-colored harness called “webbing”, a green plastic water bottle, several green accessories that appeared to clip onto this webbing in some elaborate pattern—the amount of green objects in my rucksack was attaining inexplicable proportions—I was then directed to the next series of tables, where green fabric became the theme. Green shirts, pants, t-shirts, long underwear (again, an unexpected addition), sweatpants and hoodies...I had visited our nation's capital many times, but had never seen the tent city of green-clothed Busby guards that evidently existed right under the noses of millions of unwitting tourists. These Busbies were masters of camouflage!
Lugging my bulging rucksack to the next series of tables (the relevance of the earlier sand-filled duffle bag hoist and drop test began to dawn on me), I finally saw something that looked familiar—racks upon racks of red jackets, dark pants with a red stripe, and big furry black Q-tip heads. Up to this point, I had not been entirely confident that I was in the right place, but had lacked the courage to ask to be taken home again. I was glad I hadn't: now I could explain that I had somehow gotten into the wrong line, restore my 30 kgs of tents and green pajamas to their rightful owners, and surrender to the glamor and prestige of being fitted for my fancy red suit. This happy bubble was popped almost instantly, a condition that became almost comfortingly familiar in the ensuing months.
A burly seamstress with a mouth full of pins angrily waved me towards her. Mumbling at me to take off my clothes, she spun me around, eyed my bust and waist rather more critically than I felt was necessary, and waddled over to the rack of jackets. It was April, and the vast hanger was heated only by a few pathetic ceiling diffusers far above, so I was shaking with both cold and indignation—I didn't see too many other women standing around almost naked, and I noticed that many of my equally disrobed (and male) fellow recruits had also noticed that I was standing around almost naked as well. The seamstress returned with two jackets—the first one fit comfortably, albeit a little restrictively in the bosom area, but the second one was so tight that I couldn't breath as she buttoned me into it. I was understandably startled when she discarded the roomy one and laid the tight one out on the table. Noticing my raised eyebrows, she informed me that I would lose so much weight during my training, that she would probably have to re-tailor it a second time. I tried to imagine a Standing Still training regime that would tax me sufficiently enough to reduce my waistline by several inches. Maybe we practice by standing around until we starve nearly to death? Perhaps they don't feed us if we smirk or smile?
Bearskin hats stink. Not as badly as a fresh bear (only a guess at this point—I hadn't yet had an opportunity to smell an actual bear. More on this later), but certainly not a fragrance that I would care to associate with myself publicly. The seamstress measured my head and pushed a furry, odiferous thing at me, about the size of a small dog, grunting and motioning in a manner than led me to believe that I should place it on my head. Standing behind me, she positioned it carefully and tightened the chin strap. My hair, normally not coiffed even close to the standard my mother would wish, was particularly unforgiving that day, and stuck out like clumps of limp hay. She tugged at one of the more offending locks and dismissed me by assuring me that this would all be cut off soon anyway. While admittedly not possessing supermodel-thick waves, I was still nonetheless attached to the thin straggles that I had managed to grow out to my shoulders, so I silently pledged to avoid the barber's chair at all costs. More on this later as well.
The dress uniform was more fun—such dashing shiny hats and fitted blouses, and trousers that, unlike those in the Busby uniform, allowed for the inclusion of a waist. The person who gave me these items informed me that I would be responsible for cleaning and ironing them to a very high standard, but this did not faze me, as I had never touched an iron in my life and did not intend to start anytime soon. I figured I'd just pop them over to a dry-cleaners when necessary, and eat my spaghetti like the lady that I was in the meantime. Much more on this later.
The bus ride home was a blur—utterly exhausted from the craziness of the day and lack of sleep, I must have passed out until we were dropped off downtown. Trudging home through the knee-deep snow, hauling untold kilograms of gear and clothing I had absolutely no use for, I was thinking only of how fast I could get back to the studio, to finish the model that I needed to rebuild because someone had spilled beer on it. And, of course, the dramatic elevation of my bank balance in the next few months had passed through my mind. Any concept of 'army' was simply a footnote in a completely overwhelming story.
Three evenings later, however, I experienced my inevitable moment of truth. Summoned by yet another phone message taped to the studio phone, I presented myself, in “business-casual attire”, at the recruiting office on rue Ste. Catherine. Bleary-eyed from the most recent all-nighter, I tried not to snore as I sat in an overheated room on rickety folding chairs with about twenty other people. Many of them had apparently invited their parents, as there were several middle-aged couples in the back that I did not remember seeing wearing nothing but underwear and pungent headgear in that freezing hanger. A small, rat-like man marched stiffly into the room, ceremonial (one could only hope) sword clanking at his side, and barked us to attention. Since most of us had only seen this happen in movies, we all clambered up awkwardly and tried to stand as straight as we could with our arms at our sides. Lieutenant Ratface then commanded us to raise our right hand and swear, among other things, to protect the Queen and country with our lives. This gave me pause. I am not a loyal monarchist by any stretch of the imagination, and the Queen, while certainly appearing to be a nice old lady, has never inspired me to feats of self-sacrifice, nor had my love of country ever surpassed my love of an excellent chocolate-glazed doughnut. This whole Busby thing was a summer job, not a career, and I absolutely was not interested in involving myself with any army, for any reason whatsoever. I was even more disinterested in putting myself in a position where I could potentially lose my life within a system that I passionately abhorred. I opened my mouth to object, but suddenly the ceremony was over, and the parents were applauding and hugging their sons with pride. My mind screamed furiously back over the last month, trying desperately to remember everything that I had been told and read, and the contents of all the forms I had filled out and signed so distractedly. The realization hit me like a tank, making me so weak that I sunk back into my chair.
I had just joined the Canadian Army.