Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Farnham

I stared at the map I held in front of me in disbelief. I couldn't even begin to understand it. It might as well have been a blank piece of paper. I had no sense of direction - no idea where we were. Behind me were 15 of my fellow soldiers, impatiently waiting for me to make my decision. To my left was Sergeant Gadoua. I concentrated on the map, thinking that I might suddenly understand it better. I could hear the Sergeant yelling at me, but I wasn't paying attention. It was my turn to lead my section towards an area marked on the map, using nothing but a compass and the math in my head. I was terrible at math, let alone orienteering. I had to accomplish this task as quickly as possible, at 1 am, in the middle of an enormous forest. I just stared at the map, dumbfounded.

Sergeant Gadoua continued to yell at me. I still wasn't listening. At a certain point in the army, you become numb to the yelling and the push-ups. They stop meaning anything. They roll off your back, and this was no exception. The soldiers in my section all glared at me, impatient for me to come to a decision. One of them suggested I at least take my compass out.

I checked my pockets.

"I can't find it," I said.

"Fucking amazing. Where was the last place you took it out, Phaneuf?" the Sergeant asked.

"At our original starting point, close to the bivouac," I answered.

"Well, then, Phaneuf, I guess you're going to have to march all of your buddies back there to fucking get it, won't you?"

"Yes, Sergeant," I said, confused and exhausted.

Everyone groaned. "Way to go, Phaneuf," said Private Mansour.

"Fucking idiot," someone else said.

We walked the three kilometres back to the starting point - the last thing anyone wanted to do after hours of marching. We got on our hands and knees and looked for the compass. After a few minutes of searching in the muddy grass, Private O'Toole found it and pressed it into my hand. "Try not to fucking lose it this time," he said.

This is just what I need, I thought, embarrassed. I already had a reputation for losing things in the army. Usually, I only lost my own personal items. It was a much bigger deal if it was military property.

I put the compass over the map and pretended that I knew what I was doing. I chose a spot in the horizon at random and decided to lead the section there, wherever it was. At least I look like I know what I'm doing, I thought.

We marched through swamps for about an hour. Everyone had mud up to their knees and water in their boots - everyone was miserable. I was terrified that someone knew that I had no idea what I was doing. I knew my section would kill me if they knew. Eventually, Sergeant Gadoua ordered me to order a halt to the section. I ordered the halt, and we all stopped in our tracks.

Sergeant Gadoua said, "Congratulations, Private Phaneuf, you have successfully completed the task asked of you."

He paused to roll his eyes and clasp his hands behind his back.

"You have successfully found the checkpoint marked on your map."

I looked around, dazed. I had slept a maximum of five hours a day for the past four days and it was now 3 am - the beginning of my last day of basic training - and I just wanted it all to end. I didn't see any marker for the checkpoint, but decided to act natural if it meant ending this hell called sleep deprivation any sooner. I kept silent.

Private Kryviak took his turn leading us towards a checkpoint on a map. He was the last person left in the section to do this; he finished his task in about ten minutes versus my two hours.

We got back to our bivouac at 3:30 am. It stopped raining. I was just happy that everything was over with and crawled into my sleeping bag with my rifle. I didn't bother undressing; I knew that I would encounter a rude awakening in about an hour, since 4:30 was my scheduled time for fire picket duty.

At 4:15 am, I woke up to Draganic violently shoving me and screaming in my face. "Wake the fuck up, Phaneuf! You're up for fire!" I fell back asleep instantly. He shoved me again and grabbed me by the collar, shaking me. He let go and I hit the ground with a wet smack. I looked around me and groaned.

I apparently hadn't set up my tent up on good terrain. The front half of my body was completely immersed in water, and half of my face was lying in a pile of mud. I could barely move. Confused, I peered out of my tent and realized that we were in the middle of a thunder storm. It took every ounce of strength that I had to raise my miserable self out of the muck for fire picket duty. Too tired to bother looking for my rain gear, I grabbed my rifle (which had been lying in a puddle next to me) and started walking towards the fire picket tent.

"Get a fucking move on, you're late man!" Draganic yelled after me. He kept yelling, but the booming thunder gradually replaced the sound of his voice as I walked away. Draganic, what a stupid name, I thought absent-mindedly as I awkwardly stepped over soldiers' tents. I can't believe his grandfather would change his last name to that, just because he thought it sounded bad-ass, I thought. Draganic, Draganic, Draganic. Like a dragon. So stupid.

Through the darkness I made out the vague shape of Lieutenant Hahnel's tent. I made my way to it and sat down on a chair - too tired to even think of patrolling the area. I struggled to stay awake as I made a vain attempt to scout the surroundings for any signs of danger. No fucking way will there ever be a fire in all this rain.

I was shivering. After a few minutes, Lieutenant Hahnel crawled out of his sleeping bag, looking well-rested and content. He was wearing nothing but green boxer briefs and military issue socks, but looked undaunted by the weather. He walked over to a counter and prepared himself some coffee with an instant fire kit. It suddenly struck me that his tent was the military equivalent of a five star hotel in this bivouac.

"You look like shit, Phaneuf," he said, slowly sipping his coffee.

"Thank you, sir."

"Are you shivering? Don't tell me you're fucking shivering. Why don't you have your rain gear on, Phaneuf?" he asked angrily.

"Aww, damn it. I left it in my ruck sack, sir."

"You're a fucking idiot, Phaneuf. A fucking idiot. You know that?"

"Yes, sir," I said, knowing there was no other answer.


And I was.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Roseanne.


"I'm telling you, Phaneuf, you have to name it after a fat bitch! Preferably one that you hate."

I didn't look up from what I was doing. I was sitting, legs crossed, with my C-7 rifle in front of me. I was busy field-stripping it. Next to me were fifteen other soldiers busy trying to field-strip their weapons as quickly and efficiently as possible.

"What are you talking about? That makes no sense," I said, keeping my eyes on my pistol grip as I removed it from the rest of my weapon.

"No, really. Think about it. This thing is made to put the fear of God in our future enemies, right?" Private Baffour asked.

I nodded without looking up from my work. I was almost finished; I glanced eagerly at Lieutenant Hahnel. Tall, thin, and wearing his beret slightly further to the left than was considered standard military protocol, he was a confident and imposing figure - I had a hard time looking him straight in the eyes. He paced back and forth across the room and monitored our progress. Please look at me, please look at me, please look at me! I screamed inside of my head.

Lieutenant Hahnel passed by me without looking once at my field stripped rifle. "I completed the field strip, sir!" I yelled out instinctively. The officer pivoted in place and kneeled down to ensure that all my pieces were laid out correctly. "Very good, Phaneuf. Now do it again, but faster."

"Yes, sir," I replied, stoical about my obligation to do it all again.

Private Baffour finished stripping his weapon as I was putting mine back together. "Okay, so I was saying. Fat bitch," he said. "It has to be a fat bitch."

"I don't know any fat bitches," I said.

"Come on. There has to be one fat bitch that has bugged you in your lifetime."

I stopped putting my rifle together for a moment and bit my lip as I thought about all of the fat bitches that had affected me in any way in my life. As I sifted through all of my life's memories, only one stood out.

"Roseanne," I said.

Private Baffour laughed quietly, so as not to alert Lieutenant Hahnel of the fact that we were having a conversation that didn't pertain to field stripping of any sort. "See? That's the spirit. When you put your rifle back together again, 'cause you're all Catholic, I'll baptize it and it'll officially be named Roseanne." He stared at me, knowing that he hit a nerve by bringing up religion.

"Yeah, we'll see," I said, giving him a side-long glance.

"Attention!" yelled Lieutenant Hahnel. Along with everyone else, I raced to my feet and stood at attention. "Alright. You guys are due for SHARP training in 10 minutes. Everybody stop what they're doing and put your weapons back together. If it's not done in less than 5 minutes, the whole section is doing one hundred pushups during the SHARP training. Go." He calmly walked out of the room.

The room was immediately filled with the sound of steel clanking against steel, of pins being driven into springs, of combat boots nervously shuffling on ceramic tiles. I rushed to finish putting my weapon back together and then assisted Private Baffour with his. The squad leader for the day, Private Montesanno, noticed me doing this and asked everyone in the room that wasn't doing anything to please help someone else assemble their rifle. I glimpsed at my watch and noted that four minutes had elapsed since the officer's departure. I looked nervously outside the door and saw Lieutenant Hahnel casually leaning on a pillar, drinking coffee.

I looked around the room and saw that all of the section's weapons were assembled. "Okay, everyone stand where you are at attention with rifles in hand!" Private Montesanno said. I grabbed my rifle and stood at attention at the same time as everyone else in the room. The room boomed with the sound of sixteen boots simultaneously striking the ground.

I stole another look at my watch. The five minutes were up.

Lieutenent Hahnel and Sergeant Gadoua walked into the room. They both walked up and down the row of soldiers, randomly and silently grabbing onto a soldier's rifle to inspect it, and then moving down the row to another random soldier. Lieutenant Hahnel stood in front of me and snatched my rifle from me. "Did you perform a function test, Phaneuf," he said. It sounded nothing like a question.

"Yes, sir," I said.

"So I can trust you to kill someone with it if I give you ammo to put in it."

"Yes, sir," I said.

He looked down the barrel and frowned. "There's some rust here at the end, Phaneuf. What the fuck is this? Are you an idiot, Phaneuf? You can be charged for this, you know. I want some fucking CLP on this before the end of SHARP training. You're a fucking idiot, you know that?"

"Yes, sir," I said, completely desensitized to his criticism.

"Apart from that one thing, good job," he said as he shoved my rifle into my chest.

I mentally breathed a sigh of relief. I had heard worse and for lesser things. I had screwed up, and I knew that the tiny bit of rust at the end of my weapon was actually a bigger deal than he let on.

Lieutenant Hahnel stood in front of the section. "At ease." The room cracked once more with the sound of sixteen boots hitting the floor.

"Montessano, your section can do a lot better. Don't forget about CLP," he said, sighing. Sergeant Gadoua was staring right at me. I pretended not to notice and stared at the wall. This is taking too long, I thought.

"Go to room E301 for SHARP training. Dismissed," the officer finally said.

"Yes, sir!" yelled Private Montessano.

He saluted the officer, who saluted him back, and then led our section out of the room and up the stairs to room E301.


A man in civilian clothing greeted each of us as we entered the room. He wore a brown polo shirt with a small Scooby Doo patch on it. He wore glasses that were too big for him and never stopped smiling.

I sat down at the nearest seat to the door. I felt a little nervous; this man in civilian clothing scared me a little bit, despite how friendly he looked.

He waited until everyone sat down and then began his lecture. "You may have noticed that I'm not in uniform. Just to warn you right now, I'm an officer."

He paused for dramatic effect.

"A Captain, to be more precise. Captain Duval."

The tension in the room increased ten-fold.

"But you'll quickly notice that I'm a nice guy. Obviously you're not going to perform any of your formal obligatory duties towards me. I'm wearing Scooby Doo on my shirt for pete's sake."

Everyone chuckled, and I relaxed a little bit.

"But this training - SHARP training - that you're about to receive, is very important. I consider it paramount in the Canadian Forces. If this shit doesn't get drilled into your head, you will be a terrible soldier, and in my personal opinion, a terrible Canadian. SHARP, as you all know, is an acronym for Sexual Harassment and Racism Prevention. But that goes for prevention of any sort of discrimination. While I'm sure most of you are already knowledgeable in how to..." he struggled for the right words. "How to not be a shitty human being," he said, smiling, "I'm still required to persuade you that it is a very, very bad idea to ignore this training at any point in your military careers. Got it?"

I nodded along with everyone else.

I looked around the room, at my section. Two women, both openly gay. Two Italians. Two Lebanese. One Pole. One Chinese. One Japanese. One Irish-American. One Persian. One Pakistani. A bunch of mutts.

I looked at my hands. And one minor, I thought.

Sixteen soldiers. With me being the sole French-Canadian in the sole Anglophone section of the Laval Basic Military Qualifications Base. Does this section really need SHARP training? I thought. We're about as diverse as the Canadian Forces can get.

"I'm going to show you a video. Pay attention. I know you're all tired from sleep deprivation but this shit absolutely has to stay with you for life."

He rolled a moveable platform housing a television into the front of the room, and popped a VHS tape into the VCR. He toyed with the dials and the screen lit up with electronic snow. After a minute or so of fumbling, he managed to get the VCR input to work and the video started.

Three soldiers appeared on the screen. They were sitting down and cleaning parts of a tank.

"So I heard a rumour about there being a fag on this base," one of them said.

"I bet it's you, Robbins," said a tank mechanic.

"Nuh uh! Shut the fuck up, I bet you're the homo," said Robbins.

I furrowed my eyebrows, in astounded at what I was seeing. I was simultaneously puzzled and incredibly amused. I looked over at Baffour, and saw a small smile creeping on his lips.

A large, imposing First Nations man, presumably the tank mechanics' Sergeant, appeared. "Hey! Knock it off! Stop talking about that, you guys know it's not okay. Shut up or you'll be charged," the Sergeant warned. He walked away.

The three tank mechanics ignored his advice.
"Do you think it's Seaver?" one of them asked.

"No way. Seriousy, I think it's Robbins," said the other.

"Guys, shut up. If anyone's a faggot, it's Seaver. He's in the Black Watch," said Robbins.

The First Nations man appeared again. "You guys are soldiers. I said to knock it off! Be professional. I'm warning you! Stop gossipping and get back to work. And stop saying that word!" he said, walking away from them.

Again, the three soldiers disregarded their Sergeant.

"You think Lieutenant Marshall could be the gay?" asked one of them.

All of a sudden, the Sergeant came pounding back. "I told you guys to mind your own business! Now I'm going to have to settle this once and for all. You know who's the fag? You guys want to know? I'm the fag! I'M THE FAG!" he roared.

I cupped my hand over my mouth and tried to hold back the laughter that was slowly bubbling within me. I looked around - everyone in the room was on the verge of cracking up. The Captain, who presumably had seen the video a thousand and one times, was the only person in the room who kept perfect composure. With his legs crossed and eyes locked right onto the screen, I envied his maturity.

I looked back towards the screen. The three mechanics looked puzzled. One of them put his hand on his hips and said, "Well, he can't be gay. He's an Indian!"

The scene faded to black.

There was a brief pause, and then the entire room exploded into manic laughter. The Captain's face remained deadpan.

He sighed and took his glasses off. "Everybody always laughs at that part," he said, smiling and shaking his head.

"Alright," he said. "Let's get serious again."

He waited until he had our complete attention.

"Did you know that 1 in every 7 Canadians is a homosexual?" he asked us. Can that really be right? I wondered stupidly.

"I can see that you all look pretty confused. That's a normal reaction to hearing something like that, I guess. Statistically speaking, several of you in this room might be gay. I strongly suggest that if any of you happen to be homophobic, to get rid of that thought process as quickly as possible. It is not compatible with the Canadian Forces. In any case, you have all spoken to homosexuals in your life whether you were aware of it or not. Probably many. Probably today."


For the next couple of hours, Captain Duval showed us a series of videos (that were notably less humorous to us, I might add), gave us pamphlets and lectures, and made sure that we weren't going to molest, offend, or touch anyone as long as we were in the Canadian Forces.

SHARP training was the last military instruction that we had for the day. After we finished, Captain Duval shook all of our hands as each of us in turn looked confused as to why an officer would bother being so courteous to a lowly recruit. Private Montesanno led us out of the classroom and into our section's tent.

I put my rifle on my cot and sat down. "Today wasn't half-bad. Not anywhere as bad as HAZMAT training," I commented as I scratched my head.

"Well, all he really taught us was to not hate faggots and queers," said Draganic. A few recruits laughed, and the rest of us looked uncomfortable or pretended not to listen.

"Actually," said Private Kryviak, "he did say something about 1 in 7 Canadians being gay, and we're 14 in this tent right now."

I noticed that Kryviak purposely excluded the two women in our section who were in the tent with us - and who also happened to be gay. I looked over at Privates Wu and Biancardi. Biancardi, looking mad as hell, stood up and stalked out of the tent. Wu shifted uncomfortably on Private Dennis's cot, and after a moment, followed Biancardi to the women's tent. She left her C-7 rifle behind.

Draganic said, "So come on. Out with it, fuck. Who's the fag? We won't care. Just fucking say who you are."

Private Cho had his arms on his hips and stared at the ground, biting his lip. Kryviak smiled. Baffour looked concerned. I sat on my cot with my hands on my knees. Apart from the creaking of soldiers leaning on cots, silence.

The dead air was suddenly cut by Private Mansour, who loudly exclaimed, "This is not important. If anyone in here is gay, who cares? Just leave it alone, Draganic."

"Aww, but come on," said Kryviak. "I want to know now."

"Me too," Private Juzda uttered quietly.

Mansour shook his head and sat on the chest in front of his cot.

Goddamn it this is stupid, I thought. Fucking Draganic can't keep his fucking mouth shut. The tension in the room was killing me.

Out of nowhere, I felt an intense anxiety bubbling up within my guts. I knew it would only go away once the situation was done with.

Without really thinking it over, I stood up on top of my supply chest and declared, "I'm the fag!"

Draganic laughed. "I can't believe my buddy is gay. Are you serious?"

"Dead serious," I said, lying.

No one laughed. Private Mansour stood on top of his cot and raised his rifle in the air with one hand. "Guys. He's lying. I'm the fag."

I smiled and said, "Man, I wasn't lying." The atmosphere suddenly felt warmer, more accepting.

Private Cho put his rifle on his cot and said, "Guys. I want to tell you. I am also the fag." Baffour put his hand up and said, "Me too!"

Kryviak said, "I guess I'm gay too, then!" and laughed.

Everyone started giggling and said things like, "I was just kidding man, I don't care if anyone's gay," and "I'm not really gay, I was just joking." But the tension was gone, and that's all I cared about.

Draganic walked up to me and slapped me on the back. "Phaneuf, I don't give a shit if you're gay. I was just curious. It's good to know whether you're buddy is gay."

"Well, I'm not actually gay," I said.

"I knew it. You're too Catholic to be gay. Everyone knows Catholics hate gays," he said. "Except you, though."


I noticed that Wu and Dennis were in the tent. I wonder how much of this they heard, I thought. "Here's your rifle. It's the right number on it, right? You're positive it's yours?" Dennis asked Wu. She nodded and took it from him. Dennis grabbed a small cloth off of his cot and left the tent with Wu.

After a few more minutes of pointless chatter, we all brought our rifles outside. Biancardi, Wu and Dennis were sitting on some crates, field stripping their rifles and polishing them. We joined them; I sat down on a skid across from Private Dennis. The sun was setting, the sky painted a pink and orange hue. The Hilton hotel on the other side of the barbed wire fence was a familiar sight to me by then. Even the roar of airplanes flying in their pre-planned trajectories overhead was comforting. And that day's sequence of events had turned out not so bad. I smiled and sighed as I started taking my weapon apart.

"Tired, Phaneuf?", Dennis muttered without looking up.

"Nah, I'm good," I said, still smiling.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see Private Wu staring at me. I looked at her. She mouthed two words to me. I could have sworn she said, "Thank you." I'll never know for sure.

Before I could ask her to repeat herself, Private Baffour sat on the ground next to me and poured some CLP over my stripped rifle. "I now pronounce you man and Roseanne!" he yelled. This exclamation cracked everyone up, including me. "Told you I'd baptize your C-7, man. Anyone else want to name theirs?"

"Mine is called Mrs. Mansour!" Private Mansour shouted.

"Well, there you go, let me give her some," said Baffour as he shuffled over and dripped some lubricant onto Mansour's rifle. "I now pronounce you man and Mrs. Mansour," he said.

Everyone cracked up even more at this last remark.


After we had our gear ready for the next morning's inspection, we crawled into our sleeping bags. I set the alarm on my watch for 5 am the next morning. The lights shut off soon after. I read my Bible inside of my sleeping bag with the aid of a pocket light. For a few minutes there was dead silence, until Draganic started snoring loudly. "Goddamn it, Draganic, shut the fuck up!" someone yelled. Someone else threw a magazine loader at him and everyone laughed.

"Hey," Kryviak whispered. "What do you call a guy in a wheelchair who has AIDS?"

A pause.

"ROLAIDS."

Again, laughter. Everyone exchanged dirty jokes as I tried in vain to read my Bible.

Out of the darkness, a voice: "Vos yeules, tabarnak! On essaie de dormir, icitte!"

"Okay, sorry! We'll shut up," said Kryviak.

I put my Bible underneath my pillow and rolled over onto my back. I clutched my rifle and tried to fall asleep.

Even though the steel pressed against my bare chest was cold, and most of the recruits in my section were essentially a bunch of immature children, I was still sort of having a good time. It was a good day in the military. I could stay in the service forever, I thought as I slowly lost consciousness.