Chapter 1: Brace for Shock
Classical music blared in the hall with the tempo of a horse galloping across an open field, and Mr. Kendall was hollering over it. “Rise and shine, recruits! You have until the end of the wake-up song to make your beds and be standing in the hall dressed in PT gear!”
I flew out of bed and looked through the window into pitch black. Morning already? A backlit clock face shone from a tower across the parade square. It read 5:30 a.m. It’s 2:30 a.m. in Vancouver. Nausea washed through me.
Meg jumped down and just missed landing on me. We pulled the bunk bed away from the wall and worked together to make the beds. I knew this song from somewhere, but I had no idea how long it would last. I threw on my physical training gear of pressed green shorts and a white T-shirt and rushed to the sink.
“Let’s leave the bunks pulled out at night and push them back in the morning,” I said through the foam of my toothpaste.
“Deal!” Meg said as she ploughed bobby pins into her bun.
“One minute!” Mr. Kendall, Three Section commander, our section, bellowed from the hall. We shoved the bed back against the wall. The music was reaching a crescendo and the yelling grew more intense.
We opened the door and tumbled out together. Meg stepped left and I stepped right in a moment that sealed our spots in the A Flight recruit hallway for the rest of the term. Twenty recruit bodies spilled out of doorways and stood at attention: four women and sixteen men.
Elated and nervous, I stared across at a room recently renovated in preparation for our arrival. On the door, the international symbol for women’s washrooms facelessly stared back at me. Her head floated, detached, above her body. Her arms stretched out to her sides in surrender.
I could smell fresh paint.
The song ended. Mr. Kendall yelled, “It’s showtime, folks!”
That was it! The song was from the opening scene of All That Jazz — the Alka-Seltzer, the cigarette in the shower, the eye drops, the Dexedrine.
“Fall in outside.”
We crowded down the stairs into the cool, damp pre-dawn air to find Mr. Theroux, Two Section commander, already waiting on the parade square. His full lips and dark-circled eyes gave me the sense that it wasn’t just recruits who were feeling tired this morning. “A Flight! A-ten-shun! Time to separate da boys from da men.”
The fourth years wore navy-blue T-shirts with a huge white spider blazoned on the chest above the letters SFMA — Stone Frigate Military Academy. I vied for a spot in the middle of the pack. I despised morning runs.
“A Flight, repeat after me,” commanded Mr. Kendall with a hint of playfulness. We mimicked him as he leaned his head back and yelled, “Yea stone, yea boat, yea, yea, stone boat!”
A responding cry from the seven recruit flights formed up across the parade square reverberated over us: “Stone boats don’t float! Stone boats don’t float!”
Mr. Kendall drew in a deep breath and shuddered in feigned enjoyment. I got it. Hudson Squadron stood alone in the cadet wing, as the undergraduate student body was known, in more ways than just our dorm being separate from everyone else’s. We were special and we owned it. I could handle being universally despised by the rest of the cadet wing if there was pride in it.
The morning run pace was double time, only twice as fast as walking. I took heart. I can do this! I was an athlete. I had just made it through ten weeks of basic officer training and seventy morning runs. How hard could it be? Half these guys looked like scrawny teenage boys.
We ran platoon style down a little slope and out onto a gravel road along the water, passing between an old boathouse on the right with an eclectic flotilla secured to a concrete jetty and a modern academic complex on the left, which appeared to interconnect over a few acres of land. From there, we crossed an expansive undeveloped field and then took a right uphill on a long, winding road toward the Fort Henry National Historic Site and down a steep path along the backside of the fort to the St. Lawrence River. I caught my first glimpse of the Thousand Islands.
We had run about three kilometres when the path, now as narrow as a goat trail, turned up a steep hill. The Stone Frigate came into view across a small bay. The old, yellow limestone building stood alone, separated from the other cadet dorms by 200 metres of parade square. The sun rose in a splash of colour across the phallic-shaped peninsula of the RMC grounds jutting out between Navy Bay on this side and Kingston Harbour at the mouth of the Rideau Canal on the other.
“Break ranks for Heartbreak Hill!” ordered Mr. Kendall. We morphed into a single line. One of the guys stopped dead in his tracks and grabbed his side.
“Let’s go!” Mr. Kendall screamed at him. “Are you a fucking pussy, Recruit Dahl?”
“No, Mr. Kendall!”
“You can’t even keep up with the girls. Doesn’t that make you a pussy, Dahl?”
“Yes, Mr. Kendall! I have a cramp.”
“No one cares, Dahl! If you’re looking for sympathy, you’ll find it in the dictionary between shit and syphilis!”
“Yes, Mr. Kendall!” Dahl hollered. He was feigning an effort to run again as I shuffled past him on the path. He looked like he was going to cry, bending over now, clutching his side. He had an athletic build like Moose from the Archie comics. I left him behind.
“Passed by a girl, Dahl! Have you no shame?”
I cringed at being singled out by Mr. Kendall. I didn’t like him broadcasting the fact that I was female. I wanted him — and the rest of A Flight — to see me as just another one of the guys.
Mr. Kendall remained behind with Dahl. We reformed ranks at the top of the hill and ran on without Dahl. When we reached the edge of the field, Mr. Theroux turned us around.
“Time to pick up da trash,” Theroux said. “No one get left be’ind, if you know what I mean.”
Loud and clear. If you drop out, the entire flight will suffer.
We ran back up the hill, scooped up Dahl, and turned back toward home. He winced with each stride but stayed in our ranks. I wanted to punch him. One stride at a time, I concentrated on controlled breathing, keeping cadence with the centipede of legs shuffling alongside me. The repeat of the hill was a killer. I felt shaky with exhaustion.
We arrived back at the Frigate just after 3:30 a.m. Vancouver time. At this hour the previous morning, before our long day of travel to RMC, I had still been asleep in my bunk, freshly graduated from basic officer training on the West Coast at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Chilliwack. That night, when we had first stepped off the recruit buses from the Ottawa airport into the Kingston evening air, I was struck by an almost tropical humidity. In the distance, someone was playing a lament on the bagpipes and the notes squeezed in my chest. I was frightened. I didn’t know how to be a cadet at military college or how I should act.
I had been assigned to One Squadron in the dreaded Stone Frigate and formed up at the stanchion holding a navy-blue burgee, a tiny triangular flag, with a white number one on it. The flight leader had told us to stand easy and look in his direction. He was formally dressed in a scarlet uniform. His red doeskin tunic fit like a second skin, a red sash crossed his chest from his right shoulder to his left hip, his sleeves were adorned with badges, and his gold-trimmed pillbox hat hung precariously off the right side of his head, held on by a thin black chinstrap. He was good-looking in a dark, brooding way, like a pirate.
“Welcome to the Royal Military College of Canada,” he said. “I’m Fourth Year Donald Morgan, your recruit flight leader for One Squadron, known as Hudson Squadron. Do not speak unless I address you. Call me Mr. Morgan. Do not call me sir. We are all officer cadets here. First thing, grab your bags off the truck and get back here. STAT. Dismissed!”
We raced as a gang, alongside the other recruit flights, to the army truck full of luggage that had trailed our buses from Ottawa. I jostled for position at the ladder to get on the truck and help unload bags. A big guy shoved me aside and went up before me. I gained my balance and scrambled up behind him. I stood with the men, hurling luggage to the waiting arms below. I knew that first impressions were lasting impressions and if I could appear keen from the beginning, it would save me hassles later. Soon the truck was cleared, and I jumped down and found my bags. Then we were marched straight into the Frigate and assigned our roommates. Recruit term had officially begun.
For the next six weeks, we would have no control over whom we lived with or talked to, what we did, or where we went. Rumours had circulated at basic training about recruit-term hazing, physical exhaustion, lots of yelling, mind games, even death — at least one recruit had died running the obstacle course. Less than half of us would graduate.
I knew it was a game. They could haze me but they couldn’t really harm me. They called it recruit training, though it wasn’t really training but a test designed to crack us and expose our emotional underbellies, to see if we had the guts to be cadets at RMC and, later, officers in the military. I felt ready to face the big tests, physical and emotional, but as an eighteen-year-old girl, the concept of psychological warfare was lost on me.
That morning, after our run, Mr. Morgan met us in the recruit hallway. He was dressed in the dress of the day, the No. 5 uniform of navy-blue pants with red piping, a tricoloured belt, and a light-green short-sleeved shirt. He still wore his red sash, indicating his cadet rank of three barmen, from the night before. He gave us seven minutes to shower, dress, and be standing in the hall. The four women of A Flight — Meg Carter, Nanette Travers, Nancy Sloane, and me — stood smiling at each other in the women’s shower room, introducing ourselves in whispers. We didn’t have to say it. No men allowed. We could hear screaming from down the hall, coming from the men’s shower room, as the fourth years lorded it over the guys. Being amongst the first women to enter RMC, we had no one above us to supervise showers.