A Sunday Stroll

Lee and his comrades journey through what seems to be a never-ending march.

Graphic by Joey Bruce

“Hey Carter, you’re an idiot,” I said to Carter while I walked beside him.

“Lee, I swear, I ran,” he replied.

“Ok, tell the rest of the course.” I hoped that if I kept my voice low, Carter would follow my lead.

We had been marching in the rain for what felt like days. Lieutenant Ricci said it was only going to be eight kilometres, but I knew what eight kilometres felt like, and my legs were cramping too much for that. The lieutenant saw Carter walking during our retreat from the enemy and this was our punishment for Carter’s laziness. We really did not have to be doing this, and my legs did not need to take this abuse. I continued to express my dissatisfaction with his actions to Carter.

“Dude, my trench ran and we barely even fired our rifles. You were with the machine gun, you should have had all the action. What happened to that adrenaline man?”

Carter suddenly sounded a lot less confident when he spoke. “Man, we fucking ran, I don’t know why this is such an issue. We ran and three-section didn’t.”

“You really want to blame three-section for this one? You sure it was three-section?”

“100 per cent.”

“I was the reserve for three-section. Bailey, Kovalenko, and I saw the entire battle and I can tell you for a fact that three-section did not walk. Two-section on the other hand…”

I trailed off. This was a stupid argument that we both knew was going nowhere, much like this march. But I had done this stuff before. It was just walking. Walking with an unreasonably sized bag and a rifle with five oppressively heavy magazines of ammunition and wet fighting gear. Our little stroll was going at a pace faster than any sane person could walk. This was truly a slog, one that was not advertised by the recruiter. 

Maybe this was the bonding he was talking about. Maybe this was the “on-the-job-training” my co-op teacher was so over-the-moon about. We had to finish the grind, this was supposed to be the last major event of our Basic Military Qualification (Army) course, a complicated name for a course that taught us how to follow orders, even when we were sleep-deprived and when our stomachs were eating themselves.

I moved up to Perry, he seemed to be dealing with the crap pretty well.

“Hey man, how you doing?”

“Lee, dude, this is the shit, this is why I signed up!” Perry punctuated his sentence with angry panting.

“Is this the first stage of grief?”

“The what? Whatever, this is real army shit. Embrace the suck! Hoora!” 

That “Hoora” almost made me vomit. The dude is as Canadian as Labatt Blue, but he refused to stop jerking off to the marine corps. This keener was not good for my health. I moved up, away from this wannabe marine. He’s a Neanderthal with a vial of testosterone where his brain should be.

The marching continued. I began to feel the pull of nicotine, that twitching of your hands, the way your brain keeps trying to justify a quick smoke, and remembers the sweet taste of the first pull on a cigarette. I knew that was just wishful thinking and I resented myself for even entertaining the idea of giving my legs a break to have a smoke.

I thought about how we were not really marching and more trudging. I don’t think that anyone with even half a functioning eye could compare a dignified, synchronised parade march to this gaggle of pissed off troops. This march reminded me of the way I walked to school after the winter break. I knew I had to do it but I was beginning to question how much I actually wanted to pass this course in the first place.

Suddenly, I was thinking about how bored I was, so bored that I was actually critiquing our marching technique. Goddamn it. The army drives you nuts, I would have probably done anything at that point to rid myself of the boredom.

Read more: First and Last

Jafari’s smoker’s throat grunted at me. He was clearly not enjoying our little stroll through the rain and mud at one o’clock at night. A perfect opportunity to take out my frustration on an undeserving buddy. 

“I bet you could really use a smoke right now, huh?”

“Yeah man! You got any?” Jafari’s voice was cautiously optimistic.

Well now, this was just too easy. I began to bait Jafari into my trap.

“Buddy, I have some lovely Belmont cigarettes, it's just raining too hard. I’m awfully worried they’ll get wet.”  My voice was dripping with sarcasm. Was I laying it on too thick?

“I can smoke a wet dart. No problem, just give me one.” Jafari was too tired to notice my lack of sincerity.

“Okay, but what if the sergeant sees? Then we’ll both get fucked.” I was just playing with my food now.

“I’ll risk it, man, I just need a smoke.” This dude was tripping over darts he knew he didn’t even have time to smoke.

It was time to go in for the kill.

“Sorry buddy, I was just pulling your leg. Figured you’d stop being so depressed if one of us was happy. Doesn’t look like it worked though, wonder why that is.”

Jafari groaned, “Oh, you motherfucker. I’m dying out here.”

“Well, it's because you have that big fuck off C9. I know you love it and everything but machine guns are a lot less cool when you're not shooting them, huh?” He was going to make me eat those words.

He whispered his answer, he did not want anyone to hear of his weakness. “Can you take it for a little bit?”

“Man, what the fuck? You signed it out.” We both knew I was going to take it, I just wanted to make him earn it.

This time it was barely a breath. “Please Lee. Can you please carry it?”

“Fuck you.”

Now I had two weapons to carry. Jafari was looking a lot better though. The gun was almost the size of him, but knowing Jafari it was probably half his weight, him being the Oompa-Loompa that he is. It's no wonder he was struggling. 

I slung my rifle around my back and suddenly noticed that the little shit who blessed me with this burden had left the box of ammunition attached. I couldn’t shoot anyways, so it was just more weight. Thanks Jafari.

We walked some more. I had too much pride to ask Jafari to take his gun back. Time had faded at this point. My position in the march had barely changed. Instead, I just drifted to the people adjacent to my position. Maybe I could trick myself into making time go faster with a little homesickness.

I missed my home, my cat who meowed at five in the morning, and my dog who loved his special spot by the door. I missed my mom and the way she would talk about the jackasses at work, my dad with his stupid jokes that would probably seem tame with the guys on this march, and I missed my sister and the way she bragged about me to her friends. I missed the way my warm bed felt with the soft sheets that were spread tight over the mattress, the little indent created in the blanket where I would spread my legs out that my cat loved to sit in.

All of these things felt far away, and suddenly I was not sure I would return to them. In reality, I knew that even if I were to collapse I would be evacuated home and returned to civilian life. The march had turned from something with a clear and definable endpoint into a pointless exercise in combating hopelessness. My brain kept expecting to see the Camp Blackdown sign around every corner and over every hill. Our leader, Lieutenant Ricci, had promised us plastic mattresses with fire blankets at Camp Blackdown. I would only believe in such an unbridled luxury when I saw it.

I knew that this was not a good place for my mental state to be at. So, I fell back with Abrams.

Abrams was refreshingly normal. Tonight that was a blessing, because he didn’t let the march get to him. Abrams was the type of guy who would laugh at the absurdity of it all without ever letting the staff know he was anything but serious. Truly a master of his craft. He seemed to be having a great time. I, on the other hand, was not enjoying this god-forsaken march that my steadily-breaking heart was beginning to think would never end.

“Hey, bud,” I said to Abrams.

“Fuck this, eh,” he said it with a smile, so I knew he was doing his best to hold it together.

“I keep expecting to see the sign,” I replied.

“Same bro, my foot is fucking killing me.” Uh-oh Abrams, you need your feet buddy. 

“Why?” I asked nervously.

Suddenly Abrams got incredibly quiet.

 “Trench foot,” he muttered.

Trench foot: a soldier’s biggest weakness. If a soldier can’t walk, there is not a lot he can do and virtually nothing interesting he can do. I noticed that Abrams was favouring his right foot. As he walked, I noticed how he winced before his right foot made contact with the ground. 

I drifted behind Abrams and put my head down. I kept the gap between us tight. Me with my rifle and Jafari’s C9, Abrams with his rifle and a mouldy foot. We walked on the wet ground with the rain, and kept the same pace. Every so often, Abrams would stumble and I would whisper a word of encouragement. I don’t know if I was actually helping, or if instead he began to resent me, but I did it anyway. I know I would have resented someone who forced optimism on me at this time.

I always hated that type of forced optimism, but we’re supposed to keep our buddies going. Whenever we were doing obnoxious physical training and the staff made us cheer each other on, it felt so fake. Like fuck off dude, I don’t want to hear “You can do it, keep going.” My lungs are already on fire as it is and I want to puke. The only time it worked was when we were dragging the toboggan in winter training. Whenever somebody cheered, I knew they were struggling just like me. 

Getting praise from somebody who isn’t sweating with me doesn’t do a lot. I hoped that Abrams thought my optimism was helpful because if I could do it, he could do it. 

Then again, I didn’t have a trench foot.

Abrams pulled the patrolling spirit out of his misery. The patrolling spirit is the dedication to keep going even when one really should stop. Abrams’s foot needed medical attention, but he refused to fall out of the march. Other troops had fallen out for less and they might even graduate the course. But Abrams had been told to march to Blackdown and that’s what he would do, even if he had to wince through every step getting there. Abrams and his fungus filled foot were unstoppable. Shit, he probably would have kept walking until it fell off.

Because of my position behind the soldier with a rotting foot, I arrived after the rest of my section. I needed to find a bunk. 

As I walked up and down the tent, I eyeballed each bunk. In the darkness, I heard the chattering of teeth. I looked closer and saw Bailey’s baby face sticking out of a half-zipped ranger blanket, a thin blanket designed to line a sleeping bag.

This idiot was going to kill herself. “You’re going to freeze, dumb fuck.”

Her teeth kept chattering as she answered, “I’m okay.”

“You’ve been walking in the rain and it's freezing out there. Unfortunately for you, I have the privilege of giving a shit about you. Get your sleeping shit out and get warm,” I said.  “I do not feel like having a Bailey-flavoured snow cone for breakfast tomorrow. I’m going to go out for a smoke and when I get back you better be as snug as a motherfucking bug.”

Bailey got out of her bunk and got out her sleeping kit. I left the tent to the sound of her teeth chattering. I looked around and noticed that the rain seemed to have actually gotten worse since the end of the march. I dug through my pockets with clammy, wet hands and pulled out a crumpled package of cigarettes that looked like the world’s worst piece of origami. I managed to find my lighter, the metal was strangely warm to my frozen fingers. I hoped I could coax a flame out of the dampness. 

I lit my flame and enjoyed my cigarette in the darkness, looking left and right until I saw cherries: the red tips of  cigarettes in the darkness. No one spoke, maybe out of a mutual love for a solitary dart or maybe to stay under the radar of the staff. Either way, I decided to use the time for some reflection on the pitiful situation I found myself in at the ripe old age of 16.

Soldiers are what remains after you pull away the bullshit, after you remove them from their comforts of home and routines. Those comforts are not always replaced. Those routines are turned into a regimented schedule. You are brought down to your most basic level. Driven to near insanity, to see if you crack. Bailey cracked, the madness got to her. She stopped caring about herself and instead she gave up. Bailey would have died had I not forced her to get out her sleeping bag. Abrams could have seriously damaged his foot but he kept going, possibly leaving him with a lifelong injury. Abrams probably knew he should have immediately reported the injury, but then he would have been pulled off the course, and that was not a possibility he was going to consider. He had what Bailey lacked, because he forced himself to succeed. Technically, they both got to the objective, but only Abrams had the patrolling spirit.

I put out my cigarette and headed inside. I unpacked my sleeping stuff and stripped my wet sleeping bag off. I set my watch’s alarm to five in the morning, giving me an almost excessive three hours of sleep. I put my phone and wallet into my boot and did my best to create a pillow out of my wet undershirt. I enjoyed that familiar feeling behind my eyes that comes from a cigarette or a good night’s sleep. I went to sleep, excited for tomorrow.

Bailey’s teeth kept chattering as I fell asleep.