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Boot Camp Adventures This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.


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There is a flash. A tremendous boom. The strike could have hit the ground ten feet away. Around me, seven frantic girls search through soaked, scattered gear under and around a parachute shelter. The rain is pouring down; my change of clothes is already soaked, and my chilled body is colder than I ever thought possible.

“I CAN’T FIND MY SHOES!” I bellow to the wind. Nobody around me cares, or answers. In what has rapidly become a true survival situation, the teamwork we carefully cultivated this week has vanished.

I grab what I can and start the long trek down from the girls’ camp and up the other hill to the boys’. Midway, my flip-flops betray me and I end up standing in mud in my wool socks with everything I was carrying scattered around me. I’m cold, wet, and miserable; when I look up, everything nearby is obscured by the rain, including my friends.

The path seems to have vanished, I can no longer tell which way is downhill, let alone where the boys’ camp is. Another flash fills the sky and brings the trees into eerie detail. I stand amidst my scattered belongings, cold mud oozing between my toes, needle-like rain pelting my skin, and I wonder if I am going to die.

***

I stand, knees locked, eyes staring straight ahead at a handhold on the climbing wall 20 feet in front of me. In times of stress, one of two things happens to a person’s vision: either it narrows, obscuring everything but the danger at hand, or it expands, bringing the surroundings into extreme and painful detail.

My field of vision is restricted by the requirement of remaining at attention, but my other senses fill in the gaps about my environment. I am, foolishly, in the first rank of cadets. I hear nervous breathing all around. Fear has a distinct odor – it is overwhelmingly present in this group of pallid teens. My eyes pick out the figure of an adult instructor climbing the stairs next to the rock wall. In his hand is a camera. I wonder if the photos are meant to make a mockery of us, of how scared we are, when this week is finally over.

As butterflies destroy my stomach, I catch the faint sound of three pairs of boots marching to the front of the formation. An Air Force Pararescueman and two SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) instructors stand in front of us. Airman McGee’s biceps are as big as a runner’s legs. He’s shorter than I am but looks as though he could pick me up and throw me like a javelin without any effort.

Airman Heath just looks mean. He’s young, maybe just a few years older than us, but we can tell he has seen things beyond our comprehension.

Sergeant Herrera, our lead instructor, is the most terrifying of the three. He stands, impassive. His face is ­inscrutable. There is the look of an old man in his eyes. His expression ­today, however, is completely devoid of either compassion for our plight or the eagerness of Airman Heath.

The three prowl the rows of cadets, pausing intermittently to perform ­uniform inspections.

“You shave this morning?”

“No, Sergeant.” (Later, we found out that the kid hadn’t gone through puberty yet.)

More stalking amongst the rows.

“You shine your boots with a ­Snickers bar?”

Another short march.

“You shave this morning? Yes? Oh, I think we got ourselves an integrity violation here!”

We stand quaking as the angry voices fall silent in front of us. Amidst all the palpable terror, a single word cracks through the ranks, making us shudder.

“DROP!”

***

We’re milling around aimlessly in a parking lot. It is 10 a.m., we’re 8,000 feet above sea level, and it is already too hot. On my head is a bright orange helmet, buckled loosely and cockeyed because I am too busy to fix it. The gear is supposed to be divided evenly among 29 people, but there simply ­isn’t enough to go around. My team is languidly removing bags from trucks and opening them. We divide up ropes, carabiners, daisy chains, and harnesses. Too slow.

“DROP!” And we do push-ups. I have lost my gloves, and so the rubble in the parking lot digs into the fleshy parts of my palm. Soon, even that concern is lost in the agonizing pain of overworked muscles trying to lift my body and all the equipment I am carrying. All around me, my team groans as they struggle to maintain proper push-up position.

When we are finally done, two ­people drop carabiners, and we’re on our faces again so in the future we ­remember to take care of our gear.

Sergeant Herrera decides we’ve wasted enough time and can start the hike up the mountain to the rappelling wall. Then he hands me a 15-pound rock and says that because we couldn’t divide the gear fast enough, he’s giving us more to carry so everyone gets a fair share.

I name our rock Sam. Later, we pull out a Sharpie and give him a face.

***

On our way back from rappelling, we run out of water. Sergeant Herrera promises that he’ll “hydrate” us when we get off the mountain.

We drive to the small general store by the river. We’re told we’re allowed to buy two things – I think we may be the only business they get all year. Most people buy Gatorade or water, but one kid chooses ice cream. I’m sure he’ll soon regret it.

I pick up some ramen. Around the campfire, later, I am the envy of my friends. You know things are really rough when ramen is a delicacy.

***

We march into the freezing river. It is either a measure of our complete exhaustion or of our conditioned ­obedience that no one protests or hangs back.

We follow Sergeant Herrera into the middle of the river.

“DROP!”

This time, there is some hesitation. Is he serious? The pause is only momentary, though, as my team drops ­into push-up position in a ragged line, arms and legs submerged ­underwater. When we switch to flutter kicks, I begin to float downstream. I don’t have enough mass to stop the current from carrying me.

It is glorious. We’ve had a long, hot day. The water feels amazing. It is my first bath in four days.

***

We’re strung out, 10 in the line, walking stoically up 1,000 vertical feet of hill through thick undergrowth. There is a monotonous pace count ­going in my head – the last time one of us forgot the count, we had to return to the beginning of the course.

I am struggling, even with the ­relatively light weight of my pack. I fall farther and farther back. We crest the hill and I am second to last – not a good place for a leader to be. My teammate gives me a bit of a push for a few seconds. It helps, but I’m still exhausted.

We break for lunch, where the instructors point out that they’ve been walking on a trail parallel to our crashing journey through the undergrowth. We were so wrapped up in our misery that we didn’t even notice. Duh. When we continue up the hill, we use the path this time. We’re getting close; the trees are thinning and there’s less brush.

The cover breaks and we’re standing on a naked hilltop. A lightning-struck tree reaches like a colossal spire from the top of the hill. The grass is sparse and broken by a massive cairn.

My team poses for a snapshot in front of the rocks. We’re at 10,800 feet on the highest mountain around. Behind us loom huge black clouds: fists of impending doom. Wind whips the hilltop and lightning flashes in the ­distance, but we don’t care. We are ­jubilant; we are young and full of ­vigor. We have seen the Promised Land, and found it good. There is a ­triumphant sense of our own abilities and power.

We share a pack of M&Ms, and then knock out a set of 25 push-ups, just for the hell of it.

We are, quite literally, on top of the world.

***

As the hail pounds my helmeted head, I stand on the bank of the river, a loose rope extending to a tree on the other side. I clip my carabiner in and climb the rope, one foot hooked over the top and behind me, my other leg straight out and down for balance.

Sergeant Herrera stands knee-deep on the other side of the river, wearing a gray Air Force T-shirt and a feral grin.

It doesn’t take long for me to fall off – it isn’t easy to stay on top of a loose rope. I’ve done this before, though, and know how to pull myself along under-handed.

In the center, the ­inevitable happens. ­Sergeant Herrera grabs the rope and bounces it, with the help of Airman Heath on the other bank. All 100 pounds of me goes flying into the air and then plunges a foot or so underwater.

I will not let go of the rope. Again, I go flying. My head submerges this time, then I’m in the air again, gasping for breath and shocked from the cold. A third time, water and air. Will they ever stop? When they do, I waste no time pulling myself to the other side.

Three people, all looking like drowned rats, wait for me. We form a huddle and link arms for the return crossing. We wade into the river but suddenly only one of us is tall enough to stand! The current pulls us downstream. Frantically, I kick as hard as I can to help propel us. I want out!

***

The ride back is four miles, and we have the luxury of vans due to an ­approaching thunderstorm. I’ve never ­experienced anything quite as wonderful as that heater.

We hurry to our tents. The rain turns from a trickle to a torrent. A flash. A boom. The girls search through soaked gear scattered around our parachute shelter. The rain is pouring down. I change into dry clothes only to be drenched again.

“I CAN’T FIND MY SHOES!”

And this is how I end up standing in the mud in my wool socks, with everything I am carrying scattered around me. I wonder if I will survive.

Airman Heath spots me from across the ­Instructors’ Meadow.

“WHERE’S YOUR BUDDY!” I can hear him only faintly over the tremendous storm.

“I DON’T KNOW!” I bellow back, close to tears from cold and fright.

He scoops up my stuff and leads me up the hill like a child. I don’t bother with my flip-flops. When contemplating death, who cares about shoes?

After hours, we reach the top of the hill. The boys have managed to start a fire under a parachute tarp. It is small, with no guarantee it will survive for two minutes, but it is a fire.

We huddle in our group of 48, as close to the fire as we can get. I stand in the innermost ring, holding a poncho over the fire to protect it from any water that might drip through the smoke hole in the tarp.

I am freezing, my sleeping bag will be soaked tonight, I can’t find my sneakers, I have smoke in my face, tears in my eyes, and snot pouring out of my nose. But I am surrounded by my team. I am okay. We’ll all be okay.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.




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This article has 6 comments. Post your own!

flaka said...
May 12, 2011 at 1:41 pm:
did u every fink ur shoes i feel bad for ur shoes..i bet u had lost of fun???
 
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MagicPen said...
Jul. 8, 2010 at 9:49 pm:

Good! Kept me entertained. I know what it's like to be told to "DROP!", especially on the gravel! You explained it well.

Just one question: is this really a NONfiction story? 

 
Reepicheep replied...
Jul. 8, 2010 at 10:00 pm :
Yes, it really is.  I am the author, and I can assure you...it really happened.
 
MagicPen replied...
Jul. 8, 2010 at 10:06 pm :

Wow! What a story it is! Thanks for sharing.

What form of military was the bootcamp?

 
Reepicheep replied...
Jul. 8, 2010 at 10:12 pm :
This story came from experiences I had while at a military orientation program through the Civil Air Patrol, the Air Force Auxilary. The actual course was an orientation to the Pararescue career field.
 
MagicPen replied...
Jul. 8, 2010 at 10:16 pm :
Interesting. Sounds like you had a blast. =-P
 
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