Well this is just great, I thought as I tripped and fell again. Fifty-five pounds of gear began to push my face into the water that had begun to pool into the crater I fell in every day. Ironically, five of those pounds were the water in the goddamn Camelback. At least I could take a drink while I was drowning
I considered what else I was carrying as I struggled to get up. On my chest and back was the thirty-pound bullet resistant vest (Sergeant Krieger’s emphasis, not mine,) the harness that carried six thirty-round STANAG magazines and two grenades (which, considering they carried weights instead of you know, bullets and explosives, were only good as ballast,) and finally, the combat helmet. The Kevlar jacket and pants, goatskin gloves, combat boots, kneepads, t-shirt and boxers I was wearing probably weighed something as well, but it was the helmet that was giving me trouble. When you first put the bucket on your head, you don’t really notice it. But when you’re face-first in three inches of water at the bottom of a crater with God trying his hardest to turn it into five inches of water after running twenty-three kilometers, it starts to feel remarkably like someone is pushing your face into the water. This goes double if it you’ve been running around 50 kilometers every day for the past four weeks.
Someone reached down and pulled me up. It was John Marshall. Out of the thousand people on this little run, a large group of over a hundred would lag behind. Most of the ones who did were from the first world, and usually paler skinned.
“Thanks, man,” I said, after catching my breath. My brown hair, including my messy beard, was soaked with crater water and sweat. By some miracle, my glasses were still on.
He shrugged, and said through heavy breathing,“Not a problem, Nate. Gives me a break from running.”
As we scrambled up the crater, I growled, “This crater is like my personal nemesis. I fall in every single fucking day.”
John laughed. “Just another day at Nowhere Island University.” He was right. Since training had started, it had been the same schedule every day. You get up at 4am, fall in, and run about twenty-five kilometers from Grunt Camp to the main campus and back. At six, assuming you had gotten back, you took a shower. After that, you get to eat until eight. Then you would have to go to two hours of calisthenics, then two hours of lifting weights. After that, you would have from twelve to one pm to eat lunch, then it would be back to push-ups and weight lifting until four. After that, it was run, shower, dinner, bed. The only difference would be that every Saturday we would get a new piece of gear to wear during our run and the first weight session would be replaced by parade drills. The bullet-resistant vest was the hardest piece of equipment to carry yet.
The day before this regime began, we were lined up in formation in groups of fifty for our group’s drill sergeant to shout at us. I got Krieger. He’s South African.
The lecture he gave was the standard movie drill sergeant rant, but with a South African accent. He was tan, bald, and had extremely bushy brown eyebrows. Also, like most of the other drill sergeants, he was built like an 80’s action hero. I will always remember how when he noticed someone start to shake, (Michael was his name, I think,) he turned to him and dropped his voice to a whisper. The only reason I heard was because Michael was standing right next to me in formation. “So you want to quit, eh, boyke?” he asked. “Well, you can quit anytime you want, but I can assure you it’ll be the hardest thing you’ve ever done.”
He then resumed his shouting. “If any of you buggers want to quit, know this: Only the strong leave this semester. Right now, I can tell most of you are weak! Weak emotionally! Weak socially! Weak mentally! Weak physically! For most of you, the only way to leave this island and program is to pass the course. By then, you will not weak physically.
“However, if you decide you want to leave, you can talk to one of our head shrinkers. You will be locked in a four by four office with one of ‘em for the entire day. During that time, they will attempt to break you. I can assure you, in the next few weeks you will feel physical pain. But can only tear you apart if you let it.” He paused, then continued in low, soft tone. “The counselors will pick at everything you are proud of and everything you are ashamed of until they find the right words that will destroy you entirely. Then you will go back to the training, desperately trying to put yourself together again.”
Two weeks later, (I could tell because we had added the Camelback and the vest,) I saw Michael sitting on his bunk after I came back from morning run. He was in a fetal position, rocking back and forth while crying.
“What happened?” I asked. He turned and looked at me, a hollow look in his eyes. Then, in a hollow, dull voice he said, “I tried to quit.” He then returned to his rocking. He never spoke after that, just kept doing the same routine like some kind of robot.
“So,” John asked, snapping me out of my reverie “you excited for Fight Night?” We had cleared the crater and were now in the blasted out field. Nowhere Island was little more than a glorified L-shaped sandbar. The grass and small forest was the only thing that kept it from washing out into the sea. For some reason, it had been converted into an airfield in WWII, and an actual battle had been fought over it.
“Please… tell me that’s not tonight…” I half-wheezed, half-moaned. Fight Night was going to be our first taste of hand-to-hand combat.
“Yup. Fuck us, right?” John’s face was set straight ahead. He hadn’t woken up early enough to shave and you could see the black stubble on his cheeks. I didn’t really shave, so I never had that problem, but I could bet you could see the bags under my eyes as well. I rubbed the rain off my glasses. “Well,” I said, “at least Krieger isn’t here.”
“I’m hurt, boyke,” a deep, South African-accented voice said behind me. I turned around. There was Sergeant Krieger, with his bushy hair and wild eyes looming high above us. Seeing as how he was the second-tallest person in the camp, it was more than a little disturbing how he was able to sneak up on us. He then maneuvered to be standing right next to me. “And from the way you’re limping, I can tell you’re hurting, too.”
His eyes bored into me. His… intense demeanor was not helped by the fact that his eyes kind of bugged out. There was also something in his eyes that said he knew just what to say to break you, or just where to throw a punch so you’d never walk again.
“And I can tell from the way you’re moving that you’re hurting, too.” He was right. Ever since the second day every single part of my body alternated between fiery agony and numbness.
“You want to know what helps me when I’m in pain?” he asked. I nodded, trying to concentrate on the way forwards. I didn’t really like the creepy look on his face. It wasn’t sexual, which would have been bad enough. It was more like a doctor looking at a wound or a mechanic looking at a broken engine.
In response to my nod, he said “Cadences! Cadences, you pansy!” He then waved at the people behind us. “Come on you pansies in the rear! Chant with me! We’ve been up since three am!”
About a hundred of us responded. “We’ve been up since three am!” I was surprised at how loud we were. It was actually kind of pumping me up.
“Just to run a few km!”
“Just to run a few km!” More voices tuned in, but I didn’t care. I was actually getting kind of pumped.
“Come on,” Kreiger bellowed, “I can barely hear you pansies! Say it like you bleeding mean it!” He then resumed chanting. “We do this again at four pm!
“We do this again at four pm!” More voices, and the ones that were there before were louder. We were running faster. I was surprised we still had enough breath to speak.
“And we don’t rightly give a damn!”
“And we don’t rightly give a damn!” Kind of a lie, honestly, but it sounded badass.
“We don’t like this, we’re in pain!”
“We don’t like this, we’re in pain!” Not a lie. Actually a little too close to home, that line.
“So we’ll do it all again!”
“So we’ll do it all again!”
So we’ll do it all again. Oh god. He was right. We would do this run twice a day until it stopped hurting. Maybe we’d drop dead from exhaustion. It made sense, as we were only getting six hours of sleep a night. A few of us were getting less. In my barracks, I was in one of the corner bunks. I had bottom, and the guy on top was apparently friends with the guys in the bunks to my left and rear. Lights out would be at nine, but they would spend the entire time talking. I didn’t recognize their language, but judging by the fact that they were black and seemed like they hadn’t eaten enough as children, I kind of assumed they came from one of the less stable regions in Africa.
Luckily I discovered that if I wolfed down dinner and ran back to my bunk, I could be in a deep enough sleep that nothing would wake me. However, that always left me with the question: how was I able to do this? Maybe I was wrong, but there was no way I should be able to run this far every day. I hadn’t exactly come to this island in the best of physical shape, and even if I was an Olympian, I doubted that run would be possible.
I supposed I had other parts of my mission to attend to. I had a standard set of questions to ask everyone I came across. First, I’d introduce myself. After introductions, I’d ask them why they were here. Then, if they asked why I was here, I’d make the joke. The stupid, awful, joke. If I could do so without fear of getting beat up, I would ask more questions. I’d give as much information back as I safely could, and I would make sure I never lied about it. I realized that, despite running with him every day, I had never approached John with these questions.
After Krieger was far enough away and there was break in the cadences, I asked John, “So, why did you enroll at lovely Nowhere Island University?”
“Would you believe,” John asked, chuckling slightly, “that I thought I was applying to NYU?”
I stared. That was the signal. “I’m sorry,” John said, “it was…”
I interrupted him. “What a coincidence,” I said, “me too.” I then waited for the next counter-sign.
“Hey,” he said, comprehension dawning as he said the final counter-sign, “we rhymed.”