I’m writing bits and pieces of what will become a memoir. Here’s a snippet from my college days….
We arrived at the training site late and I was already falling head over heels for the creek. The other cadets in my 10-person group didn’t seem to notice the water racing below us, the winter run-off on this chilly June night making its rushing passage a chattering crowd. They hurried to collect branches. The sentinel heights of the Ponderosa pines, their color leeching in the fading light, loomed black over sepia-needled footing—ancient watchers familiar with our game. Although we were learning to build shelters in a deepening dusk, everything seemed familiar, comfortable. Racing against night when our military-issue flashlights would only provide watery micro-spheres of vision, we were directed to gather foliage, prop it into spiny protrusions off of the trees, preferably with a corresponding hollow in the ground, and make our new beds. I don’t know why the deep breaths of piney twilight sparked me to life. I felt at home.
Survival training. A summer military education program for U.S. Air Force Academy cadets. This part of the program, out in the woods treated us like pilots who had ejected from aircraft and were trying to make our way back to friendly lines through enemy territory.
Cadets. I was one that summer, even though I never felt like one. Looking back across three decades, what I remember most was that USAFA was looking for some sort of ideal prototype (probably a young man, six feet tall, athletic and brilliant) and that I would never measure up. A cadet should have blood that beats Air Force blue and want to act out the poem we had to memorize, “High Flight,” to “…slip the surly bonds of Earth.” I didn’t find the Earth’s bonds surly. And slipping them tended to make me airsick.
There were nine-weeks between the spring and fall academic semesters at USAFA and each block of the three-period summer was dedicated to three weeks of training or a three-week period of military leave, a.k.a. vacation. In 1988, between my freshmen and sophomore years, three weeks of survival training were mandatory.
As I slid inside the relic that was my military- issue sleeping bag listening to the forest night sounds and my rustling neighbors, I thought about the challenge ahead of me. I knew these programs were challenges for even that ideal, six-foot tall cadet the Air Force had in mind, so would I be able to do this? In that moment drifting off to the night noises, my fears dissipated, replaced by the unexpected euphoria found in my surroundings. I knew I was an “outdoor” girl—riding my horse no matter the weather and fearlessly walking the grocery store aisles in my dirty riding clothes and muddy boots, my filth more a badge of honor than something shameful. I wasn’t worried about dirt out here. Inexplicably, now I wasn’t worried about anything.
Survival training had portions back at school that involved learning to resist enemy interrogations and study survival tactics, but this next week would be what I considered the real test. After only a few days of teaching us about edible plants, how to signal for help, and camouflaging our appearance, the cadre of instructors would turn us loose to evade enemy captors in the middle of the night. We would spend four nights and five days moving between “friendly” camps where we would sleep during the day and avoid enemy soldiers who were looking for us while we moved under the cover of darkness. What could go wrong? Never mind that, tonight, we were forced to race against darkness because a cadet from the first group that went last week had been lost for almost two days and whose late recovery meant that my group was launched hours after we should have left for our own week surviving in the woods.
Learning to survive in a high-altitude Colorado forest in the first weeks of June was the equivalent of drawing the short straw in terms of USAFA summer programs. In the following days, I would eye the American Strawberry plants vining near my feet with envy, picturing their snowy blossoms as tiny bursts of red sweetness. After all, survival training meant we would mostly be living off what was now a prepubescent, spring landscape. Other cadets would tromp over these same pine needles in late July. I envisioned their experience something akin to Maria spinning about the Austrian Alps in The Sound of Music, lips stained with berries and full bellies sagging over their belts
(to be continued)