I was 13 when I went to Trenton Air Force Base for leadership training on July 7, 2007. I was freshly graduated from grade school and nervous about stepping into a new world. A world of polished leather boots, ironed uniforms and countless hours practicing drills on the parade square. I had always been a nervous kid. I was the one who sat quietly in the corner and didn’t ruffle feathers. More happy to be nose deep in a book than earning rank badges to be sewn onto my sleeves. All the same, the Commanding Officer of the Kitchener-Waterloo Spitfire Squadron expected everyone ranked Sergeant and below to volunteer for summer camp. Most of the new cadets went for basic, two weeks learning everything from survival training to aircraft maintenance and the principles of flight. I didn’t have that option. I was one year older than most of my contemporaries, meaning I was out of the age range for basic. So I signed up for the next course available to me: instruction training.
The first thing they told us was to remove our badges. Any rank we had earned held no distinction at Trenton. Every cadet had to start from the bottom all over again. They did this to make sure there were no special treatments in the classroom. But I hadn’t earned any rank yet; I was still technically a recruit until I had finished eight months of training. I watched as everyone else on the bus removed the epaulets from their shoulders and slid them into their pockets. Just like that, we were converted from a hierarchy to another bunch of unruly kids on a bus. It was a funny feeling sitting next to a guy and not knowing his rank. They all ranked above me of course, but they didn’t know that.
When we arrived at the base, everyone was issued a set of what we called “grays,” a couple of sets of shorts and shirts with a sunhat. After everyone had changed and moved their luggage to their barracks, the entire camp was sent to the centre square for program assembly. I lined up with the other instruction students for roll call. As the names were rattled off, I waited for the end of the list for my name to be shouted out. But it never came. Instead, I heard my name called out by the formation next to mine. In a strange moment of confusion, while I was surrounded by so much order, I shouted my presence and moved into place in the back of the neighbouring formation. When the formation was dismissed I ran up to the flight sergeant and asked what was going on. He showed me his clipboard and sure enough, my name was at the bottom alongside the course code for introduction to leadership. I knew immediately what had happened. My Commanding Officer had listed leadership as my secondary option. They had moved me to another program to make room for somebody else. At this point I had two options. I could make a scene, get angry that I wasn’t here to do what I wanted and get sent home or I could stick it out and make something of my summer. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I really wanted to choose option A at the time. I think the only reason I chose to stay was because of the expression on the Flight Sergeant’s face. I’ll never forget the challenge he had in his eyes, hidden under his thick black- framed glasses. I swore to his face and walked back to my bunk. I would later learn his name was Flight Sergeant Dally and that he was in charge of my group. He also taught the majority of the classes. Co-incidentally, that was also the night I learned to keep my mouth shut.
The first week of camp was probably the most stressful experience I’ll ever have in my life. There was always the pressure to do better at whatever it was we were focusing our efforts on that day. I could barely grasp my new surroundings while all of my classmates seemed to already know what was being taught before the lecture began. I had to use all my concentration just to keep up. I was even lagging behind in drill lessons, and drill took up three hours a day. Sergeant Dally, despite my outburst on the first night, tried to offer some understanding. He partnered me up with one of the more outstanding members of our class named Wood. Wood was an expert among experts. He had already been through Basic, Introduction to Instruction and Aircrew Survival. I learned a lot from Wood. He gave me tips on how to polish my boots and improve my drill. In exchange for his help, I became his errand boy. At the end of the night, during our three hours of free time before bed, I volunteered to maintain his uniform and make runs to the canteen to fuel his strange addiction for orange-flavoured Tic-Tacs.
After the first two weeks, I finally considered myself to be at an even level with my peers. I made friends with an older cadet named Ricky who was just as nervous about the whole affair as I was. Now I found myself offering advice to someone the same way Wood had offered his advice to me. On July 27, three weeks after I first arrived, we attended our completion ceremony. One thing they never tell you about in the pamphlets for cadets is how long speeches can take. The opening ceremony alone can take up to 45 minutes just for the officers to take their place at the front and allow the cadets to do a proper marching salute. By the time the acknowledgements started, we had been standing at attention, hands at our side, eyes forward, legs straight and heels together for two hours. One of the first lessons they teach you in drill is that your blood likes to circulate around your body and it circulates much easier inside a body that’s in motion.
The fainting started just as the Base Commander, a surly man with dark skin and a booming voice that didn’t need a megaphone to be heard over a crowd, came up to the podium. As he listed off the numerous awards and achievements of certain flights and certain individuals, one by one we began to drop like flies. Some cadets had the humility to drop down to one knee and cover their face with their wedge in hand, the universal signal of distress, others tried to fight the growing nausea and fell flat onto their face or into the back of the person in front of them, producing a domino effect. I fought off the encroaching numbness using the tricks that Wood had taught me like wiggling my toes and bending my knees so slightly that they were still hidden in the legroom of the creases. During the course of the next hour, our flight numbers would whittle down from 35 to 30, then after another 15 minutes we would lose another two. The ceremony started at noon and by four o clock we would be down to 25 cadets. For all of us standing on the parade square, it was the hottest day of the summer. We stood side by side with sweat-soaked uniforms, itching hairlines, and blurry eyes.
There was only 20 minutes left to go as the officers began to leave the parade square before we were dismissed. Then Ricky fell to his knees in front of me and spouted a stream of vomit onto the ground. Ricky was our right marker, the one man in the formation that everyone used for reference to make up the positions for the rest of the flight. When Ricky was removed from the formation, it was my job to step forward and take his place as the new right marker. Sergeant Dally saw the puddle of vomit and was undeterred from calling the command. He instructed us to reform ranks. I put my left foot into place as instructed and slammed my right foot down next to it. I felt the ichor splash on the side of my leg but I didn’t let it bother me. Nothing could ruin this moment. The entire assembly saw me take that step with no hesitation, executed perfectly. I was proud of myself that day. The day I stomped around in someone’s vomit.
Years later, when I talked with other cadets about their experience at Trenton, most of them would be vague about the details. My friend Pommery would say the one thing he remembered the most was the food. “I think I had hash browns with every meal,” he told me one day. “That was the only thing that kept me going. The eggs they always had in the morning were so rubbery you could bounce them off the table. Did you ever try that?” Unfortunately, I never got the chance to test the eggs’ bouncability but I know exactly what he meant when he talked about the hash browns. They were available with every meal and I don’t think I saw anyone turn them away even once. I remember the cafeteria staff put up a sign that read, “You can eat other vegetables than potatoes.” Pommery and I discussed what was so alluring about those potatoes, and he described it best. “They were heavy in your stomach. It was easier to march in line when something was weighing you down. All you had to do was keep the timing and stare in a straight line.”
Those words would follow me for a long time because that’s exactly what I felt like my time Trenton gave me. The ability to recognize the weight of pressure as a driving force to better myself. To know that if I made it through whatever was causing my fear, I wouldn’t have a reason to fear it again. When I think back to my time at Trenton, I always come back to that memory of Ricky, falling to his knees and bringing up that mess of potatoes and I think of how similar we were. How much of a nervous wreck I was when I first arrived. But I learned to keep going, to take a psychological beating and keep on ticking. I learned to keep my potatoes down.