Friday, June 26, 2009

If It Ain't Raining...

by Helen E. H. Madden

Like many others here, I have had my share of outdoor experiences. My father was the consummate outdoorsman - hiker, camper, hunter, fisher, boater - and he insisted the entire family share his love of nature. My mother was from Philly, so you know camping was right up her alley. Not.

Anyway, I went on many a camping and canoing trip, growing up. It was an occasional thing, something the women of the family did to humor Dad, and though I didn't absolutely love the great outdoors, I didn't hate it either.

Until I joined the Army, that is.

No acronym strikes fear into my heart like the letters FTX. FTX is short for Field Training eXercise (I know, it should be FTE, but apparently the X makes it sound cooler). I started going on FTXs my freshman year in college, and boy did they suck! Unlike the camping trips with my father, where the old man took responsibility for setting up the tent and hauling our gear, FTXs actually involved a lot of WORK on my part. Every soldier or cadet had to carry their own ruck sack, a backpack filled with fifty or more pounds of equipment and food. And we had to set up our own tents. Unlike my dad's pup-tent which set up at the flick of a wrist, the standard Army shelter half was not a cozy little affair. It was a smelly, OD green swatch of canvas with grommeted holes set in it for rusted metal tent poles and a coarse, hairy rope. And you had to have TWO shelter halves (obviously, that's why they were called shelter HALVES) to make a whole tent. Which meant you had to have a buddy to bunk with, and trust me, there was nobody in ROTC or the Army that I liked well enough to want to be tent buddies with.

The food on these little excursions was always interesting. Meals came in plastic packets called MREs. MRE was supposed to stand for Meals Ready to Eat, but was more often referred to by the politically incorrect epitaph of Meals Rejected by Ethiopians. Yeah, they were that bad. MREs consisted mostly of mushy stews you had to dig out of foil pouches or freeze-dried meats and fruits that you had to reconstitute to determine what you had. I frequently couldn't tell whether I had the dried peaches or the pork patty until after I'd added water and taken a bite. Then there were occasionally treats included in the MREs, like the cookie bar, which was basically a terra cotta brick coated in cheap chocolate. And if you needed a sweet shot of caffeine, you could mix together the bag of cocoa with the instant coffee, creamer, sugar and a little water to make "Ranger Pudding." The best item found in an MRE was probably the cheese spread, a thick gooey glob of salty orange processed milk product packaged in a little foil pouch. The cheese spread was a hot item in the field. It was sort of like Cheese Wiz's slutty cousin, really salty and very bad for you but absolutely delicious! It was also, unfortunately, a rarity, turning up in only one out of every one hundred MREs. Anyone who got an MRE with the cheese spread in it could barter for anything he wanted, including someone else's last clean pair of underwear.

Ah, clean underwear, the holy grail of FTXs. Everyone always started out with clean underwear, but after a couple of days in the field, we were all so dirty and sweaty and gross, we couldn't even pronounce the words "clean underwear." Showers were not de rigueur in the field. The best you could hope for was a quick swipe with a rag and some water from your canteen. Though there was this one time, when I'd been out in the field nearly two weeks straight. It was at the tail end of Camp All American, a six week trip in Hell where the Army dumps cadets into Fort Bragg to separate the boys from the men. How I survived that I'll never know. But I had made it to the last week, and had been without a shower or clean underwear for almost 10 days at that point. I reeked, of course. No, actually, I was beyond reeking. I was in fear that parts of me were rotting inside my uniform, I was so unwashed and smelly. I couldn't stand it anymore, so veeeeeeery early one morning, before oh-dark-thirty, I turned to my "buddy" and said, "Cover me. I'm taking a bath." We were in a fox hole, a six-foot-deep pit, so no one could see us unless they were standing on top of us. My buddy, a male cadet, dutifully looked the other way, keeping watch for the enemy and anyone else who might happen by, while I stripped naked, washed with my rag and canteen, and then slipped on the last pair of clean undies I had in my ruck sack. Once I was back in uniform, he looked me over and said, "Okay, my turn now." And thank god he followed through on his turn, because he stank even worse than I did.

(I swear to you, this incident was the only time I was ever naked in the dirt with a guy around. Romantic, huh?)

In addition to the joys of shelter halves, MREs, and poor hygiene, there was also the issue of weather. There is a saying in the Army. "If it ain't raining, it ain't training." I don't think I ever went on a single FTX where it didn't rain. Okay, maybe the one time, but that was snow, and snow is frozen rain, so it still counts. I can remember being out in the field with it just pouring rain, in buckets. The ground was a mire, mud up to the tops of my combat boots. And the thunder and lightning! Safety is always an issue during FTXs, so when the lightning started, the officers in charge made us stack our M16s and then go sit in the next field so we wouldn't get struck by lightning while waiting out the storm. There was no shelter in the next field, of course, so we all sat on the ground with our ponchos tucked up around us, looking like little trash bags while our last clean pairs of underwear slowly got soaked and turned muddy brown.

I spent eleven years in the Army Reserves, and four in ROTC. My days in the military had a profound influence on my life. When it came time to choose a topic for my master's degree thesis, I decided to focus on the influence of gender stereotypes on military leadership. I recall pouring through research documents and coming across a paper on the behavior of women soldiers in the field. There is a commonly held perception that female soldiers are rather... friendly, shall we say? Yet after spending six weeks in the field, observing and interviewing female soldiers, the researcher came to one conclusion.

"Field conditions depress sexuality."

No shit, Sherlock.


  1. "Field conditions depress sexuality."

    OMG, Helen, it's a whole nother view of the great outdoors, and it's wonderful! Your description of the FTX reminds me why I never wanted to be in the army. Plus a couple dozen more reasons!

    Fabulous post!


  2. Ouch! Your stories would be hilarious except for the fact that I think of you as a dear friend and hate the thought that you had to endure this misery!

    But come on now, you and your angel hubby never did the deed out of doors?

    Thanks for a lively read!


  3. Hi Helen,

    I dunno, you just make it all sounds so... uh... yucky!


    Wait, don't yell so loud. Put down the knife, I was joking. Honest!

    Okay, seriously, there are those who aren't wired for enjoying the great outdoors, and I have to admit clean undies is pretty high on my list of 'must haves' but rain, the dirt, the tent, the food, all that doesn't turn me off nearly as much as it would some. I could very possibly feel much different if I'd actually lived through what you did. Bunking with a guy who stank doesn't appeal to me, but then we go back to clean undies. LOL

    I really enjoyed your post, Helen. You've had some amazing experiences and it's got to have enriched your life a great deal, even if you disliked some of them.

    Thanks so much for the chuckle and the thought provoking.


  4. Thank you guys! This post brought back some, uh... fond memories. };)

    Jenna, the Army is not for the faint of heart, and to this day I wonder how I got through it. I spent many a cold, rainy weekend out in the field, shivering my ass off. Good thing I can look back on it now and laugh!

    Lisabet, it's okay to laugh. It's all in the past, and I even laugh about it now. I have to. It's one of those things where you either laugh or cry... As for doing it outdoors with the Hubster, we have done it once, but didn't get totally naked. We were on a hike. With his mother. Which honestly sucked all the fun out of it. Hubster has lousy timing about some things...

    Jude, I can appreciate the outdoors, so long as I don't have to experience it with the military. Now that summer break has hit, I'm trying to figure out how to spend more time outside with the kids. We're hitting the beach, gardening, and even planning bug hunts! We might even go camping, though nothing heavy duty. The girls just want to sleep in a tent. I can deal with that, so long as I've got clean underwear };)

  5. I want to publicly state, here and now, that I'm going to be a conscientious objector.

    The clean undies is just a deal breaker for me. Sorry.

  6. Remittance, the Army ruined several pairs of my best undies, to be sure, but I can look back on all that now and laaaaaaaaaaugh!

    Tho' it do hurt to laugh, even these days...