July 1992 CFB Borden
The Army christens it “Final Ex.” The last exercise: a kind of graduation. Make it through boot camp to face four days in the bush. Show us what you’ve learned, they say. Constant drill, route marches, running across fields, digging shell-scrapes, shooting at imaginary enemies with blank ammunition. We sleep in five-minute batches, learn to crash anywhere. Never stand when you can sit. Never sit when you can lie down. Never, ever lie down without going to sleep. We make our ablutions in the aluminum basins we hump all over the training ground, greasepaint and dirt on our skin like a film we can peel off with our bayonets. You passed, they say, then drive us to the showers. Each of us gets five minutes—a luxury after weeks of a sixty-second limit—to stand in the spray. The water almost warm enough.
August 1993 CFB Petawawa
Central Area Concentration. A week of simulated war. My medical platoon specializes in mobile Evac Stations that can move with the battle lines. I learn how to triage a soldier: Priority 1 for the most serious but salvageable cases, Priority 4 for those beyond saving. What to say to a Pri-4 as you tag him and move on: You’ll be fine, Buddy. Out of here in no time. By week’s end, we’re sticky with the corn-syrup blood of simulated casualties, abraded by the dirt we can’t reach with dampened cloths. We evacuate a real, no-duff casualty—an allergic reaction to a bee sting—in an enormous American Chinook helicopter, the pilots practicing tactical, nap-of-the-earth technique on the way. We land at the base hospital and rush the stretcher in, buffeted by a hurricane of rotor-wash. As attending medics, we are directed to the waiting room, but instead go outside, conspicuous in our filth and combat gear. Someone comes out to tell us that the soldier’s throat closed after we arrived, but that she’ll live. We’re given wet wipes to clean the camouflage greasepaint from our faces. The smell of baby powder and sweat. Our hands tremble as the adrenaline wears off.
May 1994 North of Lake Winnipeg
It’s our fire, and since we’re the only crew in the vicinity, we’ll get to plant the burn afterward. Started by our over-worked tree-runners too busy to notice dried swamp-grass in the mud igniting against their overworked ATV mufflers. We lose a few days while Manitoba’s water-bombers work the flames.
Wait in camp beside our evacuation bags, ash drifting past like restless spirits and settling on our shoulders, our heads. Pack only what you can’t live without. A shift in the wind, rain we hear about but never see, radio communications much more relaxed. The inspectors declare an all-clear. Weighed down by saplings, bandanas tied over our faces against the ash, we comb the burn for a few days. A seedling every six feet. Thirty-five hundred a day. Ten cents per tree. Pure cream, we call it. We must look like bush-mad chimney sweeps, our saliva and mucus streaked with charcoal, until they fix the camp showers on the last day. Just the pump, though, not the heater. Icy, grey wastewater draining beneath my blackened toes.
May 1995 Shabaqua Corners, Near Thunder Bay
It’s a plush camp but we rarely use the showers—those demonic clouds of blackflies love a clean body on a tree planter. Record temperatures, sweating as soon as the first tree goes in the ground and continuing until the last bag-out. Not unusual to drink eight litres of water a day yet watch the urine trickle from us, viscous and deep yellow. Natural fibres rotting from the dampness of bush labour, synthetics so rank we can smell each other across the block. We dry our fetid socks and underwear outside the bunkhouses, our own stench unbearable inside. At the end of the week, we assault Kanga’s Saunas in town, sweat the grime from our pores, chase the heat with smuggled-in beer and delicious cold baths. The owners never complain, though the filth must be epic.
Late July 1995 Ottawa
Four compression fractures in my back, mercifully stable, from a van rollover weeks before. Driver fell asleep, pushed too hard to get back to Shabaqua after a crappy planting contract in Alberta. A broken back, fractured skull, popped breastbone, uncounted stitches in my neck and arm, and daily, humbling bed baths as I recover at my parents’ house. When the X-ray clears me for a shower, I nearly cry in front of the doctor. Thirty minutes later, I drop the hideous, jaundiced back brace to the bathroom floor. Naked and upright for the first time in weeks, fragile as a seedling planted in too little soil. A plastic chair in the tub. An unlocked door. My mom just outside the bathroom. Thirty minutes of slow-motion cleansing, the steam bright in my lungs; at the end, my skin wrinkled and pink.
September 1997 Hamilton
Trouble getting the mud out of my tenderest places. Frosh at twenty-four years old, a second shot at a college education. The school labels me “Mature Student,” says it with a kind of reverence. The orientation committee gives us Kermit-green T-shirts, but I wear mine only to the final event, a mini-Olympics where the frosh complete ridiculous tasks. I find myself following the teens into the muck at the final whistle, and there is much laughter, slung mud, and gawking at all that wet, clingy clothing. Later, in the shower, I wash out my stinging eyes and watch the grit move toward the drain. Earthy steam fills the bathroom and fogs the mirror, and I wonder about the embarrassing persistence of peer pressure.
March 2006 Amman, Jordan
Above-average temperatures, a sweaty half-marathon down to the Dead Sea. Body-lube and sport sunscreen not up to the task. Sunburnt shoulders and neck, wicked chafing in sensitive spots. My pride fighting against the dizziness and nausea of early heat exhaustion. I can barely stomach the bottled water they put in my hands at the finish line. I plunge into the salt water, float like all the other tourists, endure the stinging reality of the distance-wounds I’ve earned. The inland sea’s greasy residue is hard to scrub off in the shower, the rash between my legs reminding me for days of my salty victory bath.
December 2010 Mt. Kinabalu, Malaysia
Altitude sickness plays havoc with my bowels as I summit Lowe’s Peak. The next day, frequent pauses on the descent, clenching, hoping. Mostly successful. An aching, self-conscious van ride back into KK, the other passengers mercifully silent about my stink. Straight to the shower after checking in at the hotel, the hot water at once a soothing godsend and knot-untying curse. Alone with my mess, my wrenched intestines, and all the time I need to feel clean again.
March 2013 Hamilton
Thirty-six hours of labour and then an emergency C-section when the baby’s heart rate falls. I tried so hard, my wife says as the nurses prepare her for surgery. In the OR, I sit by her head as the doctor cuts and tugs and speaks softly to his team. Then, those first cries. My wife is afraid she’ll drop the baby when the nurses bring her over, I can’t keep my eyes open—can you take her? Later, while my wife rests, the nurse asks if I’d like to help bathe our newborn daughter. A slick, squalling little catfish writhing against the newness of it all. There is a night of interrupted sleep. The next day I walk my wife to the shower. Delicate movements on swollen feet. Under blinding, industrial lights I help her undress. Dried blood, almost black, fringes the C-section scar. New blood runs down her leg and drips onto the tile. The rush of water and steam. The privilege of speaking quietly, washing her shoulders, her back, the incision, my hands and arms wet in the spray.
Brent van Staalduinen is an award-winning writer who lives and writes in Hamilton, Ontario. He is the author of SAINTS, UNEXPECTED, a novel of urban magical realism, published by Invisible Publishing in the spring of 2016. His work also appears or is forthcoming in The Fiddlehead, The Sycamore Review, Prairie Fire Magazine, The Prairie Journal, EVENT Magazine, The Dalhousie Review, The New Quarterly, and numerous other notable journals. He is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers, holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia, and teaches creative writing at Redeemer University College.