Wednesday, April 24, 2013

How I Spent My Easter Holiday (Part Two)


We ran though the woods, the two guys I was with continuing to bitch about what they perceived as their mistreatment at the hands of the guys who were running the SERE class.

(SERE = Survive, Escape, Resist, and Evade.)

As mentioned, the two guys I'd been partnered up with were tougher than me. (Not a particularly difficult thing to be, I admit.) One was a black former Marine and current Maryland cop, while the other was a Puerto Rican guy from New Jersey. Hardly the kind of guys you'd expect to see at a survival class in the Dirty South, but there you go: I'd been meeting all kinds of varied people at these things. 

This particular class had started with about fourteen people, though two had come down with the flu, or some kind of food poisoning, the previous day; of the remaining twelve, about half were police, correction officers, or private contractors; the others were internet geek thrill-seekers, like me.

My two partners had been becoming increasingly confrontational and mouthy as the five-day class wore on and their nerves were frayed by sleeping on the ground and the bad weather. I wasn't quite as frazzled as the rest; I'd stayed in a hotel the first two nights, as I was recovering from an infected abcessed tooth. That was my excuse, anyway.

The goal of taking the class was to make me feel more capable, I suppose, but so far, I hadn't exactly distinguished myself in the skills we'd been practicing. I was a lousy lockpick, had a lot of trouble getting my small scout fire going with flint and steel, and had done nothing but hurt myself when trying to escape from zip ties. My group had gotten lost a couple of days previously on a scouting exercise, and ended up being pinned down by three angry pitbulls, owned by a neighbor of our instructor, for about twenty minutes, as we all lay quietly facedown in the brush with out hands on our knives. Thankfully the dogs had lost interest and we'd been one of the first teams back to camp.

I felt I'd done pretty well at the interrogation in the final training exercise, though. And I'd managed to get out of the handcuffs easily enough. Even the Puerto Rican, who didn't like me, gave me an "attaboy" on that one.


It was raining a bit as we double-timed it through the brush; we had to cross a few hundred yards of woods, go across a road and find our buried caches of survival supplies, and then go up a hill and make a concealed camp for the night in a considerable tract of woods up there. 

The next day, we had a variety of other tasks: build three small deadfall traps for catching small game, procure some water and food, and finally locate an area on the map and find lock-picking equipment and open one of the padlocks locked to a chain there. 

But the temperature was already hovering near freezing, and the forecast was for freezing rain.

"It's them!" hissed the Puerto Rican, flashing the "get down" hand signal, as we got near the house and barn at the front of the property; we all silently went to the ground and lay motionless as the ATV came up the nearby path.

The instructors of the class climbed off it. The guy who owned and ran the school was a fairly young guy, in his 30s; he'd done two tours in Iraq. The other two guys were very experienced Special Forces guys, retired after doing their 20 years. One had even been on the ground at Tora Bora and been heavily involved in the early part of the hunt for Bin Laden. I had more of a man-crush on the other one though, a former Army Ranger who seemed like Sergeant York -- straight-backed, polite, soft-spoken, honest and reliabe.  

The men stood around talking for a bit; I was afraid they'd seen us, but they soon got into their trucks and drove away. 

The Puerto Rican, who was closer to the road, flashed a "stand up" sign.

"Let's go disable the vehicle," snarled the cop from Maryland. 

I wasn't sure that was within the bounds of the role-playing scenario; but I followed them down to the barn and stood watch as they removed the battery from the ATV and hid it in the barn. 

I expressed some misgivings, and they sneered at me. "You're pretty passive for a guy who just got tasered," said the cop. 

"I'm thinking about escape," I admitted.


We crossed through the woods and went up to find our caches. We'd cached the stuff two days previously in zip-lock bags to protect it from the elements. 

I'd cached more than enough stuff to survive a couple days. A fruit-and-nut bar, a liter of water in a stainless-steel bottle, a mylar survival blanket, a rain pancho, plenty of paracord, a small flashlight, a multi-tool, fire-starting stuff and water-purification tablets. Also, I had a fair bit of stuff on me; in addition to the three layers of clothes and boots I was wearing: a Swiss army knife, a Spyderco folding knife, another small flashlight, and a lighter. The instructors hadn't taken anything from us during the "interrogation" part of the activity.

After we found our caches, we started to make a camp on the hillside. We made a big lean-to and started a fire. The temperature was still hovering around zero, but the light rain had stopped.

"I'm going to make a little shelter over there," I said, indicating some fallen trees. I wanted to practice the skills and also make something a little more hidden.

This pissed off the Puerto Rican. "This ain't a solo mission, Teach!" said the Puerto Rican guy.

"Hey, it'll be the forward scout position." In reality I didn't particularly want to sleep in the same shelter as the two of them; the Puerto Rican farted a lot, his digestion not dealing well with the diet of MREs and trail mix. I also imagined the complaining would continue all night.

I started to pile branches and logs around the fallen tree, making a very serviceable mostly hidden lean-to shelter. The Puerto Rican and the cop from Maryland were sitting near the big shelter, conversing quietly. They'd started off the week arguing with each other a lot, mostly about sports, but they had a lot more in common with each other than with the other people on the course, who were mostly white guys from rural areas.

I know the black cop was pretty tired of all this; he'd been in REAL dangerous shitty situations in the first Gulf war, and I think he really didn't want to spend the night outside during freezing rain. He didn't have anything to prove to anybody.

Me, on the other hand, I was playing Commando all night, if it fucking killed me.

I made a pit lined with rocks, half-under part of the fallen log, and found some dry tinder and got a small fire going quickly with my lighter. I managed to spill half of my liter of water, but I didn't think that would make much difference tonight. There'd be plenty of rain. Dehydration was not a big worry.

Warmth, on the other hand, would be an issue. I gathered a good amount of firewood.

As the sun disappeared and the woods started to completely darken, I saw the cop and the Puerto Rican walking down the hill. I had a feeling they wouldn't be coming back.


I scouted around up the hill a bit, and I saw a fire a bit away.

I approached the fire -- it was a good-sized blaze, if not quite a bonfire -- and greeted the three guys sitting around it, also students of the course. One was a Corrections Officer, the other was a contractor who had been working personal security in Iraq, and the third was a cheerful bearded guy from Louisiana who, if pressed, admitted that he was "kind of a criminal."

They greeted me and we exchanged information about the interrogation; they'd gotten pretty much exactly the same treatment we'd gotten.

"So the two guys I was with thought it was a bit harsh," I said. "In fact I think they just took off and I'm guessing they aren't coming back."

The Corrections Officer said he wasn't that impressed with the interrogation. "I think it was about a   4." He'd gone through much worse in training courses for his own extraction unit, where they'd been water-boarded and beaten each other with phone books.

"Well, I thought it was about right, myself," I said. "I'm not interested in finding my breaking point, not just yet, but I wanted a challenge."

The guy with the beard said, "You should have seen this guy," he said, indicating the contractor, who was a rather short and skinny guy. "He really went for the Oscar."

The contractor smiled. "I worked with plenty of guys who had been kidnapped or held at some point, they all said the same thing -- cry like a baby, scream like a little girl, and you'll be fine. Act like a badass, you get your head chopped off on the internet."

"I'll keep that in mind," I said. I said my goodbyes and went back down the hill and with some difficulty found my small shelter in the dark. I was pleased with how difficult it was to see; even with the small fire, it was nearly invisible in the darkness.

I ate the fruit and nut bar. Then I took the silver mylar emergency blanket and propped it up behind me in the shelter to act as a heat reflector. I made a half-way comfortable bed of leaves and dust, and crawled in.

The only problem was the smoke from the scout fire, which was often going directly into the shelter. And sitting closely to it, my sinuses dried up quickly.

But the temperature in the shelter was actually pretty comfortable, despite the fact that it was a bit below freezing as the sun went down. I'd set up some rocks to radiate heat back into the shelter, and the mylar reflecting surface was amplifying it.

I took off my outer coat and used it as a pillow and took off my boots; my pants and socks were very damp from the rain and they steamed as they dried.

Then it started to rain hard.

The shelter held up pretty well. Only a few drops fell on me. The fire kept going.

After that, it started to hail. Marble-sized balls of ice were soon bouncing off the floor of the forest.

I was okay in my shelter.

Perception and thought narrowed down to a half-awake state; I dozed off a few times, but then the fire would burn down enough that the cold woke me up, and I'd wake up and feed twigs and bark into the fire.

Some time later came the thunder. It boomed and roared, but there was no rain. Lightning flashed but the scary thunder continued for quite a while.

It was extremely apocalyptic.

I stayed calm beneath my shelter, concentrating on my little fire. There was more rain and more hail at various points in the night.

Eventually I woke in the quiet darkness and I heard an animal moving nearby -- a dog? A coyote? I thought I saw red eyes, but then they disappeared.

I fed more twigs into the fire, and survived it all.

Then the sky was brightening, and it was morning.


I got up and stretched. I gathered some water from the rain pancho and had a drink.

I considered. There were more activities to do, but I felt like I'd done a pretty good amount of surviving. That was one scary night. I could practice making deadfalls later; I needed to go down and get some rest, I had a job interview in a couple of days.

I packed up my stuff and walked down the hill and crossed the road; then I needed to cross a field which had turned into a swamp during the rains in the night. My Timberland boots, which I'd bought for $40 at an end-of-season sale, made slurping sounds in the mud.

As I approached the house and the campsite where the lessons had been, I saw a small convoy pulling up the road.

The guy who was running the course leaned his head out and smiled and shouted, "Busted!"

"Man, I survived all night, that's pretty tough, by English teacher standards."

"You did good, man, I'm proud of you," said the former Ranger who I had the man-crush on. "You used your training."

"I didn't get my proof-of-life video, though," I said.

We discussed that issue, and others related to the course, for a few minutes, and then he said, "So that's why you train. Now you'll remember that point."

The teachers had been out during the night looking for the students with night vision goggles; they'd found the group I'd spoken with, not far from me. (They hadn't seen me; technically speaking though, I wasn't in the area they'd told us to sleep for the night, so I was cheating a bit.)

One group had called the teachers in the middle of the night and surrendered, asking to be retrieved during the thunderstorm; they'd come down and slept in their cars. Another group had spent the night up the hill and come down in the morning but gotten on the wrong street and gotten lost. The teachers were at that point returning from fetching them.

I was one of the last to come in. Surviving wasn't exactly the same thing as thriving; surviving was the minimum you could do. Nonetheless, I felt pleased with myself, if not exactly proud.

By English teacher standards, that was pretty tough.

I packed up my tent and gear and got on the road, beginning the 3 hour drive to my brother's house. I stopped at a rest stop and took a one-hour nap, at one point. The weather was clearing up and the sun was coming out.


My nephews were glad to see me, as always. "Hey, Uncle Butthole!"

"Don't say butthole!" chastised my sister-in-law.

"That's right kids, don't say butthole, you should say anus."

"You shouldn't say it at all!" she wailed.

"You shouldn't say it at all, unless you have a tick there. Now, let me teach you kids how to get out of zip-ties."


We hung out, and then two days later, I dressed in my blue fake Hugo Boss suit, got on an airplane, and went to Houston. There, I went for a job interview for a major state-run company in The Sandbox. Fortunately the cuffs of the shirt hid all the cuts on the wrists I'd gotten trying to escape from zip-ties.

About thirty minutes after that, I was signing a letter of acceptance. The salary offered was about $8000 a month, approximately 10 times what I'd made in my first English teaching job in Bangkok, almost twenty years previously.

Yeah, I was a survivor, all right. Maybe even starting to thrive, a little.


John from Daejeon said...

Wow! I wonder what sort of torture you will have to go through to earn that 100 grand.

Is that what your SERE was really all about? Teaching unruly ankle-biters for 80 hours a week?

Anyway, good luck in the big sand box.

brian said...

Best part of that $8,000? It's tax free! That would put it at an equivalent salary $140,000 stateside, no? Good luck in the Sandbox X.

English Teacher X said...

Yeah, tax free, but only about 6 weeks of holiday per year. 25 hours a week of class time.

Anonymous said...

Nice work on the Saudi gig. If anyone's paid their tefl dues, it's you.

BTW, in the midst of all the internet commando training I'm surprised you never took a long gun course. As an American with long residence in Russia how would you answer the ultimate mall ninja question- AR or AK?

English Teacher X said...

Hmm, well you know, I was all ready to do a long gun course in January. And then in December those tragic incidents happened, with all the concordant hooplah, I decided to put that off.

I did use an AK for a day during one course during the summer; I liked how solid and idiot-proof it was, so I was leaning that way.

Dion said...

Did you ever hear from the instructor about what happened to the Puerto Rican or the cop? Sounds like you had a better time without them.

English Teacher X said...

Oh they just left, probably drove to the nearest city and got drunk.

Piotr said...

I read To Travel Hopelessly on my Kindle. Pretty funny. So I bought a physical copy for my friend. It just landed in the mail. WTF! Is that Verdana? God help my friend's eyes.

English Teacher X said...

you don't like verdana? I thought it looked better than Times New Roman or Ariel. What font do you recommend?

Piotr said...

I dunno, but not a sans serif screen font that comes with Windows. Maybe ITC Century Book, something like that. Talk to font geek or read Robert Bringhurst.

English Teacher X said...

Okay, I see that you have a valid point. I'll do them over in Garamond, it'll only take a couple days. If you can't get your money back, send me an email at englishteacherx(at)yahoo(dot)com and I'll send you some free ebooks.

English Teacher X said...

or maybe Palatino.

Jug Jugette said...

Writing as someone who fell many years ago from the exalted heights of Typographer to the diminished lowlands of English Teacher, I can tell ETX that Palatino is the wise choice; truly a prince among fonts.

English Teacher X said...

okay, just FYI, all the paperback editions of the novel are all now in Palatino type-face. Anybody who got an earlier copy and felt the typeface was hard on the eyes, just email me and I'll send you something free.

brian said...

Quick follow up: how much did the new tooth end up costing anyway?

Anonymous said...

8k plus accommodation? And flights to/from? And is there still the legally mandated completion bonus?

Did it myself for couple of years and a half, though as an engineer, in the mid 90s. Petrodollars have a particularly sweet spend, or so I tell myself, and there are still plenty of them left in my accounts. It was a bit of sacrifice, but a worthy one. Good luck.