The year is 1990. The location: Happy Valley, PA, otherwise known as the home of Penn State University. Our main character is sixteen years young, away from home for the first time, somewhat naive in the workings of the military, and generally a nervous wreck.
It’s official. I am a member of the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corp (AFROTC). Today is the first day of many days of sheer torture. There is a war going on, and in my naivety, I worry that somehow, I might get sent overseas to fight for our country. Yes, that’s right, I think that the 16 year-old college freshman who has no military training is going to be sent to war. I told you I was naive.
I’ve received my uniform and been given brief instructions on how to care for it. On some people, it looks good. Me, I just look like a stewardess. I think it’s because I’m short and dressed in navy blue from head to toe. By the way, why isn’t there a color called Air Force blue for the AF to wear? I don’t think the navy even wears blue.
History has never been interesting to me, so when I found out that I had to take a class weekly about the history of the Air Force, I was less than thrilled. Nevertheless, I suffer through because it is only one day a week. That day of the week is long indeed for I have to wear my uniform all day. Yes, all day. To every class, to lunch, to dinner. And it’s uncomfortable. And I haven’t quite gotten used to whom I need to salute and whom I can just say hi to. Every exchange with a fellow ROTC-er is awkward to say the least, whether it be Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines.
I must admit that I love a challenge and I will certainly cut off my nose to spite my face. That is how I ended up pledging the drill team. Someone mentioned it and I believe, immediately thereafter said something to the effect of ‘it wouldn’t be for me’. Well, right there, the gauntlet was laid down. Little did I know what I was in for.
The first week didn’t seem so bad. Sure there were extra things to attend and tidbits to learn, but it would be worth it, right? Sure. Unfortunately, things didn’t stay so bright and cheery. You don’t just join the drill team, you pledge it, as in a fraternity or sorority. And just like a frat or sorority, there’s hazing and plenty of it. We were given bright yellow “manuals” that could be seen from a mile away full of sometimes useless information. And these little factoids were the enemy. Any current member of the drill team could stop a pledge at any time to quiz us on said material. If that weren’t enough, we were not allowed to use contractions in speaking and we had to make sure that we would always see the DTM (drill team members) before they saw us so that we could “greet” them. If a DTM saw you first, they could and would dole out demerits to be marked down in your manual. You could work them off, but it was easier just not to get them. Oh, did I mention that when we were in any of the many cafeterias (where you could always find at least one DTM), we had to ask for permission to eat before sitting down to actually eat. This led to several of us losing a few pounds as we would just avoid the dining rooms.
Nothing curdles the blood like hearing “PLEDGE! TAKE ONE!” from across the quad. The DTM were sneaky bastards. I swear they popped out of dark corners like ninjas. Some of them were just jerks. There was one DTM, we’ll call him GR who was just ridiculously cocky about lording his DT membership over us, the lowly pledges. Once, he was walking across the quad with a female friend and he happened to see a pledge before the pledge say him. Apparently, he thought it would be funny to have his lady friend just repeat his name over and over to alert the pledge of his presence. Okay, the pledge was me. I’m stubborn. I ignored them both. I paid for it in push ups.
Were you aware that there’s no greater pleasure than a freshly polished ugly black shoe? You weren’t? That’s because shining shoes sucks. You’d best better believe that DTMs could see their vindictive faces in those shoes though. Those same vindictive faces that would get shoved into pledges unsuspecting faces. Better not flinch. Your entire body had better stay as rigid as an overly-starched shirt. Kind of like the ones we wore.
Outside of learning such gems as “The Ballad of Snoopy”, we also picked up “High Flight” and every verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. And eventually, since we were pledging the Drill Team, we got to throw some rifles around. The hand-batterer rifle of choice was the Remington M1903 Springfield rifle. They weren’t so heavy and they were actually pretty fun to spin, even to throw. Catching, well, that’s a different story.
There were 12 of us, we called ourselves the dirty dozen. Original, no? I’d be hard-pressed to name all twelve now. 9 guys and 3 girls. Typically, when it came drill time, the guys worked together as did the girls. This is where the problems came in. For being as small as I was – I don’t think I’d hit 100 pounds yet – I was a tough cookie. The other two girls were bigger than me, but not always so tough. It really was only a problem when it was time to throw something called a single back. Let me backtrack. A ‘single to yourself’ is rather self-explanatory. You take your rifle and chuck it up into the air, making sure that it makes one rotation, and then you catch it. Done and done. A single back, on the other hand, is where one person stands approximately 8 feet in front of the victim catcher and then tosses the rifle backwards, blindly at that, making one rotation for the person behind to catch. The bottom line is that my fellow female pledges couldn’t make that throw. And guess what? Don’t even think about moving. You’d better catch it, no matter what, or you could count on some extra push-ups after practice. That’s how I ended up with bruised and bloodied knuckles, not to mention a hand that refused to function properly since all of its fingers had been bent into ridiculous positions.
With so much drama in the ROTC, it’s kinda hard being, well, a pledge. It was demanding, even grueling at times, but overall, I suppose it was worth it. I made some great friends (that I no longer keep in touch with), learned some nifty stuff (it’s amazing what you can make your body do), and best of all, I got an idea for the Vox 5 word challenge!
Nervous? Me? Nope. Maybe the first time, but not now. Besides, I’m 3 drinks into a long drinking evening. Those of us who aren’t in the first scene chat idly about whose costume is getting too small and who’s sleeping with whom this week. Back here, in the dressing room, it’s no-holds-barred. Nothing is taboo and besides, no one back here has even one ounce of couth.
We’re all whipped. Putting in a full day in the sun and having practically no rest will do that to you. It doesn’t matter though, we’re fueled on goldfish crackers and liquor. A duel between cast members has broken out with the props but no one bothers to even attempt to stop it. Everyone has been in this show long enough to know when it’s time to get out on stage. Speaking of which, it’s my time.
We try to be quiet as we step up into our “jail” cell. Almost every time someone trips and almost busts her ass since there’s no light back here. Tonight we all make it safely into the cell and we strike a sexy pose as we wait for our music to cue up. In case you’re interested, we’re performing “Cell Block Tango”. It isn’t exact but the costumes are similar as are many of the dance steps.
Occasionally, someone in the booth gets a little crazy with the Cheese Whiz. No wait, gets crazy with the smoke machine. Tonight is one of those nights. Not just clouds of smoke, but literal pillows of smoke burp out of that antiquated monster. We’re trying not to cough up a storm; we are on stage after all, but good gravy! What the hell can the audience see through this cloud?!?! Only bonus points are that I’m not first out of the cell so it will have cleared by the time it’s my turn.
Pop, six, squish, uh uh, Cisero, Lipschitz! I’m squish. He ran into my knife. He ran into my knife ten times. So what if I’m screwing the milkman! My partner in this dance is also my good friend. 9 times out of 10 that we do this show, we end up laughing so hard that we’re shaking. I’ve got to keep my composure! Maybe I shouldn’t have had that last drink. The fabric unrolls (this makes more sense if you watch the video), I wrap a leg around, and call me drunk, or call the floor slippery, but I just damn near busted my ass in front of 300 guests. Luckily, I recovered quickly, but what starts immediately after my recovery? Fits of giggles. Not just me and my partner, but everyone else who was on stage. Now, do I think the audience noticed it? Nope. They don’t know what they’re looking for. They love it. They tell me after shows that I should consider a career on stage because I always look so happy and like I’m having so much fun. That’s ALCOHOL people! Unfortunately, my stage career never took off and now I’m a paper-pusher with a considerably healthier liver.
Yesterday, I sat on the board, gazing out over the meadow where our trapeze stands. A gentle breeze rustles the palm fronds as the waves caress the sand where the ocean and beach meet. It’s beautiful. A complete feeling of peace and calm has overtaken me. The world looks different from 24 feet in the air, you know?
A little girl runs by. I recognize her from earlier in the day. She was all nice and clean then. Now, she has paint all over her dress and her face as she proudly carries the vase she painted. It has one flower in it. Probably for her mom.
“Hi Allie,” I yell down.
“Hi, Sunny,” she replies, squinting into the sun to see me. “See my vase? It’s for my mom!”
“It’s beautiful,” I tell her because it is. There’s paint outside the lines and it looks like abstract art, but she’s 8.
“Are you going to do a trick?” inquiring minds want to know.
“Not right now, kiddo, but if you come back tomorrow, I’ll teach you a new one!”
“Cool!! I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I’ve been here a while. The people change but the routine stays the same. It’s amazing how people are impressed with the way we are so “intuitive”. When you see the same things day in and day out for months on end, you just know.
I really can’t sit still for much longer. The sun is baking me an even more golden brown as it turns the ends of my locs the most wonderful copper color. I wish I could get it all that color, but the sun just doesn’t work that fast. My mind starts racing with thoughts only found in the chalk and tape-encrusted back corners of the head of a circus GO.
It’s just a quickie.
No one is here yet.
So what if someone sees you, you work here.
It isn’t showing off.
You need the practice.
Stop being a wussy!
You see, I’ve been working my way up to this moment. I’ve got the static trapeze down pat. It doesn’t move, hence the name, and the ease in which I picked it up. I’m a madwoman under the tent. Upside-down, right-side up, forwards, backwards, flip, spin, twist. No problem. It’s only 6 feet off of the ground with a 18 inch crash mat underneath. It might hurt if I fall, but I won’t get hurt.
Ever since the last mid-air collision, I’ve been hesitant to try again. Hesitation is not for circus GOs. We are the few, the proud, but not the Marines. People vacation here just to train with us. There’s no time to be a baby. We are invincible.
It’s getting late and the others will be here soon. It’s now or never. They know that I’ve stepped it down a notch. They’re disappointed and they try not to let it show, but I can see it. I’ve had that same look in my eye.
I know that it’s time to (up)rise to the occasion. I stand and try to collect my thoughts. I walk(fly) through the trick in my mind. My hands are shaking and sweaty. As I reach into the chalk bag, I tell myself that I can do it. I didn’t go through all of this waiting and torture to not be able to do this.
I can do it.
I can do it.
I can do it.
Swing the bar.
I can do it.
I can do it.
Grab the bar.
I can do it.
Cowboy the riser.
I can do it.
Nowhere else on earth does seven seconds take this long.
I drive my legs back in an effort to create velocity. Don’t bend your knees. As I bring them forward and drive them up, I think about getting my feet into the clouds. Feet in front! Another drive backwards in the back end of my swing. I’m back near the board and closing in on the moment of truth.
I try my best to ‘float’ myself up onto the bar and while I make it, I don’t float. I’ve always been a power flyer, but never a very graceful one. I have less than two seconds to make my move. It’s go time.
I bend myself in half over the bar and I launch myself up and over in a little ball. I’ve surprised myself. I open from the ball, spot the net, and half-turn safely into it, landing on my back.
I truly am invincible! It’s such a rush that I climb right up and do it again. I’ve become so engrossed in my flying that I don’t even notice that people are watching. (And why should I care if they are? They get a show on Wednesday night anyways.) More importantly, I don’t notice that my teammates have arrived. They sit quietly and watch me work out my issues. You might think they should offer up commentary, but they know what’s best. I throw my forward over twice more before I get tired. The adrenaline rush is massive. I’m estatic. I’m throwing this in the show. I love my job.
PS. I know that most of you won’t know what the heck this was about so there’s a video. It isn’t me but I can’t post mine from work. I’ll replace it later.
Update: Now it’s me.