Friday, July 11, 2008

On patience...and teamwork.


I'm not sure how this came to mind, but I was recently thinking of a particular event, which took place while I was in Boot Camp in St. Jean-sur-Richelieu, Qu├ębec. I started my basic training there on 05 December 1975. At 21, I was the old man of the group. Back then, we lived in the old asbestos shingled 'H'-huts. They were notoriously cold and drafty. Real fire traps and they regularly practised fire drills during the night. These would leave you and your mates standing outside in the snow, barefoot, with nothing but your skivvies and your fire blanket wrapped around you.

But I digress... During my early training phase, much of our time was dedicated to our kit. How to mold our beret to our head and get just the right crease in it, mastering that goddamn half-Windsor knot that our ties called for and of course... the polishing and shining of our parade boots and service shoes. We had two pairs of boots... one for everyday use and one for parades. Our service shoes had to be our very best pair. We were in our third week of training and any initial niceties they showed us 'civilians', were long gone.

Our kit was inspected daily. Normally in the morning and at night as well. We would fall in at attention at the foot of our bed, our locker door open, our shoes resting on top of our folded fire blanket. Our personal weapon (the venerable FN C1), was field stripped and laid out on our bed. All clothing in the locker was pressed, hung up and folded. T-shirts each had to be folded to the exact same dimensions and formed a perfectly square cube when stacked.

The standard to which we had to aspire, as far as presentation of our shoes, was that the Sergeant had to be able to see the second hand of his watch sweep, in the reflection from your shoe's toe. If it did not measure up, he would grab your shoes and fling them to the other end of the dorm. Hmmm... no rest for you that evening.

It was maddening, trying to attain just the right combination of water on the rag, to wax from the tin of polish... small concentric circles... don't breathe on it!!! As our shoes were brand new, it took many, many coats of polish on our brand-new Oxfords, brushed into the leather with a shoe brush, before the pores began to fill up. Once they were full, the polish took on a uniform gloss. That's when we knew we were ready to begin 'spit-shining' our toe. Spit-shining, as the name implies, began way back in military history as just that. Soldiers would spit on their cloth while polishing, in order to bring out a higher shine in their uniform boots.

In our case, we would simply use the lid of the shoe polish tin, to hold a small amount of water. Into this we would dip the end of our rag-covered finger, in order to wet the cloth. We would then smear a dab of black boot polish over the tip and begin rubbing our small circles on the shoe's toe. We would spend literally hours on this task, every single evening of our 11 week training period. How frustrating it was to watch our efforts produce but a mediocre finish, as the heat from our own body made the polish cloud over. It took forever before I finally discovered the secret.

Cold water... This discovery happened quite by accident. I was sitting at the head of my bed, the polish container on a piece of cloth next to me and the lid holding the water, up on my windowsill. The window was open a crack and a flow of wintery, evening air was passing directly over the top of the lid. I could feel the cold when I dipped the rag into the water. I began to notice that the cold water was making the polish harden, set up... and shine!! I didn't want to tell anyone just yet, in case it was a fluke. I did both my shoes until the toes positively glowed on them. Just to make sure, I took my watch and held it close to the toe. As clear as day, I could see the second hand sweeping it's arc. I felt as though I had just discovered plutonium, the Northwest Passage, the Fountain of Youth... I was elated.

Calling my fellow greenhorns over, I invited them to gaze in awe at the perfect pair of shoes... In unison, they gasped and cried out: "You have to tell us how you did it!!!!" And so I did, proving that the training that we had received, even just up until then, was taking hold. We were a team. We looked out for one another. The individual was not as important as the unit. The following morning at inspection, all twenty-four of us had gleaming shoes perched proudly at the bottom of our bunks. The Sergeant nodded in approval, the slightest hint of a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, as he slowly walked the line. "Vous avez bien fait, les gars", he said. ("You have done well, gents"). From the end of the line came a voice: "It was --------- who showed us, Sergeant!". He looked back towards me and smiled: "Un vieux renard parmi les jeunes, hein? Bravo!" (An old fox amongst the youngsters, eh? Bravo!).

I was made Class Leader the following day and remained so until we all graduated 2 months later. And we all graduated. If any member of our platoon had a difficulty with any element of training, we would all help him overcome it. It is a lesson I have taken with me as I have gone through my life. The unit is always stronger than the individual. The mission is the thing.

Those many, many hours spent polishing shoes and boots, taught me far more than simply how to polish. It taught pride in one's appearance, it taught patience. It also taught me that a victory shared, is more fulfilling than one savored alone.

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