No, I'm not talking about tear gas exposure, though that ranks up there on the list as well. During our first summer they marched us into a field on which a tent was set up. We were told to put on our gas masks and step into the tent, and upon doing so we encountered a thick, smoky environment. Then the cadre member inside the tent, who was wearing his mask, told us to take ours off and say something; for most of us, it was reciting some part of the plebe required knowledge base like "The Corps" or "The Days." That's when we learned not one, but two important lessons:
- Gas masks are your friends in chemical environments, and
- CS gas sucks
That really sucked, by the way. Really, really sucked. It sucked really, really bad. Did I mention that I dreaded the experience, having heard it was coming? Luckily they didn't tell us exactly what would happen, or I'd've probably dreaded it more.
And speaking of sucked....
...let me tell you about the Indoor Obstacle Course Test (IOCT).
See, apparently (and I kind of agree with this) the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) with its three events--pushups, situps, and two mile run--doesn't quite test physical fitness as fully as the West Point administration wanted it tested. There are plenty of physical things that soldiers are required to do on the battlefield, yet I can't think of a single combat situation where you'd need to show off your studly pushup count or even change into running shoes to dash two miles. Thus, while the APFT (as it was then--I understand it's changed recently) served as a quick and inexpensive way to measure a certain degree of basic physical fitness, it didn't serve to fully assess our athleticism.
Thus, the IOCT was born, and then pressed upon us like bamboo slivers beneath the fingernails.
There are numerous videos out there showing the IOCT these days, including this instructional video by one of the physical education professors. Go ahead, go, watch it, and then come back here convinced that I'm a big fat crybaby over what appears to be quite a fun way to challenge and assess a cadet's physical fitness.
It really isn't all that terrifying, honestly. Granted, now that I'm about 80 pounds heavier than I was last time I attempted it, I'm not sure I could complete it without an occasional vertical assist, but for cadets who'd completed the first-year gymspastics class there wasn't a station in the entire session that presented a challenge. First, you crawl under bars--no big deal, right? I'm not sure my belly would fit under there now, but then it was a piece of cake. The tire trip was easy peasy stuff. Vault? Still no big deal; we conquered the horses in class. Believe it or not, we practiced the next event, the shelf mount, enough times that we could almost do it in our sleep. The bar hop looks dangerous, but the vertical supports were close enough together that it didn't present a problem. Leaping through a hanging tire was kid's stuff, too.
Honestly, the part where I saw most people (including me) lose time was the balance beam. We'd hit that thing going a gazillion miles an hour and our pumping legs would spin right off of it, requiring us to loop around and repeat. Like the video says--slow down, build up momentum, or else you'll get to run right back and start it over.
So what's the problem? You're wondering that, aren't you? Why did a two or three minute fitness test involving such entertaining activities fill me with such dread?
One word: IOCT hack (technically, IOCT is an acronym, not a word, so there). The part that the instructional video glosses over is the easiest part--run around the track two and a half times. The first time, you run around it carrying a 9 pound medicine ball that magically increases in weight to about fifteen gajillion pounds by the end of the loop. Still, it's easy. Then you drop the ball and pick up a baton that weighs only a few ounces. One more loop, and you drop the baton and turn on the afterburners, because it's just simple running--and breathing--from then on.
See, it's the breathing that got me, every time. When we'd do the IOCT, we'd do it by entire regiment. That meant that several hundred cadets had just run around the same track I was running around, and their pounding feet had kicked up every particle of dust and debris that the track surface had ever accumulated since the days when dinosaurs roamed the Plain. Those particles then hung in the air right at nose and mouth level, aiming directly for our upper respiratory tracts. The ones that found their mark then sat there for a few days, burning, causing entire companies to sit at dinner practicing synchronized hacking. It was kind of like they'd taken the 5-minute torture of the CS chamber, doubled it, and spread it out over three or four days.
It sucked. But we did it, and endured the hack, and like everything else viewed through the lens of memory, it doesn't seem so bad now. Just--keep that CS stuff away from me, okay?