Rites of Passage

Homecoming weekend at RMC in Kingston is an opportunity to see in action many fine characteristics: endurance, teamwork, competitiveness, and self-restraint.

The aim? Get your entire team of fifteen to twenty first-year university students up and over a twelve-foot wall that offers no purchase — no ridges of any significance, certainly no hand- or foot-holds — on its entirely too vertical surface. Can you hand-pick your team? No. Are you on a timer? Yes.

The strategy? Manoeuvre two people to the top of the wall, where they can help the others over.

The tactics? Assign four people to kneel with their backs against the wall, providing two sets of human stepping stools to double your throughput. Select the two tallest and strongest of your number to go first, stepping first on the knees and then on the shoulders of the kneelers. Assign all other team members to push the two climbers high enough that they can get a firm grip on the wall’s top edge, which is (amazingly) all they need to pull themselves up.

Once they’re up and astride the wall, go, Go, GO!! As fast as you can, vault the shortest, lightest, and upper-body weakest of those still on the wrong side of the wall high enough that those now atop the wall can reach down, grabbing their hands, wrists, or waistbands to haul them up. As the haulees reach the top, get them to wriggle around carefully until they’re facing the way they came (not falling off and not kicking either of the haulers in the teeth), and then drop on the wall’s far side.

And repeat.

As everyone except the kneelers makes it over, collapse one of the human stepping stools and haul the members of that one over the same way. With just two people left on the wrong side, use a single kneeler for the second-last guy.

Here comes the impressive part. Well, the amazing part, really, because it’s all been pretty damned impressive.

Haul the second-last guy up and get him to sit on the wall between the two original haulers, facing the far side. Have the first two guys hang onto his legs as he leans backwards until he is hanging upside down against the wall. Have the last guy left standing take a running leap, grab the hanger’s hands, and either pull himself up, or be hauled up until he can grab the wall’s edge. To make some room at the top, get one hauler to bail. Get the backwards-leaning hauler to sit up, flip over, and drop. Get the remaining hauler to make sure the last guy is up, and then drop. Get the last guy to wriggle over the wall’s edge and drop, barely pausing for a breath.

And just like that — less than three minutes having elapsed — the whole team is over and running to the next obstacle.

And the crowd goes wild.

The Wall — capitalized with good reason in the university’s write-up — is the most technical of the twelve challenges in the obstacle course that is run, crawled, climbed, clambered, trudged, slipped, and staggered through by recruits at the Royal Military College in Kingston. It’s the one that requires the most teamwork, the most planning. It’s the one that’s the most fun to watch.

But the entire obstacle course is designed to require the recruits to push themselves mentally (powering through their fears, whether of water, heights, or failure), while also pushing themselves physically (through their weak spots, whether those are a lack of endurance, upper body strength, balance, or speed). Everyone must finish every element: there is no way to match candidates to challenges. Everyone must be able to work on their own, as well as work well within a team not of their choosing.

The obstacle course is a rite of passage marking the end of a five-week recruit term whose successful completion grants entry into four years of military college and a minimum of about four years of military service after graduation.  It also grants entry into a community that, for some, is a life sentence, no matter how long they serve.

I’m standing with some of those lifers — the Big Guy and his cohort, the Class of 1968. It’s been forty-nine years since their own obstacle course, and they are still part of the community they entered by running it. They also all remember their own rite of passage clearly, not to say vividly. I can see why.

This weekend brings another, gentler rite of passage as they are inducted into the Old Brigade: a gaggle of ex-cadet geezers who are all at least forty-five years out from graduation. For this weekend’s inductees there is no obstacle course to run, but there is a challenge: a hockey game with the recruits (now full-fledged cadets), the day after the obstacle course.

Fifty minutes into that hour-long game, the assembled crowd — almost to a one cheering for the Class of ’68 — goes wild as one of our new Old Brigaders ties the game, but there is as much laughter as cheering in the stands.

After all, we’ve seen the opposing team’s forwards rush the net only to pass the puck back, avoiding the scoring chance. We’ve seen the recruits skating rings around our guys, even though it’s clear that they’re skating just fast enough to not seem to be dogging it. We’ve seen a recruit on a breakaway, bouncing the puck up and down on the blade of his hockey stick.

As I watch these young men play against this breathless team of guys old enough to be their grandfathers, I see that this rite of passage goes both ways. For the Old Brigaders, what’s being challenged is their physical stamina and their fond illusion of still being young.  For the recruits, what’s being challenged is their drive to win.

Where the obstacle course required them to go all out, this hockey game requires them to throttle back against a weaker opponent, making it possible for the weaker one to play: just one of the many expectations we have of adults.

Here comes the impressive part. Well, the amazing part, really, because it’s all been pretty damned impressive. They can do both. And gracefully.

PS See pictures of the attack on the Wall here – and what was I thinking? Next time, video!

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6 Responses to Rites of Passage

  1. Jim Robertson says:

    Looks like fun !! Better them than me…..
    But then we all face different obstacles as we go through life and find ways over them.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Well, opinions vary on the “looks like fun” assessment. They were certainly pumped up – something about the age and stage, I expect. Certainly getting through something you find challenging (or even scary) can be a rush. Maybe we should all try to see our age-appropriate obstacles in the same light? As you point out, they come, no matter how we see them.

  2. Alison says:

    Good to have you back! I wish I HAD taken on more physical challenges – the sense of accomplishment is great I’m sure. Now, it might be hard to find a challenge that IS age appropriate – although I agree, life provides many – although they seem more mental than physical.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Alison – Good to be back! For physical challenges, some folks use personal trainers to push them in exercise regimes; some join hiking clubs to add peer pressure (and support). I doubt that many of those recruits would have done the obstacle course on their own initiative (although, given the folks who participate in extreme sports, there might have been some!. If we’re not wired for pushing our limits, maybe part of life management is about finding ways to impose artificial “drivers” on ourselves.

  3. Mike Saker says:

    Thanks for the memory Isabel. The most gripping part of the weekend for many of us is the Sunday morning march of us ex-cadets to the Memorial Arch, the route lined on both sides by cadets presenting arms (rifles held vertically in front). Then the return march to the parade square and passing through the ranks of the cadets on parade there. It didn’t mean much to me over 50 years ago, but it means a lot now. It is quite a fraternity — there’s no life like it as the ads say. For most of us that is true. However, it’s sad to see how some of today’s young veterans appear to be treated by the government.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Mike – As the marchers came down the highway to the Memorial Arch, Old Brigade in the lead, the fellow next to me said, “If that doesn’t bring a lump to your throat, you’re on the wrong side of the grass.” Indeed.

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