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The Cadets p2 : The Trainees by thadeusz
This story is "part 2" of a set of 2 stories. It is suggested to read them in order.
We waited patiently, then impatiently and about one hour later the leaders came out of the Lieutenant’s office. This officer barked "go on formation and take the position of attention". As soon as that was done, by 32 hungry Cadets, the Lieutenant announced that 8 Cadets had been selected for the second part of the Summer Camp. He said that he would call their names in order of merit and that these Cadets had to step immediately aside.
My name was called first with the following comment:
"This Cadet accomplished the mission. Moreover, he spared and shared his rations. He also refused to abandon his rifle despite an additional weight on his back. By doing this, this Cadet showed that he has what it takes to become para-commando".
I immediately left the formation, saluted the Lieutenant (my idea) and took the position of attention next to CPL Thoring, facing the other Cadets.
Tom’s name was called second and 6 others who had not been with us during the raid march. For each of them, the Lieutenant had a few words of comment explaining why this Cadet had been selected. I think that all the others were like me: excited at the idea of these new adventures and no longer as hungry or tired as before. We were now all standing in the position of attention, facing the non selected Cadets.
The Lieutenant gave what appeared to be a last speech for the non selected Cadets:
"You will now follow the Sergeants to the usual mess hall, have a well deserved and specially good meal to celebrate the end of this Summer Camp during which you all behaved well, despite the fact that we could not select you for the second part. Then you will go to bed in order to be ready for your departure tomorrow."
He then turned towards us, the selected Cadets, and simply barked an order in a very military way:
"LEFT, FACE" and we all automatically turned to the left, forming now a column instead of a line. I was just behind the Corporal who had obeyed the same order. Then came the next logical order:
CPL Thoring led us, marching proudly in step, to another mess hall, much nicer and much better equipped. He then said:
"This is the room where actual para-commandos eat. It is here that you will have all your meals from now on. You are no longer Cadets, but Trainees. You will have a special meal now after this long raid march. After that you will have additional pieces of equipment and a more military haircut. I will stay all the time with you during these two weeks."
The meal was excellent: each of us had a real steak "as reward for that long raid mach".
After the meal, the Corporal took us to the clothing room where we received a more military like uniform, even if it was not the same uniform as the real para-commandos. I had now a big bag full of clothes, military uniform and sport items, another pair of heavy military boots and another pair of sport shoes. The Corporal told us to carry our bags to the next stop.
It was starting to be late, but it was also summer and there was still light. I had had a long day, but I did not feel tired.
He led us to the barber and let me go first. The barber told me to sit and caped me. He then started to use his clippers, turning, pushing and pulling my head in all possible directions. I could feel that he first made a neat horizontal line above my ears and that he then cleaned everything below that line, on the sides and in the back of the neck. He used his clippers without guard: I could feel the metal on my skin. He suddenly stopped and I thought he was done. So I tried to get rid of the cape and leave the chair, but he pushed me back in the chair with a ruthless hand saying:
"Trainee, we are not done and you are not going to escape."
I did not have the time to apologize because CPL Thoring intervened immediately:
"No fear, he is my best Trainee. He was obviously simply mistaken when you changed clippers, Sergeant."
So I knew that the barber was a Sergeant and I did not move anymore while he continued with other clippers, making another noise, and obviously with a guard. He passed several times over my hair and finally asked:
"Any objection to short hair, Trainee ?"
"No Sergeant, the ideal would be the same as CPL Thoring if I may say so."
"In that case I should come back with the other clippers, and that would be too long for your comrades who are still waiting. Next time maybe, but warn me before we are nearly done."
The barber kept cleaning my sides and neck. Finally he decided that it was enough and he let me go. I saluted him, thanked him in a too civilian way and took back my place in our line. I had seen my new image in the mirror and felt the stubble on my head: I started to really like this.
CPL Thoring told me to go to the back of the line and called the second Trainee: Tom. But Tom, who had obviously seen my transformation, said:
"I don’t go. I don’t want to stay here."
Tom had not seen that the Lieutenant was there, and the Lieutenant said with a booming voice:
"Trainee Petersen, you cannot do that. You signed a contract before coming to this Summer Camp and you willingly accepted to have your stay here extended by two weeks in order to be tested for the para-commando regiment." Turning towards the Corporal, the Lieutenant added: "This trainee must be punished for his disobedience. First you give him yourself a special haircut."
CPL Thoring pushed rather brutally Tom towards the barber chair. Tom did not want to stay seated, but the Corporal held him with one hand and the barber suddenly took control of Tom with both his hands. The Corporal did not cape Tom: it was impossible. He took the clippers, without guard, with his right hand and kept control of Tom’s head with the left hand. He then started to shave methodically and completely my friend. He was also pushing and pulling his head, but it was done in a much more brutal way than what had been done for me. Slowly, but efficiently, the sides of Tom’s head were cleaned of hair. Then came the back of the neck. CPL Thoring had not defined an horizontal line like the Sergeant barber had done for me, he simply shaved Tom’s head. Silently. After the sides and neck, the Corporal attacked the top of Tom’s head. Tom had been very proud of his long hair, he had accepted to have it shortened when we went to the Military Hospital, but he could not accept to have the type of reduction I had accepted and enjoyed. So he was punished and got worse than what he expected.
When CPL Thoring considered that he was done and when we could see that there were only stubbles left on Tom’s head, we all thought that this torture was finished. But the SGT barber took over. He cleaned Tom’s head with cold water, put foam on it and took a big old fashioned razor to clean whatever was left. He suddenly decided that he was done.
We, the Trainees, were all stunned. We did not say a word and then the Lieutenant’s booming voice was heard again :
"Corporal, you will now take this disobedient Trainee to the brig for 24 hours." Addressing himself directly to Tom he continued : "Trainee Petersen, you will now spend your first real Army night in a real Army cell. GO NOW !"
Tom did not say a word, did not protest, and followed the Corporal to the regimental brig where, the Corporal told us later, he was locked in a cell knowing he would only have dry bread and water until the next evening, after our supper.
The six remaining Trainees and me remained silent and obedient while the barber gave each of them a mild induction cut, side and neck reduced to zero, but top of the head remaining above the regulation 3 millimeters "since we were only Trainees". Nevertheless, part of the joy of being selected, part of the excitement, was now over because of the way Tom behaved when he refused to stay and especially because of the way he had been treated by the Lieutenant.
We followed the Corporal to a big building with several rooms. Our room was now a nice one, with a big window and four double bunks and eight cupboards. The Corporal showed us how we should make our bed from now on and he added:
"Now, you have some time to store all your things, the old and the new ones. Place them in the cupboard in a military way, as shown on the drawing attached to your cupboard. You will make sure that everything is perfectly clean and if needed you will go to the washing machine and then iron your uniform."
He turned towards one of the Trainees and asked:
"Do you know how to wash and iron your clothes, Trainee ?"
"No Corporal", replied my comrade while he passed his hand on his head to feel the stubbles.
"Well, you better learn, and fast, otherwise you will be punished. And stay in the position of attention when I speak with you, unless otherwise stated. You passed your hand on your head, you will pay for that : give me 20 push-ups."
The comrade obeyed without discussion and this seemed to be a closed story.
The Corporal added:
"You will keep your shoes under your bed, on the left for the top guy and on the right for the other. They must always be perfectly clean. That’s why you got a second pair, in order to let you change when you come back from training."
He then turned towards me:
"Trainee Van Meeren, I will call you Trainee Jon to make it short. You came out first after the selection, so you are now room chief. You are allowed to give orders to the other Trainees in order to let them behave well in the room, to let them clean perfectly their uniform and to be perfectly dressed. This includes making the beds in a military way. If a Trainee does not do what he is supposed to do, he will be punished and you, being responsible, will be punished too, double maybe.
Every time a superior enters the room, you must call the room to ATTENTION and tell the superior how many men are in and how many are out.
Since your buddy, Trainee Petersen is in the brig, you will take the first upper bed and leave him the lower one: he will need your help when he comes out. Now, I will leave you at your evening work. I will stay in the next room, should any of you need me."
He went to go out out and suddenly turned around and told us:
"One additional detail: don’t expect to see your parents tomorrow. They have been warned by the Lieutenant that you have to stay longer in the regiment. You will spend these two weeks without any contact with the outside world. No phone, no internet and no mail. Stand up to this, you are big Trainees now and no longer little boys."
The Corporal left definitely the room and we started to organize things the way he had told us. I checked that everything was OK and I was surprised when a Trainee asked me:
"Can we pass our hands in what remains of our hair, Chief ?"
"Yes, of course you can. You don’t have to be in the position of attention for me: I am only a Trainee like you."
"Yes", said another one, "but you are the chief here and I think it is good to show some respect to that function."
I did not say anything, but I worked hard to have all my stuff in my cupboard and cleaning my boots in order to transform them into mirrors. Simultaneously, I kept an eye on what the others were doing, making sure, with what I hope were friendly comments, that their work would pass the next inspection … and that I would not be punished.
Before ‘lights out’, we were all ready and I was satisfied with ‘my Trainees’. I looked at them: there was one 16 years old who would certainly not be accepted as para-commando at the end of these two weeks, two 17 years old, and one of them had already his high school diploma because he was born in december and had started school at the age of 5, and five Trainees who were 18 or more (counting Tom and me). I did not know what would happen with us. The 17 years old with a diploma was a very solid boy, bigger than me and I wondered why he did not come first at the selection. His name was Adrian and I decided to make a friend of him.
The next morning, we were woken up at 5 am, or to speak as a Trainee should, at 05:00. We were not awoken by a kind word, but by the dreadful sound of a bugle. I knew that we did not have much time to be ready for sport, so I told all my comrades to hurry up and Adrian, half smiling and half respectful simultaneously said:
"Yes Chief, it will be done."
We got up, cleaned the room, made the beds and left for the main courtyard. The other sections, of real para-commandos, were already there and waited for us. I told my comrades to place themselves in the same way as the others, in the position of attention. But I did not know what I was supposed to do. The different "chiefs" of the different sections started shouting "Room X, 8 para-commandos, 8 men present" or something similar and more adapted. So when it was finally my turn I shouted:
"Trainees room, 8 Trainees, 7 men present and one in the brig."
The Lieutenant and the Corporal could not repress a smile and the Lieutenant told me:
"Well done, Trainee van Meeren."
The day had started and many activities took place. It all went very fast. We took our meals with the actual soldiers and received the same portions. It was not as good as the first evening, but it was good and none of us was hungry. I had nearly forgotten Tom but when we went back to our room for the evening chores, which means cleaning our clothes and shoes, the poor Tom arrived with his head completely shaven, like a billiard ball. He entered the room marching behind the Corporal. Once he was inside the room he made an impeccable about-turn, saluted the Corporal and took the position of attention. He then said:
"Corporal, permission to speak ?"
"Permission granted, Trainee Petersen."
"Corporal, I behaved like an idiot. Now that I have had time to think, I apologize for my unacceptable behavior. I want now to behave as well as possible, hoping that it is still possible to be accepted as candidate para-commando."
"Do you mean that, if you are selected you will enlist ?"
"I will tell that to the Lieutenant. Now you ask Trainee Jon, he is the leader inside the room and will explain what you have to do. Consider him as one of your chiefs and obey his orders. AT EASE now."
I told Tom what he had to do, while I did my own share and I looked at the other Trainees. Some wanted to speak with Tom asking him how it was in the brig, but I used my tiny authority to protect him and said:
"No question about that. Only admitted discussions are about our day work and this evening chores."
At night, after "lights out", I discussed lengthily with Tom: he had told me that he did not want to stay as full para-commando and now he was going to do the contrary, I remained convinced that this was an excellent experience but that I did not want to stay. I might change slightly my attitude and opinion towards soldiers in general and para-commandos in particular, but that was it, except for my haircut: I liked my present haircut, it could even be slightly shorter.
After that, the days went by easily. We had gotten the required routine and our evening cleaning chores were quickly done. The Corporal appeared satisfied with my work and kept motivating Tom. On the Sunday, permission was granted to those who wanted it, to go to town, but only to attend the Church service: Belgium is a very catholic country. They left by truck and had been inspected before leaving the Camp. The non believers (or non catholics) remained in the Camp and the Corporal took us to the regimental bar. This included Filip, the 16 years old, Adrian, Tom and me. The others had gone to town saying they really wanted to attend church, but I think it was only a pretext to leave the Camp during one or two hours.
In the bar the Corporal started to discuss with us, "from men to men". He wanted to discuss about soldiers' life. He presented us very truthfully all the inconveniences of such a life. He explained us that para-commandos had less leaves than other soldiers because they had to be always ready in case of emergency, he also told us that when he had a few hours free time to go in town, he had to take his phone with him so that he could be called back at any moment. He very honestly described the very strict discipline which para-commandos had to respect, and the lack of promotions in this regiment. But he also described the friendship in the Camp, the comradeship he had learned to know, the joy of being one of the "saviours", and so on. In fact he very honestly presented all the disadvantages of becoming para-commando, but next to each one he showed the joy one could have to have followed that path. He was very skilled at selling us his project: become a para-commando. I always wondered if he had done it because he had been ordered to do so or because he really believed every word he said.
In any case, we now knew all kind of details about the advantages and also the restrictions imposed by the life as a para-commando. Tom, Adrian and Filip, the 16 years old, were convinced by the Corporal’s arguments, on the contrary I still wanted to go to University but I accepted to fulfill my obligations as a Trainee.
Training during the second week was tougher. It was fun but tiring. All Trainees got a rifle and learned how to use it. Each of us had to keep his own rifle perfectly clean. There were inspections, push-ups when things were not done perfectly, and the double of push-ups for me as "Chief". Rapidly we learned to behave in a really military way. Corporal Thoring kept talking to us about the glory and the difficulty of being a para-commando. Finally, I was also slowly convinced by the CPL of the merits of being a soldier. Tom spoke much less during this second week: he was really striving for the best.
At the end of the second test period of two weeks, there was a very long raid march of three days with nearly no food, but with very heavy rucksacks (25 kilos). We were told that we should "eat on the land", like killing a rabbit every day or … keep quiet and keep walking. I chose to live on the product of my hunt (only one rabbit !) and the edible berries I could find. We also had to stop in specific places and shoot our rifles on a specified target. Tom and me ended up being the two first ones, and the most military looking. Despite the heavy bag (with now the armed rifle, a half tent and 20 kilos of special weight), we did it. Adrian was third. Unexpectedly our only 16 years old, Filip, was fourth.
After that, we had a good meal, not as glorious as the one we had had two weeks before, but a really good meal with beer. All of us drank, the young Filip included ! The Lieutenant announced then who were the selected Trainees, those who were allowed to enlist with the "Para-commando regiment" as main option. Three of the 5 the Trainees aged 18 or older were selected, the two who had not been able to finish the second, and more difficult, raid march in time were excluded from the Para-commando option, but could enlist as private in another regiment. Adrian was selected: he was only 17, but he had his high school diploma and his parents had given a special authorization. The other 17 year olds and Filip were placed on the "possible" list: they were too young and did not have their diploma, so they had to wait one or two years, and if they still wanted it, they would be accepted.
After that, each of the selected Trainee was called for a private conversation in the Colonel’s office. I had not yet met this great man and was rather anxious. I was called first, being the first once again, and when I entered I could see the Colonel sitting at his desk and the Lieutenant standing respectfully next to him. I saluted the Colonel and took the position of attention about three steps in front of his desk, as instructed by the Corporal. The Colonel simply told me:
"Trainee Van Meeren Jonathan, you have been selected for further training as candidate para-commando. Are you willing to sign a six year enlistment in the Army, with the understanding that if you continue to behave as you did until now, you will become para-commando ?"
When the Camp started, and even later, I had decided that I would refuse that offer, but I was now completely indoctrinated by all the Corporal told us about the "beauties" of para-commando life, so I answered:
"Yes, Colonel", with a firm voice.
The Colonel told me then to step forward, come to his desk and sign the enlistment form, which I did. The Colonel then said:
"Congratulations, Private Van Meeren. DISMISS now."
I saluted both officers, made an about face, as well as I had been told to do it, and very proudly I left the office, not even thinking for a second that I had committed myself to Army life for six long years.
Tom, Adrian and a third selected Trainee aged 19, Karl, did the same as me, but the other selected Trainee refused to enlist. Filip was given a special treatment: he was invited to attend as assistant-Corporal during the next Summer Camp, if he so desired.
After that, the Trainees who had not been selected or who had refused to enlist were sent to the part of the Camp where we had stayed as Cadets: they had to wait there until the next day when their parents would come and bring them back home. Filip was allowed to wait in our area because he had done exceptionally well during the last raid march.
I was now an enlisted soldier and got a complete set of uniforms. I had to give my Cadet and Trainee equipment back, without any regret. One thing only remained: my cap. I was not allowed to wear the coveted beret before the end of basic instruction. Nevertheless, when I looked at Tom who wore the same uniform, I could imagine me as a soldier and I was very proud of it.
The Corporal took the four new enlisted men to the barber "to have a military refreshment". As usually, I was first. I sat without hesitation in the chair, after saluting the barber, since he was a Sergeant and I was now a Private, and I asked him to have the same haircut as CPL Thoring, just as short.
"So, Private, you want it short ?"
"Well, remember that you are now a lowly Recruit. And you signed for 6 years, so I will decide what haircut you will have."
I was now wondering if signing had been such a good idea, but it was obviously too late to change my mind.
The barber took his clippers in the right hand and my head in the left hand. He exerted a strong pressure on my head and it hurt slightly. I could feel the clippers, and more specifically, I could feel that there was no guard on it. This time, the barber did not draw a nice horizontal line above my ears, he simply started on my forehead, pushing my chin against my chest, and went all the way to the bottom of the nape of my neck. He then pushed my head slightly to the left and started doing the same next to the lane he had already made. He continued that way during a certain time, on the top of my head. He then turned my head to the left and started working on the sides, then he did the same after turning my head to the right. It was now clear that I was receiving a "special haircut" like the one Tom had received. I simply wondered if I would also get a "special shave" which would make my head look like a billiard ball. The barber chose not to do that: he changed clippers for a smaller one and continued his special haircut. When he decided that he was done, he told me:
"Now pass your right hand on your head and tell me what you feel."
I did as ordered and could only feel stubbles, so that’s what I said:
"I feel stubbles, Sergeant."
"Good, recruit, and is it short enough ?"
Well it was more than I had bargained for, but I realized that there was only one possible answer:
"Do you want me to use my big razor to eliminate the last stubbles ?"
"Do what you see more fit, Sergeant"
"Good reply, GO NOW, Recruit."
On these words, I took of the cape and jumped from the chair, going back to the line of Recruits, behind Karl.
Tom, Adrian and Karl were treated like me. I did not really mind having my head completely shorn, but I would have prefered to still have some hair to meet my parents: the Corporal marched us indeed to a big room where each of us could sit during about 30 minutes with his parents. It was the first time since 4 weeks that I was with Daddy and Mother, the first time since 2 weeks that could speak with them since our phones had been taken away. I also knew that it would take a very long time before I could speak again with them.
My parents looked really angry because of my enlistment and Mother tried to convince me to resign. I knew this was no longer possible, or at least it would be very difficult and would leave a very black stain on my name and reputation. I said so, but Mother insisted saying that a room had already been booked for me at the University, she added that if I resigned I would get a car. I told Mother:
"You don’t understand Mother, I am now an adult and you must let me free of my own choices."
Unexpectedly, Daddy interfered:
"Jon is right. He is now an adult. He has made a choice and must live with it, knowing that we are always going to be on his side if he needs us. When you came back from that night drinking, Jon, I knew it might end like this and I will respect your decision, even if you made it for wrong reasons."
I was very proud of my father, but that was the end of our discussion.
Tom’s parents also told him to resign and Tom replied meekly that he did not know if it would be possible, but that he will think about this.
After that the four new recruits were marched by Corporal Thoring to their respective units. The Colonel had assigned us to four different units, Tom and Adrian were each in a French speaking unit, Karl and I were each in a Dutch speaking unit. I was lucky enough to be assigned to CPL Thoring’s unit, at his own request. I found out that I was now the fifth man in a room, with a comfortable bed and cupboard and one single table for the whole group. We also had an easy access to the commodities … which was a good thing since I had to clean everything every day. My first month could be summarized as follows: chores, chores and more chores. And severe punishments when everything was not perfectly cleaned, my uniform washed and ironed, my shoes perfectly shining. Every week it was also "back to the barber", which I accepted now without hesitation.
In fact the first month was painful : we were not really learning to be soldiers yet, but we had to obey orders. The four recruits were all confined to barracks, it is only during our rare moments of free time that we could, after evening roll call and meal, meet in the bar. In fact we were now the servants of our respective groups. Tom started to hate this, but I, on the contrary, started to like this well regulated life knowing that there will be an "after the first month".
There was only one problem: I had taken very little money with me, following my father’s advice, and I had spent most of it during the first two weeks. What was left disappeared very rapidly during the next two weeks: the bar was cheap but not for free ! I had refused to ask money to my parents when I last saw them, so I had nothing to pay a beer during free time. Luckily, CPL Thoring liked me and decided to lend me some money so that I could at least buy a beer, as new Recruit. This was only a very small advance on my first pay, at the end of the month. The other soldiers of my unit made work hard for me: they let me clean their uniforms, polish their boots, clean our rooms (CPL Thoring’s unit occupied two rooms !) but they also treated me reasonably well. They paid me beers or gave me parts of the pizzas they bought for evening "snacks". I really felt very comfortable with them.
At the end of the first month, other soldiers, candidate para-commando, arrived. They formed a group of about 40. Two were Sergeants who had resigned their rank to be able to become para-commando: in my regiment, everybody had to start at the same level, except for the officers.
These ex-Sergeants were friends of my Corporal and they had accepted to take a great risk: the 40 "new ones" would now be tested and those who were not accepted would be sent to another regiment as Private. One of the newly arrived candidate was Mickael, the guy with whom I had made friends during my "three days" in the Military Hospital. I was glad to see him in my regiment and wished him good luck.
The fresh recruits were sent to the big hall where we had spent the two first weeks of our Summer Camp and we, the 4 already tested recruits, were told to avoid any contact with them. They got a pseudo uniform identical to the one we got for Summer Camp, the only difference was the haircut: they started with the type of haircut we had had during our second phase of testing.
When the two weeks were over, a group of less than 30 was told to remain and the others were sent to other infantry regiments. One the non-selected ones was one of the ex-Sergeant. During the only afternoon we had together, he told me:
"That’s Army life. I gambled and I lost. Your CPL Thoring did the same gamble, but he won. I must now try to regain the confidence of my chiefs wherever they send me."
"Even if they send you to your former regiment ?" I asked.
"That’s probably where they are going to send me, and I will be a Private where I was a Sergeant, that’s life. Remember that."
Luckily, Mickael was one of the selected ones. The selected ones received a complete set of uniforms and were sent to the barber. We had now to stay together, the ex-Cadets who became Recruits and the fresh Recruits. Mickael told me that he had expected a lot, but not to have his head "savagely shaved" immediately after the end of the test period ! We were told to stay in the big hall where we had slept as Cadets and I managed to get a bunk next to Mickael.
Basic training started then. It was no longer cleaning the uniforms of the soldiers of my unit, but learning to march in step, salute, learn about all the ranks, etc. During three months we had only a basic military instruction, but reinforced with Obstacle Course exercises (timed) and other more commando like activities. At the end there was again a long raid march, also timed. I warned Mickael and Karl about food, but I had no possibility to speak with Tom.
At the end of these three months, our military career was going to start, finally. Each one would get a brown beret in exchange for his stupid cap. Then the results of a new selection would be announced. It was a great day and I warned my parents (first authorized letter in more than 4 months).
We started with a parade, then went on with a formation, received our beret from one of our chiefs (I received mine from the hands of CPL Thoring) and threw our old caps in the air. Then came the list of those selected for further training as para-commando. I was in, so were Adrian and Mickael. Tom and Karl were out.
Tom was really furious. He shouted at me:
"You forced me to join you in this stupid adventure, and now I am probably stuck in a stupid infantry regiment for nearly six more years."
"But I did not force you !"
"It’s the same, go out of my way, you stupid Recruit. I’ll try to become NCO and I will then give you beastly orders."
In fact, when he learned that he could become para-commando, Tom had asked to be demobilized, but since he had already spent "lots of time" and "cost lots of money" to the Army, that request was denied. His only possibility was to apply for the NCO school on the basis of his very good high school studies.
I had hoped that my parents would be there to see me become a full soldier, with my beret, but they did not come. Mickael was also alone: his parents did not care at all for him and his girlfriend had abandoned him when she heard that he wanted to become a para-commando, something I can understand now that I know all the restrictions on our leaves since we have to be always ready.
Luckily, Adrian’s parent were present and took us out for dinner, a super meal after these three months Army recruits meals. We had a 72 hours leave and Adrian’s mother suggested that the three of us came to their place. We got our leave validated for that place, provided we first went to the barber.
I had hoped, now that I was wearing a beret, that I could finally have the same haircut as CPL Thoring. That was not the case: the Sergeant barber explained:
"If you had failed and had been sent to another regiment, it would be OK. But you passed, you must thus keep the para-commando standard. That means a good complete shave."
He started with his clippers to shave whatever had grown on my poor head and when I thought, knowing him, that he was done, he asked me an unexpected question:
"Recruit Van Meeren, you thought you might already have a real Private haircut during your first leave ?"
"Yes Sergeant, but I will accept whatever you tell me to accept."
"Well said, Recruit."
On these words he started to wash my head with cold water but no soap. He then took his big old fashioned razor and started to treat me the way he had treated Tom when he refused to start the second phase of the Summer Camp, and even worse since he had used foam for Tom. The barber had not lathered my head and his cutting was really painful. The Sergeant barber then used some oil to really polish my head. That left me completely bald (with a few unpleasant cuts) and my two friends were laughing, knowing what could happen to them. Both were more intelligent and simply sat in the chair saying:
"At your command, Sergeant"
They only got the clippers part of the haircut. They were also bald, but I was the only one with a shining billiard ball instead of head. They at least had some stubbles left !
As we were about to leave the Sergeant barber asked me:
"Did you like your cut, Recruit Van Meeren ?"
"Honestly no, Sergeant, but I assume you had reasons to give it to me. I learned my lesson and I will no longer ask for a Private haircut as long as I am only a lowly Recruit."
"That was not my reason, Jon." It was the first time the barber called me exactly as CPL Thoring did. "In fact, you are the best Recruit of the whole bunch, so I had to show everybody how shining you were. And you," he turned towards Adrian and Mickael, "you are ex-aequo as second. So as long as one of you has not proven that he is better, I don’t make your head shine."
Finally the three of us were pleased with these comments and we joined Adrian’s parents for an excellent 72 hours leave. We went to Adrian’s place where I met his elder sister, Flora, who was a real beauty and I was ashamed when she started laughing at my shining head.
After this short rest, training continued without any leave or free time during 3 more months. I could only use my phone twice and it was always always to call Flora, not my parents. I only wrote them the only letter I was allowed to send. This part of the training was really grueling because we had to learn to survive, in small units, all alone in the woods with no food. We asked permission to stay together, Adrian, Mickael and me, despite the fact that we were in different units and different language groups. Our request was immediately accepted. In fact that’s what this training was about: create closed knit groups of soldiers. We also learned to infiltrate "enemy lines", to spy on them and report rapidly to our chiefs, sometimes to "destroy" them with whatever means we had. At the end of this, there was another parade. At the end of the parade, names were called in alphabetical order: none of us three was in it. The Colonel presiding the ceremony suddenly barked:
"Those who have been called, OUT OF THE RANKS. You are not worth becoming para-commandos."
Those comrades left, some with their head down, others were nearly crying. They had given the best they could, but that was not enough. They would be sent to another infantry regiment. Suddenly it dawned on me that we three, we were IN. Despite the sorrow I felt for our companions, I was proud and pleased.
The Colonel called then our names, but no longer in alphabetical order, he mentioned that it was "in order of merit". My name was called first and CPL Thoring made me a sign. I stepped forward towards the Colonel, saluted him and stood in the position of attention. That’s when the Colonel told CPL Thoring: "You are his sponsor, Corporal, so do your plight."
The sponsor was a sort of godfather in the regiment and the Corporal was my direct leader.
The Corporal took my brown beret off my head and pushed a green beret on my head. He added a solid blow to make the beret hold and greeted me. I saluted, made an about turn and rejoined my place in the ranks.
Adrian’s name was called second. The Colonel told him:
"You are the youngest one of our group and you are the second in merit. Congratulations Recruit. I have decided to be myself your sponsor".
Adrian gave him his brown beret and the Colonel energetically pushed a red beret on his head, adding those words: "Do never forget this moment, young commando."
Mickael was the third one and his Corporal became his sponsor. At that moment there were only 21 candidates left of the initial group of about 44 ! Training was hard and we new it was not finished, but before starting the last part we had now a full one week leave !
Once again I had ended first of my group and I had received proudly my green beret. I had warned my parents of the date of the ceremony but they did not come. I went to the regimental barber and he made my head shining again, because once again I was first ! Adrian, being the only second one, received the same shining haircut as me. Mickael had to stay with some stubbles and promised Adrian and me that "he would be shining next time".
I spent my leave with Mickael and Adrian, at Adrian’s parents place. I had several opportunities to sit, silent and timid, next to Flora. Of course, she asked questions about our three bald heads, and especially my shining one and Adrian’s equally shining bald head. It is Mickael who told her that this was a special device invented by the regimental barber to distinguish the best Recruits: I was first and Adrian was second and thus got a shining bald head. I promptly added that Mickael was third and nearly second: he might thus have a shining bald head next time. This was good for Mickael since he had been completely abandoned by his parents.
I had also received a letter from Tom telling me that he had been accepted in the NCO academy (as transfer from the regiment where he had been sent after he failed to become para-commando), all that on the basis of his excellent school results. But was Tom still my friend ?
During the next three months, we trained more. Raids in the woods without any food and without matches were now familiar to our little group of three. Then came climbing, running, Obstacle Course, skiing and finally para training. After the last three months of this training I received my para wings. I was again first of the group, but there was a change: Mickael was second and Adrian was third. Only 18 soldiers went successfully to the end of the programme. The 3 who failed were sent to simple commando units (which is not bad) but not together, and with the possibility to retake the last part of the training one year later. I did not think any of them would do it, considering the much more easy life of simple commandos compared to the numerous restrictions imposed on para-commandos: we would have nearly no family life and we knew it.
Something unexpected had happened during this last phase of our training: instead of having to go to the barber every week, we were told that we would have to go "every month or so" only, because our training took us far away from our Camp. In fact we went to different places in France and we spent a certain time in the African desert, in Djibouti. So just before the final ceremony, I wanted to have a serious haircut: my hair was now much too long for me. The SGT barber asked me if I still wanted a short High and Tight and I replied, respectuously:
"Sergeant, as Recruit I have not too ask but only to accept."
"In that case, it will be barber’s choice. OK for you Recruit ?"
The barber turned the chair in such a way that I could neither see what he was doing nor the tool he was using. Usually he was very fast and brisk. This time, he started slowly and I could only hear the noise of the clippers but not really feel this dreaded tool. The barber made me turn my head to the left and did "something" to my right side, then he did the same to the left side. After that he pushed my head in such a way that my chin was against my chest, and I could feel his hands and clippers taking care of my back. He then pulled my chin up and told me:
"Don’t move Recruit, keep your head erect."
He did something I could not interpret with his clippers and started to take care, very slowly, of the top of my head. He passed several times, lengthily. He did again something with his clippers and I realized he was changing guard or clippers. He then pushed and pulled and turned my head in order to pass again around my head, slightly above my ears.
I thought he had chosen either to torture me more than usual, or to change my haircut his way. I hoped his way was also my way. That’s the moment when the barber started to put cold water on my sides and back. I thought: "OK, I am again good for a big and painful razor haircut." But the barber lathered my sides and neck and passed slowly, and carefully, with a small old fashioned razor. He then declared: "I am done, Recruit. Do you want to see how you look now ?"
Without waiting for my answer, he turned the chair and left me facing the mirror. I had now the exact same haircut as CPL Thoring, sides and neck shaved and top very short but not too short. The barber concluded that with a strong:
"GO NOW, young para-commando."
I had warned my parents about the exact date of this ceremony and this time they came, and they congratulated me. They asked me to spend my leave at home with them, but I chose to go and spend my leave at Adrian’s home, with Flora ! During this week I proposed to her, telling her that it would not be a rosy life and that I would be blocked most of the time in the barracks. She simply kissed me and said: "In that case, I am going to prepare our marriage myself, alone if needed."
After the end of our short leave, the Colonel decided that our closed knit group of three should continue to work together, as a subunit of CPL Thoring’s unit. He also decided that I should be the official leader of this subunit, considering the fact that I constantly came out first and that my comrades accepted without hesitation my leadership. A fourth new para-commando was joined to our group, Maurits, a guy we all liked and knew well.
We could now lead a "normal" para-commando life: always in the Camp, except for very short periods, but with our phones and the possibility to write and receive just as many letters as we wished.
About one year later, while on leave I rushed with Mickael to my parents’ home. I had rushed so fast that I was still in uniform. Near the door, I was met by Tom, now in Sergeant uniform. I tried to greet him as usually when we were boys:
"Private, you are out of your mind. You did not see these Sergeant stripes ?" and Tom showed me his sleeve.
"Of course I did. But aren’t we friends anymore ?"
"Private, an NCO cannot be friend with a lowly Private. Take the position and salute properly your superior."
I took the position of attention and saluted SGT Tom with unhappiness in my eyes, thinking of all the good moments we had shared. Mickael did the same but added:
"Sergeant, with all due respect, my comrade is also my leader as para-commando, and that is a greater achievement than being a plain Sergeant."
Tom’s face became red and he shouted:
"Name, Matricule, Regiment. I will report you two to your Colonel."
When we came back to the barracks, we were both called to the Colonel’s office. The big boss told us that he had received a report from an infantry Sergeant describing our "dreadful misconduct".
"I cannot let this happen without taking action. UNDERSTOOD ?"
"Yes Colonel" was our simultaneous and slightly anxious reply.
"Jon, you will leave soon for the NCO academy, in three months a new session starts and I want you to be on it. If you succeed, you will be promoted to Corporal since we don’t hand out promotions like sweets, the way they do in infantry regiments. In your absence, Mickael, who has proved his merit, with his strong reaction to that failed paracommando, will serve as leader of your subunit. DISMISS."
I am now a para-commando since nearly 6 years. CPL Thoring is now SGT Thoring and I took over his duties as Corporal. I was recently asked if I wanted to sign a second contract, and after discussing it with Flora, my wife now, I signed a new 6 years contract and was promised to be sent for a refreshment course in the NCO academy in order to become Sergeant. Mickael and Adrian are both on their way to become Corporals. Tom left the Army as soon as they let him go, before the end of his contract: he did not get here what he wanted, the Army was glad to get rid of him but did not give him an Honorable Discharge.
Flora is still happy, she survives despite our very special family life: she takes good care of our two sons and I love them despite the fact that I cannot visit them as often as I want. Luckily we have a good car and Flora drives the kids to the Camp as often as it is possible. She still regrets my shining bald head but must admit that my H&T is also great.