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The cheater by thadeusz
My name is Arn Saknus and I live in a country where the government imposes very strict rules. Our chief is, theoretically, the Duke. Practically it is a government consisting of rich men I do not know. They decided recently, but before I was born, to divide the country into 180 administrative regions, each region having the right to send one single representative to the national parliament.
Since ages, there is one specific rule for students: at the end of their 9th grade, all boys must take a special state exam (girls are considered as second class citizens anyway). The boys who fail that exam are not allowed to study further: they must go and work.
There is also a 2 year Military Service for all boys. They wear a Private uniform and perform all kinds of stupid duties. It is stupid, but it is the law.
One year before I was born, the Duke died and his son took his place. This new Duke was very authoritarian and even nearly dictatorial. He wanted to have more good looking and intelligent officers. So, he adopted another law: the boys who get the best results for that end-of-9-grade exam must serve a Preliminary Military Service, or PMS, during the summer holidays following the national exam. During that PMS, these boys must help the soldiers in their basic tasks: cleaning the barracks and they also have to learn to obey military orders and to respect military discipline. They are also tested and some, considered as the best possible recruits, are required to immediately join a military school where they will be trained to become officers. They have then to serve the Duke, as officers, for 20 years. I really did not like this idea.
I had always been a good learner, so I was expected to get a pass for that post-9th grade exam. I was a good learner, but certainly not the best one so I was not anxious about the possibility of being drafted. Unluckily for me, the other boys in my school managed to have much worse results than usual. I seemed thus to be the best student of my group and despite my dislike for the military, I was forced to join this PMS.
When I learned that, I cried a lot and my mother tried to console me. My father gave me a good advice:
"They will test you. Try not to be the best one, on the contrary try to fail the test."
On the Monday following the results of the 9th grade test, I had to go to a big barrack enclosed in a high surrounding wall giving the impression that it was a prison. There was only one gate and a soldier stood there: the guard. Several of my comrades were already waiting at this gate. As soon as we were inside the surrounding wall, a man in uniform appeared from nowhere and started to shout:
"Boys, fall in ! In a column of two, NOW."
We made the required column of two, slightly anxious. There were about 60 of us in this barrack waiting for further instruction. The man looked very severe. He was in a military uniform and had a sort of double ‘V’ on each sleeve. He was also wearing a kepi on his head. This kepi rested on top of a very short and severe haircut.
The man went on with his introduction:
"My name is SGT Brahm" and he pointed to the ‘double V’ on his sleeves. "I will be your chief NCO during your PMS."
He started then giving orders:
"Now split into three groups of exactly 20 cadets."
We obeyed this simple order and made, as shown by the SGT, three parallel groups. I happened to be in the first one. I had learned that I was now a "cadet".
The SGT went on:
"Now, ON THE DOUBLE, to the Barber."
I did not know what "on the double" meant, but this became clear when the SGT started to march very rapidly, but in step, in a precise direction.
We were told to enter a place with a big label above the door: "BARBER"
I was the third one to enter, not knowing what would happen. I had long black straight hair covering my ears and my shoulders. As soon as I was inside, SGT Brahm barked:
"YOU, with these dreadful long hair, sit on that chair."
He was pointing to the first available chair and I politely obeyed his order. Another man in uniform approached from behind: I could not see him because there was no mirror and I expected the worst.
The worst happened: the man in uniform happened to be a soldier and he started to shave my head. He took his comb and arranged neatly my hair: this was done nearly kindly. After that he started to shave everything below ear level with his clippers. Moreover he also started to drastically reduce the length of my hair. He seemed to be in a sort of rage, I had never seen something like this. In order to do what he had in mind, or what he had been ordered to do, he pushed my head forward and later pulled it backwards. He also turned it in all possible directions and pushed it on my shoulders. While he was doing that, he let his clippers run on all possible parts of my poor head. When he considered that he was done, he simply said:
"Recruit, place your hands on top of your head and feel what you have now."
I did what he told me, but I was afraid of what I would find: only stubbles, and not much ! In fact I discovered that I now had a very short buzz cut, but still some hair on my head !
The SGT barked then a new order:
"YOU, go to the new line."
And, obediently, I joined a line made by the two boys who had already been "cleaned".
After this brutal haircut our clothes were full of hair, but that was not a problem: the SGT took us to a place called "CLOTHING WAREHOUSE". There we were told to undress completely and each of us received 3 sets of khaki undies, 3 khaki T-shirts, 3 khaki overalls, 2 pairs of khaki woolen military like knee socks and one pair of black boots. On top of this came a khaki cap marked "trainee" and a number. With all that came a cleaning kit, also marked with the same number. My number was 003 and I rapidly noticed that all my other pieces of equipment had the same number on them.
The SGT, after he told us to get dressed, explained that our "number" was the only way to identify us during this PMS. I was thus as of now "Cadet 003" and no longer Arn Saknus, and this for the duration of my stay in this PMS.
Things looked very different now: when we arrived we were all different individuals, but now we were more or less identical. Same uniform and same haircut, even same hair color since none was visible.
The Sergeant explained, without barking anymore, that we would have to go back to the Barber every week, on the Monday morning:
"We don’t want any apparent difference becoming visible, we want complete uniformity, except for your number, Cadets !"
He showed us then the place where we would sleep and the tiny cupboard where we had to place the uniform clothes we were not wearing. Civilian clothes were placed in a bag which was marked with our number and then taken away. We were going to live for two months, and thus sleep during holidays in a big hall with 20 beds next to one another, 10 on the left side and 10 on the right side. The beds were only separated by a small cupboard placed against the wall. This was no real separation and left no intimacy to any of us. This was probably what was intended.
Nevertheless, I must admit that this place was big enough and had great windows … but no curtains; I would have to learn to sleep in full light for two months.
Finally, the SGT took us to a place where we had a decent lunch. That was fine with me since I was so stressed that I had not eaten before leaving home that morning.
As soon as the lunch break was over, and it lasted only 30 minutes, a man in an officer uniform entered the hall where we had been seated. He explained that he was Captain Parkwood and that he was going to administer us the following tests. He said that the results of the tests would be sent to the Ministry of the Army where it would be decided which ones of us were mature enough and knowledgeable enough to join the Officer School. He also warned us:
"These tests contain self checking questions. If you try to cheat the tests, it will be noticed by the Ministry and you will be severely punished."
One Cadet, Cadet 002, seated next to me asked what the punishment would be and the answer came immediately:
"The cheater will have to serve many years in adult military prison."
That frightened me. My father had told me to do as badly as possible for these tests, but I did not want to cheat too overtly and be sent to prison ! I didn’t know what to do. So I decided to be honest.
The clothes I had received were rather comfortable, except for their khaki color which I did not like. Except also for the heavy black boots and the high socks. Cadet 002, who had the bed next to mine, made me notice that our overalls had cotton epaulets provided with a button. He dared ask the SGT what was the purpose of these epaulets. The SGT explained to all of us that whenever we were inside a building, we were not authorized to wear our cap: it had to be placed exactly in the center of our right shoulder under the epaulet. On the contrary, as soon as we were outside, we had to place our cap on our head. He added that we had to do it "proudly and swiftly" showing how this cap had to be worn by an example. He used my cap for that purpose ! He also said that these epaulets gave us a more military look.
After that the SGT started immediately to teach us some military attitudes: salute, position of attention, at ease, and also some ways of marching.
The day was soon over and we had our dinner early. We got 30 minutes again for the meal and then we went back to our "room", marching in step as we had been told to do, cap on our heads since we were outside.
The next day we started to help the actual soldiers by doing lots of cleaning chores. There were also many sports exercises. I rapidly made friends with other cadets of my group and I started to find this special form of holidays not so unpleasant after all, provided it had a real end after which we would go back to civilian life.
The tests started at the beginning of the third week. When I was called, I remembered my father’s advice to give bad answers. I also remembered vividly the Captain’s message: the cheater would have to serve many years in adult military prison. I was afraid of being selected for the officer school because I wanted to become a civilian MD, but I was more afraid by the possible prison sentence. I also remembered that, despite the apparent results, I was not the best learner of our group, thus there was less risk. I decided not to cheat !
I arrived at the office where the examining officer was waiting for us. I was wearing my pseudo uniform as well as I could and of course, I had my cap on my shaved head. As soon as I arrived in the Captain’s office, I took my cap off to fold it and push it under my left epaulet. After that, I saluted the officer as the SGT had told us to do. Captain Parkwood looked at me, standing in front of him but not in the position of attention. He simply said:
"Not too bad for a first day, Cadet 003. But you should have saluted before you placed your cap under your epaulet, you should have done this faster and you should now be in the position of attention", and he started barking "GIVE ME 20".
I did not know what it meant, so I asked:
"20 what, Sir ?"
"I am not a ‘Sir’ but I am your ‘Captain’ and you are going to address me this way. Moreover it was 20 push-ups. NOW IT HAS BECOME 40. Quickly cadet."
I was afraid he would punish me for that and I sprang to the ground to give him the push-ups he required.
After that, he seemed satisfied and started asking me several simple questions. I remained in the position of attention to give him my replies and he noted carefully each of my answers. This lasted for more than an hour and at the end I was tired and I did not know what I had already said. I realized that the same question appeared several times, or if not the same, a very similar question, and I did not remember what I had already said, so I did my best to give correct or expected answers.
Eventually, the Captain told me to leave his office and to send Cadet 004 to him. He added:
"Obey all the orders given by the Sergeant".
SGT Brahm simply told me to go and clean a room where actual soldiers were staying. This room was filthy as everything, but the SGT had told me:
"It must be nickel clean when you finish, OR …"
I did not ask him what the "OR" was for and I started to work energetically. I was lucky to get this task completely done just before the evening meal. The SGT told me then that the room was clean but that I was filthy and that I had to wash and get my clothes "Nickel clean" before having dinner. I rushed but I was not done with my washing before the end of the dinner, so I had nothing to eat but I had obeyed the orders.
The next day was more peaceful: I learned more about military attitudes and about kitchen duty, which was really a nasty chore ! But the day after it was back with the Captain for another session of fast questioning while he was seated and I had to remain in the position of attention (at least I assumed I had to remain like that). The Captain also complimented me for the cleanliness of my "uniform" but he noticed that my boots had not been properly shined. For that I got another "Give me 20". The Captain also complimented me for the way I wore my cap and placed it under my right epaulet.
At the end of the second week of tests, he told me that I was probably the most adaptable and obedient Cadet and that my tests seemed to show that I was very intelligent. He told me that he was going to suggest to our Ministry of the Army to enlist me as a future officer cadet. I told him that I did not like the idea, but he was adamant. I immediately wrote a letter to my parents who replied that they could not do anything if I had not done the best to appear as a bad student. They added that they were very sad about that, sad for me and sad for them.
I thought about going away from the barracks, but that also seemed a dangerous solution since I would then become a deserter and be arrested and then be sent to prison for a long time ! So I chose to stay and wait while doing chores.
At the end of the first month (our stay was supposed to last for two months), I was called by the Captain who announced the "good news":
"Cadet 003, on the basis of your results at school and of my tests, you have been tested as a possible candidate officer cadet. You will leave this compound now and be driven to the Capital where the officer cadet school is placed. There will be more tests, but I am convinced that you will pass them brilliantly."
Other cadets were also supposed to join me, but their results were not "as good" as mine, so they had to undergo further testing. I was already going to the Officer Cadet Training Center (OCTC). SGT Brahm handed me to another SGT. He added:
"Now that you are selected, you won’t need your civilian stuff anymore. You will see your parents during a few minutes: I order you to give them all your civilian belongings. You are a military man now and you belong completely to the Army."
I was allowed to meet my parents in a courtyard. They were seated, and very sad. I had to stand and remain in the position of attention. My father gave only one piece of advice:
"They consider that you are their best cadet and they take you to an officer school. Be proud of that, remain as good a learner as you were. Try to become the best possible officer and answer all the tests as well as you can."
My mother kissed me and blessed me and started crying.
I have never seen my parents again.
After that, another SGT pushed me in a military car, on the back seat, and started driving. He just asked me: "Ready for the tests for the officer school, my boy ?"
After that he did not utter another word. The last sentence pronounced by my father kept popping up in my head. Finally, I understood it as: "You know the tests, so you can cheat the tests and fail."
In my stupid head the promise to have a long prison sentence if we cheated was forgotten. I only kept in mind the idea that if I failed the tests, they would be forced to send me home because I would look too stupid to be a good officer.
After a long time driving, we reached a big building near the Capital town of our state. The driver simply said:
"Your new barracks, my boy."
As soon as we were inside these barracks, I was taken aside by a CPL who took note of my name and gave me the essential for the Army: my new Matricule. I became "Junior Soldier 723.514" and that was my new name ! They also called me "JS 723.514". After that, this CPL, CPL Marsignal, took me to the clothing room where I received a big set of gray uniforms. I did not put these new Army uniforms on: I was still in my PMS uniform.
The CPL took me then, on a short run to the regimental barber who gave me what I really dreaded, worse than a buzz cut: he gave me a real induction cut. That means that he forced me to sit on one of his chairs and then he started to torture me in order to present my head in the position most adapted to his clippers. He was singing while doing that. The barber first pushed my head forward so that my chin hurt my chess. He then started pushing one of his metallic instruments from the top of my head to the nape. He went on to the left and to the right. And what was left of my hair fell down on my PMS uniform, I could feel it but I could not see it. The barber went on, slightly to the left and then slightly to the right. In order to do so without effort, he simply pushed my head on my left shoulder and then on my right shoulder. He also pulled my head completely backwards and then did the same but from the front to the top of my head.
I felt as if I was violated, at least what I knew of that hideous crime. After that the barber, another CPL, simply told me:
"Great. You have now a real recruit haircut: you have been shorn to the woods. Pass your both hands on your head."
Indeed, there was nothing left. Not even stubbles. I felt like crying, but I did not dare do that in this adult and military world.
CPL Marsignal, who was my leader here, told me:
"Stand up now and take off all your PMS clothes. JS 723.514 I want to see you in a real soldier uniform in less than 5 minutes."
I stood up and hurried: in less than 5 minutes or so, I was dressed like all the soldiers I had seen in these barracks with a heavy gray uniform, a wide gray webbing belt. I received new high and black boots and I was told how to lace these boots in a military fashion. I also received bootbands which had to be placed near the top of boots in order to be used to blouse my new trousers.
I tried to wear my new trousers as ordered, and it was not easy the first time, but I must admit that it was elegant. The CPL told me:
"This is the way Privates wear their trousers, and as long as you are not confirmed as officer cadet, you will have to wear your trousers that way."
The CPL pushed then a khaki beret on top of my now nude head and simply said:
"Just in time, Recruit. You will keep this beret until you are confirmed as a candidate officer, but you only wear it outside."
I immediately took the beret off and placed it under my right epaulet as I had been told in the PMS center. The Corporal went on:
"Now, take the broom and clear the floor of the barber room. Next week you will be shorn again."
While I was cleaning the floor, now in full uniform, the Barber let another boy in PMS uniform enter and sit on the torture chair. I did not want to see that and as soon as the floor was acceptably clean, I hurried and left the Barber torture room.
I was told to join a group of "new soldiers". We were all aged 15 and we had been provisionally selected for the three years course in the officer school. We had to stand "in formation" and wait until a complete group of 20 was ready. Some kept the remaining parts of their new equipment in their hands, others did like me: drop it on the floor.
A SGT appeared from nowhere and led us to our room: a dull dorm similar to the one I had seen in the PMS barracks. The rest of the day was very similar to what my new companions and myself had lived during the PMS.
In fact there were 1800 new JS in the barracks : 10 for each administrative region of our country. I wondered what the Duke was going to do with 1800 new officers ! For the time being, I was living within a group of 20 new Junior Soldiers.
My new life, which I hoped to be a provisional one, started the next day.
The next day started early: at 5:30 am. After sport, room cleaning and breakfast, we started the first evaluation exercises. Each "new soldier" of our group had to lead specific exercises for the 19 remaining ones. It was fun, it was easy and I could easily have done it. But I had decided to do everything I could to be rejected from this Army. So I started giving wrong instructions, misleading orders and confusing ways of addressing myself to my "troopers".
This little game lasted for a week. At the end of that week, two of us were ordered to go to a Colonel’s office "for evaluation".
These two were considered as "fit for officer training" and got additional pieces of uniform: their gray webbing belt was replaced by a red one and their beret by a beret of the same color. Yellow stripes were added to the sleeves and collar of their uniform. This way they looked smart and could be identified immediately as candidate officers.
My turn to be evaluated came later, about 5 weeks after I had been forced to start this selection process. I was then with another cadet who was now a friend of mine: JS Peter Marslit, in fact better known as JS 724.217.
This Colonel looked at Peter, my roommate, and simply said:
"JS 724.217, you are good but not good enough to become an officer. You will serve our Duke as an NCO. You will now start the Sergeant school and after one year you will be promoted SGT and sent to an Army regiment as active duty NCO. Put on these pieces of uniform IMMEDIATELY and go to your new room."
Peter received a blue beret and a blue webbing belt. He put them on in the Colonel’s office and saluted as we had been told before leaving for a new room.
Then came my turn ! The officer simply started as follows:
"There is something wrong with you."
I remained silent, in the position of attention as told in the PMS. The Colonel continued:
"You have excellent results for your school exams and excellent results for the psychological tests used in the PMS. According to them, you would be an excellent officer. Here, you are simply creating a mess with your stupid way of giving orders. That is not coherent. That’s wrong."
He looked at me silently for several minutes and I kept quiet.
Finally he said:
"JS 723.514, you are not fit for officer service. Nor are you fit for NCO service. This is too bad."
"So, Colonel, may I go home now and leave these barracks ?"
The Colonel looked angry now and was shouting while saying:
"Certainly not. You have been for special military service and you will serve in our Duke’s Army for 20 years, but as a Private."
I started to cry, despite my age: I was already 15.
The Colonel reacted rather briskly:
"What’s exactly wrong with you, Recruit 723.514 ?"
I remembered now that trying to give wrong answers to the test could be punished, but here I was no longer taking tests so I simply said:
"Colonel, I don’t like the Army and I don’t want to become an officer."
"So, Recruit, you cheated when you gave wrong instructions ?"
"In a way, Colonel, but I did it simply to be discharged."
"That is no longer possible. You fulfill all the conditions to be drafted. So here you are and here you will stay. But as a Private, not as an officer or as an NCO since you dislike that."
"Colonel, do I really have to stay here ?"
"Yes, Recruit. You have to stay here and learn to be a soldier. As soon as you turn 16, you will be sent to a regiment as a Private and you will remain like that for 20 years."
"20 years ? That will bring me to 36, Colonel. I wanted to become an MD."
"Recruit," and now the Colonel was shouting, "you will remain a Private for at least 7 years. If you behave perfectly, you might then be promoted to CPL and after 15 years of good service you might be promoted to SGT. Now, you will go back to your group and your new status of bad Private will be announced to all your comrades. DISMISS stupid cheater !"
In the meantime I had received a gray and forage cap to replace my provisional beret. This forage cap was too wide to be elegant and this made it uncomfortable !
I left the Colonel’s office crying and I started my new training as a future Private. I started to serve my former friends at meals as a kitchen helper. I showed to all of them the respect owed to their rank, by saluting them in the proper way. I must mention that I had to change rooms and that I was now in the same room as the Privates serving as servants. After two more weeks, another former candidate officer joined me: he had also been rejected, not because he cheated but because he was really stupid. A third JS was reduced to the status of Private three weeks later.
Two months after I had been sent to the small group of Privates for cheating, my Colonel told me in front of the troops that the Duke had taken a special decision about me:
"Private 723.514, our beloved Duke has taken a special decision about you. He changed your name. As of this instant you are no longer Private Arn Saknus, but now you are Private Born Cheater. This is your new legal name and you are NOT allowed to use the former one, even in a private letter. Our beloved Duke took that decision in your honor, Private Cheater. Your case will serve as an example for all the soldiers of our Army. Salute the Duke’s decision."
There was nothing I could do except salute in the proper military way while all my comrades started laughing.
As soon as I turned 16, I was sent to a regiment far from the Capital of our country. I lived there in the barracks in a room similar to those I had already known in the Army. My activities were simple: cleaning chores, kitchen chores, training for a possible war, parading in a special uniform, standing guard for official buildings. It was boring and I regretted my attempts to cheat. There were also battles: our Duke wanted to have a greater country and started several wars. Luckily, I was not wounded during these periods.
The worst was that as a Private I had to stay 24h/24 and 7d/7 in the barracks, except for one half day (morning or afternoon) every week. This depended on the quality of my service as a Private and of the mood of my commanding officer.
After 7 years of service, I asked respectfully if I could be promoted to CPL as it had been mentioned when I was in the Officer school. The answer was simple: "No, Private Cheater because you cheated too much. Come back when you have 15 years of good service and the decision might be different."
After 8 more boring years of service, I went back to my Colonel and asked if now a promotion was possible. The answer was positive with a special remark:
"Private Cheater you will be promoted to SGT provided you sign an additional contract of 16 years."
This additional contract would bring me to the age of 52 in the barracks, but as a SGT now, which was much more comfortable. I immediately signed this new contract, using my only official name now: Born Cheater.
My new Colonel congratulated me for signing and told me to leave his office. I nevertheless asked him:
"When will the promotion become effective, Colonel ?"
"When I feel like it, after 5 or 6 years, or more."
"But you said I would be promoted if I signed an additional contract ?"
"Of course I said that, but I can also be a cheater, Private Cheater. DISMISS."
I was promoted to SGT exactly one day before the end of my second contract. I was sent to a compulsory pensioner home on the same day and told that by order of our good Duke, I was not allowed to leave that home, not even for a walk.