Once upon a time, I was in Army ROTC. It was a wonderful way to help offset the astronomical cost of college, and I gained some amazing skills through the program. I met people I would have never otherwise crossed paths with, and I got to do some really weird and crazy things. Twice a year (once in the fall and once in the spring), we would travel into the depths of the North Carolina Appalachian Mountains and have ourselves a four-day field training exercise. It’s a lot of what you would expect: sleeping either outside or in barracks, eating MRE’s, orienteering, and lots of marching and running in formation. There were also always some unexpected parts to the event…
On the last day of my very first field training exercise, we had the opportunity to learn how to rappel. By “had the opportunity,” I mean there was a sergeant in our faces saying “YOU WILL DO THIS OR YOU ARE WRONG.” I wasn’t too worried about it–I’ve never had a problem with heights before, and I like trying new things. After three days of early mornings, no sleep, awful food, and lots of bugs, I was ready for something fun. Our class was the only class that was being trained in rappelling because all of the upperclassmen were doing a battle simulation. They figured if they showed us something fun and exciting, we would stay in the program… or they didn’t trust us to do a battle simulation. Either way, it was just us freshmen, and I was stoked.
Now, this was not just Simple Rappelling for Idiots 101. This was actually sort of technical. We had to learn to tie our own swiss seats, and we had to use proper breaking technique, lest we find ourselves upside down or crashing into the ground (or both). The wall was 60ft tall, and if you crash at full speed from 60ft, it probably hurts a bit. When it was my turn, I stepped off the wall and started down. For some reason, the rope was just not letting out very fast. In retrospect, I was probably a little nervous and was just breaking too tightly, and it took forever for me to reach the ground.
The sergeant was displeased with my performance and called me back up to the top of the tower. I tied my swiss seat and scrambled up there as quickly as I could. When I got to the top, he looked at me and said “put your arms out.” So I did, and he started untying my seat and wrapping the rope around my waist instead. Already, I knew something was up, and I was not enjoying the feeling of my heart in my throat.
Next, he looked at one of the other sergeants on the tower and said “show this dope on a rope how it’s done.” The guy walks to the edge, and instead of turning around to rappel down backwards, he leans out, and runs down the wall face-first. Apparently they call that “Aussie-style.” I started protesting, which, if you know anything about the military, this is something you DON’T DO. After it became obvious that arguing was making the situation worse, I finally just asked how to do it. He said:
“Run down the wall.”
Gee thanks jerkface, I think I saw that much. What I wanted to know was, how do you stop yourself from just plummeting into the ground?
“Your feet just know what to do.”
Right. Got it. Run down the wall and my feet will magically stop me. I stepped to the edge, and much to my dismay, the entire ROTC battalion had amassed at the base of the tower, as their simulation had finished. All of the upperclassmen and instructors were looking up at me, not knowing what had transpired between the sergeant and I. They thought that I had asked to do this Aussie rappelling craziness. I heard someone shout from the bottom:
“Ava, it’s ok, you’ve got nothing to prove. Just because you’re a girl doesn’t mean we think you’re weak. Don’t do this!”
The next few seconds are a bit of a blur, but I believe my inner monologue was something like this:
“Deep breath… ready… GO! Run! S@#$ S@#$ S@#$!!!!! BRAKE!!!!!!! SLAM. Ow.”
I lost consciousness, but when I came to, I was hanging upside down about halfway down the wall. Blood was pouring down my face, and I had a wicked headache. All I could hear was silence from everyone at the base. Sergeant said later that I slammed into the wall so hard, it shook the tower, and he was actually afraid he was going to get knocked off. Once I was lowered to the ground, it was discovered that my nose was totally broken (for the third time), and I got to at least explain to the instructors (who were kind of pissed at me) that I hadn’t asked for that challenge.
I’ll tell you what. Despite the fact that I was known as Dope on a Rope for the rest of my ROTC existence, I earned my respect that day. And for your enjoyment, here is the “before” photo:
Hooah, my friends.