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The Long and the Short and the Tall

Published in Legion Magazine, June 1972
By Ruth C. Auwarter

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I grew up in an unsophisticated atmosphere and in an uncomplicated way. Until I was nineteen or so, I grew like the wild rose that sprawled on the stone fences of my grandfather’s Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, farm. I was aware that my parents loved me deeply and I loved them in return.

Somewhat immature and gawky, I began to realize that all the tender loving care that had been lavished on me was stifling. Rather late, my adolescent revolt overtook me during World War II and went under the convenient guise of patriotism. Abandoning home and mother for my country, I enlisted in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps in Halifax and cheerfully lied about my age, claiming to be a vastly more worldly twenty-one. I was quite unconcerned about the fact that the new date for my birth ante-dated that of my mother’s wedding by some fifteen months.

So there I was, a bumpkin by nature and a bastard of my own contrivance, the unreadiest creature imaginable to be thrown to the CWAC.

The plunge was shocking. My existence was so altered that it was like learning to live under water. I moved slowly, heavily, uncomprehending, through an opaque world, gaping and mouthing like a carp until I broke surface and became myself again. I vaguely remember stumbling in and out of hospital ante-rooms during my physical. At one point I opened a door on a room where some men were standing about…Oops! Wrong door!…these seemed to be urine donors.

I staggered blindly back to our group in time to undress in a blue-cold hall and to be fitted out in a sheet-like gown for a series of needle punctures, and probes which left no orifice unexplored. (What feminine mystique?) Numb with embarrassment, we all moved from orderly to grinning orderly like sheep through dip. We were afraid to ask whether the x-ray technician needed to be so helpful with the fronts of our sheets.

Our first quarters, emptied to accommodate us, had been part of the RCASC’s Cogswell Street barracks. Barracks life took some adjustment. It was somewhat like summer camp, except that our cross-section cut into a broader segment of humanity. I soon realized how colourless and inadequate a vocabulary I had had, and how dull my adolescent dating had been.

Eventually a few of us formed a group to protect each other against the consequences of our own naïveté, especially in new situations like gang showers. A sign in the shower-room read, PLEASE USE FOOT-BATH BEFORE AND AFTER USING SHOWER. However, the trough for the antiseptic foot-bath had been drained, so the sign didn’t mean much to us. I found someone even greener than I who carefully washed her feet in the urinal before and after her shower.

My earliest snarl in army red tape came in a most innocent way. Before we had our own mess halls, we ate in one of the Service Corps’ messes. Nasty rumour had it that the diet for the men was spiced with saltpetre. (There was more gaping and mouthing when we discovered all about that!) The cuisine was otherwise unimaginative, ranging from nebulous to catastrophic.

At any rate, whether by diet or trauma, I incubated two giant boils, one under my left armpit, the other on the left side of my neck. My sergeant promptly consigned me to examination along with the early V.D. aspirants. There were not yet any army hospital facilities provided for women, but being military personnel, we were sent to the Cogswell Street Military Hospital, even though we could not be kept there.

After the most cursory examination, I was sent to Victoria General Hospital. There I was tucked neatly away in bed – no patients could be ambulatory without a doctor’s consent.

At first it was luxurious. I spent about thirty-six hours sleeping off my accumulated weariness, waking only for meals. The bland diet was so well prepared that what it lacked in spice, it made up for in careful and attractive preparation. I was so touched I almost cried in my custard. I was so content I scarcely noticed that I hadn’t seen a doctor in days.

In fact, no doctor had come to see me. Shrewd cunning had elicited from me my name, rank and serial number and other pertinent information. My daily progress was charted and my sheets were regularly changed and smoothed, but nobody from the army seemed to care enough to find out how I was coping with my infirmity or even to bring me my pajamas.

On the third day I began to chafe; on the fourth to fret; on the fifth day I was so desperate for companionship that I remembered that it had been almost two weeks since I had written to my mother. By coincidence, the lady across the hall had ordered a telephone for her personal use. I had been unaware that such refinements were available. Not to be outdone, I ordered a telephone and made a (collect) call home.

I knew that I had conferred a great favour on my parents in calling, but I was totally unprepared for their response. Mother cried and said incoherent things. I was touched, but still out of touch. Then my father, with his cool, incisive manner took the phone.

“Where the hell are you?”

Dad was seldom profane…it took a lot to make him say “hell”…but what? I knew the tone, but I couldn’t think what I’d done to provoke it. Craftily, I decided to make him suffer.

“I’m in the hospital,” I reproved, in what I hoped was a weak and pathetic tone.

It’s a wily child who knows her own father, and my comment had the desired effect. A hurried conference on the other end of the line, then the sound of Mother’s new burst of weeping buoyed my confidence. I had my finger on the pulse of the family. I explained the situation to my father.

I was still flattered at the stir I had caused until my father began to speak. Because I had not written them, my parents had telephoned me two days before. By that time I had been absent from my barracks for another two days.

My sergeant, the one who had sent me to the Military Hospital, informed Mother and Dad that I had been sent to the hospital for diagnosis and treatment of venereal disease, and that, further, I had not arrived with my little group. According to my sergeant, I was Absent Without Official Leave, a deserter, and very likely an infected deserted, a menace to the citizenry and a drain on the war effort. Hitler, she had implied darkly, would have been proud of me.

“Now,” said my father in his quietest, most terrible tone, “Where are you and what are you up to?”

That shattered my composure and I began to blubber incoherent protestations of my innocence into the horrible little black device in my hand. I sobbed my compliance with his ill-disguised “suggestions”.

Yes, I would immediately call my sergeant. No, I did not have V.D. Yes, I would see that nothing on my medical record would imply that I did. Yes, I would take care of it right away. Yes, I would call back as soon as I had phoned my sergeant. Yes, I really was in the hospital. NO, it was just boils! Yes, boils. How should I know how I got them? No, I hadn’t been to church lately. Yes, I would call back right away. Yes, yes, yes, no, but yes.

A call to my sergeant got immediate action. It took several days to effect my release from the hospital, but eventually I was once again a regular in His Majesty’s forces. My boils had been lanced and were healing and all the implications that I was medically undermining the war effort were deleted from my record. The notice of my absence without leave was rescinded. I was ready to continue my basic training.

A few days later, I was re-united with my friends at the Cogswell Street barracks and it wasn’t long before I was “pickin’ ‘em up and layin’ ‘em down” on our fine parade square.

Hup! Two! Three! Four! Ha-a-a-a-alt!

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