Dead Vehicle, Frost Bitten Feet (Was I Ever Going Overseas?)

I hated waking up to feet turning to frostbite blue. That and both of our vehicles freezing. Not a good sign.

We probably were not going to make it to the hot springs near Pemberton, B.C. Canada. But, there was still some argument about still going to the hot springs and enjoying our final weekend before I shipped off on a United Nations mission overseas.

It kind of reminded me of when some of my same group of friends came down with hypothermia when trying to climb Mount Baker. It was a time to forget the egos, improvise, turn back and live to see another day.

Our hot springs trip organizer, Art was not going to quit. He kept arguing to push on. Besides, Art had a plan. He removed the batteries from the two jeeps and warmed them up with in water heated in pots over our stoves.

Next, Art hooked the batteries up in a series circuit to produce enough power to start one of the jeeps. Once one jeep started, the other jeep could be jump started.

But, we were not, literally, out of the woods yet. Art still argued about pressing on and I had to disagree. Survival first, right. Besides, I was feeling really stupid that I had left my mukluks at home and thought I could get away with new climbing boots. Yep, Mr. Outdoorsman, paratrooper, marathon runner, whatever. All of the stamina in the world was not going to save my numb feet. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

It was a good thing that Art finally agreed. On the way back, we find the narrow, mountain road (with a sheer drop off on one side), blocked by some ****** truck, sitting in the middle of the narrow road. We spent the next 20 or so minutes digging the snow around that vehicle. Meanwhile, I cannot feel my feet. I am cursing the truck owner and wondering if we can just force it off the cliff.

Art’s girlfriend puts a nasty note on the abandoned truck’s windshield and we barely squeeze by the truck with our jeeps. Of course, a bit further down, one of the jeeps breaks down. Meanwhile, I am stamping my boots on the cold metal floor of the jeep to get some feeling back into them.

We make a quick decision to abandon the broken down vehicle and pile into the working one. The essential personal gear gets strapped onto the top of the working jeep.

We roll into the town of Pemberton, looking like kind of hillbilly party. None of the hotels have vacancy, so we opt for a Bed & Breakfast. I end up in a North Vancouver (Lion’s Gate) hospital, blue feet and all. Heck of a way to spend New Year’s Eve.

But, it is not over yet. Seven days later I arrive in Winnipeg, Manitoba, one of the coldest cities in North America. Temperatures vary from minus 15 to minus 30 Celcius (+5 to -22 Farenheit). (Yes, cold. Damn cold.) So, I spent the next 2.5 months training in the below freezing and the rain, while carrying loads, training with different weapons and tactics and dealing with the constant uncertainty of whether or not the mission was going through and who would be chosen. At night, I would check my feet and tape the big toe nails so they do not tear the skin. But, with the forced marches and carrying loads, the toe nails eventually fell off. Since, toenails took about six months to grow back, I could use them as kind of a calendar for the half year tour, if I was chosen.

Did I mention the uncertainty? Some days during our “workup training” we did not know what was going on. Were we all going? Some of us? Who would be left behind with the rear party? Were we training on the west coast in California or the east coast in New Brunswick?

To this day, I have to give our commander, LCol Calvin credit for organizing the mission. We had plenty of problems to overcome.

For starters our gear was outdated and some of the soldiers who I had to work with and supervise were first-rate annoying. There were guys with health problems, personal problems, attitude problems, drinking problems. Then there were guys dropping out from injuries, broken-hearts, home-sickness going and AWOL. It just never ended.

All this time, I kept quiet about my previously frost-bitten feet. I would just tape them up to minimize the blisters and discomfort and KEEP GOING. Improvise and keep going. Every day, every hour, every step brought me closer to making it overseas. I won’t even talk about money problems, an upcoming court case and an unreliable book deal. Yet, I remember my basic army course with the warrant officer yelling at me to “improvise!” (Like in Heartbreak Ridge, where Clint Eastwood’s character, Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway preached: “Adapt, improvise and overcome.”)

And even today, with the COVID-19 crisis, I still think about that mantra: improvise and keep going.

Eventually, I did get selected for the mission in Croatia, (former Yugoslavia). As a reservist, I served as a sergeant and a section commander. But, that and my return home….those are whole other stories.

Whatever you are facing. Improvise and keep going. You can do it.

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