Note: This is part of a series. You can read part one here.
Now, I’m not saying the roughing up by the enemy guards impressed me at all. I carried a black belt and fought in a full-contact kickboxing circuit in Arizona before the Army, and continued to kickbox throughout my career in Special Forces. All the brothers in my class were used to some pretty sound throttling and could certainly take it, but part of the “survival” aspect of SERE was self-preservation. That means personal health and welfare.
To dismiss an intended ass-whooping may convey a measure of arrogance and thus invite an even harsher effort to by the captors, so take the beating for what it’s worth and play the game. No attempting an Academy Award performance, just a few well-placed “ows” and “oophs.” Just play the game, Geo….
As I sat up from my floor dump, I noticed that the tiny dark window high on the back wall had become illuminated. There stood a man bathed in feeble yellow light, wearing round wire eyeglasses and a white lab coat. He appeared like Sir Anthony Hopkin’s portrayal of Hannibal Lector. A few more rope-a-dopes off of the plywood walls, followed by more gut slams and pile drivers to the floor, and I had finally learned my lesson. Reseated, I noted that Dr. Lector was gone. Had he just stopped by for the beating?
So the interrogation went: questions, re-questions, and questions about questions, all geared at trying to break us out of our circles of awareness and trick us into divulging details about each other. After each session, I was always returned to my box to put back in my earplugs and try my hand at the impossibility of falling asleep.
The routine continued:
“Do you wish water, criminal?”
“Yes, thank you, sir.”
“Do you wish food, criminal?”
“Yes please, sir.”
“Baaa-ha-ha-ha-ha!” Followed by, of course, no food.
Surviving the “People’s Pond”
In the courtyard of the prison building, a sump had been dug, measuring some 20 by 30 feet. The sump had been lined with plastic and was filled with water. As punishment for failure to cooperate at interrogation, a prisoner would be stripped naked and tossed into the freezing water of the pond. I mean really tossed in, by two guards swinging the prisoner by the hands and feet. “On three!” SPLASH. For me, already in a perpetual state of the shivers, the prospect was horrifying.
I would not come to know the pleasures of the pond; I would, however, be brought into my third interrogation session to be laid out on the floor and have cold water dumped on me. OK, so that got my attention. “I’ll sleep well tonight,” I thought. But the night never came, or it never left. Not sure. An extra helping of hot water did come for me, though.
Guards came by at intervals and collected our urine cans. They dumped them into a larger vat and disposed of it. One of my brothers, Mike P., had the misfortune of being punked by his bowels, forcing him to have a movement in his piss can. Don’t even ask; I don’t know how. When the guard came for his can, he exclaimed, “Ooooh, this is stinky! From now on, criminal, your name is Stinky!” and he assigned Mike the piss can collection detail. In hindsight, it was good for everyone, because Mike got out of his box and we all got to at least see him and shake hands.
There was a crack in the corner of our room, up high where the wall met the ceiling. If I pushed the hood away from the hole in my box, I could see the crack and through it the outside light. The light was yellow at midday and grew white toward the evening, eventually turning blue and then black as night fell. So far, I had kept track of two nights in the box, and the light was turning blue again.
“Out, out, all criminals out of your cells and into the courtyard by the People’s Pond!” the guards shouted as they threw open doors and herded us out from the cold of our cells into the colder night air. There was a fire pit there with a large cooking pot. Inside was a bag of rice, some potatoes, and a few onions. “The people invite you, criminals, to build a fire and cook food. You will then write statements about your humane treatment!”
The brothers started to spread out and gather sticks, branches, whatever would sustain a fire long enough to cook this food. I was quite immobilized by the cold but soon found relief in moving about breaking apart firewood.
We poured in several gallons of water and all the ingredients into the pot to be soaked while the water boiled.
I noted my brother Mark “Cuz” C., standing tall and strong. He had an utterly fierce expression on his face, and he remained apparently unaffected by the cold. I observed his appearance and developed a modicum of shame at my shaken condition. I drew strength from Mark and slapped the backs of the brothers around me.
There may come a time when you very least expect it, a time when you realize the very mortal aspect of your life, and how powerless you are to change it. At that moment you may look around you and discover the power of those who surround you, and how they are a force much greater than yourself. And then you may realize that force has your back, in spite of the many dangers and discomforts they may face personally. Most civilians never come to know this depth of brotherhood; for that, I feel a simple sadness.
In our weakened state, from many days and nights without food or sleep and from the constant cold and shivering, we all immediately succumbed to the hypnotic attraction of the flames as we drew in tight to warm ourselves. I regarded the zombified faces of my brothers, glazed eyes bulging out of their sockets, lips vibrating from the chill in a steady fricative — a macabre orchestra of chattering teeth.
“You have five minutes to finish your meal, criminals!” In a controlled panic, the lukewarm soup was ladled out immediately into paper cups. The brothers gulped it down greedily. Some vomited it right back out onto the ground. Some just couldn’t hold onto the cups spilling it. I found my soup to be more than just a stone’s throw from al dente, and in dire need of a particular spice. I loathe admitting that I could not quite put my finger on it as I upended the cup into my gullet.
I retired to my cubicle, my dinner settling to a violent and ear-splitting rendition of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Boots,” followed by “Horoscopes” in Spanish. Understanding Spanish, I paid particular attention to Taurus to see if I might garner some encouraging snippet that might help me get through this SERE episode. I shivered and shook so violently I hallucinated loose nuts, bolts, and screws falling from my body.
Well, when it rains it pours, and I was snapped from my zone by the screams of a guard. “Remove your clothes, criminal; you’re going into the People’s Pond!” Well shit, was he talking to me? No, no, I’ve already been through this plenty of times, and so I began to disrobe. In fact, the order to strip for the pond was being given to Jamie W. in the box next to me, not to me. The commotion of my trying to undress in my cramped cube drew the attention of a second guard who pulled back the hood and peered in at me.
“Why are you naked, criminal?” shouted the incredulous guard.
WTF? I’m naked so I can be thrown in the People’s Pond, right?
“Do you wish to be thrown into the People’s Pond, criminal?”
“Well, no! I mean, I don’t want to be thrown in there, I just thought you were ordering me in there… look here, I’ll get dressed again!”
“Look, comrade, this criminal wishes to be thrown into the People’s Pond!” announced the guard to his partner.
“Now, you know that is not what I said, so come on!” Was I so gullible? Just play the game, Geo.
To my surprise and satisfaction, they left me alone, only to yank me from my box to be photographed. As I stood before the camera, some movement shifted my focus to the box behind the photographer where my brother, Jamie W., was held. The hood covering the head hole slowly rose up. Up through the hole came Jamie’s head with the hood draped awkwardly over it. He was twisting his head from side to side while flicking his tongue in and out like a snake possessed by the devil.
Jamie was a certified lunatic. Oh, it was funny all right, but that was absolutely not the time to suddenly burst out laughing, no sir. Trust me though, Jamie, I was laughing on the inside.
“Do you wish a slice of pizza, criminal? the guard thundered. “Yeah… no thanks, sir,” I replied.
“Ba-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” he chortled.
“Do you wish a slice of pizza, criminal?” he teased Mike M., who was boxed on my right.
“Yes please, sir,” Mike replied.
“Pssst, hey George… that guard, no shit, gave me a slice of pizza!” Mike whispered
“Don’t even start with me, Mike.”
“No, he really really did! Here, hold out your arm.”
I stretched my hand out of the head hole, all the way up to my armpit, and waved it around in random little circles. Pay dirt! I pulled back in a half of a half of a pizza slice. I blinked at it momentarily before cramming it in my mouth. As my mouth went into tachycardia chewing, I paused and held my breath for an instant to confirm or deny what I thought I was hearing. I was hearing nothing. Then, the staccato thump of distant rotor blades.
Continued in part three.