BANG! and other secrets of the Canadian Army

BANG! and other secrets of the Canadian Army

You don't need a bunch of fancy ammunition to make a mean fighting force.

THIS IS MY RIFLE: Yes, Elizabeth Stevenson, artist and architect, was a trained sniper in an elite corps of the Canadian military. This is not Photoshop.

The Canadian Army is a reasonably well-dressed, well-fed, well-housed, and — for the most part — a well-equipped fighting force. We did, however, find ourselves occasionally rather short on ammunition when sent out to play. War games are an always popular way to while away a few hours in any infantry unit, and the Queen's Own Foot Soldiers, the elite Grenadier Guard, were no different. We learned to dig holes ("trenches" — WWII was a long time ago, but I guess some things never go out of style), guard said trenches (if you've ever wanted to whisper, "Who goes there?" in the middle of the night, then this is the game for you), and, if provoked, storm the other team's trenches; a somewhat random activity that entailed much running amok and shooting of blanks.

Before setting off into the field, we would usually each be issued a few magazines of these blanks. But one day the battalion was neglected by our Ordnance Corps, and each soldier was only given 30 rounds or so. Should you have been obliged to fire an automatic rifle at any point in your life, you'll know that 30 rounds will last you about 1.8 seconds, or less, if you've got an itchy trigger finger. To remedy this HQ oversight, our always resourceful leaders convened in a quickie field summit and emerged minutes later with their orders: the expression of a verbal offensive in the assault vector, thereby rendering targets instantly deceased, as though they had actually been shot by real blanks.

We were told to shout, "BANG!"

This seemed like a good, and economical solution to our ammo shortage, or at least until the barrage began.

Crashing through the underbrush, I could hear my fellow soldiers attacking on both flanks, firing tentatively at first ("uh … bang?"), then more and more gleefully, as the 10-year-old cowboy and/or indian resurfaced. "BANG!" soon echoed throughout the woods, or, alternately, "BANGBANGBANG" if weapons had been set on automatic mode.

I took aim at a particularly obvious opponent, who had carelessly positioned himself in front of a sun-bleached rock wall, evidently having forgotten he was in full fighting order: resplendent in in gaudy forest camouflage complete with shrubbery-sprouting helmet. When he was clearly in my sights, I hollered "BANG!" as authoritatively as I could muster with my own foliage coiffure tickling my nose. There was a pause, and I peered through the underbrush, watching him as he looked frantically up and down and to each side, apparently surprised to have been picked off so easily. Instinctively, he lifted each arm and inspected his midsection, appeared to contemplate his narrow escape for a moment, and then shouted in the wrong direction, "You missed!"

I certainly had not — being trained as a sniper, I was a crack shot — so I bellowed firmly back, "No way! I got you!"

Insultingly underestimating my skill, he responded, "Negative! You missed!"

"I hit you right in the chest!"

"Bullshit!"

"OK, BANG AGAIN!"

"You missed again!"

"BLOW ME!" This digression did nothing for my cover, and I soon heard, from about 50 meters to my left, "BANG!" Whirling around, I beheld Private DePommier's head poking above a fallen tree trunk, weapon pointed straight at my own chest.

"BANG Stevenson! I got you!" he called.

"You missed!" I screamed back, terribly frustrated. If my man wasn't going down, there was no way I was going to be left out of all the fun.

"BANG! I at least got your arm!" DePommier shouted again, now joined by the unmistakable jaunty cap and pie plate-sized ears of my sadistic Master Corporal, some little acne-scarred punk kid who used to work at a gas station in Southwestern Ontario but is all grown up now and ready to kill some … Germans? Arabs? Women? It seemed that Master Corporal McLean had decided, upon our introduction, that he wasn't a fan of the Army's affirmative action program, especially when one of the affirmative acts was in his section. Our relationship had not yet managed to develop past that point.

Waving both arms at DePommier, to prove that I was, in truth, the picture of good health, I yelled, "Nope — you missed — see?"

"Dude, you know I got you," he shouted back. I was just maneuvering myself to display an unharmed middle finger, when Master Corporal McLean joined our exchange, roaring, "GET DOWN STEVENSON, RIGHT NOW, AND CUT THE BULLSHIT!"

"Damn," I muttered, and slumped to the ground; gratified at least to be able to put my edifying semester of high school drama class to good use, I clutched at my throat and convulsed violently, waiting until I had drawn my last, shuddering breath to take the position. (Canadian Army Field Exercises Rule #472(b): a soldier will indicate death in combat by reclining on the ground with legs and arms extended upwards.)

I heard DePommier gloating — "Now you can blow ME!" — and scramble away. I didn't move until I was sure Master Corporal McLean had decamped as well, and then glanced around, to confirm that my "buddy" (every infantry recruit is assigned a partner, called a buddy, who must stick with him or her through thick and thin, in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer. This is an arranged marriage that is literally only dissolvable by death), Private Freddo, and I were completely alone. I certainly did not intend on wasting the rest of the beautiful afternoon lying on my back in the mud. Lumbering up like an overloaded camel, I kneeled to hike my pack higher onto my back, leaned on my rifle and staggered to my feet. Freddo looked scandalized, but I suggested that, due to the fact that you only live once (or, in my case, twice or three times), it was our duty, to Queen and Country, to rejoin the fray and fight on to victory.

Racing ahead, I spied another ill-concealed foe, Private Oiseau, and yelled "BANG on you Private Oiseau!" as loudly as I could. As expected, a distant voice warbled back through the trees, "You missed!"; but, in anticipation of this event, I had already formulated a response.

"OK, then, BANG right through the forehead, sniper style!"

"SHIT! OK, fine," Oiseau retorted petulantly, and I saw his helmet descend behind a rock and his hands and feet emerge in its place. Finally satisfied, I only had a second to revel in my triumph, before the dulcet tones of Master Corporal McLean came bawling from across the field, "IS THAT YOU STEVENSON?"

"Um ... No?" I tried.

"YOU'VE BEEN DEAD FOR TEN MINUTES! GET DOWN RIGHT NOW, AND STAY DOWN! JESUS CHRIST!"

"OK, OK," I grumbled, and resumed my death rattle. Freddo self-righteously whispered, "I told you so!"

"Fuck off — bang yourself," I hissed back, accidentally responsible for the first friendly fire casualty of the day.

This also inadvertently introduced a new, and very handy, universal remote control. If someone was bothering you, all you had to do was kill them. Should a dining companion be reaching for the last piece of pizza in the mess hall while you were still hungry, you could say, "BANG! That slice is mine," and the slice would be surrendered. Likewise, two people rushing for the only clean bathroom stall could engage in a brief small arms aggression, shouting "BANG!" back and forth at each other until superiority was established.

This unorthodox method of dispute mediation eventually became so automatic that I ran into some minor difficulties upon my discharge. I found myself dispatching schoolmates and other civilians left and right. "BANG! That's my coffee," or "BANG! How dare you imply my proposed infrastructure is too derivative of Le Corbusier?!" Usually, an explanation was required.

Being that I have always upheld a staunch belief in pacifism and spoken openly about my resentment of being ordered around by men, this often turned into an extended narrative: tune in again to find out how and why a peace-loving, conflict-averse architecture student came to join the Canadian Army.