In a marvel of anthropomorphic effort, the ruck sneers at me in the rear-view mirror of my truck. It’s not a camping backpack, nor is it a high schooler’s bookbag. It is a monstrosity made for holding over one hundred pounds, and carried for miles by the infantryman Marine or soldier. Its straps, though appearing thick and cushioned, will soon cut into my small shoulders with an unforgiving weight.It is a drug, though without the pleasurable aftereffects. The grunt, like a gun-toting Gollumn, hates the ruck almost as much as he needs it for survival.
It is a physical manifestation of punishment, a static flagellation of the shoulders, back, legs, and feet. Its pain is only secondary to its contents, the supplies and ammunition required to obtain the infantryman’s true drug; killing the enemy.
However there is no enemy near me. I’m wearing civilian clothes instead of desert camouflage. The rifle that used to sit easily in my hands is replaced by an innocuous pistol and knife tucked into concealment. The spare magazines, radio batteries, gallons of water, and MRE’s are traded for a simulation of a few iron weights. Still, as I pull the truck into the opening of a local forest, it has the familiar evil aura that promises a soul-cleansing pain. Heaving it out of the bed, it clings to my back like a man-made leech with a soul of metal and cordura.
It has been too long. My feet have grown soft, and my spine has forgotten the compression of the burden. My knees are once again unfamiliar with the treacherous angles of an off-road trail navigated under the heavy iron.
The callouses on my inner thighs, heels, toes, and the balls of the feet are replaced by tender living flesh. Soon today they will be raw and almost audible in their pain, but later will in turn be replaced by the hardness of leather. My trapezius muscles, only used for recent efforts in weight lifting, will be squashed into my shoulder blades, but will also come back from the dead.
The trail opens before me in the heat of a midsummer noon. My feet begin their crushing journey up and down hills, negotiating cruel tree roots and mocking mud puddles, all while the ruck whispers thoughts of both defeat and encouragement. It is a sixty pound scab on my back while the miles grind under my boots, with a tendency to shift to one side or the other mid-stride. In efforts to torture me further, it finds ways to finagle a random buckle in a way that will leave a tattoo on the skin of my ribs and chest. More often than in years before, I am forced by unfamiliarity to stop to adjust straps and tuck away more mobile pieces.
Familiarity, and remembrance of a time in my life when I strode shoulder to shoulder with warriors.
The knowledge that the only thing worse than the pain of training is the softness of getting weaker.
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/125289197@N03/26625697344″>Detail of Gear, 1894</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a>
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/33252741@N08/27650436045″>Guam National Guard</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>