It’s the summer of 1974, twenty-five kilometres north of Quebec City, and eighteen-year-old Gerry Fostaty is on a cadet training assignment.
A cadet training assignment on a Canadian Forces base?
I know nothing of this world, beyond what I’ve gleaned from “Private Benjamin”, “An Officer and a Gentleman” and a high-school boyfriend who was in the reserves.
Mess hall, canteen, attaché, platoon, ammunition, barracks, puttees, inspection-ready, cadence, orienteering, drill, ordnance?
Even the basic vocabulary reminds me that I am in unfamiliar territory.
And despite the striking design — the black-and-white photographs, the reference to tragedy, the uniforms and the guns, the newspaper format complete with headline and article — I feel distanced from As You Were: The Tragedy at Valcartier even before I have begun to read.
Gerry Fostaty’s preface begins simply and powerfully, however, and I am immediately intrigued:
“Altogether, my life has been no more interesting than anyone else’s, but one extraordinary and horrible day has stayed with me for more than thirty years.”
This extraordinary day unfolded on Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Valcartier, and the details of the story are salient indeed, but the underlying idea — a trauma that has been endured but continues to haunt the survivor years later — this is a human story, and familiar territory in that sense.
(I was unexpectedly engaged and genuinely moved by the story; I have had trouble concentrating of late, but this narrative took hold and I read it in two sittings, in less than 24 hours, unwilling to put it aside.)
Stylistically, As You Were is clean and as carefully tended as the lines of bunks for the morning inspections that summer.
(The detailed descriptions of orderliness — the perfectly denuded bunks with their uniformly folded and stacked sheets and pillow case, the careful return of a combination lock so that the 0 rests at the top stand in contrast to the chaotic events in the middle of the book: “Mayhem” and “Aftermath”.)
Even though memory itself is inherently messy, the author’s prose is straightforward and uncluttered.
“Memory is fluid that way. One thing can link quickly to another, creating a string of memories just as in a treasure hunt where one clue leads to another.”
Much of what is recounted in As You Were has the quality of having been unearthed as well.
Six teenage cadets were killed and fifty-four were injured when a live grenade was included in a box of inert weapons used in a class on explosives safety that summer, but the media coverage was slim and much of it inaccurate, and the incident has been — at best — overlooked and neglected, and — at worst — misrepresented and concealed.
(The work is a perfect fit with my 2013 resolution to not only follow the news more closely, but to look beyond the headlines — and the pages of history books — to piece together a kaleidoscopic view of something-like-truth.)
“What held us together was the horror of the explosion, but it was both a bond and a barrier.”
Even the survivors were silent for many years, but in 2006, the Department of National Defence made their records public, accessible through the Access to Information Act, and the author obtained copies and began the process of assembling a narrative, working towards something-like-acceptance, something-like-understanding.
I gained a new understanding of more general matters as well. For instance, this I knew: “Standing at attention is an exercise in self-control and self-discipline, as well as a gesture of respect.”
But this, I did not understand: “Standing perfectly straight and perfectly still in front of a superior shows not only submission but also an acknowledgement of trust.”
Previously, from an outsider’s perspective, I had only seen the submission; I had not grasped the sense that “a superior is responsible for your general welfare, just as my cadets knew they were my responsibility”.
(Sure, I know the captain goes down with his ship, and I have seen plenty of movies — though not as often as the favourites that I mentioned above — which have portrayed personnel of higher rank defending the lives of lower ranked individuals, but I had not felt the personal significance of this routine act, registered its symbolic importance, before reading As You Were.)
And this is important because this sense of responsibility for “his” cadets added another layer of horror to his experience of the events of that summer day in 1974, and it was accompanied by a wider sense of betrayal when that burden was not-only-unrecognized, but denied, with fresh helpings of guilt and anger to boot.
“As you were!” is a way of saying that you can disregard the last thing that happened. So if a senior officer walks into a room and the occupants stand at attention, the officer might say “As you were” so that they could relax once more. It was as “much as to say, ‘Pretend I am not here; pretend it never happened.'”
After the incident at Valcartier, the survivors were directed — openly and indirectly — to be as they were before, to pretend that the explosives safety class had gone as intended, “to show what grenades, rockets, and certain types of ammunition looked like, and to discuss what these weapons were capable of and how to avoid them”.
You do not need to know what a grenade looks like — although I’m sure you’ve seen as many of them in the movies as I have — for although the M-61 is described in detail, the significant detail in this story is that one which was thought to be a dummy was a live grenade and the ring was pulled. That which was expected to be ordinary was extraordinary, extraordinary and horrible.
It is, for most readers, unthinkable, too, but Gerry Fostaty’s style affords space for the reader.
His description of the interrogation in the wake of the incident might not echo any experience that we have had, but we can imagine being an eighteen-year-old, on the other side of something extraordinary, coming back in the car “the window down again so that the noise of the wind would discourage anyone from speaking to me”.
The decision to include such sensory details (present too in the discussion of boot polishing, the mess hall routine, the discovery of the old tear-gas rocket canister) adds an emotional dimension to the narrative which another writer must have filled with an excessive use of descriptors but here the depth of emotion is readily apparent in the unadorned prose.
“As I got someone to safety or dressed a wound or moved a stretcher, I felt both powerless and anxious that I was missing something else more important or someone more in need. The mayhem seemed to go on for the longest time, but I was told later that it was only a matter of around fifty minutes.”
And although As You Were is a compelling personal exploration, it is relevant reading in a broader sense as well. Consider the preponderance of people coping with trauma in everyday life (be they domestic or military), the prevalence of PTSD diagnoses in both Canada and the US, and the growing awareness of the healing inherent in creating a narrative for survivors.
So perhaps in your world DND means Do Not Disturb (rather than the Department of National Defence) and you might not immediately recognize RSM, CSM, NCO or OR as familiar acronyms (Regimental Sergeant Major, Company Sergeant Major, Orderly Room, and Non-commissioned officer, respectively).
Maybe all you know of salutes, ranks, units and commands, marching, tuning, and wheeling in parades, and men and boys in uniforms, trench coats, ponchos and berets is confined to screens and novels, but As You Were takes this experience off the page for readers of all experiences. A deliberate and assured narrative, Gerry Fostaty’s work confronts, explores and reveals the extraordinary in the ordinary.