Most people who know me now would never guess that I was in JROTC (Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps) in high school.
I’m a theater major. I only make my bed (and use that phrase very loosely) when I change my sheets. I don't remember the last time I did a push-up. Both my grandparents are veterans, and I’m absolutely grateful for what the military does for us, but it’s just not my cup of tea.
Once upon a time, though, I was at school by 0630 every morning, and in uniform once a week for drill team practice. By my junior year, I held the rank of Cadet Staff Sergeant and I led a class of high school freshmen in close-order drill, leadership exercises, and military history.
Say what you want about putting a gaggle of teenagers into a class that essentially seeks to prepare them for a military career, but I actually enjoyed my time in JROTC. I made great friends who helped me come out of my shell and developed leadership skills that have helped me in every job I've had since I started college.
Each month, we had Company Formations, where everyone in JROTC would come together after school to do some kind of activity. It was a chance for some friendly competition and for younger, newer cadets to get to know the older company leaders.
In my sophomore year, we held our November Company Formation the week before Thanksgiving break. The activity was a sort of relay race in which each cadet had to crawl across a practice field, drink a small Dixie cup of a gray, lumpy Thanksgiving concoction (turkey, cranberry sauce, potatoes, and anchovies), tip the cup over their head to prove they had drunk the entire cup, and crawl back.
I was a vegetarian at the time. But being 15 and not really having a particular platform other than "My favorite celebrity is a vegetarian and I wanna be as hot as her," I prioritized winning the race.
I got on my hands and knees and crawled through the mud. I stood in front of the company Executive Officer, Cadet Captain Matthews*, who also happened to literally be the hottest guy in the entire school. He looked like a Greek god. He gave me copies of the spy stories he wrote so that I could copy edit them, and loaned me his White Stripes CDs so I’d have something to listen to while I edited said stories. One time he threw me in a pool. It was awesome.
He handed me my Dixie cup and said, "Alright, Heath, let's see it."
I took that Thanksgiving smoothie like I would take a shot of Jäger years later. I swallowed it. And then I puked it back up. Directly into the cup.
I like to think that years of watching CSI strengthened my stomach against all things gross, but there are some things — like anchovies blended with green beans — that simply cannot stay down.
I'm pretty sure the look on my face was similar to that of everyone who had watched it happen: wide-eyed and a little more than mortified. It seemed like everyone, myself included, was trying to process what had just happened and how I would proceed from there. All I could think about was not letting my team down — even if we didn't win, I didn't want to be the reason we lost.
So, naturally, I did what anyone would do: I swallowed the mush that had just expelled from my body. It tasted exactly the same as the first time I had swallowed it, and as it had when I puked it back up. Six years later, I'm still not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing.
I guess the good news is that I didn't vomit a second time. I tipped the cup over my head, and when nothing came out, I tossed it aside, got back down on the ground, and crawled back to my fellow cadets. The relay continued.
I don't remember who won, but I know it wasn't my platoon. But frankly, I didn't care. Fifteen-year-old me was still dying on the inside because I had vomited in front of Greek god Matthews and about 98 other people, and then put said vomit back into my mouth.
The formation concluded, and we went back inside to retrieve our backpacks and walk home or wait for someone to pick us up. I made a beeline for the water fountain and drank like I'd just escaped the desert.
When I stood back up, all of the company leaders — the strong, kind of cute except for Greek god Matthews, occasionally sexist young men I looked up to — were there. I don't recall exactly what they said, but it involved a lot of getting slapped on the back and probably at least one person saying, "Holy shit!" I got a lot of candy when I got to class the next day.
I don't really know what the lesson of this story is except that I learned to not be too horribly embarrassed when I got to college and would occasionally vomit from drinking too much. I also learned to not eat anchovies.
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