‘Make sure you eat breakfast in the morning’, the drillie said.
If only I had heeded those instructions, maybe I wouldn’t have ended up ‘face planting’ into the parade ground – or ‘baconing’ as it was known in cadet lingo – during the 1992 Graduation Parade at the Australian Defence Force Academy.
As first year cadets we rarely had time to make the journey to the Cadets Mess to eat breakfast, even on Graduation Day. We were too busy cleaning – or ‘bogging’ as it was known – to luxuriate over a bowl of Weetbix.
There is no disputing that having something in one’s stomach represents an appropriate preparation for the biggest and most auspicious ceremonial parade of the year to mark the graduation of the senior class. The parade is the biggest event on the annual calendar and attracts several thousand spectators.
So it was with trepidation that I marched on to the parade ground on that fateful day, decked out in full ceremonial ensemble: white jacket, polyester pants, a tight black peak cap, shiny hard-soled boots and my weighty SLR rifle. There was not a cloud in the sky, the sun was beating down and it was stinking hot – upwards of 35 degrees if I recall rightly. From the outset, I had a crook feeling in the pit of my (empty) stomach.
Everything was going OK, until the speeches. Standing ‘at ease’ in our six perfectly-aligned squadrons, we were treated to one of Governor General Bill Hayden’s more expansive speeches. We were hot and bothered in our suffocating high-collared coats, having just marched around the parade ground in slow and in quick time. The sun was searing and the glare from the the white coats in front of me made my eyes squint through beads of sweat. Perspiration was trickling down my spine and collecting in the small of my back. Despite the requirement to stand perfectly still, I found myself shifting uncomfortably in my hard-soled boots. And still the GG went on, and on. How much longer?
And then the darkness started creeping in from the periphery of my vision. My temples starting throbbing. Sweat was pouring off me. My toes and fingers became numb. I become vaguely aware of the ‘death rattle’ of the bayonet on top of my SLR rifle as my hands started to quiver. I frantically tried to recover by tensing and releasing my muscles in an attempt to get the blood flowing through my body. I had heard others go down along the ranks and I was determined to make sure that the next sickening crash wasn’t going to be me.
By this stage, my struggle to retain consciousness was apparent to those around me. There are the helpful ones who talk to you and try to get you back into the land of the living: ‘wiggle your toes’, ‘check out that hot chick in the third tier of seating’. And then there are those who just want you to make a spectacle of yourself for their own amusement: ‘close your eyes, hold your breath’.
Just before it’s lights outs, you recount the drillie’s very sympathetic instructions prior to marching on: ‘if you’re gunna faint, make sure you remain at attention the whole way down’.
And that I did. Others didn’t go down quite so gracefully on that hot day. Some even managed to stumble unceremoniously forward through the rank in front, and then back through rank behind, before going down in a screaming heap of flesh, bones and rifle – always with the attendant risk of skewering themselves on their own bayonet.
As the darkness lifted, there was a momentary sense of zen, like waking gently from a good night’s sleep. That contentment was soon replaced by confusion and disorientation, and shortly thereafter, by sheer terror and mortification when I realised that I was face down in the middle of a parade ground in front of 2000 spectators.
I lifted my throbbing head slowly off the ground, disgorging the grass and dirt from my mouth (a small mercy was the fact that the ADFA parade ground is grass, and not bitumen like the parade ground at the neighbouring Royal Military College). I struggled to pick myself up off the ground, but my legs were like jelly and I stumbled again.
By this time, the ‘body snatcher’ had reached me. These were cadets who were stationed at the rear of the parade ground to spot those who were about to ‘bacon’ and to escort them off the drill square. I handed my rifle to my saviour and trudged off, trying (and failing) to exhibit some semblance of bearing as I exited stage rear.
I can thank my lucky stars that we were at the ‘close order’ when I fainted and my fall was broken by the cadet in front of me. That person was my section mate, Officer Cadet Adam Walk, and I remain indebted to him (at least he tells me so) for softening the impact of my contact with the ground; apparently my face slid down the back of his trousers, which explained the carpet burn on my face and the dead skin that Adam was unable to completely remove from the fibres in his ceremonial trousers.
A clean, unimpeded fall could have resulted in a broken jaw – a fate which befell a classmate, Chris Duffy, earlier on in the year when he ‘baconed’ on a concrete surface.
Every time I see Adam Walk he reminds me of that day. He also jests that he considered issuing his own individual drill commands as I lay prone on the ground:
‘Officer Cadet Walk, two paces rearward…..march’
‘Officer Cadet Walk, maaark….time…..left, right, left, right.
Ah, what mirth there is to be had by stomping on an unconscious fellow cadet!
Adam also reminds me that I chose not to wear a singlet on that day and that I had suggested that he also not wear one, because it would cause him to be too hot and increase the chances of him fainting. I sure got that wrong.
After recovering in the shade from my ordeal, I made a beeline for my room, too embarrassed to front up to my colleagues. Cadets who ‘baconed’ were considered mentally weak and lacking physical fortitude. I certainly felt that way on the day and was bitterly disappointed with myself for not being present when the third year cadets made their final march through the ranks before graduating.
Almost 25 years on, it makes for a good little story.