Cool School


This was my home for the Air Force Arctic Survival School. Nothing about
the whole sordid episode was particularly comfortable.

I’m from Mississippi. It’s hot down here — like Africa hot. In the summertime, the humidity is so thick you can tear off a piece of air and gnaw on it, so when I got orders to report to the Alaskan interior, I didn’t exactly know what to expect.

We left UCLA, or the Ugly Corner of Lower Alabama for those from out West, in late Fall. I’m kidding about the UCLA thing; Fort Rucker, the home of Army Aviation, is actually a really pretty place. However, by the time we drove all the way to Alaska it was seriously cold.

I signed in to the S3 Operations Section of my Aviation Battalion and the Ops NCO asked innocently, “Hey, sir, you want to go to Cool School?”

I had no idea what that was, but I did know I was, as an Army Aviator myself, very, very cool. Perhaps I could teach the instructors a few things about being awesome. Sure, sign me up. What an idiot.

Cool School is the pedestrian term for the U.S. Air Force Arctic Survival Course. This fun-filled excursion into the frozen arctic wastes purports to give a downed aviator the skills he or she might need to keep body and soul together if stuck alone out in the frozen tundra. The informal moniker was, “The Air Force Food Appreciation Course.” That should have told me something right there.

I honestly forget how long the thing lasted — forever would be my guess with the benefit of hindsight. I recall that we received one MRE and three survival bars of the sort included in a fighter plane ejection seat. MRE stands for “Meal, Ready-to-Eat,” but we called them “Meals, Refused-by-Ethiopians.” To be fair, MREs are actually quite good if properly prepared. Those survival food bars, by contrast, tasted like blocks of compressed sawdust.

“Hey, sir, you want to go to Cool School?” Sure, sign me up, I said. What an idiot.
(Source: SrA Beaux Hebert, USAF)

The temperature was 43-degrees below zero. We made a gigantic fire and all but crawled into the thing trying to get warm. At one point, I took off my big arctic boots trying to dry out my socks and my toes began to smoke as ice formed on my heel. I don’t have particularly big feet.

At one point, we caught a snowshoe hare in a snare. We put enough snow in a big institutional coffee can over the fire to eventually bring it to a boil. In the time it took to boil water the rabbit froze solid, so we were forced to snap its limbs and head off like twigs before cutting the beast in half at the diaphragm with a hacksaw. A quick scald in the can and the skin peeled off. We then broke the entrails off as a chunk and boiled what was left. I ate every single piece of that MRE, including the coffee creamer and pepper packet. I even got hungry enough to eat that ghastly boiled rabbit. Nonetheless, I still came home with two and a half of those wretched survival food bars.

Another day was spent building snow caves. In 4-foot-deep snow, we dug to bare earth and constructed an A-frame support out of tree limbs. It was then covered with a parachute and snow on top. Once, done the thing is sturdy enough to stand on. You then take a piece of parachute, shovel a bunch of snow onto it, and tie it up into a big ball. This is your door.

Once the structure is built, you lay out your foam sleeping mat and fart sack — or sleeping bag, in the vulgar tongue — inside the cave, crawl in and pulled the big ball of snow in tight to close the hole, sealing the edges with snow to keep out the drafts.

In my case, you then light a candle, stare forlornly at it while questioning your career choices, and shiver like a monkey on meth for three hours until you finally warm up your fart sack. If you survive that, you sleep like a baby in complete comfort.

The next morning, we all gathered and made a new fire. One young lady, an Air Force ALSE (Aviation Life Support Equipment) Technician who had to do the course because of her job, had not sealed her snow cave very well. She had evidently cried all night long as her tears froze on her eyelashes, hair and eyebrows, leaving her looking like a very sad short Yeti.

When the course was finally done, I did indeed feel extremely cool.

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