Thursday, March 12, 2009

Military manoeuvres

A day's rest in Edmonton restored our spirits a little and we headed off to the next pickup in sprightlier mood. Cold Lake was the destination, apparently aptly named although I didn't actually try out the lake itself. It is about as far north as you can get in Alberta, before the roads give up bothering. The only thing in Cold Lake is an air force base, which is where we were due to collect something, from someone. The shipping address consisted of a mere three letters, CFB, which we only knew to be some sort of military establishment because we happened to be chinwagging over a cup of coffee with a helpful and friendly Challenger team in Edmonton when the assignment came in.
We sent a satellite message to despatch, asking for a bit of help with finding our load. We assumed that the base would be easy enough to locate, but that there might be some sort of protocol attached to getting in and that it might include such security issues as knowing where you were supposed to be collecting what. Driving a truck aimlessly about an airbase with no specific destination in mind seemed as though it might be behaviour designed to spark suspicion.

Despatch were still mulling over the whole problem when we arrived. Quite why they couldn't just call the person who made the booking in the first place is a bit beyond me, but then I am just the grunt these days. We followed some remarkably pretty signs to the base and spotted a guardhouse and barrier in the distance. "We'll just have to ask there, presumably they can call someone if we're not allowed in." Please bear in mind that this is a team of two Brits problem-solving their way around a remarkably alien culture...the guard house was empty, the barrier up and a green light invited us in. I had a moment to wonder what might have happened if our truck had been full of fertilizer, but then I have clearly spent too much time being bombed by the IRA and this is Canada. Even the armed forces are friendly.

One thing that would appear to be the same the world over is that military bases are reminiscent of small towns. Where does one park a bloody great truck in order to ask directions? We plumped for sticking to big roads while heading for the nearest available manned barrier that actually blocked the way to somewhere. A few tight corners later and we approached just such a thing. I considered pulling right up to the guardhouse but could see that there wasn't a window at truck height and decided to stop a few yards shy of it, just in case of misunderstandings of a security nature. The girl in the hut spent several minutes piling on layers of winter clothing before ambling inquisitively down to us to see what we wanted. "I'm awfully sorry, didn't want to come right up to you in case we're not allowed through there but we have to collect a consignment from the base and don't know where to go." It sounded a bit lame.

Apparently where we had to go was back the way we had come, and up a little street to the Military Police building, for identification purposes. A small queue of jeeps and things was forming behind us. "Um, could we come in and turn around?" "There's nowhere to turn, unless you can use the intersection here..." There was a small crossroads just beyond the gatehouse. "I can stop the traffic for you if you like."

Neil and I considered the space. It was tight, but possible. Snowbanks on all corners made the feat a little extra exciting but we had no choice. Will a full audience of uniformed types, I executed a perfect U-turn and grinned my way off to be identified. Of course, now we know where it is, the MP building was the obvious destination, it had truck parking and everything. They found our shipper and engaged an escort to take us into the relevant restricted area. He arrived in the form of a very red-faced squaddie who addressed himself entirely to Neil while explaining where we would be driving to. Neil smiled politely, met my eye and said nothing. Red-faced squaddie escorted us outside and managed to not look too confused when we headed for the wrong sides of our vehicle and it became apparent that I was the driver today.

He led us through barriers and along lanes, and finally through an apparently pointless concrete chicane, to a large shed. "We need you to back up to that door there, sorry it's a bit tight." Tight isn't the word, it was a blind-side reverse with snowbanks on all sides and a helpfully parked jeep in the way. My heart sank. There was me, determined to prove that women did this stuff and the worst of all possible manoeuvres to attempt. Neil got it. He jumped out to guide me back, told the assembled chaps in no uncertain terms just how difficult this would be and muttered, "Just do as I tell you, it'll be fine." And after a fashion, it was. Yay, put that in your pipe and smoke it squaddie-who-only-talks-to-men.

It took a couple of hours serious snoozing for the assembled company to hand-load the trailer full of boxes of stuff and then we were ready to be escorted off the premises. I was a little cocky by then. I was going to show the Canadian Air Force just what women could do. It is therefore possible that I took the pointless concrete chicane just maybe half a kilometre per hour faster.than before. And it was a tad tight anyway, barely enough space to swing the tractor around to avoid the next lump of concrete as the trailer wheels swivelled around the one you'd left behind. Anyway, there's no getting away from the awful truth, we felt this 'orrible lurch as the front wheel dropped off the road, through a snowdrift into a ditch.

The first thing that went through my head was 'ah, this will be fun to write about'. The second was 'ohnoohnoohnoohno not here, please...' and I can now report the amazing scientific finding that embarrassment can overcome physics. A spot of reverse, a smidge of forward, a bit more thisaway and some jiggerypokery over there and we were out of the ditch, through the chicane and off the base. Women drivers though. Useless.

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