Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part IV. SURVIVE
There’s a program in the military that supposedly turns boys into men. It teaches downed air force pilots to survive behind enemy lines and captured soldiers to resist interrogation.
It’s called SERE, and it stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape. It’s supposedly hard-core, and hard-core was what I needed if I wanted to learn to fend for myself in both America and St. Kitts.
So I called Evan, the Green Beret I’d met at Gunsite, and asked if they let civilians into SERE.
“SERE’s gay,” Evan replied instantly. “They don’t teach you how to survive. They teach you how to die slowly.”
“What do you mean?”
“They basically ask who wants to be an instructor, and whoever says yes gets to teach. You’re better off reading a book. The only part that’s kind of interesting is the interrogation.”
During his mock interrogation, Evan said he was imprisoned, tortured, and waterboarded. At night, his captors—fellow soldiers playing a role—blasted a Nazi SS march at deafening volume over and over, until he was driven nearly mad with sleep deprivation.
“They got pretty sadistic,” he continued. “But people underestimate their ability to deal with pain. What got me wasn’t the torture, but the psychological stuff. When they put my balls on a table and brought out a hammer, I just broke down.”
“So maybe it’s worth doing SERE just for the experience?” I prodded. “I mean, minus the balls thing.”
“Nah, the rest is pretty lame. The guy you really want to go see is Tom Brown.”
“Who’s that?” I’d never heard of him before.
“Tom Brown is the real deal. He teaches the guys who teach the marines how to survive, if you know what I mean. All our snipers secretly go to that course. He’s a civilian, but he’s worked for OGA”—other government agencies. “If you want to learn how to live in the wilderness with nothing but the clothes on your back and a knife in your hands, go see Tom Brown. Fuck SERE.”
Those four words—“go see Tom Brown”—were among the best advice I’d gotten in my life.
But there was a problem: Brown’s Tracker School was in a campground in the woods. And while camping may be a vacation to many people, it had always been like waterboarding to me. In Chicago, there wasn’t much nature around the apartments where I grew up. In the desiccated grassy areas that the city called parks, our main recreation as twelve-year-olds wasn’t camping or joining the Boy Scouts, but a game we called jump-the-bum. The object was to leap over sleeping and passed-out homeless men in the park—either alone, in tandem, or en masse—without waking them.
We usually won.
The only other nature experience I had was at overnight camp, but both times I went camping, it poured rain and the cheap tents leaked until we were wet, cold, and fed up. Maybe it was nature’s revenge for our jump-the-bum games.
After my camping washouts, I vowed never to set foot inside a tent again. After all, who needed tents when there were perfectly good hotel rooms nearby with movies on demand and daily maid service?
If I wanted to be a survivalist, however, I’d need to break that vow.
To find appropriate gear, I called Justin Gunn, who, besides holding Dave Navarro’s firearms for me, had been trying unsuccessfully to get me into one of his other hobbies, ultralight backpacking. The idea was to go hiking and camping with just a few pounds of equipment—most of it designed to weigh almost nothing and serve a variety of functions. Walking sticks doubled as tent poles, jackets converted into sleeping bags, backpack pads became sleeping mats.
On Justin’s advice, I bought a one-pound waterproof high-thread-count spinnaker-cloth tent, a 6.2-ounce nylon taffeta sleeping bag, a pair of lightweight SPF 40+ hiking pants with mesh-lined thigh vents, and a silicone-coated ripstop nylon backpack.
Since I’d last experienced it, camping—once a way to enjoy the outdoors and commune with nature—had turned into a market for advanced fabrics and technology, all designed to minimize any type of suffering created by interacting with the natural world.
Unfortunately, I would suffer anyway.