2888 Ian McKee Royal Roads: Down memory lane
I was just seventeen when I graduated from High School in Ontario in 1948. I had been accepted at Trinity College but had no idea what I wanted to study. My future brother-in-law, David Wishart had graduated from Royal Roads in 1947 (RCNC 267) and suggested I join his brother and go to Royal Roads for two years and then decide what I wanted to do. That sounded sensible so I applied, passed the medical, wrote the entrance exam and went off to our cottage in Nova Scotia.
I must have passed the exam as I was told to report to St. John, New Brunswick where there was to be a board. I set off on the trip – the first journey by myself. My father had been a senior army officer in Italy during the war. He said he knew little about the Navy but a lot about boards. He coached me. If they ask if you have read the morning paper don’t just say ‘No’, say but I have read Churchill’s latest book. They are interested in learning if you can talk sensibly, not the daily news. They might ask what causes the fog on the Grand Banks. I was not scared; I was petrified on entering the board room. The president, I learned later, was Commodore Miles. I have no memory of the others. He shuffled some papers, finally looked up and asked “Ian, how is your father?” That was not a question I expected!
The summer passed. My father went back to Toronto. Trinity College kept asking is Ian coming here or not? Finally the army officer in him kicked in and he called a friend in Ottawa, General Weeks, to ask if he could find out when they were going to announce who had been accepted at Royal Roads. He had touched the right base. The General said that he was chairman of the selection committee; the recommendations were on the minister’s desk and would be announced Friday. Not to worry. He had recognized the name and I was well up the list and was sure to be accepted!
Get bags and clothes that might be required and a train ticket to Vancouver. I met a number of fellow new cadets in the several day train trip to the west. It was my first journey west of Lake Huron. What I remember most is that my father contacted army buddies at almost every train stop to meet the train and see if I was OK. I had to get off at each station and look for likely strangers. Frequently it was meal time and I missed many of them, not his buddies, the meals. When we arrived in Vancouver we were met, taken to the docks and were thrilled to go on board the destroyer HMCS Crescent (I think) for the trip across to Esquimalt. There we were met by trucks, cattle cars for us and a truck for our gear for the ride to Royal Roads. There were eighty-six of us. For the first time there would be cadets from all three services. RMC had reopened after closing for the war. Both colleges were tri-service we would be allotted RMC cadet numbers.
We were met by senior cadets who took immediate charge showed us the college, arranged for us to get all our clothing right down to socks and assured us we doubled every place we went all day long. It was amazing to me how much our senior year ran our lives outside the classroom. They ran the parades under the watchful eyes of CPO Abbott and Sergeant Devout. The last two non-commissioned officers were outstanding men and determined that we would become fit officers. We learned to wrap tape inside out on our hands to get every speck of lint off our uniforms. We learned that Kiwi shoe polish gave the best shine unless you were prepared to spend extra on specialized shoe polish. We learned to carefully make our beds on the double bunks in the four dormitories that were our sleeping quarters; two for first year cadets, the others for our seniors. We each had a small section of a wardrobe for all our things – and that was all. Beds not made to the satisfaction of our seniors were ripped apart to be done again.
Our days were full. Early morning runs or PT; followed by a full day of classes and then compulsory sports; supper and compulsory study until early bedtime. We gathered in small attic spaces and other semi isolated spots to get some quiet and privacy for our work. We were fit. We all played every sport. One theory was that we might have to referee a game for our men in the future so we should all learn to play everything. I found I could play a little Rugger, a game I had never seen, let alone played, and became full back of the second team. I liked the game as only fifteen made the team. If you made it you played every game, all of it, no sitting on the side lines. If someone got hurt you played with fourteen. We had all sports, gymnastics with high box, cross country runs, boxing.
The academics were challenging. There were the usual subjects, with a second language and such things as spherical trigonometry. My sister was taking honours math and physics at the University of Toronto and our math was as thorough as hers. Fortunately we had excellent teachers. Professor Cooke taught physics and could sign his name backwards, an art he said took a year to learn. He and Professor Browne had taught at RMC before the war and knew more about cadets than we did. Professor Stewart who was young, near our age, dressed in the latest mod clothing and had a beautiful young wife. I met him again years later at a reception at Government House in Halifax where I was the Naval Aide de Camp. He was then a member of the Royal Academy. He remembered my name. Dr. Bricknell who taught chemistry and yanked open a stuck drawer which suddenly came free spilling glass slides and tubes which broke on the floor. His only comment was ‘They seem to be making the drawers shorter these days.’ All our teachers considered it was their duty to teach us and they must be at fault if we did not learn. Sixty-five of us survived. Our French teacher was Dutch and spoke with a very guttural accent. He did not last and was replaced by Dr. Sonet. He had retired from teaching at a university in the prairies, gone to California to teach French there, had retired again and came back to Canada. He managed to persuade the government he was still young and vigorous enough to teach young cadets. When he found that although we had all studied French for years none of us were fluent he told us to throw our books out the window, we would all get a pass, now that was settled, let’s learn French. We would start with Foreign Legion drinking songs! He immediately had our attention. Quand Madelon vient nous servir a boire. I remember it still. Oh how I wished he had been my teacher years before.
Our days were full. We only got leave on weekends and then just until 0930 pm. Once a month you could have a late leave until 1030; not late enough for a late movie. We were trucked into Victoria and trucked home at the appointed time. Nothing so grand as a bus. I presume these hours were based on the Royal Naval College where students arrived at age twelve. Several of our term had served in the ranks prior to coming to college. I’m not sure how they stood this overly protective life.
I had no idea of the long range plans when I left Toronto in August. I told my parents it might be two years before I saw them again. That was not to be. We got leave at Christmas; I was on the sports team that flew east to compete against RMC in the spring and I got a month’s leave in August. My parents claimed every time they answered the door I was on their doorstep again. We had little or no money. We had to deposit $30 at the start of the year which was doled out to us at pay parades. ‘McKee, 2888, 75 cents’ (I was the 2,888 cadet accepted at the military colleges since the founding of RMC in 1876, 72 years before) that was enough to keep us in cigarettes – everyone smoked, and chocolate bars. The gunroom where we spent our free time was called an ash tray with a door. When it came to going home for Christmas the cheapest way was to rent the oldest train car which was put on the end of the train so no one came through. We kept half the berths made up and the other spaces were used for bridge 24 hours a day. Our porter began to despair when we got to Northern Ontario and the inspector was due to arrive to check on his work. Our car definitely looked lived in. The policy had been that at many stops we would drop off two teams. One would go to the station hotel and register in room 201. The other team went to the liquor store, filled in the form saying we were residents, thus could buy a case of beer, which they did, when all would rush back to the train. We told the porter he was in good hands. We set to work before the appointed stop, made the beds, emptied the ash trays, scrubbed everything, put on our best clothes and were seated quietly when the inspector arrived. The porter became our firm friend. We were trapped for a day by snow slides in the Rockies on our return and thus arrived late at the college. We were charged with being absent over leave and our leave was stopped for a couple of months. We pleaded ‘Act of God’ to no avail. We knew it was winter, we should have allowed more time to travel.
On the trip to RMC we were flown by the RCAF from Pat Bay to Winnipeg to Trenton. It was my first trip in an airplane. I was seated next a distinguished Wing Commander who had earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and was Director of Cadets. I remember asking him if our first landing was a good one. His reply was ‘you are alive are you not?’
Cadet life was fun as you were all in it together and no one got any preferential treatment; not even those who lived in Victoria. We played tennis together in our time off. We had movies on Sunday run by us with a 16mm projector. Most of the films were training type but we did have ‘Corvette K225’ and ‘Fighting Lady’ about a US Aircraft Carrier. The good ones we saw several times. The big event was the Christmas Dance. The Quarterdeck, a rather distinguished space already was decorated by us and the Navy band played. There was no trouble recruiting local girls with the help of cadets who lived in Victoria as with all of us resplendent in uniforms it was a highlight of the season. There was also the carol service in the castle. We learned ‘Oh santisimo, felicisimo…’ in Spanish, finding it was based on ‘O Sanctissima’ in Latin. Everyone joined in, as always.
We did very little service training other than marching and rifle drill. There was some semaphore and Morse by flashing light, but our real training started in April when we were passed over to the Services. Our Naval term mates from RMC joined us in Esquimalt and we studied Navigation, tides, communications and the like. We went to sea in the cruiser HMCS Ontario and lived sixty in a single mess, built as the Marines mess, slung hammocks, tried boatwork, knots and splices, splicing wire, standing watches… and we got paid! I was so used to being penniless I never felt that wealthy again. We learned welding, or was that during our academic year? I forget.
We congregated at the end of the summer leave in our familiar college and we were the seniors, shouting directions at the new recruits. When you became a cadet officer for a term you even got to sleep in a cabin. I look back at how naïve I was just a year ago and what wonderful all around training I received from such dedicated teachers. I had a couple of careers as well as the Navy. The training I received stood me in good stead for all of them.
What did I learn? You get more done with a team. Those beneath you are more important than you are and must be looked after first. Duty is the great business of every sea officer. It takes constant work to build a reputation; take care that you maintain it. We were so fortunate in our term mates, my fellow cadets were my greatest friends for life.