LCdr (Ret’d) Wall recently retired from the Canadian Forces. His last position was as Chief of Staff over port operations at CFB Esquimalt. The following are excerpts from an oral history interview held in August 2009 where he describes his RRMC cadet experience to Royal Roads University oral history coordinator, Karen Inkster (Karen.Inkster@royalroads.ca).
Karen: Can you just start off by introducing yourself?
Rick: I’m Rick Wall and I retired as a lieutenant commander. I came to Royal Roads between 1972 and 1974 so it was during the tenure of Captain Peers, just before the university got degree-granting status.
Karen: So what did you do throughout your career?
Rick: Throughout my career I’ve done a variety of jobs. I started off and trained to be a ship board engineer so I started my training on the McKenzie which is one of the older steam frigates. Got my final qualification on Annapolis which is about to be turned into an artificial reef. I did my first head of department job on Iroquois which is still out on the east coast. I have done several project management jobs. I went from being intern on ship to get involved with major crown projects. I think the most satisfying job I had was a four-year exchange I had with the Royal Navy where I was head of diesel development over in their headquarters. The most challenging was working with nuclear-biological-chemical defense – something I had absolutely no training in but they needed a project manager and I ended up doing that for seven years. And then I transitioned over into nuclear safety. The most interesting job was probably when I was working at research development on a fuel cell project so I got to know Ballard Power Systems very well with their fuel cells and getting into simulations and dive systems. You get very eclectic when you get into research and development. And even my last job out here as a chief of staff over port operations, getting into the human resources side of the house which I’d been able to avoid for most of my career doing that full-time was interesting and challenging. You know I had the confidence that I could take on something I never tried before. So over the 36 years I found I’ve done a lot more than I thought I would and I always knew that if I was in a job that I didn’t like particularly or didn’t find particularly interesting that three years hence it would be on to a new job anyways. And I always found that challenging as well – it kept life interesting for me.
Karen: It sounds like you had a lot of interesting opportunities.
Rick: Well it was because of the navy I actually met my wife too because it was during one of my exchanges over in the UK that I met her so I guess I owe that to Royal Roads and the navy!
Karen: So tell me about what prompted you to come to Royal Roads.
Rick: I was living in Toronto at the time. I actually had applied to RMC but in those days they used to split the files and my file got sent out here. I’d never traveled anywhere – the furthest I’d been to was Niagara Falls which you know is very close to Toronto so the thought of coming out to Victoria kind of filled me with fear and trepidation. I wanted to join the military. The personal reason was I didn’t want to pay for my education, didn’t want my parents to be burdened with it, but once I got out here I guess the desire to serve um to actually make a difference. I know it’s a bit idealistic but when you’re 18, you’re idealistic and so the first big trip of my life was hopping on the old Boeing 707s which was the service air at that time and flying across the country and meeting a bunch of people I’d never met before and ending up in this place.
Karen: So the flight was actually a military flight?
Rick: It was. Living in Toronto they sent buses up to the Downsview air force base to pick up all the people who were coming from Toronto and drove us down to Trenton and then we caught the plane. In those days it was a Boeing 707 – we had four of them – and they used to fly a regular service across the country just for moving people because it was a lot cheaper than going Air Canada. And it was a milk run. He did four stops between Trenton and here. And if you hadn’t flown before you got used to flying by the time you got off the airplane. But it also meant we got into Victoria rather late at night.
Karen: And was it the navy you decided to go in right away?
Rick: It was. In high school I was a scuba diver and I enjoyed being around the water. Originally I wanted to be a helicopter pilot and fly off the ships but my eyesight wasn’t up to it and so I started off as a ship driver, maritime surface, sub-surface and in my second year I decided I’d rather be an engineer so I changed over to engineering and I’ve been an engineer for the 36 years I served.
Karen: So next year’s the 2010 naval centennial, the navy centennial – what kind of significance does that hold for you?
Rick: What is of interest is we are also in the process of turning Annapolis – which was one of the old frigates that was moored out here – it’s being sunk next year as well – and being turned into an artificial reef and that’s probably more significant for me because that’s where I did my training as an engineer. And it’s actually significant for Captain Peers who was the commandant at the time because he was also the first CO of Annapolis. So the centennial is interesting because the international fleet review that will happen but for me it’s going to be the sinking of Annapolis that’s going to make 2010 special.
Karen: So what were some of your most memorable experiences being here at Royal Roads?
Rick: Being a Toronto boy the biggest memory I have of this place is the Olympic mountains. Coming from southern Ontario which is flat as a pancake, coming out into here to the grounds of Royal Roads, gorgeous as they are, it’s the mountains that kept on drawing me back out here and it made life very difficult – especially math class – because the math classroom is at the front of Grant Block, and you just look out the windows and see the mountains and try and keep your attention on calculus and derivatives and everything when you look at the mountains it was very difficult for me. So that was the biggest memory. Second one is just the grounds themselves you know the castle here, the grounds, going out into the woods which we used to do quite frequently as part of our training – it was just an experience that I’ll never forget, and it was very enjoyable.
Karen: What kind of training did you do in the woods?
Rick: Oh we did the recruit runs, cross country running, orientation, and I was on the wrestling team and part of our warmup was to go running up what we used to call Heartbreak Hill which is the steep hill at the back of the cross country run and that used to be just part of a warmup before we got into the wrestling practice, just to get the heart rate up and get the aerobic endurance up.
Karen: Any other memorable moments?
Rick: I guess the camaraderie that developed because when you have a bunch of strangers thrown together and the very intense program we had both the academic and the physical you created very strong friendships that have lasted the 36 years I was in the navy. I still run across some of my old classmates and the things you used to do together – skylarks we used to call them – stupid little things like taking a friend’s MG on the night of his very important date and tearing into the old library. About six of us did that and he came down looking for his car and couldn’t find it. If you look in one of our yearbooks you’ll see a picture of the car coming out of the library.
The old tank that used to be down by the parade square – our cadet leader was a tank driver – so to commemorate him we painted it pink for him. He didn’t like that very much but you know, midnight, we had nothing else to do so we decided to paint the tank pink. In fact it was a church parade the next day – I don’t know how Captain Peers took it having a pink tank next to the parade square. Those sorts of skylarks just added to the bonds that were generated between the cadets.
Karen: You’ve mentioned Captain Peers a couple of times – tell me a little bit more about him.
Rick: Captain Peers was commandant when we were here and I didn’t get to see him much. Cadets, the normal cadets, didn’t get to see him, it was mainly the cadet officers that got to see him the most but in later years I got to realize how much he’d put into the college. He fought hard to get degree-granting status for Royal Roads. He saw the model of the College Militaire Royal where they offered a Sherbrook degree as opposed to going through the efforts of getting their own degree and decided that that’s not the vision he had for this place. He wanted to have the ability for Royal Roads to grant its own degree independently and it took him about five years longer but he had great pride of this place. Looking back I can see how much he really worked hard for it and I have a lot of respect for him.
Karen: What about other staff people – do you have recollections of them?
Rick: Dr. Peter Smart – he was Mr. Smart at that time – he probably dragged half of my class through a math degree. He was the first professor that I knew that actually gave us his home phone number and said if three or more of you needed help just phone him and he’d come in. That’s not something you get in a civilian university. I went into a first year U of T engineering class and saw a class of 300 looking at the professor in an auditorium who normal students, first and second years, would never see the actual professor and Peter Smart was one of those people that – it was special our class. Those of us who came in here for ’72-’74 we – I’m not sure why we created the bond with him but we did and I actually ran into him in the mess when I first came out here and he still remembered us even though he’s been retired for a while.
I guess the other one would be Captain Brodsky who was very interesting. He was teaching engineers English which is very difficult at the best of times but he was one of the few professors that could see the way engineers think. So he did a utopian literature course which I thought was interesting because engineers always like reading science fiction books. I could still remember the books we studied so obviously it made an impression on us.
Karen: And you used to study outside?
Rick: On days like today when it got very hot out of course the old buildings don’t have air conditioning and they do have walls of glass so they end up being like a greenhouse so Captain Brodsky was not adverse to taking us outside when it was really hot in the classroom – it was easier than trying to teach a bunch of sleeping engineers.
Karen: What was the contrast between Royal Roads and RMC?
Rick: Like day and night. We found the Rodents as we used to call ourselves – we worked hard, played hard, while we were here. We didn’t let the academics slip, we didn’t let the military slip because we weren’t allowed to of course but being smaller we tended to get groups of ten or 15 people that are really close and actually enjoyed themselves. We used to go downtown together. We’d do the skylarks as I said before. When we got to RMC, RMC was like a university. People were much more intense on the academics and there was less of the fun side. And course the other big thing is that we went from “King of the Hill” because we were the senior class here at the end of second year, to third year at RMC, being one of the plebs again. So, no, that was a shock in itself. But the big thing is that they were much more serious than we were and I don’t think they had as much fun. I talked to some of the people that spent the whole four years at RMC – the impression I had is that they didn’t have as much fun as we had. And it’s an opportunity missed I thought. So I’m glad I did go to Royal Roads instead of RMC.
Karen: Do you get together very often with your classmates?
Rick: As a class, no. The way my career ended up I spent 21 years in Ottawa – for my sins – and I’ve lost touch with a lot of my class. There’s about four of us that kept in close contact – we see each other every four or five years. But what I’m finding is since I’ve come out to the west coast it’s the retirement dos where we get together and there was even a web page set up by one of our class, the class of ’76 and it’s mainly funerals and retirements and basically when we get together there was seven of us who came to my retirement. We got together and Dr. Smart was there in fact and that’s about the only time.
Karen: How do you feel when you get together with your friends?
Rick: For those that are close it’s like we just saw each other the other day. You know we pick up four, five years afterwards, where we left off last time we met .
Karen: Now you were here when the library was built?
Rick: Yes, I was here from ’72-’74 so the library, they started the structure at the end of ’72, during exam routine which is always interesting trying to study as they were driving the piles into the mud and the library didn’t get finished until after we had left.
Karen: So looking around campus what kind of changes have happened since you were here?
Rick: They’ve got the new block, the new accommodation block which was built just before it got turned over to Royal Roads University. Not much else has changed – probably fewer gardeners because the gardens don’t look quite as posh as they used to. But very little has changed – which is nice. This year you’ve started a lot of construction and the Bateman building is going up so that should be interesting, coming down Recruit Hill which is the steep hill behind as you come from the university – or from Colwood – all that construction going on there was a bit of a shock. But you know Hatley Park will always be Hatley Park – the castle hasn’t changed much. The buildings are the same they just have different uses now. The old mess deck which was the student lounge is now a conference centre I noticed last time I was out there. The pool and gym are still there. And you can’t change much with the old growth forest around here.
Karen: So how do you feel when you come back here?
Rick: When I came back in 2006 was when I got posted back here – it felt like coming home again and I’d come running through here most mornings and I noticed that even I have a little private place I used to go to just below the Belmont Gate, a rocky outcropping which has a beautiful view of the roads – I noticed it was still there and a few other people have discovered it because there’s actually a worn path up to it now where before I used to just kind of go through the woods to get to it. But it was just one of those nice things to see that some things don’t change – even though it’s been 30 some odd years since I’ve been out here.
Karen: How do you think your experiences at Royal Roads impacted the rest of your life?
Rick: I think the biggest thing that I learned while at Royal Roads was self discipline and also a sense of self worth – that confidence that you build by succeeding at things you never thought you’d ever be able to do. And I think that read across with just about every aspect of my life you know I had more self confidence when I came out of here than I did when I came in and just feeling that I could take on most things – even if I didn’t know what I was doing I could at least give it a try and I think that’s one of the important life lessons that came out of Royal Roads and the camaraderie. When you look at all the friends I made here that stayed with me over 36 years of military service, I still run into them you know a couple of friends who work for the provincial government, I ran into them on the street. They come out to the mess sometimes. It is…I wouldn’t say it’s a ‘comfort’ but it is nice to know you have this network of friends that you never know when you’re going to run into them because the Canadian military is a small community but we seem to be everywhere – we’re all across the country. And even in Europe I’ve run into one of my classmates in Brussels of all places.
Karen: What would you want people to know about Royal Roads?
Rick: That’s a difficult question. I guess Royal Roads is more than just a screen set for the X-Men. There was a lot of tradition associated with it and a lot of memories tied to a lot of people here and it is one of these places that I would hate to see developed and changed and sold off. I think just the beauty of the place and the traditions that have grown up around it. I’d just like people to know that.