10970 Karmin McKay: “You have it easy at RMC,” they said

Editor’s Note: This article is the second in a series. It sets the stage and foundation for many of the articles to follow by the same author. As such, it is a longer than the others. Future articles include: optimizing secondary duties, your first posting, Generals and RSMs are people too, What is TDV, you are your own career manager, and several more. Common themes intertwine between them all.

Article by 10970 Karmin McKay 

It seems like yesterday that I was on the parade square having just completed the recruit obstacle course. A bunch of very old guys tried to march across the square, the Old Brigade. White hair, no hair, many overweight, some almost walking skeletons, limping worse than us and they had not run the obstacle course yesterday.  I remember speaking with one of them and then others in the next 3 years. We had it easy compared to them they said. Things were a lot tougher at RMC when they were a cadet.  They would then explain in great detail why we had it easy and they had it much rougher.  My goal at the time was to live to be 21. Who cared about 50 years later?

My class enters the Old Brigade this year and many of us limp, are overweight and lack hair.  I can tell you that we did have it easy, not compared to them, the Old Brigade recruits of 1972 but compared to the current classes of OCdts at RMC. Let me tell you why.

In order to set the stage, a short overview of some memories from RMC.

First year was the first pilot for a reality TV series called Survivor. Do not vote yourself off the island.  My first memory of RMC is of a clown in a funny hat yelling at a group of us getting off a bus. He was my rook flight CSC. I entered RMC at a weight of 120 pounds and 6 weeks later I boxed as a welterweight of 142 pounds. By the time ex cadet weekend arrived, I had free fallen parachuted, started scuba lessons and made the rep rifle team.  I was also the first rookie charged in my flight and arrived for the nightly inspection to see another defaulter on his first inspection as well. I remember the both of us trying to claim the right to be the first one charged in the wing. In second year, he became my mountain climbing partner. We boarded military buses that took us first to Chatham NB to see a jet fighter base, then Halifax to go to sea on a destroyer and then to Gagetown to see an army fire power demonstration. All three had one thing in common, endless free beer. Big guns shooting, free beer and food, I was in hog heaven. I remember two recruit class assemblies in ML7. The first was a lecture by an MP concerning the evils of pot. He claimed that he knew that at least 2 of us had smoked pot which was a joke because I already knew that many in my rook flight had smoked pot. Then I smelt pot in the room and thought wow someone here is really brave. It turned out to be a simulation of the smell he had released so that we would know what it smelt like. The second was watching Paul Henderson score his Canadian famous goal that sank the Russians in 72. Many of us slept through most of the game. The key to shoe polish racing is to move fast and win the first time. The key to winning spider races is to pick a spider that kills the other spider rather than racing. If you do not know what shoe polish or spider racing is, ask someone from the Old Brigade.

Other than surviving and many did not, the biggest challenges seemed to be: find a date for the Christmas Ball and secure a fourth year Air Force cadet’s bright and shiny boots in your size as well as a spare gas plug for the FNC1 rifle. By securing both, one now had a pair of boots only worn for parades so less opportunity to granuch them and no need to spend time cleaning the gas plug every time we fired a feu de joie which happened far too much.

I was also physically attacked by a third-year cadet. (more on that later). But even that came to benefit me. A fourth-year cadet lived down the hall from me who was also badged for the armoured corps. He looked mean and tough and easily intimidated us. I admired him and wanted to be just like him. After my fight, he took me aside and asked me if I wanted to break into the mess hall for some food. He showed me the various points of entry and then his preferred route. What an adventure, dodging the (as I thought at the time, dangerous, sneaky, road runner fast) commissionaires and securing better snacks than cold dried out toast at 10 PM. Plus with my role model. Death also appeared twice in my first year. The first when one of my classmates drowned during the obstacle course race and the second when my role model break and enter mentor died in an accident. Just before we left to go to BOTC in Chilliwack BC, we were told that not only were we the Centennial Class but the best class ever at RMC.

Second year. Similar to first year in many ways, drop parachuting, add mountain climbing, compulsory ball room dancing lessons, first year boxing instructor instead of boxing, and scuba diving in Navy Bay before class. Walking through snow to scuba dive at dawn. Crazy now, not then. My scuba partner was a third year from Royal Roads who also became my partner for breaking into the dining hall. He was to become the CWC in fourth year. Early in the year, we were breaking into the dining hall and heard a noise as a door below us opened. The commissioner looked up at us and stated, “Be careful up there, there is ice.” We thanked him and said we would be careful as we continued to enter the kitchen window. As we went to gather our snacks, I noticed that the oil in a French Fry machine was melted. That was a game changer. We were suddenly the French Fry Kings of Brock Squadron. After Christmas, I was told on more than one occasion that the fourth year wanted French fries for Kai so off to cook fries for 100 starving cadets instead of remaining in my room for compulsory study. I would go with a group to carry the trays. By the end of second year, a lock had been placed on the cabinet with the smoked oysters and other delicacies which we like to taste test for quality assurance. A third-year cadet had a six foot boa in his room and we would watch the monthly feeding. At Christmas in second year, the class was gathered and told that we were the worst class to ever come to RMC. And that’s not because about 20 of us had already streaked the KGH nurses residence.

Third year. Similar to second year but add making the rep football team. I had never played football and I think they brought me along as a mascot and practice player. Someone to run around and knock down. But, I dressed for every game and went on all the road trips. The new third years from CMR and Royal Roads not only expanded the size of the class but mellowed us down I thought. Wrong. My new best trouble making partner from Roads asked me on behalf of a professor if I ever intended to come back to class. Skipping classes was easy and as no punishments accrued why not skip. I only had one class on a Tuesday morning so why go and I did not. Football made me tired. The football team had a separate dining area with better food than was being served in the dining hall. The football team also did not parade on Ex-cadet weekend and so also did not practice drill for it either. Instead we slept in and played football. A professor asked me if I played football, and I replied yes. He told me that my mark in his class was 44%. Rather than write a supplementary exam he stated that if I promised to never take his class again, he would give me a 56%. I thanked him. The class that I got a 20% in, well he did not offer me a free pass.  But because my best trouble making partner also had to write a sup for the same professor, we were able to be bartenders for the fourth year champagne party. Watching that party and scoring bottles of champagne as our wages was worth writing the sup. In second year, breaking into the dining hall was a Brock Squadron deal as I never saw any others. In third year, I thought I had it made, my ex break and enter and scuba partner was CWC. I had at least one get out of jail free card. I entered the dining hall after football season was over and saw at least 10 cadets cooking everything from bacon and eggs to toast to fries. No way would they get everything clean again or hide their mess. I left and the MP’s caught some of them a couple of weeks later. The kitchen had also started making fries from powered potatoes instead of fresh cut fries left ready to cook beside the fryers as in second year. I remember a DCdts Thursday morning parade on snow covered ice. As the squadrons wheeled in a turn, the cadets started slipping, falling and it was like bowling pins knocking one another down. DCdts ordered us into the chapel and as it was hot, to take off our long coats. The look in his eyes when he saw cadets wearing pajamas rather than uniforms was priceless. Four of us also flew to Edmonton, collected a ton of new ice climbing equipment, food tent etc., from the Airborne Regiment and went to climb mountains at the Colombia Icefields during study week.  Adventure training. We were the only ones we saw. A week I will never forget, especially as I came close to dying again on the trip.

Fourth year. Add academics. Graduating with the class was important for many reasons: huge raise in pay, finally get out of school, and join the army working with big toys for big boys. That meant NO sups. It helped that most of my classes had 6 to 8 students in them.  My best trouble making partner and I shared the distinction of being the last fourth year charged and we served our week of beta punishment like a badge of honour. The CWC and DCWC were also confined to the college for 30 days as a result of our 100 days party. Our DCdts wrote a memo which received national press coverage concerning how we were to properly faint while on parade. The same DCdts asked us if we had questions following one of his Thursday morning leadership tirades. One of the class stood up, made his comments and then questioned him. The DCdts huffed and puffed and then stormed out of the chapel. He never lectured us again. We also received detailed secret briefings concerning our sworn enemy, the USSR. How they were attacking Canada, entering our territorial waters and airspace or perhaps setting up clandestine weather stations in Newfoundland like the Nazis did in WW2. Our class was given a mess in the Rosewood Room. Now we could party and drink without having to walk to the mess across the road. That certainly decreased study time while increasing our beer consumption.  The RMC rifle team beat the then Canadian Olympic team in a practice shoot for them in May 76. We were not asked to compete for a place on the Olympic team because we were judged to be too immature (not one of the good ole boys) said the coach. Our unarmed combat training was a joke. I also made a formal complaint against the kitchen and its food which resulted in a mess hall committee that met once a month.  I also complained about sword drill (more on that later).  By the time I graduated I absolutely hated Russians and knew WW3 was to happen before 1980. 100% guaranteed. We finally marched off the square on 1 June 1976 and NO more school for me. Yahoo.

In summary, in my four years as a cadet, I went to West Point twice and the USAFA once to shoot. We only lost 3 times in four years, to them. We won every contest in Canada each year.  We played football against UBC in Vancouver and we got our butt kicked bad by a team that ended up fourth in Canada that year. But they admitted that we outdrank them that night. I had a great week in Jasper National Park winter mountaineering and ice climbing. I parachuted, became a scuba diver, won 2 athletic awards, and graduated with a low 60% average. I wrote 2 sups. As I had earned my swimming bronze medallion in swimming, I could get the key to the swimming pool whenever I wanted: get scuba equipment at 0630, go swimming to relax at midnight or host private mixed pool parties just like the water polo team did. In addition, I also debated, wrote articles for the college paper, assisted with the yearbook, joined the band for 2 months (they practiced outside my window, if you can’t beat em, join em I thought), high box team for a few months, IM floor hockey and failed to make the rugby team. No wonder academics ranked fifth in priority most of the time. My shrink has confirmed that it is not only me that had dreams that the final exam is tomorrow and as I had not attended class, I did not know what to study.  My major goals going into fourth year were to graduate, keep my cross clubs, and become the Captain of the rifle team. I succeeded in all.

Other than it appears that I seemed to have a great deal of fun and adventure while at RMC, I could not wait to graduate. 13 years of school and now 4 more years at RMC was too much. I went to RMC so that I could become an APC driver.  Get me out of here. But I was not the only one. My rook flight’s first team skylark occurred about a week after arrival and continuous hazing by the fourth year to do something. The complete rook flight escaped and went across to Fort Henry and made a giant 5 for Brock Squadron of rocks for all to see from the parade square. As we ran back to RMC together, we neglected to count bodies to make sure that we were all there. One of us decided that he had had enough and turned right to hitch hike back to Nova Scotia. He was later found hiding at his girlfriend’s house.  I also came close to quitting several times. The first early in 1973 to join the American Army. The second in third year to join the UK Army. I had already applied and been accepted to Sandhurst but made the football team and stayed. I joined the army to drive APC’s and they sent me to RMC. Then on the rookie tour of the East, I saw tanks shooting and wanted to drive and shoot them, not study. You made it into RMC which was not easy. Stay, study hard and finish your degree with better marks than me.  I enjoyed my time at RMC, did well on phase training because I liked it and had a terrible RMC assessment. My biggest takeaway was a group of life long best friends.

Now that you have an idea about my time at RMC and some of the events for the Class of 76, let’s explore why the current cadets have it much tougher than we did.

Technology.  In my first year, application of technology was how fast and accurate you could move the slide rule. A phone call meant standing in line for the pay phone. We could do things that would have been viral on the internet today before you even finished the activity. Instead, the incidents stayed low key not known to others. Therefore, no trouble unless you were caught.  A handheld calculator with the square root function cost $225 in second year (2 months net pay, $25 a month pay allotment). A third year computer course was typing correctly on punch cards (I failed that exercise as well). Too tired from football again.  We hand wrote an essay once with minor whiteout corrections. Not 20 different drafts on a laptop. Information was found in three books from Massey Library not from 500 million Google hits.  A timely response was perhaps in three days, not an email or text a minute later. Times were slower, easier.

Military Institution with a minor in academics vs a University with a military minor. RMC transformed from our version of a military college with an education minor to one with more emphasis on academics years ago. In my time, some went the technology route and at the time, this was thought to be a career killer. It is no longer the case. Including my RMC time, I spent a total of 8 years out of 20 in FORMAL education. Had I not retired, 9 years of 21 years or 43% of my service time. If I included OPDP, new equipment training, courses I ran, and the other seemingly endless courses like defensive driving, safety, ski school, and German, well more than 50% of my military service time was spent in school.  This includes more than a year at the Royal Military College of Science in the UK earning a master’s in technology. More on that later. And I almost quit RMC so I would not have to go to school anymore.

The Enemy. Our single enemy was the USSR, to be politically correct, Orangeland.  Our fight would be in Europe, in the North Atlantic and over Northern Canada. Today’s graduates have potential enemies all over the world including our past enemy. Today’s enemy could be your neighbour living down the street in Canada. We went on peace keeping missions (more on that later) while our current military has been at war almost since 1992 when we first deployed to Bosnia.

Leadership. Almost all our RMC and phase training leadership had soldiered in a peacetime army. A Colonel may have 3 medals if they had a tour to Cyprus. The same with our Senior NCOs. Other than that rare UN tour, they may have had a CD and a medal for serving when the Queen had a milestone of service. I know that many of your current RMC leadership team have several medals acknowledging their service in SDA’s (the politically correct term for war zone). They will have a significantly different view of what it means to go to war than my team of peacetime soldiers did. The theory of leadership and its impact goes out the window when bullets start bouncing off the ground beside you. Real life experience trumps lesson plans read by instructors every time. I suspect the current leadership team at RMC would not have tolerated my behaviour nor that of many of my classmates.

Size of the Cadet Wing. We had 7 squadrons went I went to RMC and grew to 8 by grad. We had many rep teams, clubs and about as many leadership positions as the much larger wing today. It was easier to make a rep team and competition for cadet leadership positions if that was one’s plan while as intense and competitive, had a much smaller group of candidates than today’s wing. 10% of the wing was on the football and rugby teams. Add in the hockey, basketball and volleyball teams and we are now getting close to 15% of the wing. We all ate at the same time in Yeo Hall with waitress table service. Several cadets married their waitress.

DND Financial Support: DND had much more money allocated to RMC support in the 70’s than today. Rep teams, the clubs and adventure training were well funded and expensive equipment purchased by DND funds. Want to go somewhere for local adventure training with a club? If you had 404s get a staff car and go. Mountain climbing and going to miss meals, TD money paid for that. There were no crumbling concrete steps or grass growing on the track by the parade square. They even had enough money to buy all the Brasso needed to shine the cannons beside the parade square flagpole. Classes with 6 students in fourth year. Ask and the DND machine provided.

Cost of Living expenses. We cleared just north of $100 in 1972 and got a whopping 10% raise ($10) each year. In third year, we earned the right to drive a car. Our class arrived with a Jaguar, a fully loaded Shelby Mustang, 2 x Datsun 240z, a Maverick decorated with dingle balls and Felix to name a few. My cost to own a 240z was $25 a month interest to my bank. My insurance was $125 a year. No cell phone bills etc. I could make as much money on TD some months on weekend travel as my net salary.

Some final pointers. I miss the annual frigate snowball fights. Enjoy them if you can. We had some classics. The best one involved a base Kingston fire truck doing donuts on the ice on the square after the Frigateers turned the fire hoses on us. If you scuba dive, get an underwater metal detector and search in a circle between 75 to 100 yards in front of the Martello Tower across Navy Bay. I believe they used to shoot at targets floating on the water with their muskets. I found many musket balls there. If you like fishing, the pier has world class bass fishing in the fall. Regrets, I have a few. Although I participated in the annual Christmas food fight, I never threw complete Yule logs like others. I became disgusted when I saw the waitresses using snow shovels pushing the food on the floor. I hope this event has ended.  I should have studied harder. My low marks cost me a master’s in Electro-Optics in California because my RMC marks were too low. My other work and discoveries did not matter despite superb recommendations. It should be no surprise that I approached service life after graduation as I did at RMC. Where is my next big adventure and how soon?

Both the Class of 75 and 76 had a Rhode’s Scholar. Not all the class of 76 were Luddite’s like myself and many but not all managed to play on a rep team and get excellent marks. Like other classes we had our golden boys that looked good on parade but were not trustworthy in the field. Conversely, many average cadets became excellent leaders and officers. Others not so much. Enjoy every day as if its your last and plan your military life as if you will live to become the CDS. A friend of mine who was retiring after four years to become a veterinarian retired as a 3-star general 35 years later. Study harder and get the best degree that you can with the best marks that you can. It can make a huge difference in your career both in and out of the military. To the current classes at RMC and recent graduates, thank you for your service and for volunteering to join the military. In hindsight, most of my career could be described as adventure training on steroids. I participated in five conflicts in four different SDA’s in 20 years. More after I retired. All but one were in my last 3 years of service. You entered RMC while our Forces were in several wars, conflicts, riots, disasters or whatever they are called today. Your future as a soldier is very different from what I expected when I graduated. TDV. More on this topic later.

For Part 1 in this series please see here.

4 Comments

  • Bruce Lazenby

    May 28, 2021 at 9:22 am

    Strange that about 0.00000000001% of the population can relate to what you wrote – but those who do, can relate to 100% of it.

    Nice job Karm.

  • Paul Crober

    June 8, 2021 at 11:04 am

    What Mike, Bill and Bruce (above) said Karmin. You nailed it. Phrased a bit differently than I would have — but you nailed it. Well done Karmin.