Retrospective on College and Life after the Military
Article by 5947 Mike Siska (RRMC/RMC 1963)
I was born in Abbotsford, British Columbia in the Fraser Valley farming community south of the Abbotsford Airport. The airport was constructed as a training base under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in support of WWII RCAF #24 Elementary Flying Training School. As a child I watched with awe the daily training flights of airmen in their fighter and bomber aircraft – I decided early as a child, that was the life for me. My parents owned a farm nearby and my father had worked on the base as a labourer. While my early childhood experience was farming, there was a longing for greater horizons. On completing my Senior Matriculation at Abbotsford High School, I applied at the RCAF Recruiting Centre in Vancouver hoping for acceptance for the Short Term Commission by way of the pilot training program offered at the time. The recruiting officer advised that for a permanent commission and a full career, I should consider the ROTP option and apply for acceptance at the Canadian Services College Royal Roads near Victoria. On applying, and after my initial selection at Centralia, I was accepted into the college and the RCAF. Arriving a week late, due to delays in receipt of my academic credentials, put me in the spotlight with Senior Cadets, who by my absence at muster and roll call knew my name. So there began my journey with the RCAF and Royal Roads and my career path which was to follow.
Not having any Cadet or military experience, my first year at Royal Roads in 1959 was quite a culture shock overcoming and adjusting to the rigors of recruit term, academics, sports and College military Navy traditions. It was obvious to us greenhorns that the Cadets from the Naval Venture program had a leg up on us for having already experienced a year under their belt at Naden. With my interest in music, I joined the Cadet band playing bugle, adding that extra dimension to the military marching and the Sunday morning parades. Church parades were mandatory for most of us and it was off to church; we assisted there with collections and ushering duties. Playing the bugle led to additional duties for revelry and bugling the last post, ending evening duties for the day. I was honoured with the position of Band Master in my senior year at Royal Roads.
After our first 6 months of College and intense academic programs, my perfect vision had rapidly diminished and I needed eyeglasses to correct for near sightedness. This medical condition in turn led to my ineligibility for pilot training. This was a major disappointment. However, at the end of the first term I was offered a release, the option to become a navigator, or to proceed on a non-flight career. I chose to continue towards Engineering and redirect my focus. My roommate during first year was 5949 Joe Slater who has remained a lifelong friend sharing many similar interests.
First Year College was a grind and those who couldn’t adjust to the rigors of academics and military routines were cut and discharged. We lost about a half of our class and tragically, one to suicide. It must have been devastating to staff but they had their duties to perform and we who coped and thrived were the proud results of their efforts in the training and future development of military officers. Our Director of Studies coined the phrase 65-4-63 as a class motto to rally the rest of us remaining Cadets to receive our commissions on graduation.
Royal Roads was established on the Dunsmuir Estate purchased by the Ministry of Defense for $75,000 and opened as a Naval College during WW11. The castle and estate grounds are extraordinary and unique in setting on the ocean front opposite CFB Esquimalt. The historical uniqueness of the heritage designated Castle, formal Italian and Japanese gardens with ponds, and the adjacent forested lands provided a magical setting attenuating the excesses of the daily routine and military rigors of my College life.
We were truly fortunate to have outstanding staff at Royal Roads and the following individuals particularly come to mind: Director of Studies Professor C. C. Cook, Chemistry Professor Bricknell, Physical and Recreational Officer Lt Greig along with notable non-commissioned officers, CPO Kelly, S/Sgt Dodd and F/S Chabot. Of all the Commandants, I found Brigadier G. H. Spencer at RMC to be the most influential in my life with his emphasis on well-being of the Cadets and stressing the even balance of academic studies and extra-curricular activities, a challenge for each and every Cadet during our time and for every College year.
I was engaged to my high school sweetheart throughout my four years at College and having Heather come over from Vancouver made all the formal dances at Royal Roads very special like no other. On one of her trips to year-end celebrations, I had made arrangements to ensure she was able to catch transportation back to the mainland, and this effort made me late returning to College. This caught the eye of the Duty Officer leading to charges and two weeks on defaults near graduation. Early morning default routine put me in the exclusive class of several others, mostly Juniors. As Senior Cadet on charge with 3 bars I was responsible and leading this motley group so we practiced graduation parade routines, making us the most well rehearsed group within the Wing. I must admit and still to this day question the Captain for valuing curfew over duty.
For many years Royal Roads was a feeder college to RMC so we all went from seniors and Cadet officers to Third Year Cadets within a much larger college institution. Friendships with fellow CMR and RMC classmates took time to develop since we were now segregated into our specific Squadrons and academic disciplines. I, along with many in our class, found the adjustments to this new reality even more challenging. Academic studies were more demanding requiring a major commitment to keep up with the curriculum – my choice for RMC was civil engineering. The faculty consisted both of RMC professors together with a select few from Queens University. This joint arrangement facilitated RMC to be a degree granting university. As I recall, the class of ‘62 were the first class to be granted full degrees and our class of ‘63 became the second. The demands of the engineering program were all encompassing leading to my decision to limit extracurricular activities and sport to a minimum, to fully commit to meeting the academic requirements for both third and fourth years. For example, for mathematical calculations we still relied on log table and slide rule and would have loved to have the benefit of calculators and computers which were only in the early development stages. I had to return early after my third year summer to study and write a supplementary exam in fluid mechanics for which I was most grateful for this additional opportunity to work one on one with the professor, and to have a full understanding of this important subject matter so necessary for my future engineering work ahead. I love the French language but I had little aptitude to learn it- I found it most demanding, confusing masculine and feminine and grammatically difficult – I did manage a 51% each year, more to the generosity of the language professors. Being bilingual with Hungarian as my mother tongue, I had wished that I could have pursued studies in this language thinking it could have been more beneficial to the military. My summer postings included CFB Gimli, CFB North Bay, and CFB Halifax.
The Class of ‘63 entered RRMC in 1959 nearly 20 years prior to the entry of women in 1980. In many ways our College experience was very much in the traditional “Anglo-Prussian” military model and male ethos. The stress and challenges faced by those pioneering Cadet women cannot be fully appreciated and it would appear that some of the same problems persist in the military today. Challenges of gender differences and human diversity will require continued attention and vigilance both at the Colleges and in the military.
We all joined the armed forces in service to Canada knowing we may be called to give our lives to the nation. In 1962 between September 11th through to October the 28th, the Cold War was at its most chilling development during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Our Class was starting Third Year studies at the College and much speculation circulated among all the Cadets on the role the Canadian military would play if the USSR and the USA were incapable of avoiding war. Thankfully the nuclear crisis was diffused and major war was avoided. Looking back our generation benefited from the peace dividend through the sacrifices of preceding generations. The Cadets now in College face more diverse global issues from Russia, China, terrorism, cyber threats and a host of other rising worldly issues.
As a legacy to the College, our Class initiated and funded the Wall of Honour as an inspiration for Cadets and others – I commend our Class Committee for their work and dedication for the success of this worthwhile project. I have also found the power of personal inspiration to be unequaled, and during my College years the teaching staff, commissioned officers and NCOs have made a significant difference in my life. I have reflected on those who are listed on the Memorial Arch and each time I pass through the arch I am humbled and reminded of the supreme sacrifice paid by our former Cadets.
The morning after graduation, Heather and I were married in Kingston and left on our honeymoon, driving across the US from east to west and up to the coast to B.C. to celebrate with family. I was posted to 1 Construction Engineering Unit [1CEU] at CFB Lincoln Park in Calgary – it was a superb first posting with many assignments related to field studies, soil analysis, and varying engineering assignments in many bases in Canada. The military base in Calgary was closed in 1964 and 1CEU was transferred to CFB Winnipeg Manitoba. Canadian Military Engineers have been a part of the national development of Canada with major contributions and successes in WW1, WW11 and Korea. 1CEU, owing its origins in wartime activities, was involved from coast to coast, in the north, including military activities in Europe, the Middle East and in Canada’s commitment to peace keeping. 1CEU was involved in military installations in the north including Alert, our most northern military base. I was most fortunate to be involved in this very interesting infrastructure engineering and construction program leading to unique arctic experiences. While there, I was fortunate to visit Fort Conger situated in Lady Franklin Bay, Discovery Harbour, now Qikiqtaaluk Park, Nunavut, which became central to the historic polar expeditions of the late 19th and 20th century by such notable explorers as George Nares, Adolphus Greely and Robert Peary in his quest for the north pole. Being present at this historic site afforded greater appreciation of the extreme challenges and risks faced by the early explorers in those northern unforgiving lands. I had submitted a proposal to Parks Canada to stabilize the buildings and prevent further degradation, but this was rejected in favour of annual monitoring of the site. The engineering experience I acquired at 1CEU confirmed my keen interest in continuing to practicing engineering, leading to my decision to leave the military and pursue my chosen career in Civil Engineering. I did miss the camaraderie of the military and the friendships built over many years, but a career in engineering was my chosen path for the future.
Through our introduction to Victoria with two years at Royal Roads, Heather and I wanted to settle in Victoria and after securing employment, we bought a 1911 Dutch Colonial heritage home with most of its original architectural features intact. I spent my principle years in consulting engineering and project management with a local/provincial/national firm, including three years as manager of a branch office in Nanaimo. The major recession of 1980 lead to many engineering firms being severely impacted, necessitating major layoffs. It was an opportunity to start my own engineering practice in Victoria which continued my career over the next 25 years. We chose Victoria as our retirement home with close association to Royal Roads and the military bases established here at the time. We love it here and raised our two sons who have both settled in the area. We now enjoy our grandson who is approaching 16 years of age and will be entering grade 11 continuing his own future path in a career yet to be selected.
Heather and I both wanted a summer cottage spending weekends away from the city. We were most fortunate to find and purchase waterfront property on Piers Island an hour drive from Victoria and build the cottage over the years. It was rewarding to be elected Trustee and Chairman and help guide the Piers Island Improvement District in the early years of its development and infrastructure requirements. Today Piers Island is included within the Gulf Island National Park Reserve, although it remains independent and governed by Islanders.
My dream of flying never left me but it was put on hold when the family was young and with the demands of my career. I did complete ground school towards my private pilot’s license but my interest in gliding brought me to consider the sport of hang-gliding to experience flying at its most fundamental elements. Completing study courses and training in Vancouver, a decade of flying led to incredibly exhilarating flying experiences locally, including many flying sites in various locations in our province, and Chelan in Washington State. Cross-country flying from the launch site on Mt. Seven at Golden, flying along the Columbia Valley, afforded challenging and amazing flying experiences in mountainous thermal soaring. I continue to value individual sporting activities throughout my life and into retirement embracing the athletic values emphasized at College. Hiking and mountaineering brings one into the untouched wilderness of our great country, and skiing with my classmates enhanced the fellowship and joys of friendships from College days. I continue to skate for the winter and cycle in the other seasons – the joy and blessings of physical activities will be a part of my life as long as I am able to enjoy the good health that continues today. I recently sold my motorbike, having defied the law of averages and avoided any mishaps during my three decades of enjoyable riding.
Early experiences with fruit trees on our family farm led to my interest in heritage orchards and the preservation of older fruit varieties first introduced by early settlers in the area including on Piers Island. In my tree and orchard work, I am reminded with a smile and fond memories of F/S Chabot who was fond of saying to us in first year, “You can take the boy away from the farm but you can’t take the farm away from the boy!”
My love of antique cars started in my early years – many vehicles were abandoned in back yards tempting my keen interest. While at Royal Roads I purchased my first antique automobile, a 1924 seven-passenger touring Pierce Arrow originally owned by silent movie star Mary Pickford. Next I purchased a 1926 Cadillac sedan and then sold that for a 1931 McLaughlin Buick convertible coupe. I have settled for this classic as a keeper and we are completing final restoration work. The vehicle has facilitated many enjoyable hours during retirement and given a lasting legacy for the family to continue with the ongoing operation and maintenance of the vehicle.
I find retirement and this stage of my life most enjoyable. We stay connected with my large family here in B.C. and in the USA. I stay connected to the College through the Ex-Cadet Club, Military Engineers, RUSI and our Society of Senior Engineers here in Victoria. Our Class of ‘63 has an active chat group online allowing many of us to keep in touch with each other and debate the issues as they emerge in the ebb and flow of life. Our Ex-Cadet Club in Victoria has a large membership and it is quite common to have between 50 and 70 members present at any of our luncheons at the Officers Mess at Naden. On special occasions the luncheons are held in the Castle at Royal Roads University. Both Heather and I have enjoyed traveling in Europe, South America, Mexico, the Yukon, in our province, and across the country and have felt fortunate to have so many fond memories of the places we’ve seen. It was a joy to attend our 25th and 50th class reunions and reconnect with classmates over such long periods of time.
With my brother and two brothers-in-laws serving in WWII and one brother-in-law in the Korean war, our family has been affected by major worldly events in our nation’s history. My father-in-law was in the Navy during WW11 and Heather’s great-uncle was killed in action at the battle of Paardeberg in South Africa at the age of 21 servicing with the RCR. Both of us have American relatives who served in various military units in the USA and in overseas posting. Heather’s close relative returned home from the Japanese war less an arm. Interviewing family members and other veterans has greatly contributed to my understanding of the great sacrifice and contribution those generations have given to the cause of peace. It has been very moving and an honour to be a part of Remembrance Day Celebrations each year at our former College now Royal Roads University. Of added interest, researching the contributions of Franciscan Friars during WW1 and WW11 has afforded a greater appreciation and understanding of the importance of military and religious service in the cause of peace.
The greatest gift in retirement is good health and fortunately I have been able to maintain my health thus far. I have turned 80 and continue to count the many blessings in my life, and try to assist both family and friends in their needs. I am immensely grateful for the experience of Royal Roads, RMC and my military time which has led to friendships and experiences not equaled in any part of my working life. I continue to keep in touch through local club activities, eVeritas and the very fine publications of life at RMC and CMR and the large alumnae associated with the services Colleges.