As part of the series about the longstanding relationship between KGH and RMC, and the endearing (mostly) relationships between cadets and nurses, here is another interview, this time from a nurse’s perspective. For previous articles click here.
Interview by E3161 Victoria Edwards (RMC 2003)
– 3949 Angus Stuart Armstrong (RMC 1957) and Elgay Jennet Harten (KGH 1956)
E-veritas: How did you meet your husband?
Elgay Jennet Armstrong: The advent of fall in Kingston, Ontario, before the leaves begin to turn multi-hued and the night winds cool, sees the influx of hundreds of young people. They come to devour the outpourings of education offered by Queen’s University, RMC, and two Nursing Schools. Young men and women, often away from home for the first time, seek each other out by the time honored method of the blind date. It should be accepted that there were many a blind date in each student’s career. It was considered a part of the curriculum. My first date with Angus was blind indeed. He had, through a classmate, arranged to take me to the Xmas ball. He thought it would be nice to meet me first and asked me out to a movie.
Describe a typical date.
It took an expert in logistics to rearrange my shifts to accommodate these two events. It had me working three shifts in an orderly row eight hours apart – nights, and then evenings, followed by a day shift. I made it to the movie but slept through most of it. I forgot the rule of best foot forward. It was a small sacrifice made in the name of food, the best thing about RMC balls. Fortunately, Angus saw the humor in the situation. Besides, it was too late to find another date! Thus began our journey that has lasted fifty-two years and counting.
Did you have a car?
It did start off with a car but not while Angus was a cadet. That was verboten and since uniform was walking-out dress, a bit difficult. We bought a Volkswagon Beetle after graduation and that’s what I learned to drive in, much to the terror of the security guards at Base Gimli, the first of our many stops. Every time that Baby Blue Beetle approached the gate, the guard would vacate the guardhouse, run across the road and stand quivering, until I came to a full stop. Sauntering back to the gatehouse, with a big grin on his face, the guard would smartly salute and lift the barrier. This was their summer joke. The head commissionaire lived next door to our humble abode with the holes in the wall and genteel outdoor plumbing.
Describe the flight training.
Angus was, as you may have surmised, Air Force. He started his T-Bird training at Gimli, the weekend after Air Force day 1957. There were sixteen other would be RMC pilots with us. We all watched “the Red Knight” doing his aerobatic display that some how went terribly wrong. He crashed in a mushroom of fire on the airfield a short distance from 36 other manned aircraft waiting for takeoff. It was a sobering experience for seventeen eager young pilots and the three young women whose world this was now to become. Labor Day weekend came. Graduation parade, wings decorated proud chests and summer was over.
Cadets went to civilian universities to complete their studies.
All the new pilots were slated to go to university to finish their engineering degree, an established practice until 1962 when RMC began to issue their own degrees. There was only one small problem.
Some had applied to go to Toronto but none had received replies to their applications. Angus did get a reply on the Friday of Labor day weekend but somehow he had been accepted into third year chemical engineering. He had applied for fourth year mechanical engineering. It was 17 Keystone Cops scurrying madly in all directions. Angus managed to get a phone call into the Registrar of UBC, at his home, on Saturday. He explained the problem. The Registrar’s reply: “If your marks are what you have told me, come. You are accepted.” There was a scramble to make it to the west coast. Some fled back to Toronto and other places but perhaps this explains why so many of the Gimli 1957 wings graduation class also ended up graduates of the University of British Columbia.
Next stop, a T-Bird refresher course at Portage La Prarrie. I had left a good job in Paediatrics at the Vancouver General. I had the opportunity to be a part of the first child heart surgery done there, new areas of research, exciting learning experiences. Now, while Angus refreshed his Gimli course, I was back to earth, working “staff” in general surgery. There was a large prosperous Hutterite colony in the area and this was my first exposure to an entirely different Canadian culture. I found it very enlightening to talk with them, to see a different prospective on life and with amusement, experience their pity because I was childless after three years of marriage.
Were there any close calls?
Westward Ho to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan for instrument training, Here disaster was averted. Angus just wouldn’t buy that it was okay to land on the main downtown street. Seems there was mix up of aircraft identification by air traffic control. It made for a sticky wicket as the British would say. Rather than risk further mayhem from those RMC types, we were all shipped off to Cold Lake, Alberta. Here, the black cloud continued to drift over Angus and his CF-100s. After 2 emergency landings, his present and past experiences saw him and two more of our shining RMC pilots C.T.d.
Was it challenging to balance your careers and a young family?
The order of the day was to re-muster to Aircraft Maintenance and weekend flying for years afterwards. I, on the other hand, gained a great deal of experience working in a twenty- five bed United Church Mission Hospital. It had a crank telephone which you wound up to contact the telephone operator to place a phone call. She was inclined to snore deeply at night and this left me to deliver a beautiful baby girl alone. Both mother and nurse did well.
The military, in its infinite wisdom, followed the rules and sent this soon to be Aircraft Maintenance engineer to be upgraded on high school math in order to qualify him for the new trade. This gave us a summer in Clinton, where stronger local heads prevailed and utilized him to teach calculus part of the time and hone his bridge skills the other half. It was a sad summer. The Harper/Truscott murder case dominated the base and engulfed us all.
Aylmer, Ontario was next and I worked my first stint as a Psychiatric nurse. In the past three years I had managed to repeat my three years’ training by selective job choice. I did not have an opportunity to do a psychiatric clinical in training and found I had missed a lot. It was rough back then with few medications, large wards. ECTs, and even paraldehyde, but I really got to enjoy it and spent many years in this service.
In case it has slipped your attention, we are now up to 8 moves; Gimli, Vancouver, Portage La Prarrie, Saskatoon, Cold Lake, North Bay [contact training waiting for that summer math upgrade], Clinton, Aylmer and finally a ninth – one where we will plant roots for a year or two and it turns out to be the venue of the old soldier who never dies — OTTAWA!
Angus started out as a pilot and ended a thirty six year career in the Air Force as an aeronautical engineer, maintenance officer and an adroit manipulator in the use of duct tape. I worked whenever I could, always starting again at the bottom as a staff nurse and if we stayed long enough, working my way upward. Somehow, we did manage to acquire two male offspring along the way.
You mentioned the need for a sense of humour. Could you explain more about that?
We moved 18 times and if you don’t think that requires a sense of humour, you really mustn’t have one. We lived from Ontario westward to the Pacific Ocean, plus postings to Germany, Sardinia and California. At one point in my life, I had one little German speaker, one little Italian speaker and one Mother trying to hire them out as interpreters. Actually, the youngest did well as a liquor runner for the American troops when he was ten months old on a brief stint with the Buffalo aircraft in Arizona but that’s another story.
I found the focus of this request from e-Veritas, to write as a nurse married to an RMC cadet was not clearly approached. Many RMC cadets did not stay in the military beyond the required three year [at that time] commitment. Some had no commitment, having paid their own way. RMC played a limited role in their family life and future as the newly wed couple settle down on civvy street securely locked into the same place, street, friends and even family… To say that a graduate of RMC and Nurses’ training were left untouched by their education and experiences is ludicrous but my gut feeling was that, unasked, was a desired question, ” What was marriage like for a career Officer and his wife in your day?”
What was marriage like for a career Officer and his wife in your day?
Military life requires adaptability, independence of mind, personal stability and a modicum of humour to offset the obstacles placed repeatedly in your way. That’s for the female half. The male half goes to work. He travels and goes on course. He moves to a new posting and you stay until the end of the school year. Both uproot yourself and your children every two to three years. It’s not easy to find decent housing, new schools, doctors, dentists, friends and jobs but that was what was required – in the early days it paid so well – 400 dollars extra for the move. This has improved a great deal but moving is still a part of military life.
What do you consider the high-light of dating an RMC cadet?
If you date those RMC cadets, even though the food has great appeal [nurses ate from a steam table and got paid not a cent] you need to be prepared to become part nomad and part hermit.
What are you doing these days?
Angus and I were fortunate to have several classmates, mine and his, married to each other. RMC reunions are mini KGH reunions too. Like us, they are all retired now, travel around, go south, fish and attend reunions where the numbers become smaller each year. We are the volunteer generation and can find a great number of things to occupy our time and utilize our expertise. I have switched allegiance from the Health Department to the Justice Department and work in Restorative Justice. Angus has achieved his dream of some how playing with sirens and works in Emergency Planning, Citizens on Patrol and provides the back-up radio communications centre in our basement for the Town of Ladysmith. The thirty foot pole with the two big paper clips on it is in the garden and I am assured that it can be converted to satellite T.V.
Do any anecdotes come to mind?
There are many anecdotes, stories involving other RMC career military types who traveled the circuit with us and events that just happen, good or bad, which stick in your mind. These might make an interesting column for e-Veritas. “How to land a jet aircraft on an icy runway with broken hydraulic lines and only a few applications of emergency air brakes at night at 40 below zero”. A bit wordy for a headline but it does race into the mind. Perhaps then I could tell you how I happened to mother a ten month old rum runner.
Do you have any advice?
The current crop of young people, both in nursing and at RMC live in a softer, less disciplined yet more demanding and dangerous world. The focus is on youth and self. That’s how it should be. All too soon, the reminiscences sought by e-Veritas will be theirs. Until then, rest assured, each fall a new crop of young students will flood into Kingston. The dance of nurse and RMC cadet continues eternally.
E.J. (Gay) Armstrong RN