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  • Remember When: 5045 Ralph Awrey at Military College in the 1950s

Remember When: 5045 Ralph Awrey at Military College in the 1950s

Above: 5045 Ralph Awrey waits in the corner for the referee to finish the count during a boxing match during his recruit year at CMR.

Article by 5045 Ralph Awrey

5072 George Knill lived a few blocks from me in the famous war time houses in Hamilton. He and I and a few others applied for entry into the College Militaire Royal de St. Jean. At CMR we could take grade 13 without high school French. After three years we’d go on to the Royal Military College in Kingston. In those days, if you didn’t have high school French you couldn’t get into many universities. So CMR was a nice compromise. Only George and I got accepted. The day the telegrams arrived from National Defense George rode his bike over to my house. He was in a dither. “I don’t want to go to this joint!” I told him that he had no choice. He had an official telegram and that was that. He believed me and off to CMR we went in late August or early September of 1956. We traveled by train from Hamilton to Montreal and by bus from Montreal to St. Jean. We were ushered onto the parade square where a mean old Drill Sergeant had at us – our first exposure to the process by which civilians were conditioned to the military life and ethos. George Knill was given a particularly hard time. He wore a new suit and white buck shoes. I thought he looked pretty spiffy but the Drill Sergeant didn’t agree and ripped into George unmercifully about the shoes. That night (or perhaps the second night) George snuck into my room after curfew. He was going to literally go over the wall and leave CMR. He wanted me to go with him. I told him that this was desertion and if we were caught we’d be shot. He believed me. I don’t think he believed me about anything thereafter. As for my treatment, I got nothing out of the ordinary. Perhaps my ghoulish pallor frightened them off.

I don’t remember too much of what happened next but I think we were kitted out with uniforms for recruits – the lowest of the low.  Then we met our roommates. Each room bunked two, an Anglophone and a Francophone. My roommate was Gilles Felteau. Gilles was with his father. They could speak no English and I no real French. To this point in my life my exposure to French was via a few snippets on the CBC and bad Diefenbaker French in high school.  Gilles, his father and I got by with the time honoured system of communication: sign language. Gilles was a fine fellow but not too accomplished academically. He failed out after recruit year, maybe first year. We got along very well and he learned a lot of English. I’m sorry to say my French didn’t improve a lot even though the days of the week alternated from French to English to French to English etc. Unfortunately most of the Anglos were too arrogant to put the effort into becoming fluently bi-lingual. A glorious opportunity missed. Most of us became somewhat fluent. Even the dumbest, most arrogant had to absorb some French in that environment. The Francophones were a lot smarter than us. They took full advantage of the opportunity, most of them willingly.

My only real remembrance of an off campus activity with Gilles was an old fashioned Quebecois sugar bush party somewhere near St. Jean. George Knill and I were taken to the party by our roommates and introduced to the sugaring process, Quebec women and big bottles of beer. I have a photo taken then which shows us pissed to the gills but happy. How we got there and how we got back to the barracks is buried deep in my memory.

Being from Hamilton and having played east end scrub football with the likes of Bobby Frewin and Ron Barclay, I decided to try out for the CMR football team despite being the ghoul. I became a six foot 128 pound defensive end. The coach used to laugh at me but I was mean and could tackle. Since a lot of the team were Francophones who had never played football, my skills and knowledge of the game overcame my size and got me on the team. Unfortunately my career was cut short by an illegal block during practice. Dick Byford, our 190 pound quarterback, chop blocked me on a running play around my end and buggered up my knee. It hasn’t been the same since.  But it did lead to my soccer and golf career. My soccer career at CMR was as equipment manager, a career which continued as the RMC soccer team equipment manager.

Boxing was mandatory for all recruit year cadets. And I mean mandatory – no one was excused from the sweet science. After some rudimentary training in the fine art of bashing the other guy around by a navy P.E. expert, we were slotted into divisions by weight and the boxing tournament began. When you lost a fight you were out. If you won you advanced to the next round. Obviously if you advanced through a series of wins you fought tougher and better boxers. For some it was a win, lose situation. If you won, you lost because you had to continue boxing. I won my first two fights by dint of my upbringing in the rough and ready east end of Hamilton. The other reason was that at 6 feet and 128 pounds I had a big reach advantage over my 5 foot eight, 128 pound opponents. Jab, dance away, jab, dance away and so forth. Two wins, one by decision and one knock out. He may have fallen as a result of hearing the swish of my glove past his ear. My next fight was against a skilled boxer who was also 6 feet tall and 128 pounds. I did alright with him for the first round and got a little cocky. In the second round he broke my nose and I bled like a stuck pig. But I never hit the canvas. Because of all the blood being sprayed around the ring, the referee stopped the fight. I lost by a TKO. At the moment I was ticked off and told the referee that I wanted to continue. He didn’t change his decision. Later I was relieved as that was my last fight. Good thing too. The two lads who made it to the final were really good and really tough. Of all the physical things I’ve done in life boxing was the most difficult. Anyone who has boxed will tell you the same thing. The only other event that was as difficult was plucking up the courage to jump off a paratrooper training tower in Shilo, Manitoba. Even with a harness on and with it clamped to a guy wire, it was difficult to jump out into thin air. But, I still believe that boxing was more difficult.

Despite the inexcusable arrogance of the Anglos our life together at CMR was smooth and well integrated. I had many Francophone friends and we did things together off hours as well as during the forced hours together. Classes were taken in the mother tongue which makes me even prouder of the Francophones who learned very good English.

I took my Sea Breeze stereo record player and my jazz LPs with me to CMR. My love of jazz stood me in good stead because the senior cadet in charge of us in recruit year was a jazz fan and he often borrowed my records. Thus he was very nice to me.

In recruit year, 1956, the Asian flu swept across North America and savaged CMR. Naturally I was stricken and even worse my infection became pneumonia. Six weeks in sick bay with weekly trips to the St. Jean base hospital for X rays of my lungs. Poor me. No communication from home and no visitors in the hospital. Not even professors to keep me up to date on the academics. Naturally I was far behind when I finally returned to class not long before Christmas examinations. Somehow my intellect and some world class cramming got me decent marks and I passed all the exams. As for my family, I don’t think the CMR administration told my mother about my illness. She probably didn’t even know I was gone. I joke about my return for Christmas leave, telling the gullible that when I walked through the front door in my uniform my mother said: “Where have you been?” I don’t think my brothers and sisters were glad to see me back.  I was just another mouth to feed.

As I’m doing my one finger keyboarding today it’s cold outside. A memory flashback takes me to the parade square at St. Jean. In the winter, icy blasts came off the Richelieu River and swept across the parade square. With rare exceptions we were on parade at 6 a.m. each morning in bitterly cold weather. Even in our great coats and wool Astrakhans the cold was unbearable. Marching was a treat, but standing at attention while some sadistic person inspected our ranks was really, really miserable. The trick was to wiggle your toes and fingers to keep some blood flowing while not drawing attention to yourself or dropping your rifle. Nothing could be done about frozen noses and cheeks. The only salvation was sick parade but you really needed to be sick to get that pass.  I still shiver on hot summer days when I think of these mornings.

Sleeping was my major strength. We were always tired from being on the go from 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. or later. There was an endless list of activities including drill, marching, parades, extracurricular activities, 40 hours a week of classes and studying. I became a world class sleeper, able to kip at a moment’s notice. In class too, which never seemed to get me into trouble although my class mates tried. During one philosophy class in second year I was dead to the world on my desk. The rest of the class and the professor tippy toed out of the room at the end of the class and left me there. I woke up half way through the next class and ran down the hall. I tried to sneak in the back door but as I opened it the whole class, including the professor, erupted in laughter. One long weekend at RMC I went to bed after dinner on Friday and didn’t emerge from my room until Monday morning except to visit the head once in a while. Ironically in old age I have trouble sleeping through the night. It’s part insomnia and part bladder control.

I took in a Montreal Canadiens’s playoff game against the Boston Bruins in my second year. The Commandant, Group Captain Archambault, had four season’s tickets and offered to take 2 cadets to the April 17, 1958 game. This was announced at lunch from the head table. We were in the middle of exams so there were very few takers. I volunteered even though I had a final physics exam the next day. After returning from the game I crammed all night and passed the exam with ease. Was I glad I did it? You bet.

Here’s a partial review of the game:

“Maurice Richard was the top overall playoff goal-scorer with 11. In game five of the Final, he notched the third final series overtime goal of his career and his sixth overtime goal in playoff competition, setting all-time records in each category”.

I saw the Rocket score the winning goal and saw the roof raised by the boisterous Forum fans. It was my best hockey experience ever. And for those of you who may not be familiar with his efforts to serve in the military, here’s a brief bit from the Rocket’s bio.

“Richard was turned down a total of three times by the military, twice for combat and once as a machinist. The first time was in 1939 at the beginning of World War II when he was 18 and the second time the following year. X-rays showed that his ankle and femur as well as his wrists had broken and had not healed properly during junior hockey and he was therefore unfit for military action. In 1940, Richard inquired about a position as a machinist in the military, but was again refused citing his lack of a high school diploma or technical trade certificate. Richard tried to explain that he had dropped out of school to help his family and had been working as a machinist at a local factory since he was 16. They still refused, and he was told he needed a machinist certificate. Upon hearing this he decided to train as a machinist at the Montreal Technical School the following year and therefore fulfill his desire to help in the war effort. The war was over before Richard received his certificate, which took four years. He was disappointed that the Canadian military had not given him the opportunity to participate in some capacity”.


  • J. R. Digger MacDougall

    February 11, 2020 at 11:47 am

    Ralph. I enjoyed the first chapter of your autobiography. Although I went to Roads, a lot of memories were stimulated by your recollections of applying, getting notified of selection and first days at the College. I applied for and would have been in your 56 entry CMR class BUT MY math marks didn’t make the standard so I continued in HS and went in with Gr 13 completed. In retrospect it was an interesting and demanding process through which we applied and went to MilCols. Hazing was still an important part of indoctrination into the system and a means of ensuring sufficient resilience to succeed. We relied on each other and we survived.
    Thanks for the memories.

  • Peter Dumbrille

    February 11, 2020 at 11:52 am

    Well told Ralph. An enjoyable trip down memory lane. I too still shiver thinking of the winter circles on the Richelieu. I was lucky getting knocked out in the first round of my illustrious boxing career. Sigh!

    Friend and comrad., Peter Dumbrille 5135

  • Mike Houghton

    February 11, 2020 at 1:19 pm

    Great memories for which I thank you. As with you, I was accepted for University ROTP in 1960 but, had no French (my second language being German). Someone obviously liked me as I was sent to CMR where I hoped to meet a lovely French speaking lady. Did not happen, however, much to my disappointment and had to wait 30 years before that finally occurred (I digress). CMR was truly a wonderful experience for me and I considered the closing of the College a huge political blunder. Needless to say, I could not be more pleased that CMR is again a reality. VDV

  • Emil Bizon

    February 11, 2020 at 5:31 pm

    Interesting and it brings back lots of memories including the boxing ring in the gym/hangar where we had our Christmas and year-end balls. Mine was the first class- 1952 so we had no seniors to either learn from or to be knocked about by. Unfortunately we had many guys from Québec leave because the math and science were too much for them. This was well before there was a Department of Education- brought in by Jean Lesage around 1959.