Captain (Ret’d) Laurie Gibbon, 16545, (RRMC 1984-88)
Captain Laura Kissmann (Barr), 16395, (RMC 1984-86, RRMC 1986-88)
Captain (Ret’d) Laurie Gibbon joined RRMC in 1984 with the first class of lady cadets where she completed a bachelor’s degree in Physics and Physical Oceanography, graduating in1988. She spent nine years in the regular forces serving in CFB Comox, BC; BFC Valcartier, PQ with the Base Hospital and 5e Ambulance de Campagne; and (then) DCIEM in Toronto, ON, leaving the military in 1997 to pursue a 7-year corporate career with General Electric (Healthcare) in Mississauga, ON and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She is married and now a full-time mother of two young children, currently living in Oakville, ON.
The following are excerpts from an oral history interview held during Homecoming in September 2008 where Laura Kissmann (Barr) and Laurie Gibbon describe their cadet experiences to Royal Roads University oral history coordinator, Karen Inkster ([email protected]). This is the second installment of the interview and primarily focuses on Laurie’s experiences. Next week will be the final portion of the interview. The Ex-Cadet Oral History project is part of an initiative at Royal Roads University to preserve and document its military heritage.
Karen: Why did you decide to come to military college?
Laurie: I also came from a military family, as did Laura. My dad was also a senior officer at CFB Kingston, who I had asked to swear me in for the CF oath of allegiance, as did Laura’s father. As for deciding to attend military college, I remember being taken to the graduation ceremonies at RMC in Kingston a few years prior to my application – we lived in Kingston in my high school years – it was always a major local event to watch the impressive RMC graduation parade with all the pomp and ceremony that went with it. I remember walking through the grounds and saying, “Ah now this looks really cool – I think this would be a lot of fun”. And my dad, who was always extremely supportive and really very open to women in the military still said: “But they don’t allow women in yet.” I still remember saying to him, something smart-mouthed like: “By the time I get there I want to go if I have to pound the doors down to get in!” And luckily I didn’t have to live up to all that cockiness – by the time I graduated high school, it happened to be the summer that they were already graduating the first class of women at RMC, and opening up to the first class of lady cadets at Royal Roads the coming fall.
I had applied to go to Roads over RMC – I wanted to go because my dad had told me great stories of his time there and because I loved the west coast… I love the ocean, I thought it would be a really great experience in spite of dealing with being part of the first class of women. But also RMC and Kingston would have been a little too close to home. I had lived there for four or five years by then and I really didn’t want to have to go into RMC knowing that my father was a senior officer at the base just next door, and that my mother might even expect me home for dinner on Sundays. You’re really at that major juncture in your life when you want to break away from family and strike out with some independence. So I remember being in Chilliwack and awaiting the decisions being handed down as to which direction you’re going: are you getting on a plane to go to Kingston or are you getting on the bus and the ferry to come to Royal Roads. I was so ecstatic when the decision was made that I was going to Royal Roads! Then there was that part of me that went: uh oh what have I just signed up for?! Little did I know…
Karen: Did everybody go to Chilliwack first then?
Laurie: All of the would-be ROTP cadets would go to Chilliwack. As far as I know a good portion of even the ones who were going to go to civilian university went to Chilliwack – mixed in amongst us, no obvious differences. Those who knew they were going to civilian university knew they weren’t going anywhere other than that, so their academics were already mapped out for them. It was just a question for the military college cadet side as to which of the three military colleges they would be starting at.
Karen: And did it depend on what area of academics you wanted to go into?
Laurie: No at that point we had no idea what kind of degree we would be choosing, except for the primary language (French at CMR) you would take your classes in. Usually people know that they were going into Arts or some kind of Science/Engineering? But the first two years it was academically identical across all three colleges (though in French at CMR) – pretty much the same for RMC or at Royal Roads. You’d attend one of those two colleges and at the end of second year you’ll be assigned your military classification, and specify your specific degree program, which would determine at which college you spend your third and fourth year.
Karen: So what was it like when you first arrived?
Laurie: Gosh, I think we Roadents all have such vivid memories of the very first night we arrived at the college, crossing on the ferry, and getting off the boat, and it was dark when the bus finally pulled onto the college grounds. We pulled up to the Upper Circle and this very large, stern and ominous-sounding fellow… in an impeccable scarlet and pillbox – gets on the bus and in very curt terms tells us that there was no love lost at our being there and begins yelling out exactly what we were expected to do to form up as a group.
Everything about that night I pretty much remember – getting off the bus in a frenzy of dark green wrinkled uniforms – being told to ‘form up’ – form up – we barely knew what that was. And when in position, we stood there, awaiting our next instructions. There was a very long, uneasy silence that set in that dark night outdoors on what we would later learn to call the Upper Circle…and now that I’ve been in fourth year I know how the story goes from a broader perspective it’s not so intimidating, but from the eyes of a new recruit, it was pretty intimidating. Then through the silence there was a distant ‘click’ and then the sound of boots marching in perfect precision – clicking drill boots (which they didn’t have at RMC, I’m told) coming up Neptune stairs. Four years later, when I was involved in this ceremony as a senior myself I realized the precision also involved deliberately slamming in our heels just to increase the ‘fear’ effect – in the dimmest of light – it really was something out of a movie. You can’t see them, but you can hear them and their stepping is approaching, echoing off the castle wall.
We thought we were alone out here and then the barmen would march into sight, halt in perfect precision and tower in front of us. What we didn’t know later was that there are other cadets, college staff and even staff families on the roofs of the building looking down at us, enjoying the whole performance. The senior one would announce who he was and what was going on. And at some point they gave us instructions …and then all hell breaks loose to grab your luggage from the busses – screaming and yelling at us and telling us where to go and up the one flight of Nixon Block – we didn’t even know where that was – go here, go there, go to our rooms, don’t look around, don’t speak, march properly – and finally everybody gets sorted out and settled into different squadrons, flights, and sections.
I still remember finally getting assigned a room, roommate, and getting into bed and listening to several simultaneous goodnight songs through the open windows, songs often chosen according to a flight’s ‘tradition’ – and there were huge speakers that they’d brought in to blast these songs through each hallway – they would have a far less calming effect during the day. Every flight had a unique ‘goodnight song’ and they’d play them just at lights out. Ours at Champlain Flight was Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver”. It still evokes vivid emotions to hear it. The recruit term day always ended for my flight with that music and reflecting on the craziness of the day.
So that’s probably what got me through some of the rough points as well. It’ll be rough, but I want to be here. I think many of my fellow classmates who began military college at Royal Roads remember that particular arrival night in a very similar way.
Laura: If I could just interject – I came in again, as a third year, and got to be part of that you know the third and fourth year coming up the stairs and oh my goodness – if there’s ever a movie to be made – there’s a movie to be made here – of Royal Roads. At Roads, unlike RMC, we had these things called “clickers” on our boots and we’d start marching at the castle in unison up the Neptune stairs in the dark to Grant Block and we’d slam our heels just to increase the effect – it was something. The recruits could only hear it. It was a unique experience and to tell the truth we were as excited as they were probably anxious.
Laurie: Actually as the seniors greeting the new recruits, we thought we were actually more nervous than them about getting it right and presenting precision drill and a stoic, perhaps intimidating face to them – we wanted to have the effect that our predecessors had had on us.
Karen: I’m amazed that you knew that was where you wanted to be after having that day.
Laurie: Well it’s easy to say that I would get in plenty of trouble over my time there – even on simple things, but I knew I wanted to be there nonetheless. There were so many ways they would set up the behaviour/punishment system to catch you up and have you earn ‘circles’ (early morning running circuits on the ‘Upper Circle’). When they really wanted to get under your skin they would just make your life miserable by having you perform silly tasks such as ‘square drill’ at meals, lifting your fork and spoon like a drill movement. They would make us do crazy cleaning or dressing exercises in our rooms – called ‘panic drills’ where you repeatedly get in and out of different uniform combinations, with ever shrinking time to do so. We would get our rooms inspected and we eventually learned that nobody gets a clean inspection – everybody has to find something wrong; it’s part of instilling ‘attention to detail’. And it was often made to be theatrically ‘catastrophic’ if even the tiniest little piece of lint were found. We learned terms that had been around for ages to describe the faults with our rooms or our uniform turn out. Terms like ‘froust’, ‘growlies’, ‘yukking’, and ‘Irish pennants’. Many dated back to even my dad’s time at Roads (late 1950’s), which I hadn’t realized.
Laurie: An Irish pennant was a stray thread on your uniform, but from the sound of the reproach you’d have thought it was much larger than it usually was – again drilling in ‘attention to detail’. ‘Growlies’ were dust balls, usually under your bed. The ‘attention to detail’ even included measuring the width of the turndown of your sheet – it had to be the width of the cadet wing instruction manual, named CADWINS, which was also used for various other ‘standard measurements’ for room inspection. And I was particularly often in trouble for smiling or even laughing while marching or at attention – which was called ‘yukking’. “No yukking Recruit Gibbon!” was a familiar reproach for me. Outwardly I’d try to look serious, but inside I’d be thinking – I’m loving this – I’m doing exactly what I want to do and yes, this is tough as hell but I’m still having fun and you can’t take that away from me. No, it isn’t always meant to be fun – and over the years there were plenty of ups and downs on many fronts. But in that first year, smiling in the ranks was a no-no, so they took great pleasure in giving out punishments, even for a tiny smirk. I even recall having to try to keep a straight face while walking to and from the ironing room down the hall with the silliest rules about doing proper ‘drill with an iron’!
At the very, very beginning, especially being the first class of women, we were trying not to set ourselves apart – you’re trying to blend in, fit in – just please let me be treated like everybody else and stay out of trouble – run as few circles as I could get away with. But I did often remember life softening up with time and the ‘yukking’ kind of became something funny for the barmen cut us a little slack about.
Laura: I had a very similar experience and got in trouble for yukking often. I’d forgotten the term until she just brought it up. But the iron – you have to elaborate on the iron…
Laurie: You had to slow march with an iron (presumably both for safety and to practice slow marching) – otherwise you were required to quick march and do proper drill when out of your room, whether out of the building, into others’ rooms, or even down the bathroom. But if you were carrying an iron you would have to ‘slow march’ – again, an excuse to practice your slow march and you were required to say repeatedly “excuse me please, hot iron”, “excuse me please, hot iron” – practically like a robot (laughs) – all the way down the hall between the ironing room and our rooms. How the seniors kept a straight face while we did that we never knew. They would just tell us sternly that it was a safety thing that we should respect.
Karen: So tell me more. Tell me about the obstacle course.
Laurie: The obstacle course for Royal Roads was very different from RMC. The obstacle course at RMC is what most people envision as an obstacle course. They built large obstacles and the emphasis was much more for getting across as a team at RMC. [At Royal Roads] it was more individualistic. It was more of an everyone for themselves, muddy, macho, cross-country slugging through the back marshes and woodlands of the Royal Roads campus, finished off with a swim across the pond (presumably to wash off some of the mud) and a final sprint to the finish line. There were giant yellow banana slugs and stinky “skunk weed” all along the course. I have been hiking in BC since and the skunk weed smell is so distinctive that I was brought right back to the time of the obstacle course! All in all the obstacle course at Roads was very much a rough and tumble mud trek, I assume at least as exhausting and rewarding as at RMC.
And you know, 20 years later now, almost all the memories are great. 20 years later the dust settles and you look back and you think, god we were so young, we were so naïve and idealistic, we were so often misguided and yet it was still – any time I think about it, the best four years of my life – not that I haven’t had wonderful, fantastic things happen to me since then, but it’s a capsule of four fantastic years – not without some drama and some incidents and all that but still, fantastic – I wouldn’t trade them for any different life choice.
Laura: Once you crossed the obstacle course finish line, for us at RMC you got to be called “first years”…it was a big thing, instead of “recruit” you suddenly were “Second Year Barr”, “First Year Barr”. At RMC you could also stop running the parade square – that was a big deal – to not have to sprint across every time and get yelled at.
Laurie: Yes, after the obstacle course, your title changes from ‘Recruit’ (mostly said with a sneer!) to ‘Junior Cadet’, I think? That whole final week leading up to the obstacle course was designed up crank up the pressure and build to a crescendo of intensity. As the end of recruit term (the first and most intense four or five weeks) would get closer, they would dial back the time you had from the time they woke you up to the time you had to be formed up in your uniform, inspected and then dismissed to go to breakfast. And that time got shorter and shorter and shorter. They turned a blind eye near the end about getting out of bed, getting your uniform on really quietly. And I think the last day it was an exciting, fun, free-for-all – we were allowed to run out of our rooms, jump out of the windows, whatever it took, over to Grant Block to go to breakfast and that was sort of the celebration that it was going to be obstacle course and ‘recruit graduation’ day. You’re going to be called “first year or junior cadet” for the first time, the old “recruit” label was going to go away and you’re going to have some semblance of being assimilated and accepted by the seniors who’d long tormented us.
Karen: So did you have to run the circles for punishment?
Laurie: (both laugh) Years later you still remember the circles. I think we were only allowed to run off up to six before breakfast. From the time that the ‘click’ went on which was the barmen turning on the rented speakers – loud, monster, jumbo speakers – oh yes, the ‘click’ – we would all learn to wake up just before the ‘click’ – which was the hum of the speakers just before the ‘panic music’ would kick in. In our flight usually was something from Queen – if I still hear ‘Ballroom Blitz’ now I react. But that was the ‘get up’ song and anybody who had circles, they would yell – would have to jump into PT gear, run down to form up for however many (up to 6) of the circles you’d have to run off that morning – which unfortunately eats into your (and your roommate’s) inspection preparation time before breakfast. It’s a tough way to forge teamwork because it means that if both of you in a room have to go run circles, the room prep has to wait until you both get back and try to pull it together in time for inspection. So then if you’re the only one running circles, not only are you punished but you’re punishing your roommate who now is solely responsible for getting both beds made, sink and room cleaned … as well as getting themselves showered and dressed for inspection … to try to cover off for your not being there. Lots of lessons in teamwork!
Karen: Were there different facilities for men and women then?
Laurie: (laughing) Yes there were, some for some funny reasons. There were 24 women in the first class when we started, though I think we down to 15 at the end of second year – a combination of academic, voluntary and other reasons. The summer before our first recruit class of women was to arrive each floor (squadron) had to renovate two cadet dorm rooms to make a ladies’ bathroom, which we even heard got some of the senior cadets resentful because ‘we’ were taking away from would-be male cadets in order to site bathrooms for women. But luckily this was never really felt by us at the time, it just became anonymous ‘war stories’ we all dismissed quickly. These are the things that I think RMC had already experienced before Roads and for the most part had worked through. To help further they had arranged for two lady cadets from RMC to come in early to help guide some of the integration of women … which appeared to help, especially with some more silly, if well-meaning decisions. I remember that they put a little washer/dryer in each of our female bathrooms. We were later told that it was to avoid having the ‘lady cadets’ mixing our ‘ladies’ laundry’ with the male cadets’ laundry in the communal laundry facilities just off the main lobby… even though most of the laundry except the underwear was exactly the same CF issue kit as theirs!? In actual fact, many times we felt so unfairly advantaged having those washer/dryers that we’d offer to do our flight mate’s, who we saw pretty much as our brothers, laundry to help them. And for many, laundry was a still new skill so we all learned together some hard lessons about wool and hot water, and colours running together.
Laura: Can I interject for a bit? Something that came up last night in conversation was the fact that for shower parade – they called it at RMC – I think we called it here – the big change was they went from the guys wearing only towels to wearing housecoats and that was one change. We had only so much time for all of us to be showered and back for ‘lights out’. Actually the guys had it harder because their ratio of showers was less than ours. But one challenge in particular that was different was if we had long hair – trying to wash it and put conditioner in it and get a comb through – in not enough time! We almost always went to bed with wet hair.
Laurie: Not all the guys in our year had bathrobes. In the year ahead of us I’m told – I wasn’t there – that they would wear bath towels around their waist and then at shower parade they would run down – sometimes the towel might just fall off. Now with us women around, they couldn’t afford to have any of that go on so we were all instructed – nobody had bathrobes, nobody knew to have bathrobes – later I think we were allowed to buy them or encouraged to so – I remember it was ordered that we should all wear our CF army green raincoat (Laura laughs) – naked underneath! Here we are in our raincoats and flip flops and then we’d be dismissed to march down to the showers. There was regular groaning by the guys about us having better shower facilities, but having four girls vying for one shower, that was an adventure, for sure. If only they could have seen the frenzy of it all. We usually didn’t shave our legs during most of the first crazy weeks of recruit term – but I still remember someone suggesting, that ‘in the interest of speed’ that perhaps we all learn to brush our teeth in the shower. We each had about 30 seconds in the shower, and it was all a blur – no fancy hair products – we usually went to bed with wet hair and looked like hell the next morning.
Laura: There was no vanity – you didn’t think about what you looked like – there was no time.
Laurie: No sometimes hygiene was tenuous in the first months of being at milcol. You were as physically exhausted as possible, sleep and time-deprived – you certainly didn’t get to shower very often and you didn’t get to do much laundry. Just yesterday we were reminiscing with a chuckle about how as senior cadets going into a first year classroom – especially during recruit term – we’d step into a classroom and hold our noses until somebody immediately opened a window to clear the air – we never knew how bad it had been until we were into our second year. (Laura laughs) And I still recall one senior cadet barman in Champlain Flight being so disgusted by us all that one night he took all our shirts and washed them for us because he couldn’t stand the stench of us – and he then gave us back our red shirts, washed and dried, probably the only time they got washed in the month of recruit term. Small acts of mercy, albeit self-serving.