10: THE NETHERLANDS
11: BACK TO GERMANY
18: CYPRUS WIND DOWN
22: MEXICO Y ESPANA
ARMY BASIC TRAINING 1966
In the summers of 1966, 1967, and 1968 I learned the fine art of highway hitch hiking. It is almost sad to see that few hitchhike any more. The common thought I hear expressed is "It’s too dangerous now". One has to wonder what perception plays in this; but, perception is one’s reality. It is interesting to look back on my student days. It is wise to realize that age is not a measure of maturity. I was in University till I was 26 and I have to think that my social age was stalled in my teens. I always tell people that being a student is a great life. University is a nice warm place to stay, from September till May then off to a summer job ☺ .
I graduated in Science with a major in Biology and Chemistry from Loyola of Montreal (. I graduated cum laude) . It was a great Jesuit College and our degree was from L’Université de Montreal. Near the end of my final year I was on my way to visit McGill Dental school for an interview with the Dean. I heard a couple of my classmates talking. One was going to Medical school; the other became a dental classmate. They told me how the Canadian Army would pay your way through dental or medical school in return for 5 years of service after graduation. On the way to McGill I dropped in on a recruiting centre, which was across from the university. I got my paper work for an application.
After I was accepted into McGill I applied to the Royal Canadian Dental Corps (RCDC). After graduation from Science at Loyola, I went through a battery of psychological, medical and aptitude tests. At a review of previous day’s medical tests I was informed by the M.D. that my urine test was a bit of a mess. I guess a week of partying, after finishing exams, was not a good idea. I was told by the Doctor to stay at the base that evening and drink no beer or alcohol. The next day my urine test earned an A+ ,as it were. I then was told to wait for them to contact me. In mid-October, of first year, a Colonel from the Royal Canadian Dental Corps ( RCDC) came to McGill to talk about the Army program. I approached him after the talk and asked if he knew anything about my application. The next day he called and told me that for some reason my paper work had been misplaced; but , "Welcome to the Royal Canadian Dental Corps, Officer Cadet Pilon". It was a proud moment and I felt great about relieving my parents of the financial responsibilities. In fact, there had never been any mention of the financial aspects ; but, they were supportive of my Military path, although my mother was a bit nervous about the prospect.
At the end of first year dental school I proceeded to Canadian Forces Base Borden, then called Camp Borden. Base Borden is north of Toronto near Barrie, in lovely farm and vacation country. I did not yet have a uniform, as dental school was close to 40+ hours a week with labs, classes and clinic time. So we were excused from the weekly "Parades" at Regular Officers’ Training Corps ( ROTC) quarters. . I took a train to Borden, and was out on my own for the first time. Although I was 23 I really had not traveled without my family. So as naïve as it may sound it was first venture from "home". Basic training at Borden was both physically and mentally challenging but immensely rewarding. I was a bit of a rare bird in that I did not initially have a uniform, and our instructors tended to get a chuckle with this when I arrived.
With my new uniform I got a great introduction to the world of basic training. The Dental Corps prided themselves on the fact that we underwent training with all other young officers while the Medical students took an abbreviated course we sardonically referred to as "Charm School". I was 23 and most of my fellow officer cadets were 18 or 19. Not a major difference ;but, I think the few years , which included an undergraduate degree in my case, did prepare me for some of the mental rigors of the upcoming training. I also look back on my late teens when I played football in a 19 and under league. I was the quarter back and Captain of the team and I learned a lot about pushing oneself ,thanks to a great coach, Harold "Shorty" Fairhead. He had himself served as a 17 year old RCAF tail gunner in WWII and after returning to Canada, he earned a degree at McGill and joined the Army , the Royal Canadian Regiment. He was wounded in Korea. A recent reunion with a few of my football mates and Shorty reminded me what leadership meant. I mentioned this to him, and how his leadership ,as a coach, served me well in my Army training. Hell they had nothing on Shorty when it came to getting people to put out and do their best.
Our training units were divided into A and B companies and each company had 7 platoons. There were 20 of us in each platoon. All new lingo to my "Civie " ears; but, one learns quickly, especially with a couple of intense Sergeants on your case. Sgt’s Laughton and Swayze were right out of a movie. Swayze was a bit more restrained; Sgt Laughton was actually battle hardened. He had served in WWII in the British Army and went from D-Day to Berlin. . "Limey" Laughton had a mouth on him that would do an underground movie proud. I was in awe of him because of his war experiences and the fact that he treated us all equally, one could sarcastically say ,with "Equal distain". But to this day I feel he was pushing us hard, for our own good and to show us how far we could be pushed. One time on the Parade square he came up to me and asked how tall I was , "Six feet, three inches Sergeant ". To which he replied "I didn’t know they piled shit that high" . I laughed out loud, which apparently, was not what one does. He then asked what I was laughing at . "Nothing Sergeant", to which he retorted. "So this six foot something or other pile of shit laughs at nothing" . By now I was into heavy laugh mode. Sgt Laughton came up behind me and said "I’ll beat you over the head with this swagger stick till your dick falls off then I’ll beat you over the head with that" . Okay not quite dinner conversation; but, one hell of a lot of fun.
We spent class time on leadership lectures and a lot of time on field exercises. I was quite fit and I had planned to try out for the McGill Redmen football team but an Achilles tendon problem put an end to my football days unfortunately. That was unfortunate as I got into great shape. I always carried extra ammunition (blanks) and as often as possible I took an FN-2 heavier rifle . I also frequently volunteered for night patrols , as I found these challenging and a good work out. I frequently carried the communications radio which was not quite as light as today's i-PODS . Several of the B Company platoons were French speaking so I was the translator, as we were in exercises ,with the other company as "enemy". They soon wised up to that and as they could all speak English they often monitored our transmissions. I recalled where the US Army had used Navaho soldiers to communicate in that language to confound the enemy. We had two fellows of Hungarian background and I suggested they man the radios, while we were on patrol. The idea worked exceptionally well. It was interesting to monitor the "enemy" frequencies to hear their frustration of trying to decipher our transmissions. One amusing occurrence was when one fellow was trying to describe where their platoon was heading. It was an area called Beaver Lake. He didn't know the word in Hungarian for Beaver so he went into a fairly long description of the animal. It made for a good post summer training story.
Our exercises, in "The field" were, in a strange way, character building. We were often up for 24 hours long, my record was 40 hours…because I got lost in a patrol and there was no rest for the "lost". I enjoyed the physical and at times mental challenges of my summer basic training. It showed me how far I could be pushed and unless you enjoy a challenge this might not be understood. A challenge is a challenge, be it mental, physical or even psychological. And as to being six foot three inches., an advantage was that on the parade square I was the platoon right marker. This meant that I was the first at the front on the right as the platoon marched past. Technically I was to set the pace on the parade square for the rest of the platoon. Now and then I would get out of step, to the consternation and annoyance of the rest of the platoon. But, hey I was right marker…so stuff it . Follow my lead regardless of how badly I kept time on the parade square .
Our times on the firing ranges was also interesting. I am not all that keen on guns and at that time I had never fired , let alone held a real gun. At the ranges , Sgt. Laughton was all business, as there was no playing around. His demeanour was evident. We had sessions in the FN-1 semiautomatic rifle, the FN-2 a higher capacity automatic rifle . We also spent some time on the 9 mm machine gun and a 9mm pistol. My first day at the range was exceptionally unnerving for me, due to my inexperience with firearms. The FN1 rifle was semi automatic, that is once fired the expired shell casing was expelled and a new casing came into the firing chamber. To fire another round one had to pull the trigger again. The FN2 would continue to fire as long as one held the trigger down. The 9 MM machine gun was a faster and lighter version of the FN2, as it were. On our first day we lined up by 5's beside each other. Sgt Laughton made sure we did not wave the rifles about, down range was all that was accepted. Before we were allowed to fire a gunner Sgt specialist would fire and align the rifles sites to ensure we were able to shoot accurately. I recall the first shots were from fellows to my left. Then the guy next to me fired and a rush of expelled air hit my face. I all but pooped my pants, to use a colloquialism . My turn came and I was surprised at the recoil force of the rifle. But as our experience grew I became comfortable with the weapons. In fact I scored the highest in accuracy with the 9 mm pistol. Not bad for a novice I figured .
On patrol we used blank cartridges. 'Blanks' as we called them. Lots of noise and a neat psychological effects. I recall one night patrol , it was totally dark, no moon and a cloudy night. We were far from any city. One had to trust one's night vision as never before. I was with another fellow and I could sense movement ahead of me. I told the other lad we were likely in the middle of the "enemy" camp. I figured we may as well have a bit of fun and I suggested we fire a few blanks and head for the hills. We each fired off 5 shots and ran for it. The next day we heard that we had created quite a fuss.
Our food through the summer was great, a bit of surprise as one always heard of poor Army food. In all honesty in 20 years in the Forces I can only recall one poor meal. That summer our training was under the auspices of the Canadian Army Service Corps, they were the people who trained and provided cooks for the Army. In fact it was an exercise for their trainees. So when we came back to our field camp in the middle of the night their trainees had snacks prepared. All great stuff.
At the end of our time in "The field" as opposed to base camp, we had a week long field exercise. We sometimes had "dry" rations which one could mix with water. I often pocketed some coffee and hot chocolate. And of course I always had a full water canteen. On one particular night we were sent in pairs and given patrol orders. I had it all figured out, use the North Star as our guide. I figured where we were, where we were heading and where the star should be in relation to our position. So off we went with the North Star 45 degrees to our left shoulders. With each turn we check on the star...and used our terrain map as a guide. All was going great, in the deep woods we would check out other stars and reference them in relation to the North Star. Then after a confident 10 minute excursion I looked up and we had clouded over...Lost.....so we wandered about for an hour with no success. I figured since it was just an exercise, I decided to light a fire, break out the hot chocolate and enjoy a midnight treat. All went well till another patrol, with a British Exchange Officer in command, passed by. " You blithering idiots we are deep in enemy territory" And he stomped out our fire and ordered us to join his training patrol..... Now we had been up since 6 AM Monday and we made it back to our field base camp at 7 Am Tuesday ...The British officer had a few words with our Platoon Captain and I was sent on another patrol that morning. It was interesting as I almost fell asleep standing up. I finally got a bit of shut eye that night at 10 PM while resting by a path. So almost 40 hours ..but a lesson learned :)
One incident still strikes me as memorable and funny. We were on an advancing into combat exercise where we slowly advanced across a field with our rifles at the ready. I was at the end of the platoon and quite intent on scanning the horizon as we had heard there would be "enemy" action. Sgt Laughton came up behind me, gave me a heavy shove and yelled as he did so. The effect was to make it look as though I had hit the ground due to his yell. The platoon got a kick out of it and the Sgt said, "Get up Pilon you wouldn't scare a drunk man off my mother". All good fun
While in Borden I hitched back to Montreal to visit my girlfriend at the time. It was 400 miles ( 650 km) each way ;but, hitching was common and I always wore a uniform. It would take me 8 hours. My first time back and I had just completed a rigorous week "In the field" and I was feeling a tad sorry for myself. I arrived in Dorval, a Montreal suburb, the first thing my mother said was how healthy I looked, so much for sympathy .
The rest of the summer training went well. I had learned how far I could push myself, this was a good life lesson. I had learned some new skills and I gained respect and appreciation for soldiers in the field
After second and third year dental school our summer training was at the then Royal Canadian Dental Corps School , RC1DC(S) . This was considered the home of the Royal Canadian Dental Corps ( RCDC) and our officers referred to the RCDC as "The Corps " with considerable pride. Sadly budget cutbacks have decimated the RCDC to what they now call the "Dental Branch of the Health Services. Our second and third "Phase Training" summers were dentally orientated. In second phase we had a trip to Halifax. We arrived a week earlier than expected so we basically had a week off. Halifax is a lovely city with a rich history. At breakfast ,on the Navy Air Base of Shearwater, I would ask Navy personnel if there were any helicopter pilots among them. My fellow Dental Second Lieutenants (we had been promoted from Officer Cadets) would give me a chuckle about that; but, that all changed when one day a helicopter pilot invited me for a trip along the coast to Peggy’s Cove, which was a 30 minute flight away. We landed at the "Cove" after he demonstrated what is known as "Autorotation". This is basically a maneuver where by the pilot cuts the power to the rotors by a clutch like mechanism. It is a training procedure to practice landing in case the engine fails. The rotors act like a parachute slowing the descent. But we did fall at 2500 feet ( 800 meters) a minute. At about 200 feet (70 meters) he brought the engine back into play and we landed under control. The thrill of a 2500 foot descent in a minute tends to choke one up a bit, experience well received. We wandered about Peggy’s cove on foot and took in the seaside beauty of the area. This Cove was the sad site of a Swissair Crash several decades later. Later that afternoon I became a "rescue" practice training device. The chopper set me down on George's Island, in Halifax Harbour, then took off and came back and hovered at 40 feet (13 meters). They lowered a "horse collar" which sounds what it looks like. I would slip the collar over my head and cross my arms in front. When secure they brought the rope in and raised me into the copter. As we flew away the fellow at the rear door handed me a seat belt type of affair, with an extension to the far wall of the back of the copter. This was called a monkey tail and secured us safely but loosely to the copter. In fact we sat with our legs hanging out the side door. We flew around the harbour at 2500 feet (800 meters or so) and took in the sites. All the while with our feet out the side door of the 'chopper' .The "rescue" exercises were repeated a few times. A bit of a unique experience I must say and even after all these years it was a high light to be remembered. We also got to sight see around the area. At supper that evening my fellow Dental officers asked where I had been all day, when I told them it seems many were asking people at breakfast if they were pilots, the following days. But, I was the only one to get this sort of trip. The following week we spent time in military dental clinics around Halifax. We also got to meet dental staff.
In 1969 ,after graduation, I was ‘posted’ to the dental clinic at Dockyard in Halifax. Having visited there in 1967 it was a well anticipated posting. On the Friday between our weeks in Halifax , I hitched to the Annapolis valley and I spent an evening at a nice B&B. I found the people in Nova Scotia particularly friendly and very eager to share the beauty of their province. This was an adventure as I was far from home yet I was made to feel welcome. Something my travels would replicate over the years.
The road to Montreal was a regular for me for the summers of '67 and '68 . One time I was hitching to Highway 400, which lead from Barrie to Toronto, I was of course in uniform. A Major picked me up and said "I assume you don’t hitch in uniform". "Oh no sir" I lied, he let me off at a bus stop where I waited till he got out of sight, then of course I put out my thumb.
Once in Toronto I was stuck on the 401 highway, the major Toronto- Montreal road. I was in a non-hitching area. A Toronto police officer drove up and told me to take a bus as it was illegal to hitch at that spot. I asked what bus I should take and where. He said he had no idea, I asked "Are you heading that way?" He said he was so I got in. "Hey you can’t do that!" But I guess my "plight." , I had told him there was a family emergency , got the better of him and he drove me 10 or so miles to an area where hitching was permitted. No, not really a family emergency; but, one had to adapt to situations. :)
I had a rule of thumb when hitching. If they were playing country and western music or didn’t have seat belts I passed. I have nothing against C&W music but for some reason the country fans tend to drive a bit wild for my tastes. Seat belts were not yet a legal requirement in Canada ;but , my dad, who worked for Ford, was a major proponent of seat belts. He often spoke at service clubs such as the Kinsmen, promoting seat belts.
I only had one scare hitching, a friend and I , in our first summer of training, had spent the day at Wassaga Beach north of Base Borden. We had stayed a bit late and got a ride with two fellows who were drunk. The driver had a bottle on the dash board and would look back to pass the bottle. At first we declined; but ,his looking back was a bit disconcerting. But, as fortune would have it ,they stopped to pick up bathing suits at a country home and we jumped out and hid behind a tree till they left. It was the best 5 mile walk I ever had. It is a dark area far from city lights and the fields were alive with fireflies, My Patron Saint of the naive traveler, St Pesmo the Bewildered, was no doubt letting us know he had watched out for me again ☺My further adventures on the road, thankfully, had no such problems so I consider myself fortunate.
My summer months in Base Borden were a good foundation for my future flings on the road. I met some interesting people, some were heading home to the Maritimes. One fellow in particular had tried life in Toronto but "The big city" was too much for him. In the 5 hours I spent with him I got a nice insight into what the quiet life can mean.
Many people who picked me up had relatives who had served in the Forces during the war years , so getting rides was never an issue. But, many people hit the roads with thumbs out in the 60’s. In fact on one trip home I ran into 10 other military dental students heading to Montreal.
Our time at Base Borden and the Royal Canadian Dental Corps School set the stage for many years of proud service. Our senior officers were all Korean or WWII veterans. They had great pride in the "Corps". We had a sense of belonging to something special. We spent some time in the laboratory in our first year at the school and we worked at "Chair side" doing clinical work in our final summer at Borden. It was a great experience which we all took back to school for our final year. The final summer we also spent a week in Washington DC which I will elaborate on later.