It was May 1956 and I really had no idea what was in store for me.
I had decided to join the Army chiefly because a benevolent government had agreed to pay for my time at university in return for three years of my life serving in the Army.
It seemed like a great idea at the time. The day I graduated from Acadia University and was about to pay the piper, I wasn’t so sure.
My decision to become an officer in The Black Watch was made simply because both battalions of the regiment were in Aldershot, Nova Scotia about twenty minutes from the university and relatively close to my fiancé who I was due to marry in a year or so.
Canada’s Black Watch carried the name of the famous Scottish regiment and like the other Canadian Army regiments that had adopted British names, the Canadian Black Watch had a distinguished record of service in the South African War, both World Wars and had recently completed tours in Germany and Korea. Two battalions had been brought back to full time service in 1951 in response to Canada’s need to face the realities of the Cold War and the ever present possibly of war with Russia.
As I stood on the steps of the residence at Acadia University, waiting to be taken to Camp Aldershot to report to the adjutant of second battalion, I was more than a little curious how it would all begin.
My first encounter with a member of The Black Watch tended to put me in my place….
While I was considering my future, I looked across the lawn and watched a military vehicle turn off the highway. I certainly wasn’t expecting to be picked up in a staff car or even a jeep but I was a little startled when a large two and a half ton truck pulled up where I was sitting with my battered suitcase, World War 2 vintage kit bag and a barrack box that had been issued to me the first of my three summers of officer training.
The driver, whose name I have long since forgotten, climbed out of the truck, recognized I was his objective and set about getting on with the job at hand.
He grinned broadly, came to attention, saluted, and spoke in a thick Cape Breton accent.
“By any chance, are yez goin’ t’ th’ Black Watch?” he said, eyeing my kit piled beside the steps. “If yez are, I’m here t’ take yez t’ th’ camp.”
I acknowledged that I was his passenger and between us, we threw the luggage into the back of the truck, secured the tailgate and started off to Aldershot.
In less than thirty seconds, the driver started to talk, fascinating me with his comments on the regiment I was about to join.
Like many of the soldiers in The Black Watch in the nineteen fifties, he had served in Germany, Camp Wainwright, and in Korea before returning to Nova Scotia a year or so earlier. As he talked, he punctuated his commentary with short, simple, profane, soldier oriented bits of wisdom that pretty much summed up every subject with remarkable clarity.
I learned about the commanding officer, the company commanders, the pipe major, the battalion provost sergeant and the pay sergeant.
“Pay sergeant’s a good feller, but mean ass turkey turd beer.”
A company quartermaster sergeant from the battalion…
“So bald he has to comb his hair with a towel.”
The military police who he referred to simply as ‘meatheads’…
“I hafta admit the ones in the battalion are okay but th’ truth iss, I would far sooner have my sister in a whorehouse then marry one a them.”
I heard about the barrack rooms, the high price of beer, the problem of wearing a kilt in the winter, the quality of food, the local bootleggers, the sand in Camp Aldershot, the attractions of the ’Yo Ho’ valley outside of Kentville and the best place to get cider on the South Mountain.
We drove through Kentville, then turned left on a dirt road outside the town. A moment or two later, a chain link fence appeared on my side of the truck.
“Thare she iss, sor,” he said, pointing towards the fence, “Camp Aldershot!”
I strained to see the H-huts or the parade square but aside from a red and white water tower with a small group of single story white buildings clustered at the base of the tower, there was nothing to suggest we were anywhere near a camp that housed two battalions and nearly two thousand soldiers.
He sensed my surprise.
“Oh, thet ain’t th’ real camp, sor. Th’ company lines iss down over thet hill.” He pointed off in the distance. “What yez can see thare iss th’ chapel, th’ engineer buildings, d’ fire hall an’ tings loike thet.”
Then he explained why the sight did not meet my expectations.
“They always keep them parts a th’ camp thet are a bit important ass far away from d’ troops ass possible.”
He paused and pointed along the road.
“As a matter a fact, th’ officers’ quarters iss over thare by th’ main gate under them big pine trees. There ain’t nuthin’ farther away than thet.”
A small white building with barred windows, under the eaves of the roof, appeared on our right.
He suddenly became very serious.
“Thet’s d’ guard room an’ them’s d’ cells behind th’ bars,” he said a bit nervously. I gathered that was not his favourite part of camp.
As he turned the truck in front of the guard room, he muttered more to himself than to me.
“Jaysus, I wish d’ guard had changed while I wass gone. Th’ corporal thet’s on iss one mean son of a bitch.”
He braked gently in front of the barrier, checked his buttons and adjusted his balmoral.
A kilted highlander, a plumed red hackle bright against his blue balmoral stood beside the counterweighted end of the barrier. Another, in a white sentry box came to attention, sloped his rifle, ready to butt salute, assuming that since I was wearing a suit, I was probably an officer.
A corporal marched out of the guardroom, crossed in front of the truck and looked into the cab. He was short, his nose was squashed against his face and he was built like a Sherman tank.
He didn’t waste any time.
“Let’s have yer work ticket!” He barked in an accent that was remarkably close to the one I had listened to for the past half hour.
He took the sheet of yellow paper from the driver and examined it, stepped back to compare the number painted on the door against the number on the form. Satisfied that checked out he handed it back through the cab window.
“What have yez got in d’ truck,” he demanded with one hand on the mirror symbolically holding us there until he was satisfied there was nothing in the vehicle that violated the rules.
“Nothin’ much, corporal,” the driver replied nervously. Obviously, he had no intention of messing with this particular corporal.
“What do yez mean nothin’ much,” the corporal snapped.
“I mean nothin’ thet’s th’ least ways important corporal. Nothin’ worth a damn really, nothin’ at all thet’s any fuggin’ use to anybody,” he said nervously.
“Jest a beaten up barrack box, a suitcase, an’ a old kit bag.”
Then he realized he had a passenger.
“ Oh yeah, an’ a bran’ new officer joinin’ th’ regiment.”
Then, to reinforce his point, he continued.
“Loike I said, there’s absolutely nawthin’ in this truck thet’s any fuggin’ use t’ anyone.”