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Home > Articles > RMC Looking Back

RMC Looking Back



Hockey threads tied together on night to honour Steve Molaski  December 7th, 2015
By CLAUDE SCILLEY On the night when Steve Molaski celebrated the pinnacle of his hockey career, he told the story of how it almost never happened at all. At a reception before the most prodigious scorer ever to play hockey at Royal Military College had his uniform number retired Friday... [Read More]
Challenges of leadership a magnet for Scott Stevenson  August 20th, 2015
By CLAUDE SCILLEY Scott Stevenson admits it’s not something that is universally applicable. “You can’t equate rugby as a metaphor for all of life,” he said, “but I think it does work in a lot of leadership situations.” Certainly Stevenson has seen... [Read More]
Al Buchanan was one mischievous cadet  June 24th, 2015

One of a series of conversations with ex-cadets from Royal Military College, as they reflect on their time at the college, their sporting endeavours and what they've been up to since graduation.

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

Al Buchanan was many things in his days at Royal Military College. He was an accomplished gymnast; he played varsity soccer for four years, and he sang in the choir.

Oh, yeah. He was a bit of a scalawag, too.

“I ended up being one of the most punished cadets in history, they tell me, with some degree of pride, though not on my part,” he said. Through the telephone wire from Kelowna, B.C., you can almost detect an impish grin on the other end.

“I was lucky to squeak through first year, because I was up late at night doing extra military things, up early in the morning being inspected, and because you’re being inspected all the time, the chances were good of getting further punishment, for having boots not properly shined or god knows what else they would dream up.

“I ended up doing a lot of that punishment stuff. University seemed to be almost a sideline during that first year.”

Buchanan, it seems, wasn’t one to let the bear sleep.

“I’ve got a million tales from other misadventures,” he said, many of which he chooses to keep to himself. “We did chuck one guy in the water. One of my tormentors in first year ended up getting rather wet, and though I did pay for that one, it was well worthwhile—and he knows who he is.”

When he arrived at RMC from Shilo, Man., in the fall of 1960, Buchanan was one of the youngest cadets in the history of the college: 16 years of age, about to turn 17 that fall. One incident he recalled from his first year almost led to his not being one of its youngest graduates.

Buchanan lived on the second floor of the Stone Frigate, a clay stone building on Navy Bay through which the wind howled in the fall and winter, and as a first-year cadet, he was forbidden to leave the college grounds for the first few months. “I guess they feared that we might leave and not come back, which was a fear not unfounded.”

One of Buchanan’s classmates was Ken Kennedy, whose father had been heavyweight boxing champion at RMC in the 1930s, and went on to be a group captain who headed the British Commonwealth Air Training Program during the war. “Ken was my good friend,” Buchanan said. “We had kindred spirits.”

One day, tired of being cooped up, the two decided to step out. The lake had just frozen and they hatched a plan to skate across the river, to a pub on the other side of Wolfe Island, and hoist a couple in the name of their momentary freedom. “We had to be inspected at 10 o’clock and they would make sure you were there,” Buchanan said, “but after that we had from then until 6 in the morning when no one was checking on you.

“It was an ideal opportunity.”

It worked fairly well, he said.

“The ice was making alarming sounds, and you could hear these cracks and booms as you went over, which was kind of ominous. We sat in the American pub and had a whole bunch of weak American beer, but enough of it to compensate the lack of strength of the beer. We came out rather over-refreshed; we had trouble finding our skates, but we put them on and jumped on the ice.” With the lighthouse at RMC as their guide, they set out for home.

About 100 yards into their journey, Buchanan fell through the ice. “Just like a bullet,” he said. “I was lucky enough to get my hands on the ice, but there was a current pulling me under.”

Good scamps are ever-resourceful, however. Anticipating this might happen, the two young men—probably not old enough to drink legally in either jurisdiction—had brought with them a broomstick, which Kennedy had in his possession. “Ken thought it was funny,” Buchanan said, “so there I was, yelling at him to extend the broomstick to me, but he was on his back laughing too hard to be of much help.”

Eventually Buchanan got up and they resumed their sojourn. By this time it was about 10 degrees below zero and, of course, his wet clothing froze. Which only served to make him heavier and, yes, about 200 yards later, he fell through the ice again. “We had three and a half miles to go,” he said. “We somehow made it back.”

For reasons he can’t recall, Buchanan decided it would be a nice trick to stand his frozen clothing up in the corner of Kennedy’s room, like a scarecrow. In the morning came the customary inspection and when they got to Kennedy’s room, the second-year cadets discovered not Buchanan’s frozen clothing, but soggy clothing and an inch of dirty river water on the floor. “It immediately became evident that something had happened.”

“Whether they tortured him, he must have given up my name because they came charging up to my room pretty quickly and we were convicted of having been AWOL. We served quite a few months of punishment as a result of that late-night foray.”

Buchanan said it was one of his seminal moments at the college. “I realized that maybe the gods had something for me that they spared my life during that one,” he said. “Although I have had some close calls since, that was probably my closest meeting with my maker.”

Buchanan had been raised in a military household. His father, William Kent Buchanan, had served with the Royal Canadian Artillery in the Second World War, seeing active duty in Sicily and Belgium. He later helped to develop the Beaumark missile, and by the 1950s, he was a technical staff major, stationed in England, where he was Canada’s chief technical expert for the acquisition of heavy weaponry for NATO.

Buchanan’s first four years of high school were spent in England, where his early interest in sports was fostered on the cricket grounds, field hockey pitch and lawn tennis courts. In 1959, his father's posting to Shilo gave him his first exposure to ice hockey. “I played on the high school hockey team,” he said, “and got my head knocked off a few times.”

As one of four children, when it came time for Al to go to university, the family began to cast about for scholarship opportunities. ROTP came up as a possibility, and Buchanan was accepted at RMC. “I wasn’t really prepared for the military part, even though my dad had been an officer in the army and (I’d been) an army brat,” he said. “I’d never taken the military spit and polish that seriously, nor was I aware of it, until RMC made me aware of it.”

Sports became Buchanan’s salvation. He played soccer, he began doing gymnastics and, despite his inexperience, he even spent a year with the hockey team, coached by the legendary Danny McLeod. “I think he was kind of amused by me, because I weighed 120 pounds, I was 5-foot-7—I was dwarfed by all the hockey players. I could barely skate, I could barely hit, but for some reason he got a kick out of me and he kept me on his taxi squad for the first year.”

Gymnastics ultimately became the winter sport of choice. Buchanan won the Martel Shield in his fourth year as the college’s outstanding gymnast. “I was probably not a bad college gymnast, though truth to tell, when you’re compared with all the best gymnasts in the country, I was not at the top level.”

Buchanan spoke of his coaches, Sgt. Lilly—“he was a legend at the college,”— and Cpl. Vondette, a career military man and a gifted athlete who not only coached the cadets but competed with them. “We had him to be our measuring stick, so whatever he could do, we would try to do.” He also recalled teammates such Doug Hindman, Dave Allison and Tony Tucker. “We had some good athletes and they would set the bar high,” Buchanan said. “The first-year boys would have to try to pick the tricks up, trying to catch up to individuals who had been doing gymnastics for four, five or six years.”

His specialty was the parallel bars. “I was hitting pretty good scores, probably competitive with the top guys in Ontario,” he said. “I was not a bad tumbler; pommel horse is a tough animal, and I was a pretty good vaulter, but (the moves) were primitive by today’s standards.”

Buchanan recalled competing against Barry Brooker, who would later represent Canada at the 1968 Olympics, and watching Willie Weiler, an army sergeant who won eight medals at the 1963 Pan American Games. “We would go and watch these guys and realize, holy geez, that’s what you have to do to be competitive.”

Though he realized the military responsibilities of RMC would preclude him from ever quite reaching that level, he still cherishes his time with the team. “It was quite a hotbed of enthusiasm,” he said. Besides, it was also his refuge.

“In first year I was largely being punished, so the only place I could get some peace and quiet was in the gym,” he said. “Because I was representing the college, (the second-years) had to stay away from me during my practice times.”

Buchanan recalled the soccer team of his day was never a championship side, but the Redmen were competitive in the Ottawa-St. Lawrence league. He recalled with particular fondness playing McGill. “They were all West Indians,” he said, “and we had some rather sluggish characters as part of our defence.”

Bob Reid was a name that sprang to mind. “He was our fullback, and he specialized in hitting West Indian players just at the point where both people touch the ball, so it was legal, but they would be laid out.

“The rest of the time all the West Indian players would be looking behind them, wondering whether he was around them. We would be able to snatch the ball from their much more skilled feet, because they were too worried about Bob Reid coming to steamroll them.”

Buchanan said one thing about the college experience that every RMC student will remember is the recruit obstacle race, and he’s no exception. “I remember carrying a heavy rock out into Lake Ontario, for about 100 feet out, to where (the water) was just below your head.

“Then we went up a very steep hill. There was a lattice combat rope that you had to crawl underneath and you had to pull yourself up, while a high-pressure fire hose was coming down to stop you. Then you went into a moat filled with oil and water, then you had to climb up a rope, and you went under a tunnel, like a culvert, and the oil and water mixture came up, because of all the commotion of cadets going through. You could never depend on getting a clear breath. You could quite likely get a mouth full of oil and water during your trip through this culvert, which was a rather claustrophobic part of the event.

“Finally you got to the football field, 100 metres, and they gave you a sack. By this time you couldn’t see, because you had this oil-and-water mixture in your eyes, but they pointed you in the right direction. You were exhausted, and of course you kept falling down, but eventually you would reach the end.”

Buchanan finished second that day, by a foot to future gymnastics teammate Dave Allison.

“For that I got to be the second-ranked cadet in the college for the night. In other words, I could be like a fourth-year guy, No. 2 man, so I got to order people around.”

You can probably guess where this is going.

“(I could) order people in second year or third year or fourth year, make them do pushups, get them to run, make disparaging comments about their mothers or girlfriends, and it was wonderful—for one night.

“Then of course the gloves were off the following day, because all the people I’d bad-mouthed and castigated immediately came to seek their revenge upon me, but it was a very liberating experience, and one which I would highly recommend to anybody who is forced to go through something as primitive as a recruit obstacle race.”

Buchanan left RMC with a history degree and he served three years as an Armoured Corps lieutenant, eventually landing in Calgary with Lord Strathcona’s Horse. “I got out at my earliest opportunity,” he said, “because I wasn’t really suited for the military life. I had that gut feeling, but I sure appreciated the time that I had at the college, the friends that I made and the trips that I took as a college rep all over Ontario, competing against the other athletes. That was a highlight for me.

“It was quite a growing experience in the four years that I spent there.”

After he left the Army, Buchanan was in the first graduating class of the University of Calgary’s new teachers college. He taught junior high school and coached gymnastics and soccer for about eight years, until he got married. That summer, he and his new wife built a cabin on Shushwap Lake in south-central British Columbia. “I decided I wanted to go to B.C. because I wanted to be close enough to use it,” he said.

He and his wife, Mary, moved to Kamloops, where Buchanan taught at Cariboo College before he took a job in 1974 teaching English and social studies to Grade 11 and 12 students at NorKam Secondary School, “a very rough-and-tumble school” in the north end of town. There, Buchanan coached volleyball and rugby, and eventually became head of the English department. After he retired in 2002, he took sessional gigs at Thompson Rivers University, teaching English literature and composition.

Since 2005, he said, “I’ve been primarily singing.”

That’s another avocation that began at RMC.

“I discovered that if you were in the church choir, you didn’t have to go to Sunday morning military parade, so I immediately signed up for the choir,” he said. “One of the advantages was at the break, we could look out the window overlooking the parade square, and make disparaging comments at our classmates who were down there suffering the slings and arrows of the military elite.

“It was wonderful; highly recommended.”

He also joined the Glee Club and traveled across the province, “singing all over the place.”

“That was fun,’ Buchanan recalled. “That’s where I got my love of singing.” It’s a passion he’s expressed in chamber choirs, men’s choirs and jazz choirs ever since. “It’s become a big part of my life since I retired.”

Now 72, Buchanan stays active, playing tennis three or four times a week and skiing “a lot.”

“Things are going well. My poor wife is holding down the fort by working as a nurse. She informs me that she plans to retire, but we’ll see about that.”

Al and Mary have three children: a daughter, Stephanie, is a family physician in Whitehorse; Trevor remodels homes in Victoria, and the youngest, Devin, is a lawyer in Kamloops.

Not a bad legacy for a fellow who couldn’t seem capable of staying out of the doghouse as a young military cadet.

“Sports was good,” Buchanan explained, “What it did was it allowed me to have my meals in a little room behind the main dining hall. In the main dining hall, you’re open season to anybody who’s trying to pick on the first-year people but when you’re in the back room, you’re with all your teammates … and you’re treated as a member of the team. You don’t get inspected, you don’t get given hell, just because you’re a first-year guy. Meal times were my salvation and enabled me to have a little personal space, and that allowed me to develop the defences necessary to survive the heavy-duty hazing that went on in the winter of 1960.”

The punishments were nothing serious, he said, but they were tiresome.

“They were serious because you were deprived of sleep. You were up late at night ironing your uniforms, polishing your boots until you could see your pimples in them, and they would try to belittle you, psychologically, saying you were a disgrace to this and a disgrace to that, and how could you possibly …—that kind of stuff.

“You had to harden yourself to be able to say that you were all right. Unfortunately when you’re in that position and being singled out, you have few allies, even among your own class, because if they associate with you, they could then become targets as well, so you become pariahs. I remember there were a few of the lads that were unfortunate enough to have the full attention of the second-years, who were given pretty free reign over our time.”

Being unable to resist tweaking the bear’s cheek from time to time, knowing full well what would inevitably ensue, surely suggests a person would have an adventuresome spirit.

 “That’s right,” Buchanan said. “I did.”

Though he had many good ones, for Ryan Slate, competing was never about outcomes  April 9th, 2015
One of a series of stories of conversations with ex-cadets from Royal Military College, as they reflect on their time at the college, their sporting endeavours and what they've been up to since graduation. By CLAUDE SCILLEY The man who was undoubtedly the greatest rower... [Read More]
Lucy Cerantola never planned to become a world-class body builder  March 24th, 2015
One of a series of stories of conversations with ex-cadets from Royal Military College, as they reflect on their time at the college, their sporting endeavours and what they've been up to since graduation. By CLAUDE SCILLEY Interested in sports and fitness since her high... [Read More]
Ex-Redman Bill Sergeant stays busy as ever  March 17th, 2015
One of a series of stories of conversations with ex-cadets from Royal Military College, as they reflect on their time at the college, their sporting endeavours and what they've been up to since graduation. By CLAUDE SCILLEY Bill Sergeant recalls being skeptical at the... [Read More]
In or out of the Forces, security still the focus of Leah Sherriff  January 29th, 2015
One of a series of conversations with ex-cadets from Royal Military College, as they reflect on their time at the college, their sporting endeavours and what they've been up to since graduation. By CLAUDE SCILLEY It does seem strange, Leah West Sherriff... [Read More]
Peter Atkinson majored in football, minored in history  January 22nd, 2015

One of a series of stories of conversations with ex-cadets from Royal Military College, as they reflect on their time at the college, their sporting endeavours and what they've been up to since graduation.

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

There’s something about the man that seems to engender confidence.

More than once along the way people were willing to go out on a limb for a military brat from New Brunswick, to take a chance—or extend a second chance—to a fellow whose circumstance would not necessarily have warranted such faith. Fortunately for Peter Atkinson, those opportunities got extended—and he didn’t disappoint.

He talks about them fondly now, one in each of the phases of a lifetime of serving his country, from the cadet corps on a Canadian base in Germany as a teen, as an officer cadet at Royal Military College, through a distinguished career as an armoured officer in the Canadian Forces, and now as a civilian in charge of the Personal Support Programs at bases across the country.

Atkinson tells a story about each episode with a touch of humour that suggests he knows his good fortune, and a note of gratitude to those who were there at those critical moments and saw something in him that instilled the belief they were doing the right thing.

Take, for instance, the fellow in charge of the CFE Pipes and Drums at Lahr, Germany, where Atkinson’s father was posted and a teenage Peter wound up with a job he was not  expecting.

“My girlfriend was a highland dancer,” said Atkinson, recalling how he would often tag along to rehearsals. “In 1974 their drum major got posted home. The pipe major turned to me and said, 'If you’re going to hang around the pipe band, we’re going to give you a job.'”

That’s how Atkinson became a drum major, a position he held with several ceremonial units for the next 40 years.

He’d been a drum major for three years when he arrived at RMC and when he got there, the pipe major, Donnie Kerrigan, knew all about him. “I’m not sure how a first-year got handed the mace on his first day in the door—much to the chagrin of a few of my fourth-year buddies,” Atkinson said, “but I became the drum major on Day One and did it for four years. It was a lot of fun.”

So new to the college was Atkinson that he was oblivious to some of the unwritten cadet codes, which generally require first-years to be seen and not heard while in the presence of upper classmen, and in a well-defined militaristic hierarchy, discourages them from trying to boss seniors around.

“I had a really good teacher in Jack Millen about being a drum major,” Atkinson said over the phone from his office in Ottawa. “What I wasn’t all that attuned to in the first month at RMC was the hurt feelings of fourth-years when you jack them up on the parade square because they weren’t doing the right thing, (but) they gave me the mace and when you’re the drum major, you’re in charge. I didn’t pull any punches about which piper couldn’t stay in step, or play music and walk at the same time or whatever it was, so I bruised a few egos.

“They probably all got back at me in their own way, once they got me off the parade square, but that was all part of the fun about being a first-year cadet at RMC.”

What wasn’t quite so much fun was facing an academic review panel at the end of his first semester. In addition to being the drum major of the RMC band, he was a starting guard on the Redmen football team. “I had a major in football and a minor in history,” is how Atkinson describes his academic career at the college, but no one in the room was amused that winter day.

“I’d had a successful football season,” he said. “I had a great time with the pipe band, (but) my academics were a little bit weak. I don’t remember exactly, but I think I had a 32 in physics and a 24 in chemistry and if the pipe major and the football coach hadn’t gone to bat for me at the little review board they had at Christmastime, I might not have been there in January, but they said, hey, ‘He’s got a lot of potential; we know he’ll pull his socks up,’ and they turned to me and said the same thing: ‘And you WILL pull your socks up.’

“I was struggling, and it’s funny because I was really good with physics and chemistry in high school but trying to mix everything else in with being a first-year cadet, there were a few labs that I might have slept through. You’d get in there and you’d be bone tired. You put your head down inside your brief case and someone would wake you up at the end of the class.”

Getting regular sleep in the second term and buckling down enabled Atkinson to raise his average into the 70s, and his aspiring military career was saved. “I was never in academic trouble again,” he said. “I switched from engineering to military history, and it was a good thing because it actually taught me to write, and that was a skill that stood me in good stead over the years.

“I found that the ability to write and think with your pen was very helpful to me.”

Later in a career that took him around the world—and allowed him to be such things as mayor of Cornwallis, N.S., drum major of a pipe band in Cyprus, and an instructor at the U.S. War College in Carlisle, Pa.—in 1998 Atkinson was appointed commanding officer of the Royal Canadian Dragoons, stationed in Petawawa, Ont. It was the unit with which he began his career fresh out of RMC. “I absolutely loved being a dragoon.”

Eventually the Dragoons had deployed two squadrons to the Balkans and another to Kosova and in 2000, while visiting those troops in Kosovo, Atkinson had what he now calls “a fairly traumatic incident,” when he had an accidental discharge from the coaxial machine gun on a tank.

“I buried three or four rounds into the back of the turret (of the tank ahead of me).”

No one was hurt but as the CO, Atkinson was the subject of a court-martial. “It didn’t matter what had happened in the turret, you’re responsible and I was the guy who made the mistake,” he said. “I was very lucky no one was hurt.” Atkinson received a $5,000 fine.

“The interesting part,” Atkinson said, “is when the judge was going through his judgment and explaining how he came up with the sentence, he said when he went back through all the cases, the only one that was similar, I had been the presiding officer at the summary trial of a crew commander who was preparing to go to Kosovo.”

He’d had an accidental discharge of a Coyote on the range, and Atkinson had given him a $1,500 fine. “Since he was a master corporal, the judge multiplied the fine by three and rounded up.

“Turned out,” Atkinson said, “I was the author of my own sentence.”

The incident led to a change in Canadian Forces policy. Since then, officers visiting troops are no longer allowed to be put in a position where they could accidentally discharge a weapon in a major combat system.

“It was all about accepting responsibility and leadership, taking responsibility for your actions,” Atkinson said.

For a lesser officer, it might have been a career killer, but Atkinson’s record was such that his superiors saw it in a more understanding light. After his “setback” with the court martial, the commander of the army called Atkinson the next day.

“He said, ‘Listen I was really glad that you stepped up and took responsibility for your actions,’” Atkinson recalled. “He said, ‘We still have a lot of faith in you; we’re going to promote you and send you to Kingston as the base commander.’”

Atkinson came home with one other important memory from the trip to Kosovo.

“My soldiers over there—guess what they were doing?” he said, proudly. “ They were playing soccer with the Kosovars.”

To appreciate the significance of this you need to understand the high regard with which Atkinson holds the role of sport in the grand scheme. A varsity football player at RMC, a soccer player of note for most of his life and a soccer referee for more than 20 years—he worked games in the Kingston senior men’s league when he was the base commander at CFB Kingston—Atkinson was well aware of the elements of fitness and camaraderie sport provides. It wasn’t until he was serving as a peacekeeper in Cyprus, however, that deeper benefits started to become apparent to him, as his troops played soccer on both sides of the green line that separated the Greek and Turkish communities.

“Sport has always been a great way to crack open the door on soldiers,” he said. “Whether they’re your soldiers, the soldiers of another country or a conflict zone that you’re in, sport is a great vehicle for doing that. That was my first operational tour and that really opened my eyes to that door and the capability of it.”

Later, while posted to the former Yugoslavia, Atkinson and his soldiers played soccer with Bosnians, Croatians and Serbs. “Football is a common language,” he said.

“Because a good number of the soccer fields had mines on them, we played soccer indoors, on concrete, where we knew there were no mines. It was a great door opener for relationships with other soldiers in a conflict zone.”

Even in intramural athletics, sport gives insight into the soldiers you command, Atkinson said. “That’s where you get to see the leadership side of people in another venue. It’s a great venue for stress relief, a great venue for promoting esprit de corps and teamwork.

“It always opens doors. When you meet somebody on a sports field, when you come to talk afterwards, the ice is already broken. I found that every tour I was on, any time you can deal with people on another level than the end of the gun, you find common ground. Sometimes the games might get a little bit rough, but soldiers being soldiers, they would find the silver lining in what sports really meant. I feel to this day how important sport is to us.”

Coming as he does from a military family—Atkinson’s grandfather served in both the Second World War and the Korean War, in the first with an uncle, and the latter with his father—a military career was perhaps pre-ordained. His father was stationed at Lahr, Germany during Atkinson’s high school years, during which time Atkinson was in the Dragoons’ cadets program.

There was no North American-style football at Lahr, though one day a couple of teachers, who had played some college ball, gathered the boys together for a few scrimmages. “These two profs said, ‘Hey, you’ve got a natural talent for the game, so when you get to college, get yourself onto the practice field and someone’s going to give you a shot.’”

The words stuck with Atkinson, who was already inclined to go to RMC, and he recalls vividly his admissions interview to this day.

“It’s funny the things you do remember,” he said. “When they said, ‘What’s your second choice?’ I said, ‘No, I want to go to the military college, I want to be an armoured officer and I want to play football.’

“They said, ‘Well, you need to give us a second choice.’  I said, ‘No, I want to go to RMC, I want to be an armoured officer and I’m interested in playing for football for them.’ They said OK.

“When I shredded that old personnel file after I retired, I went back and some of those exact words were on this form, which was kind of funny.”

Having arrived with no position to speak of, Atkinson was working as a fullback in his first football training camp, but at an exhibition game at Carleton in the fall of 1977, the starting right guard broke his ankle.

“You know what they say about fullbacks—he’s just a guard with his brains shot out,” Atkinson said. “So when he went down, I got put in as the guard. I knew all the plays, because I knew where the guard was supposed to go, because he was leading the fullback.

“That’s where I stayed for the next four years.” Atkinson was a team captain in his senior year, and he was a member of the Redmen team that won the national small college championship in 1979, the last title an RMC team has ever won.

There were some interesting times in a distinguished career:

• On being the mayor of Cornwallis: “It was an appointment. I think the base commander looked around and saw this one army guy who didn’t have a good excuse for why he shouldn’t be the mayor, so he made me the mayor.” As such, he represented the Town of Cornwallis at the Annapolis Valley Chamber of Commerce and, in his time there, helped to establish a daycare.

• On forming a pipe band on Cyprus: “There were four or five pipers in the unit, me as the drum major, our chief clerk was a base drummer and we had a couple of drummers. We did Canada Day and a bunch of ceremonial stuff. That was fun.” Atkinson remains unsure of what the Cypriots made of it. “I think they ran scared,” he said, “(wondering) what the heck was that sound?”

• On being posted to the Army headquarters in St-Hubert, Que., in July of 1990: “Didn’t I land, and three days after I was there the Oka crisis happened. My poor wife and my son, I bought our first house and dropped them off in downtown St-Bruno and checked into the ops centre. I was there for the next three and a half months.”

• On suspending himself in a broomball league in Petawawa: “I played and was also president of the league. I got in trouble with the referee in the middle of the ice and I just walked right to the penalty box, saying to myself, ‘That was really dumb. This carries a suspension.’ Because I was the discipline guy, I had to suspend myself for two games.”

After his time as base commander in Kingston, Atkinson went back to the Balkans, where he was the task force commander in 2003. On his return he attended the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania, and then was asked to stay and teach international security and national policy there. “What an awesome experience to be able to do that,” he said.

At that point, Gen. Rick Hillier, then the Chief of Defence Staff, asked Atkinson to be his executive officer and after about 18 months promoted him to general and a posting to the joint staff. What followed a year later Atkinson calls “what I consider to be the pinnacle of my career”—a posting to be deputy commanding general of 3 U.S. Armored Corps at Fort Hood, Tex.

“All of the things that I had done in my military career came together in a job where I was responsible to train and prepare 12 brigades for combat,” he said. “What a great experience to go down there and represent Canada and be part of that great formation for three years.”

It was a bittersweet experience, however, as it was at the time he was to come back to Canada that Atkinson’s wife, Charlene, was diagnosed with ALS. It was late 2011 and Atkinson retired early to take care of her. “Ten months later, she was gone, ” he said. “I lost my girl.”

“She was from New Brunswick. We’d been childhood sweethearts but we kind of grew apart when I went to high school in Lahr. I found her again in my fourth year at RMC at Christmastime when I went home. We started going out and we got married in 1982, on Grey Cup weekend.”

Atkinson recalls it as a difficult time, but some time later he ran into a woman who had been part of his and Charlene’s life. “She was a great friend of ours in Petawawa, was separated and raised two daughters on her own. She’d moved back to our hometown in New Brunswick, and was best friends with my sister.”

Atkinson and Diana are now married. “Life begins again,” he said. “I’ve got a great gal who’s with me for—I’ll call it the second half of my career.

"I consider myself doubly blessed. I went back to that same small town in New Brunswick to find a girl twice and came away lucky.”

Yet another second opportunity that paid off. “There’s always a glass half full,” he said.

When he retired, “like a lot of military guys,” Atkinson established a consulting company, did some distance teaching with the War College and “a bunch of other unpaid stuff.” He wasn’t looking for anything beyond that when he got a call from the Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Services and was asked if he’d be interested in running the Forces’ Personal Support Program—responsible for such things as sports, recreation, fitness, messes and clubs—nation-wide.

“I thought about that for about 10 seconds, and I said, ‘The answer’s yes.’” He applied, got the job and is now the senior vice-president of PSP, based in Ottawa.

“I continue to have an awful lot of fun,” he said. “My time in uniform, I played a lot of sports, I was a tanker, I crashed in a helicopter once, so I did beat my body up a bit over the years.” The resultant wear and tear on his knees has forced him recently to abandon two passions: recreational hockey and the pipe band.

“Two tough decisions, he said, “but I did it with a view to the future, because I want to play golf; I want to walk on the beach with my wife; I love hunting and fishing—and I need these two legs to do that.”

Atkinson remembers well arriving in Kingston for the first time.

“When I got to go to RMC, that was the first step in something I felt I really wanted to do,” he said, and when former classmates gather, the same subject always arises first.

“We talk about the guys,” Atkinson said. “There’s a little cabal of football players and they’re the guys I still talk to regularly: Gerry Moodie, Mark McQuillan, Luiz Araujo, Ken Chadder—that football crowd; we’ve all stayed in touch. The camaraderie that was created through sports while we were there is a huge thing.

“These are friends for life. The friends you met (at RMC), in some cases they’re closer than family. That bond you establish in the time we spent there, and in the case of a bunch of us we spent four years there and then 30 plus years in uniform—that notion of brothers in arms? There’s a lot to that. It’s not a cliché at all.”

The Atkinson family’s military tradition continues, though when Peter joined the armoured corps he ended the line of infantry men. His son, Mitchell, a 2006 graduate of RMC—he played junior B hockey in Gananoque while he was at the college—has followed his father into the Dragoons and served one tour in Afghanistan. He’s now posted to Kuwait.

“The family tradition of serving our country continues,” Atkinson said. “When I go up to Petawawa to regimental dinners, and you lean over and look down the table and see the younger version of you, it’s pretty hard not to be proud.”

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