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.”