Hillman 50-Year Musical Odyssey :: Travel Section
THE ROYAL CANADIAN AIR CADET YEARS
By Bill Hillman
The roots that grew out of my years as an Air Cadet run deep. I joined Strathclair 317 Air Cadet Squadron when I was 11 years old, as a Jr. Cadet, back in the early '50s. I had an interest in the military since three of my uncles had died flying Lancaster and Halifax missions in the war, four other uncles were also in the Air Force as well as the army. My dad served in the RCN on HMCS Prince Robert which was part of a convoy that sailed to Hong Kong in 1945 to release the Canadian POWs and accept the Jap surrender.
For the next eight years the Thursday evening parade was a regular event. Being a farmboy living in the country, this weekly event was a social thing I looked forward to. WWII hadn't been over for too many years, so much of our evening agendas involved instruction via wartime training films, newsreels, aircraft recognition cards and films, training handbooks, propaganda films and posters, etc. We were issued old WWII RCAF uniforms with rows of brass buttons that had to be polished each week. Our instructors were all WWII vets and we were thrilled at some of the tales they shared with us. Our shooting range was in a crawl space under the Legion Hall. It was here I practised marksmanship which served me well on the farm where I honed my shooting skills by shooting gophers in the pasture. Eventually I even went on to win shooting trophies. I was dissuaded from applying for the Air Cadet pilot training course by my parents and grandparents who were still mourning the loss of my uncles in wartime RCAF missions. Later, my plans to join ROTP/RCAF for help with my university courses were also thwarted -- I was colour blind.
I looked forward to the weekly drill practice and marching sessions -- especially when we were issued rifles for rifle drill. We also had classes in bugle, radio and morse code. This really stoked my interest in old time radio broadcasts and in later years I amassed a huge collection of OTR shows and videos on tape, disc, and computer. Another lasting interest came out of our sessions in develping film in the dark room above the butcher shop. I still have some of the cameras from that time as well as many of the photos we had developed. Many of our Cadet classes were held in the Strathclair School where I also attended grades 1-12 -- a few years later I even returned to that school where I taught high school classes for 30 years. Interestingly, my principal for many of those years, E.G. Morris, was also the 317 Sqd. Commanding Officer.
Our school didn't have a gym at that time so we looked forward to our regular trips on a military bus to CJATC Rivers -- a nearby Air Force Base where we spent many memorable hours. The visits to the Rec Hall were a favourite because it was our first exposure to a real gymnasium. We spent many enjoyable weekends practising drill on its huge hardwood floor as well as playing volleyball, Bordenball, and other gym sports. The building also housed a bowling alley, rifle range, snack bar, and an area for films. Later, in the early '60s, while earning tuition money for university, I worked summers in the CE section painting PMQs, hangars, fuel tanks, etc. I boarded in one of the barracks and but for many nights I climbed onto the military shuttle bus to Brandon -- guitar slung over my shoulder -- to play with one of the country, rock or TV bands I was playing with at that time. Still later, in the late '60s, my wife Sue-On and I performed many times in the various messes and clubs on the base.
The biggest thrill during our Rivers visits was the opportunity to fly in some of the aircraft based there. Taking off and flying over our local farmland in Dakotas, Flying Boxcars, etc.was a real experience, but the craft I remember most was the Bell helicopter. Sitting in the glass bubble of the craft as the pilot went through maneurvers was akin to flying like a bird. We landed the chopper on a small-topped drumlin near the golf course and the two of us ducked down as we stepped out to look over the countryside. I was saddened to hear that later the pilot had left the force to work in the logging industry and had been killed by a helicopter blade when he hadn't stooped low enough while leaving the cockpit on uneven ground. A few years later my uncle Jim Grant took helicopter training on the base and surprised us a few times when he landed in our farm pasture.
Two other highlights from the Air Cadet years were the sessions at summer camp:
My first RCAC camp was at Saint Jean, PQ.
* We boarded a train at Strathclair RR station which took us to Winnipeg where we were to board a C-119 at the base there. The train ride was a thrill because it was powered by one of the last runs of a steam locomotive.
* The "Flying Boxcar" flight was also provided a bit of excitement after I got over the air sickness. We lost an engine and had to make a forced landing at Toronto.
* Since St. Jean is only 40 km from Montreal we were shown all the city's tourist sites -- even Saint Helen's Island. My wife Sue-On and I saw tremendous changes to this island which was the site of Expo 67 that we visited over 10 years later. The next time we saw the island was on the tele in our muscians digs during our 1976 music tour of the UK -- the area had been transformed into the Summer Olympics site.
* The other memory that stands out from this summer camp was the jam sessions I had in the barracks with another cadet. We were both just learning guitar and shared licks -- a few of them still creep into my playing today.
My second RCAC camp was at Sea Island, BC
*Sea Island was an RCAF base and airfield which later became Vancouver International Airport. We travelled in class to this camp -- the first ride I remember in a commercial airliner. There are a number of stand-out memories from this adventure.
* HRH Princess Margaret landed on the Sea Island airfield for a Canadian visit and I was chosen to be in the colour party that greeted her on the tarmac.
* Later we had the choice of attending a stock car race or serving as ushers for a BC Lions football night game at Empire Stadium. Since I was a devoted football fan and player and since I had never seen a pro game or been in a stadium with lights, the usher option was the obvious choice.
* Another of the events while in BC was to swim in Empire Pool -- an olympic-sized pool. This was another first -- my previous experiences in water had been at Henderson's Beach at our nearby Salt Lake. Empire pool was a tad different for this farm boy.
* We were given a number of flights in military aircraft while at the Sea Island RCAC camp. The best one was the flight in a Beechcraft Expeditor that took us over Vancouver Island. This was made even more memorable since the pilot invited me up front to sit in the cockpit and even let me take the controls for a bit. We survived ;)
My eight years in Air Cadets provided many experiences and memories that have stayed with me through my seven decades. I attained a rank of WO2 -- the highest offered by our squadron -- and this helped teach me many skills in leadership and instruction. The experience also helped build confidence which served me well in my lifetime occupations as a teacher, professor, stage performer. . . and husband and parent.
The Cadet years also helped to provide an appreciation and respect for our military heritage.
I have spent countless hours researching and creating Military Tribute sites:
www.hillmanweb.com/rcn ~ www.hillmanweb.com/rcaf ~ www.hillmanweb.com/war ~ www.hillmanweb.com/rivers
and doing volunteer work and Websites for the
British Commonwealth Air Training Plan ~ XII Manitoba Dragoons ~ Edgar Rice Burroughs: The War Years, etc.Bill Hillman
BILL and SUE-ON HILLMAN: A 50-YEAR MUSICAL ODYSSEY
www.hillmanweb.com/book :: www.hillmanweb.com/book/gigs