Climb Higher – Fall Farther

Why do kids love to climb? First, the challenge. Adults don’t seem to be interested, so it’s territory for the claiming. My first climb, apparently from eyewitness family members, was the rose trellis. Not sure if I was deterred by the rose thorns or not. Anyway, I scaled the trellis but failed to hang on. Down I went. When Mother heard my cries, she gathered me up, said I would be alright and put me down. Then she realized my nose was bruised and crooked. The best course of action would be to call Dr Gerbracht, the osteopath who knew all about straightening spines and maybe noses. While Mother was on the phone, I decided to attempt another assault on the rose trellis. At some point in the climb, something gave way and down I came. Mother responded to my cries, gathered me up, said I would be alright and put me down. Upon closer inspection, she saw my now straightened nose. So back into the house to call Dr Gerbracht and cancel the appointment. All was well.

My next two memories are very clear. I loved being around construction – the earthy aroma of a fresh excavation, the spruce scent of new-sawn lumber, and pungent identity of green concrete. Besides, there were things to climb. Peter and Luella Hindy were building a new storey and a half next door on the corner of Hungerford Road and Ontario Street. At the framing stage, you would always find a 2 x 12 plank on a gentle incline from the side door opening up to the first floor. Below was the basement floor, with or without a poured concrete floor and the usual collection of cut-offs and short pieces of 2 x 4. Whatever happened, I missed my footing and tumbled to the basement floor. The fall is quick – just a fraction of a second, but the following seconds last forever. A hard landing forces all of the air out of your lungs. You can’t inhale or exhale – the diaphragm is literally in a state of paralysis. I lay there, gasping. An eternity passed. Slowly I got to my feet, checked for everything to be in working order which is was and found a way to climb out of the basement. Was I deterred from climbing again? Not really, but lesson learned. Just don’t fall!

My second love was being around the farm, climbing in the haymow, over fences and up the trees in the orchard. When cherries, pears and apples were in season, late June into August, the only way to get the best fruit was to climb the tree. On this particular day, we were playing out at Hamp’s farm when the apple orchard beckoned. We chose our trees and climbed. Why is the biggest fruit just out of reach? I moved out further, I stretched and I reached. I stretched some more when ‘Crack!’, the branch broke and in an instant, I was flat on the ground, wind knocked out of me. Couldn’t breath, couldn’t cry out. As I lay there, trying to focus, gathering my senses, I looked up only to see the face of the farm billy goat standing above me. He had come for my apple that now lay on the ground. I don’t remember who got it, because at that moment, I didn’t care.

Now if you like to climb, and there is a good supply of lumber ends, shorts and dropped nails in the neighbourhood, then you build a treehouse. Forget the level and measuring tape. Use what you have. Don’t ever remember falling out of a treehouse.

Climbing fences is another matter. If you can find a stile, use it. It’s like a built-in ladder that gets you over the fence and into the next field. If you can’t find a stile, climb the fence near fence post where the wire is taut. If you can’t find that, you take your chances. I did that once. I was following my older brother and his friends who were on a butterfly hunting expedition. They all scaled the fence so I followed, last in line. As I climbed down the other side of the barbed-wire fence, I slipped and incurred a 4’’ gash on my upper thigh. Dr Gammie was engaged to stitch it up which was fine, and after a week, the stitches were removed. But a week wasn’t enough for complete healing , and it reopened by the time I got home. In those days, no government healthcare so you only saw the doctor in real emergencies. The prevailing wisdom was let it heal on its own. It did, eventually and I have the 4 x 1 inch scar to prove it. Seventy years later, it was observed during a medical procedure and became a brief topic of conversation that quickly revived this boyhood memory.

After-School and Summer Jobs

Getting your first job is the hardest – you have no work history. Once you do, you can parlay that into being somewhat qualified for the next job. Only be sure you can do what you say you can do. My first job didn’t need any work history – Must be 16 and fit. That’s it.

In the summer of 1958, following Grade 10, I enlisted for an 8 week stint with the Highland Light Infantry Reserve Army. Every morning at 8:00 am, five days a week, we reported for duty at the Galt Armoury. The pay, about $800 as I recall, would be released at the end of training.

My military exposure was limited mostly to stories from relatives and the annual Remembrance Day ceremony. Uncle (by marriage) Jim Miller service in the RCAF. Somehow, he was wounded in action, discharged and left to nurse a painful knee for the rest of his life. Uncle (by marriage) Jack Higgins had a tour of duty in Italy and came home with lots of stories. Cousin Fred Habermehl served for a summer as a peacetime chaplain in Churchill, MB. Brother Joe Gehiere served in a summer student officer program in St Jean QC. My father enlisted in 1939, but was deemed not fit for overseas duty. He was assigned to batboy duty in Camp Borden, and came home weekends. During public school, on November 11 at precisely 11:00 AM, the whole school gathered on the upper floor hallway to hold the annual Remembrance service. Jimmy Lindhorst and Diane Zeigler received special honour as each has lost a father in WW II.

Day one in the HLI: Introduction to the officers, assignment of a military registration number, medical examination, haircut, standard uniform and kit issue and first parade. At the end of the day, we were dismissed in uniform and carried our ‘civies’ home in a knapsack. Imagine walking, for the first time, from the bus stop at the town hall, up Cooper Street, then Hammet Street and finally home to 177 Hungerford Road wearing a military uniform. I felt like I was on parade. That was just the start. I had just joined a regiment with Scottish roots. One day, I would be issued full dress with a kilt. Then walk the walk. That would come later.

In retrospect, the officers of the HLI took our training seriously, and I can see why. World War II had ended just 12 years prior. Men had lost their lives at Juno Beach and elsewhere in Europe to preserve our freedom as Canadians. The names of the fallen were engraved in bronze and mounted on plaques in schools, public auditoriums and at the cenotaphs. Memories of war were fresh in the minds of the leadership. For me, the war was history, important, sobering, but before my time. I would come to appreciate the issues of war and preparedness, should there ever be a need. Would I be willing to go? I was never tested. But I was still getting a taste of military life which served me well.

Every morning started with roll call. We lined up in rows, in alphabetical order, and responded when our surnames were called. We formed up, marched smartly, and followed the orders that were barked. No fooling around. Weapons were issued – M1 Belgian semi-automatic rifle and the .303 British Lee-Enfield rife. We learned to take them apart, clean and reassemble with eyes closed. Firing the weapons would wait until we travelled to the firing range at Ipperwash Beach.
Every day, we had classes. Biological warfare – what it is and how to survive it when exposed. Nuclear warfare – what it is and how to survive it. Field exercises – reconnaissance, travelling on foot cross country, marching 7 to 10 miles on back roads and returning by vehicle. Meals were served the field – shepherds pie, hot wieners and beans, sandwiches. After exercises, we wrote exams. ‘Esprit de corps’ began to develop and we worked for the common good, with enthusiasm and commitment. I remember the regimental motto: Defence, not Defiance
Eventually, we were ready for the firing range.

We travelled to Ipperwash, sitting on wooden benches in the back of open trucks. Probably wouldn’t be allowed today. At the range, we stayed in barracks. Some of these are still standing along Hwy 21 as you pass by the property now controlled by the Kettle and Stony Point First Nation. After instruction on safety and range protocol, we had opportunity to fire the .303 Lee-Enfield British rifle. Be prepared for the the recoil. The M1 was more advanced as the energy of the recoil was used to load the next shell. Then the surprise – firing the Bren light machine gun. Here you lie prone and use the toes of your boots to hold yourself in place as the released energy drags you forward, not back. Returning to the armoury on Monday, it was announced that that I was the top shooter in the M1 class.
One of the big deals in the military is making the most of your free time. Just make sure your back in barracks by curfew. During the weekend at Ipperwash, I found out that our church group was camping at Ipperwash Beach. Naturally, I had to take my free time and pay a visit.

Princess Margaret, sister of Queen Elizabeth, was planning a trip to Canada in the summer of 1958, 60 years ago as I write this. Among her official duties as colonel-in-chief of the Highland Light Infantry, would be the presentation of new regimental colours to the regiment in Galt, Ontario. More than that, we would all be on parade at Ivor Wynne Stadium in Hamilton where she would inspect the troops. The HLI would be joined by other Scottish regiments from Southern Ontario. It would be a big deal. All of this called for full Scottish regalia including the massed pipe bands from each regiment. I came to love the sound of pipes and drums, and the esprit de corps that it engenders, whether a marching participant or onlooker.

Apart from hours of marching, forming and reforming, and the gathering of other regiments in Cambridge and London, I recall the night before the big event. We were bussed to the Hamilton armoury on the Friday night. We slept on the armoury floor on cotton mattresses. Breakfast was cold brown beans. I can’t recall the beverage or the showers. Then we got ready to go on parade in the hot August afternoon sun, in full Scottish regalia. We lost six well-intentioned soldiers to temporary heat stroke. The medics quickly attended as the ranks closed up to fill the gaps. It’s strange, but fainting on parade almost seems contagious. The trick is to gently shift your weight to the balls of your feet then back to normal – and stay focused. I did. I stayed upright and survived the two hour event.

You might be wondering, “Did I see the Princess?” She passed in front of me, but in proper military fashion, my eyes are fixed, straight ahead, not to the right or to the left. So no, she passed with inches, but I did not look. And neither did she she stop to chat.

I have the newspaper clipping of the Royal visit, the Highland Light Infantry badge and the red and white hackle (feather) and a couple of photos among my treasures. All in all, a great experience with the Highland Light Infantry. Do a Google search to learn more Canadian history and the role of the HLI in Europe.

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