The big Flying Boxcar lumbered down the runway at Montreal and took off headed east. I was a passenger, sitting in the jump seat and proud to be one of the most junior members of the Royal Canadian Air Force. It was October, 1964. I was eighteen years old and four weeks into my basic training in St. Jean, Quebec, part of class 6441.
We’d been confined to the base for the first four weeks of our training and this was an opportunity to leave for a weekend. I was excited to be heading home to New Brunswick, flying on my first air force flight.
I joined the air force on September 22nd, 1964 in my home town of Saint John, New Brunswick. A few days later I was on the night train to Montreal, bound for basic training. During the night, the train stopped along the way and picked up half a dozen other young New Brunswick guys, all headed for the same place.
A sergeant met us at the train station in St. Jean and off we went in an air force station wagon to our new home at Manning Depot. That’s what they called the air force basic training centre. That first day was a Sunday and it was quiet around the base, which didn’t help my feelings of being homesick. I was also feeling a bit of “what have I done?” Then I had dinner in the mess hall with some of the other recruits and felt a lot better.
The next day we got right into our introduction to the RCAF and began a busy week getting issued with uniforms, etc. I especially remember the big, heavy greatcoats. I wondered why our summer uniforms were khaki but still with the air force blue/grey hat. It just didn’t match. But far be it from me as a brand new Aircraftsman Second Class to complain about air force fashion.
We had two course leaders, Corporal Whitney and Leading Aircraftsman Davies. They were a combination mother hen and drill sergeant, experienced RCAF members whose job it was to teach us about military life and get us through the ten weeks of basic training. There were about 120 recruits in 6441 divided into several flights. My flight leader was Bob Toivanen, a good-natured former member of the Royal Canadian Navy.
We lived in barracks, and learned how to keep the place sparkling clean, neat and tidy. We did lots of marching and I remember one team-building exercise in which we helped each other carry some big logs . . . not for any particular reason other than to show us how to work together. Three to a log as I remember it.
One of the first things that took place was assigning each of us to an Air Force trade. I already knew Morse code so it didn’t take long for the evaluators to decide I would be a radio operator. And we got vaccinated. The shot was called a 5 in 1 and was intended to prevent us catching any number of diseases. There were lots of rumours that some recruits had passed out from getting the shot so there was much chatter and worry about that.
After four weeks of training and being confined to the base, we wrote an exam that covered what we had learned to that point. Then we were allowed off the base for a weekend. That’s when I got my flight in the Flying Boxcar.
We graduated from basic training around the first week of December. The air force put on a nice dinner for us. After graduation, we went on to our trades training at Borden and Clinton, both training baes in Ontario. My last recollection of St. Jean is taking the train out of there bound for Clinton.
Shortly after we got to Clinton we were told we could take leave for Christmas. I headed home to Saint John and my first Christmas as a member of the RCAF.
That was a special Christmas for me and I’m glad to share this little story with you.