Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum
Canada 150 Vignette – 123 of 150
British Commonwealth Air Training Plan

The First Steps for a RCAF Wireless Air Gunner

​​
TURNING A PAGE - Part 1 of 2

Excerpted from The Long and the Short and the Tall by Robert Collins, published in the Legion Magazine, December 1986.
 
Never in my life have I been in such a motley crowd - or felt so totally alone. I am surrounded by 750 naked and half-naked men. Skinny men, plump men, Greek gods. Men in boxer shorts, dirty shorts and no shorts. Men with body odor that would fell an ox. Men brooding silently on their bunks. Men shouting, laughing, punching biceps, breaking wind, cursing, telling world-class dirty jokes that would leave the wise guys propped up outside the pool hall back home mute with awe and admiration. Apart from a nodding acquaintance with an acne-ridden Toronto youth across the aisle, who proudly informs me that he's had syphilis three times - I am very careful not to shake hands - I know none of them.
 
It is 10 p.m., Sept. 11, 1943, bedtime at No. 2 Manning Depot in the bowels  of the Brandon, Man., Winter Fair building, commonly known as the Horse Palace. What madness made me leave my safe and gentle Saskatchewan home for this barn full of rude, nude, raucous strangers?
 
I have been in His Majesty's Royal Canadian Air Force precisely 36 hours and here at manning a mere six. But already my mother, father and brother, and the farmhouse where I have lived for all of my 19 years, seem lost forever. Where are those long-awaited pleasures of being an airman? Where are those handsome, laughing fellows from the recruiting posters, in tailor-made uniforms with wings on their chests, beneath the seductive words "WORLD TRAVELLER AT 21?" The posters never mentioned the Horse Palace.


  
In peacetime this building housed prizewinning horses and cattle. The troughs for flushing away their manure are still in the grey cement floor a few inches below my head. Is the air force trying to tell me something? So far, we have moved in herds like Old Reddy and Whiteface and the other cows back home. Nobody has made me feel welcome or wanted. By turns, I am scared, confused, exhilarated. We 1,500 new and fairly new recruits are bedded down on two floors, among infinite vistas of double-decker metal bunks. We are a cross-country sampler: the air force ships its basic trainees to wherever there's room in one of the four mannings - Brandon, Toronto, Edmonton, or Lachine, Que.

There are easterners among us - a rare exotic species. I've never really known an easterner. Will they be snobs? bullies? smarter than me? For the moment that's irrelevant. What matters is that I and five other pieces of human raw material who shambled off the train this Saturday afternoon are the greenest of all.

We have no uniforms yet - the depot stores are closed. Not only are we visibly new, but our clothes betray our backgrounds. Mine - a cheap and sombre brown suit, the only one I own, and a salt and pepper cloth cap say rural hick. Or so I think, which is all that matters tonight.

Earlier this evening, in our telltale civvies, we stepped timidly into the vast mess-hall. I had never before been to a cafeteria or even a summer camp. I  had eaten en masse only at rural schoolhouse socials or at my mother's dinner table with 10 or 12 other men at threshing time. In those places, the menfolk sat stuffing their faces while the womenfolk eagerly served them.

Here, we tentatively followed the leader to trays, plates, cutlery, down a long line of steam tables and kettles where indifferent airmen in white ladled out - what? Stew maybe. Plentiful and probably nourishing, but bland and anonymous. Fleetingly, I longed for my mother's roast chicken, served on her dinnerware with the little primroses around the edges that I'd eaten from all my life. I read the derision in the mess crew's eyes: Better get used to it, airman, your mommy ain't waiting on you now.

We huddled at long trestle tables in the perpetual din - loud voices, clashing cutlery, shouts from the kitchen - not quite finishing our food. The uniforms around us gulped their meals like boa constrictors they never seemed to chew - and we didn't want to be different. Afterward, just time to get blankets and sheets - You bastards are lucky; the army don't get sheets! Then, into this sea of humanity, the Horse Palace. Everything is huge, chaotic, astonishing. And as on all first days in life - first day at school, first day at camp, first day at the office - we know, we are certain, that all the others are watching us, measuring us, laughing at us.

Now, thank God, it is bedtime. Surely tomorrow we'll get uniforms and blend in. The Lights are out. The great echoing room is subsiding, like a large beast that bas turned around three times in the weeds and curled up for the night.

In my whole Life I have never slept in a room with more than one other person - the cubicle of a bedroom I shared with my younger brother, Larry, with only the sighing of wind through the poplar tree belt, or a coyote somewhere far out in the stubble, or the welcome boom of thunder that  meant the end of drought, or on winter nights the eerie hum of frost-caked  telephone lines, singing, singing, singing.

Gradually my nerve ends stop jangling and then, a piercing cry: "F- - - the East!" And instantly, as though on cue: "F- - - the West!" Others take up the chorus, a cacophony of ribald shouts ricocheting off the cement floor, the high ceiling, the metal bunks.

What's going on? Sure, I know there is East-West rivalry. All of us from Saskatchewan routinely hate Toronto, knowing with sweet certainty that it is rich, privileged, and scornful of us stubble-jumpers. We graduates of the Depression remember the boxcars of free Ontario food and clothing with mixed gratitude and resentment. Charity from the East! None of us can forget the carloads of Maritimes dried codfish, sent with good intentions - and the texture and taste of salted boot leather. But even so. And that word!  Even my father, a virtuoso swearer with a wide repertoire, never used the F-word. My mother, a devout church-goer, never said anything stronger than "darn." Even at school the word was used only sparingly, by really bad boys, the kind your mother said you mustn’t' t play with. And then only in huddled dirty talk behind the horse barn, the rest of us listening wide-eyed while the girls, ears straining, hovered watchfully on our periphery, hoping for something incriminating to report to the teacher.

But now a weary voice, maybe a corporal's, cuts through the racket. "Awright, you bastards!" The room settles down with sighs, snorts, chuckles, mutterings and comfortable grunts. Now I understand. This is a nightly ritual, our bedtime story. For the first time I feel a hint of belonging to something. Nothing dramatic or heroic like standing shoulder to shoulder to fight Hitler. Most of us are here for patriotic reasons but we would never admit it in the company of strangers. We are far from the hated enemy and may never lay eyes on him.

No, our adversaries, for now, are the system that already has turned us into numbers and is about to mould us into marching machines, and the corporals and sergeants who will strive to maintain their proud reputations as mean sons of bitches.

Already I sense the adversarial system from the non-commissioned officers strutting around this bam and from the cynical gibes of recruits who've been here three or four days. Already we are united against It and Them, and against our loneliness and apprehension. It is a scrap of comfort at the end of a bewildering day.

This concludes Part 1 of  Turning the Page, the recollections of Robert Collins on the start of his journey to becomming and Wireless Air Gunner in the Royal Canadian Air Force in World War II. The conclusion of this story will appear in the next CATPM Canada 150 Vignette as Part 2.