PHOTO COURTESY OF BARB HOWARD

The Reservist

It was as if my dad was visiting from another planet—Planet Military

By Barb Howard

Once a year I attend a parade. The occasion is a combined celebration of St. George’s Day and the birthday of the King’s Own Calgary Regiment. The event consists of a parade to a church, a church service (also an annual appearance for me) and a reception at Mewata Armoury. At the reception I am sometimes asked to present the Howard Trophy, which is a miniature tank resting on a small wooden platform. I never know how this presentation should be executed, whose hand to shake (the trophy is given to a troop), or when to sit back down. The entire affair is so completely out of the realm of my day-to-day life that it is like visiting another planet. Planet Military. That’s where my dad, Major General William A. Howard, CM, CMM, CD, QC, used to live.

Since my dad was an Army reservist, I had more exposure to Planet Military than most Canadians in my age group. But that exposure was many steps removed from the real thing, that is, from “the profession of arms.” For instance, army-speak became a casual part of our family lexicon. In our family of six, anyone younger, and therefore of a lower rank, was referred to as 2IC, second in command. A teenager whose whereabouts were unknown on a Friday night was AWOL or MIA. A hangover was an SIW, a self-inflicted wound. 

The abbreviations were fun. Like talking pig Latin, except sometimes harder to translate. A woman at the airport once asked my dad, “Is your first name really Emgen?” because she had seen his luggage tag that said “MGen Howard.” Our wonder at how anyone could be so ignorant helped the Emgen anecdote grow into family folklore and was evidence of how, like all codes, the army-speak insulated us, bound us together, and made us feel superior. Correction—I don’t think it made my parents feel superior. They both had served in the Second World War and knew the circumstances and issues that might prompt a real SIW, the emotional and practical consequences that ensued from a real MIA listing.

“I viewed my dad as a grown-up extension of weird cadets and as the epitome of geekdom.”

 

But my siblings and I were not cadets. Plain and simple, we did not “get” the army. The regimentation. The shouting. The marching. The uniforms. Making our beds. None of it worked on any level for us. It wasn’t just the system. I thought the cadets themselves were weird. And I know I wasn’t alone in that superficial judgment, especially in the 1970s. There’s nothing like insanely short hair, whitewall ears and rifle-straight posture to make a kid stand out, in a bad way, in junior high school. Paying attention in Canadian history class—still, shamefully, the dullest unit offered in our school system—didn’t help either.

I viewed my dad as a grown-up extension of weird cadets (especially since he was a vocal and enthusiastic supporter of the Army Cadet League of Canada) and as the epitome of geekdom. The officer and reservist aspect of his military involvement made everything worse. It seemed to me, in those days, that he was a pretend soldier. Dinner meetings in Ottawa rather than trench digging on a war-torn distant continent. Snifters of brandy warmed over a crystal candle-set rather than freeze-dried field rations eaten under a flurry of artillery flak. My dad wasn’t going to be in combat. I doubt he ever held a weapon after basic training circa 1939. (On the other hand, there is a slew of casualties, myself included, willing to testify that he was a master at going verbally mano a mano.) 

Despite their current role in the Canadian Forces, I’ve heard that reservists are still occasionally referred to within the army as SAS (Saturday and summer) soldiers or Toons, as in cartoons. Only seen on weekends. And indeed, there was a cartoon quality to my dad. He was bald, fat, temperamental, a lawyer by day—all of which thankfully fit into the acceptable dad template in our fresh suburban neighbourhood. There were other dads almost as bald and fat and temperamental as my dad. The crucial difference was that none of them dressed up in uniforms and medals and went out to dinners, ceremonial swords hanging at their sides. None of them were escorted to and from the house in a staff car driven by a long-suffering soldier. An aide. Or, as my parents sometimes said, slipping back to an earlier, oh-so-British era (even though they weren’t British), a “batman.”

The aide didn’t talk to kids. He stood, sweating, at the front door, attempting to ignore the jumpy dog spreading hair on his uniform, politely refusing my mother’s entreaties to sit down in the living room. When my dad appeared the aide would deliver a sharp salute, four fingers to the brow, followed by a snap down. I would be looking at the aide and thinking, why is this young guy wasting his time doing this job? 

Soldiers commit their lives to their jobs. Duty with honour. Service before self. Those are concepts I respect.

The aide served two purposes, so far as I could tell. First, he prevented my dad from driving drunk. Drinking is time-honoured off-duty military recreation. My sister and I were repeatedly warned to watch out, girls, the highballs in the Officers’ Mess are always doubles. The advice was lost on us. When/why would we ever, in our entire lives, be in the Officers’ Mess? What cataclysmic event could occur that would find us surrounded by regimental memorabilia and green-suited men? Obviously, I did not foresee the Howard Trophy and the St. George’s Day parade.

The second purpose of the aide seemed to be to perform sycophantic functions for my dad’s benefit. There was no shortage of hop-to-ing, yes-sir-ing, and general kowtowing to, and agreement with, whatever outlandish opinions my father proffered. In those days, all his opinions seemed outlandish to me. More money for the Armed Forces, more tanks, more programs for cadets. 

Sometimes my dad eschewed the aide. For summer holidays, dad drove us all to Vernon for the army cadet camp. He kept the windows up, hermetically sealing the vehicle so as not to interfere with the air conditioning. He puffed on a House of Lords cigar for the entire six hours, while the air conditioning circulated a riptide of thick smoke throughout the car. Add in a full-throttle eight-track brass-and-drums version of the Colonel Bogey March and it should be clear why we never invited friends on vacation.

In Vernon, and at the tattoos and other cadet functions we attended throughout the year as a family, there was usually a parade. The military loves a parade. And often a parade involves a row-by-row review of the troops by a high-ranking officer or dignitary. Thus, my most vivid memory of parades is of cadets fainting from the strain of remaining at attention for so long. Not just in the sweltering summer heat of Vernon, but in the sweltering heat at Currie Barracks and HMCS Tecumseh and Wainwright. Oh that poor kid, my mother would say when a soldier slumped to the ground, why don’t they tell them to squeeze their toes to keep the blood flowing? 

My parents never told me that one of the purposes of parades was to show the precise drill work of the sort that builds unit confidence and, historically, has helped win wars. They never said soldiers have to be tough and that a faint was, relative to the ultimate job soldiers train for, nothing. In fact, other than hauling us around to military activities and ensuring I knew a few superficial, mannerly details, my parents never tried to interest me in the Canadian Forces at all. Perhaps, to use a favourite phrase of my dad’s, they knew I “didn’t have big enough balls for it.” In any case, it was quite evident that my interest and attention in military matters was maxed out at the shallowest level. The result is that I know to pronounce “khaki” as “carky” and “lieutenant” as “lef-tenant” when I am around Canadian army people. As well, in the unlikely event that I am crisply marching with a large unit, I know to “break step on a bridge” so as not to set the bridge into dangerous sway. But I had no idea what my dad, or the Canadian Forces, actually did

 

My dad was passionate about the military. His commitment was over the top. It was not unusual for him to lawyer in Calgary all week, take the red-eye flight to Ottawa on Friday night for a weekend of military work pertaining to DND or NATO, take the return red-eye Sunday night, arrive in Calgary Monday morning and head straight to his law office from the airport. My dad was so busy with military activities that he didn’t know what sports we played and had only a general impression of our friends. One time he made a rare phone call home and identified himself as “dad.” “Dad who?” my brother asked. Which is all not to say my dad was a deadbeat or irresponsible in the least. He just operated in accordance with that unusual (at least in our neighbourhood), archaic value system of nation first, community second, family third. As a kid, I only wished he didn’t have to be so obvious about it.

Queen Elizabeth II reviewing the troops, accompanied by Major General Howard, Calgary, 1990.

Queen Elizabeth II reviewing the troops, accompanied by Major General Howard, Calgary, 1990. (Photo Courtesy of Barb Howard)

Uniforms throw people off. I was asked several times if my dad was a pilot. When officers came over for a drink, neighbours thought the police were at our house. When my dad was picked up and delivered in a dark-coloured vehicle flying miniature Canadian flags and sporting a special licence plate, people thought the Prime Minister was visiting. Or Johnny Carson (quite a mystery how that rumour got started). Or that someone had died. 

In our house the Christmas season officially started when a busload of young, caroling reservists arrived loudly on our front steps. The singers would have visited the homes of several senior officers before our house, and they may have been served a drink or two at those homes. My dad generously and continuously topped up everyone’s alcohol levels, sang along and, with a booming General voice, helped carry the tune. We kids were expected to attend the party, although in a perfunctory role. My parents never suggested we mingle or make friends. I spent each caroling night refilling bowls of my mother’s homemade nuts-and-bolts and avoiding conversation with these people who seemed not just drunk, but, again, from another planet.

The Christmas caroling drunk was always followed by the New Year’s Day drunk: the Levée. My dad’s aide would arrive early, sometimes even before I left for skiing, and they would go to a service, then spend the day stopping at the Mess and as many Legions as possible throughout the city. Late at night Dad would be poured out of a military vehicle and into our house. Drunk, repetitive, reeking. I understand now why it was important for him to have a drink with as many veterans, soldiers and reservists as possible during the Levée. He didn’t want the rank and file to see him as the kind of uppity officer who wouldn’t have a drink with a regular soldier. And so, apparently, he had a drink with every one. 

 

These days, it seems that the necessity, the very existence, of the military confuses people more than abbreviations and uniforms. Unless the Canadian Forces are in the headlines (i.e., unless members are dying) most civilians don’t know what the army does. Parade? (My childhood view.) Shovel Toronto snow? (A popular western chestnut.) Keep the peace? (Peacekeeping is an activity civilians proudly believe requires no soldiering, just doll and candy delivery.) Civilians like me don’t usually think of the Canadian Forces in Jerusalem or Khartoum or Sarajevo. Afghanistan, however, now gives us a more obvious, albeit media-slanted, context.

My dad died at age 86 in 2005 and was given a grand send-off. Military colleagues helped him preplan the event, and I do mean “event,” which included a flag-draped casket, pallbearers in full military dress, and the King’s Own Calgary Regiment Band playing the Colonel Bogey March. Everything but a parade. After the funeral, several of the guests commented that they’d never been to such a funeral. With all that pomp and circumstance, one friend said, my dad’s funeral was like a scene from a novel.

At times, I do see my dad as a character from a novel, a kind of Dickensian figure. A large, theatrical throwback. But thinking about him that way is a regression to the same processes I used as a child. It is mixing up difference and superiority. As a child, I felt superior to those involved in the army. I felt superior to my father in a way that went beyond the usual embarrassment regarding parents. As an adult, I don’t feel superior to any military personnel, be they my father or an anonymous Canadian, in the reserves or in the regular forces. And whether I believe in a specific mission or not, I understand that soldiers commit their lives to their jobs based on values similar to my father’s. Duty with honour. Service before self. Those are concepts I respect.

So once a year, when (and if) I am asked to present the Howard Trophy at the St. George’s Day Parade and King’s Own Calgary Regiment’s birthday celebration, I will do it. I will feel honoured to have been asked. The trophy is a fitting tribute to my dad, and hopefully bears some meaning to the troop that earns it. But no matter how hard I try, I will never fit in with the military crowd that gathers for chat and refreshments afterward. Everyone in the Mess knows that I live on a different planet. Planet Civilian. 

Barb Howard is an author, editor, creative writing instructor and workshop facilitator. She has lived in Bragg Creek since 1993.

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