Tuesday, September 29, 2009

So I joined the Navy...

Ever since I was a young lad, I was fascinated by the sea and everything in it. I used to love reading stories of the days of sail and would often imagine myself as a world adventurer. Many years later, those same daydreams led me to the recruiting office for the Canadian Armed Forces, on Bishop Street and Ste. Catherine, in Montreal's downtown area.

I enlisted on the 05 Dec 1975. I did my 11 weeks of basic training in BFC St.Jean, St.Jean-sur-Richelieu, QC. Basic Training is the process by which you are stripped of your civilian identity. It is a process of indoctrination into the military lifestyle. It is where you learn that life from now on is not about self, but rather about your unit, your platoon, your squad, your mission. It is where you undertake an oath of service to your country and to your fellow man. It is where you learn not only the power of the group, but where you find yourself constantly pushed, tested and called on to stretch what you had heretofore thought were your own capabilities and limitations. I discovered that I was capable of far more than I ever thought. It was an eye-opening experience, to be sure.

By March of 1976, I was winging my way to Nova Scotia, to undergo my Sea Environmental Training and Basic Trades Training as a Radar Plotter 271, at CFB Stadacona in Halifax, since renamed CFB Halifax. I had no way of knowing at the time, but Nova Scotia was to be my home for the next 25 years. I was initially quartered in 'A' Block, which was also known as: "The Hotel of the Slamming Doors and Screaming Whores". I had left my wife and daughter behind in LaSalle, QC. They would move to join me in Nova Scotia following my first deployment. I would fly home every 3rd weekend or so, or drive there with a roommate who also had relatives in the province. My Sea Environmental Training took place largely at Windsor Park, a training annex located a short military bus ride away from the main base. There we learned everything we would need to know about shipboard life, ropework, naval traditions and terminology, the layout of the ship, where every single compartment was, what it was used for, layout and location of fire fighting gear, as well as damage control gear, helicopter flight operations, various pipes (shipboard announcements), orders and alarms that were sounded onboard ship, how to use a Boatswain's Call, boat launching and handling procedures, watch and station bills, watch rotations (as in standing your watch or shift aboard ship) and routines in home and foreign ports.

Our Basic Training which I took in St.Jean, QC, had been our introduction to the military lifestyle itself, which was a totally different world than that of a civilian. Now, with this introduction to naval life, it was like learning to live in a different universe. There were also practical skills that we had to prove ourselves competent in, such as fire fighting, damage control and sea survival swimming. Regardless of what type of vessel you serve on, whether it's a military ship or a commercial one, every man-jack afloat has to know how to do certain things. There's no 911 number to call at sea, if you're taking on water or if you have a fire aboard. You're IT...

Fire fighting was intense and also exciting. It was conducted out at the Canadian Forces Naval Engineering School’s Damage Control facility in Purcell’s Cove, NS. I will always remember the first time the doorway was opened, leading into our first engine room fire. It was like stepping into Hell... Most impressive. We used 2 1/2" hoses which were tipped with solid brass Rockwood nozzles. The nozzle itself weighed 15 pounds. If you didn't acquire the technique of sweeping that charged hose using your legs and body, you'd find yourself using your arms and shoulders. Big mistake... Within minutes, you would find yourself arm-weary, exhausted, out of breath and the flames would get you.

Damage control training was just as challenging, mentally and physically. They would begin flooding the mock-up of a ship's compartment and then sound the alarm, calling us into action. "FLOOD...FLOOD...FLOOD...FLOOD IN NUMBER 3 STORAGE COMPARTMENT. FORWARD SECTION BASE TEAM TAKE ACTION!!!" There was a hatch passing through the compartment's deck and another above from where you would enter the compartment. Inside the compartment, there were pipes and conduits passing through, of varying diameters. Many of these were holed (presumably by shrapnel), as were some of the compartment's bulkheads (walls). The water was piped in directly from the North Atlatic Ocean, just outside, under considerable pressure. Invariably, every one of us were soaked to the bone. It is impossible to put a quantitive descriptor on exactly how cold that water was, but I can assure you that it would take days for your testicles to descend from inside your body cavity, after such a session.

Our shoring team would come thundering into action, with one person being designated to stay topside and cut the wood, while the remainder headed down below into the cold wet water, to take the measurements and send them up top. Their mission was to stop all leaks with either wooden plugs and rags, rubber patches and bandit clamps, coffer dams and shoring timbers. Every now and then, we would switch the person responsible for the cutting, so that everyone got a turn at being dry AND wet. We would attack the major leaks first (the hatch, the doorways and major ruptures) and finish with the smaller ones (small diameter pipes, shrapnel holes). All the while, training staff would inject smoke into the compartment and drop 'thunderflashes' down between the bulkheads. These were devices which simulated battle conditions and produced deafening explosions in such restricted confines, as they reverberated through the compartment. They could scare the bejeezus outta you when you weren't expecting them. And of course training staff being who they are, they would ride you pretty hard verbally, if they figured you weren't getting things done fast enough to ensure the survivability of the ship!

My subsequent initial Trades Training as an RP, took place at the Canadian Forces Fleet School (CFFS) Halifax, which was also on the main base. This was the more cerebral part of my naval training. There we learned the skills required to tune and operate radar sets and displays, detect, track and report radar contacts, operate plotting tables, perform relative velocity calculations on any given target track and man communications nets between our unit and other ships, aircraft, submarines and shore establishments. I particularily enjoyed learning relative velocity. We used this form of trigonometry in order to be able to calculate various aspects of a target's trajectory, how to open him to within a certain distance, how to close him to within a certain distance, how to intercept him, to calculate when he would be at his closest point of approach (CPA). We would subsequently learn how top plot 'scouting missions' for a particular unit.

Our principal instructor was a giant of a man, with hands the size of my chest. He was Petty Officer (PO2) 'Moose' Milne. He was skilled in his trade, was a humorous old salt and a great instructor to boot. I recall on our second day of training, as we approached 1600hrs, he stood up in front of the class and said: "Well, gentlemen... FUFO." And with that, he left... We sat there for a good while before someone asked: "What do you think he meant by that? Do you think he"s coming back?" Nobody knew what the Hell "Fufo" meant, but we did know that we had not been secured for the day by our instructor. So there we sat. Finally, at around 1615hrs, we decided that perhaps he wasn't coming back after all and we quietly filed out.

The following morning, 'Moose' seemed rather jovial as we entered the classroom. "So, I see at least one of you figured out what "FUFO" means! You must have, otherwise you'd have still been here this morning!" "Actually" I stated, "about that PO... none of us knew what it meant, though we figured by 1615hrs that you probably weren't coming back, so we secured for the day."

"Well done", he chuckled. "And by the way, gentlemen... FUFO means simply: Flash Up and Fuck Off!" We all laughed and Moose launched into the topic for the day, which was not coincidentally the Navy's preponderance for using acronyms to describe everything under the sun. Just as the Navy had their own word for everything. We didn't have families and belongings, we had DF&E (Dependants, Furniture and Effects). It wasn't lunch or dinner, it was 'scran'. You didn't want dessert, you wanted 'duff'. It wasn't garbage, it was 'gash'. You didn't go do your laundry, you were doing your 'dobeigh', it wasn't a floor it was a 'deck', it wasn't a wall it was a 'bulkhead', it wasn't a ceiling it was a 'deckhead', they weren't stairs it was a 'ladder', it wasn't a kitchen it was a 'galley'.. and on and on it went. We had to learn an entirely new vocabulary. 'Moose' patiently led us along the path that would see us become proficient and enthusiastic young RPs.

ASW was Anti-Submarine Warfare. AAW was Anti-Air Warfare. ASUW was Anti-Surface Warfare. Once we were posted aboard a ship, while on watch we would be responsible for the safety of that ship and all who were on her. As radar operators, we were the 'eyes of the ship'. This sense of almost overwhelming responsibility was drummed into us by every one of our instructors, very early on in our training. They did so because it was a simple basic fact. One that we had to embrace and believe. It was June by the time I had finished my trades training and was deemed suitable to be posted to an operational unit. I couldn't wait. Then my posting message came in. I was to travel to Montreal to join HMCS Fraser. She had been deployed to Montreal along with HMCS Skeena and HMCS Protecteur, to provide athlete escort and venue security for the 1976 Olympics.

My adventure was about to begin...

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