By Tom Hassett – November 1968
It was still raining just as it had been for weeks. In fact it was in the middle of the forty days and forty nights of rain in that November and December of 1968 when Chilliwack, with all its animals, had more than enough water to float away. The Canadian Airborne Regimental headquarters had decided – for purely tactical reasons – to set up camp in Cultus Lake park, with its well drained camp sites. It was an island of comfort in a sea of cold, wet misery. I had been assigned to a tent with the Sigs Sgt Major and his friend, RSM Buxton. The latter’s scathing remarks had ensured him a place in the memory of every man who served with him. His abrasive way of dealing with people was most obvious in his language which had given a spectacular new dimension to the old saying, “he swore like a trooper” – as in “paratrooper”.
And yet, I can honestly say that I personally had never heard him use a single obscenity, and I believe the Protestant Chaplain, Bob Jackson, could say the same. He respected the office we held – but that did not stop him from considering us, even more so than the other officers, as untidy amateurs who were badly in need of his gentle direction. His pointed observations on my dress and general deportment were always delivered privately, in the Queen’s English and with amused tolerance, rather like the way one treats a retarded, but otherwise harmless imbecile. He deliberately ignored my suggestions that his remarks were blatantly anti-clerical. The worst of it was, the man was such a first-class soldier, no one could find a crack in his armour. Clearly, someone with a morbid sense of humour had assigned us to the same tent. Was it the Colonel or the RSM himself, as part of a training program? I never found out.
After a day spent in stumbling up and down a mountain with Echo company, I was too tired and wet to care who my tent mates were. To make matters worse, the evening had turned into a complete fiasco. A death message had come in. Translated from French into English it said – after the man’s name and number –
“Mother died suddenly seven Tuesday love Marie.”
Lovely. Just lovely. Seven this evening or seven this morning? Much more important, was that Marie’s mother or Jean Claude’s? So what could I say to the poor guy?
“I’m sorry but either your mother or your mother in law has died – this morning or this evening. Whoever and whichever it is, I’m very sorry.”
Yes, as the RSM would say – adding his favorite adjective – that’s lovely, just ……. lovely. I found a jeep, ran out of gas, walked back, got another jeep with full jerry cans and eventually discovered 1 Commando or “1 Cadoo” in deep darkness. Those poor sodden soldiers of Quebec had camped – for tactical reasons – on a little island made in the fork of a creek which had overflowed during the night. Everything was soaking; air mattresses were floating inside the tents, sleeping bags and clothing were in muddy heaps while men were trying to sleep under trucks or in any sort of shelter from the drenching rain. When I found Jean Claude, I explained as kindly as I could about the confusion in the message. It turned out that his mother-in-law had been very ill but his own mother was quite well. Just to make sure, I drove with him to a pay phone down at the base, hunted for enough quarters from the MP’s to phone Marie at 2 a.m. Quebec time and to discover to his horror that it was indeed his own mother who had died. I tried to help him through the initial shock and then drove him back to his company to pack up his wet gear and get ready for the long, sad trip home.
When I finally made it to my tent the CSM was asleep and the RSM had still not returned from checking out the local game. Just after 0100 hrs, he arrived with a small chip on. All afternoon he had not seen so much as a rabbit – apart from road kill – and he was wet to the skin. I offered him the remains of my scotch – for medicinal purposes – so he poured it into his mess tin and sat down on his bed. Convinced, as always, that offence was his best defence, he began with,
“And what have you been doing with yourself all day?”
A faint slur in his speech warned me that he had been into the sauce somewhat earlier in the evening so I decided to ignore the obvious sexual connotation to his question. Instead, I started to tell him about the death message and my miserable evening but he interrupted me.
“What do you tell people, huh? What do you say to people at a time like that?”
He didn’t give me time to answer but started talking, almost to himself, staring off to one side at something far away. The words came tumbling out as if a barrier had suddenly broken down.
“In Korea, we suddenly came under heavy mortar fire. Most of us made it into the bunker in time but there were four who were caught in the open. After the worst of it was over we crawled out to get them. Three were already dead but the fourth man was still alive. His legs were blown off and he was dying. Now what would you say to him? How would you deal with that?”
His voice was angry like something was still bothering him but again he did not wait for an answer.
“Well, I’ll tell you what I did.”
His voice became a harsh whisper,
“I knelt down and I took him in my arms and I held him very gently and I held him there until he died, and I didn’t say anything to him, nothing, not one word. I just held him. That’s what I did.”
His voice had been very quiet, full of anger and weariness and grief. Then he turned his back on me, lay down and was fast asleep in seconds.
The next morning I was rudely awakened by his best parade square voice. He was in a rage that someone had had the gall to borrow his mess tin for whisky and then had left it, unwashed, beside his kit! After glancing at the CSM, who naturally shook his head, he even had the cheek to glare in my direction as the obviously guilty party.
I was still half asleep so I could hardly believe my good fortune. Finally, after nearly six months, I had him in my sights and even at this ungodly hour of the morning, both barrels were loaded for bear. Adopting what I imagined to be my most unctuous, Chapel manner, I intoned:
“Mr. Buxton, to take the last of a man’s scotch was merely an un-Christian thing to do, a typical, Protestant trick. But to forget about it the next morning? Mr. Buxton, that is pure sacrilege!”
For perhaps the only time in his life, one loud snort was all that he could muster for an answer and then he was gone, out in the pelting rain.
Two years later, the RSM was killed in Edmonton in a parachuting accident. I believe his former buddy from Korea was probably the first one to greet him on his way. I think he owed him that.
In 1968, Tom Hassett was a Captain and the first Roman Catholic Chaplain assigned to the newly formed Airborne Regiment.