George was my first room-mate at the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps School at Camp Borden, Ontario. A boisterous, lanky Scot, George was also an almost unbelievable candidate for the Chaplains Service.
I was the unofficial “Troop Piper”. Every day while we were in barracks I piped 2 Troop to and from the Mess. George, being the tallest man on parade was the regular Right-Marker, so he always marched behind me. He loved the pipes, and his favourite tune was Mairie’s Wedding which I played every day for him, just to hear his unmusical voice grating the lyrics at the top of his lung power. He loved that tune!
After the first phase we moved into the field to learn field-craft and become hardened. There training was extremely demanding, but George was in his element. Never tired, always alert and a natural leader, he was a born soldier.
It was late one afternoon that George first saved my bacon. We were returning to camp “At the Double”, carrying all our regular kit -- helmet, pack, water bottle, gas-mask, ammo, and rifle. There were also the specialized weapons. I was handed the rocket-launcher. George carried a rack of four rockets, and we were stuck at the very end of the column which is always the most difficult spot. We were doubling along the gravel road from the western edge of Camp Borden to the RCAC School. Several of our comrades eventually fell out. They were picked up by a truck which drove past us as we laboured, but we didn't want to join them because they would be on their way home tomorrow -- RTU’d (“Returned To Unit”).
I was finding this “forced-march” exceptionally difficult by the time we reached the bottom of a long hill. Someone had taken my rifle for me because we looked after one another, but the rocket-launcher was awkward to carry along with all the other gear. I began to feel that I would never make it and started to lag behind and gasp for breath. Then suddenly a hand grabbed my arm and jerked me forward. George’s unique voice bellowed, “Come on, Jim! Don’t let those bastards beat you!” Although he was as burdened as me, George dragged and encouraged me using words most Chaplains would never employ, and the next thing I knew I was at the top of the hill. There I was blessed with the gift of energy, and within a minute we had caught up and my crisis was over. I never thanked George, but no one ever did in those situations. It was automatic to stick by your comrades. Nevertheless, I recognized that George had saved me from being RTU’d.
Training continued with its many ups and downs, but we both survived the course and graduated. Because of some family event, George was sent home a day before me. I never saw him again although I often thought of him over the years.
It was six years later that I jumped into the worst predicament I have ever instigated. Along with my cousin Grant, I found myself pinned under a kayak in the Bow River just southeast of Canmore, Alberta. It was February 26, and the shallow, fast-flowing Bow was frigid, the ice having broken up the day before. Our kayak had been overturned in a whirlpool and pinned by a large log. I found myself freezing, my shoulders pressed into the river-bed, and my legs trapped in an upside-down sitting position inside the kayak pinned by the enormous log.
I resigned myself to death. While a strange white light glowed I heard a welcoming voice, that of my Granddad who had died when I was eleven. My life flashed by like a movie -- showing only my good deeds. I felt at peace -- almost overjoyed. But this mood was suddenly shattered by the high-pitched Scottish voice I remembered so well, “Get off your ass, Jim! It’s not over yet! Kick, damn it! Kick!” It was my buddy, George.
I was disappointed! The Afterlife looked so inviting! But I did as ordered and kicked -- almost reluctantly. Nothing happened. “Harder, damn it!” bellowed George‘s Scottish brogue. I put everything into the next kick and suddenly bobbed to the surface. There was no sign of cousin Grant. I seized the log and somehow rolled it off the kayak, something I could never have accomplished in any other circumstance. Next I lifted the front end of the kayak out of the water. Grant bobbed to the surface -- alive. There was much more to our brief adventure, but the key was that George had saved me from failure again.
In the days following I pondered how it happened that I heard both my departed Granddad and my living 2 Troop buddy welcoming me to the Afterlife. This mystery puzzled me constantly.
Twenty years later I encountered another 2 Troop comrade. During our reminiscences he commented sadly, “It was really too bad about George, wasn’t it?”
“What do you mean?”
“You mean you didn’t know? George was killed in a car accident the day after he left Camp Borden?”
So my comrade, George, had returned to prevent me from being RTU'd again -- this time to the Great Beyond. At last I understood George’s motivation to become a Chaplain.