Teenage Sniper

Travelling by train across Canada was a new experience for most of us young cadets. I had never been more than 100 miles west of Cornwall. After a week’s training at Camp Ipperwash near Grand Bend, Ontario, we set out for Banff, Alberta. There we lived in tents in the mountains. It was a novel and exhilarating experience. Survival training, an activity to keep us occupied some of the time, included finding our way out of thick woods using only maps and compasses. On one occasion my small unit became hopelessly lost. We were rescued by a search committee just before dark. The army brass was not impressed.

Each week we enjoyed excursions to scenic wonders in and around Banff, such as Lake Louise, riding the Chair Lift high above the Bow Valley, Radium Hot Springs, and Moraine Lake.  A definite highlight was being invited periodically in small groups to the Banff Springs Hotel in dress uniform to attend dances with the female guests. It was my first introduction to high society, and so, left me rather awestruck with the hotel’s ambience and the sophisticated dance partners.

Early one morning, without any advance notice, the whole cadet corps was summoned to the parade square. One hundred of us were chosen to travel to Chilliwack, British Columbia, to serve as Honour Guard for Prince Phillip who was visiting Canada that summer. We were each fitted out with a tailor-made khaki tropical worsted uniform for the big event. The government spared no expense. After all, we were the Banff Cadets, and we going to meet royalty!

That special day was the only time in my life that I, standing ramrod straight, gazed into the eyes of a royal prince no more than two feet from my face. The Duke of Edinburgh, relaxed and jovial, slowly made his way along our row, of cadets, who were all uptight, but thrilled. That same summer, he flew to Whitehorse in the Yukon where he attended a banquet. Rumour has it that one of the waitresses helpfully quipped, “Keep you fork, Duke. There’s pie!”

That memorable summer was a fitting end to my happy, rewarding, years as a high school student of Williamstown High. But in spite of my success as an army cadet, I had no interest in the military as a future career. I wanted to be a teacher. However, fate has a strange way of intervening. One day, near the end of my Ottawa Teachers’ College year, the principal called me out of class and stated firmly, “There’s a delegation here from Camp Petawawa looking for teachers, and I want you to go down to my office for an interview.” (He knew that I had been an enthusiastic high school army cadet).

I spent three happy years teaching at Camp Petawawa, where the army brass and students’ parents treated us civilians exceptionally well. After that, I spent seven years as vice-principal of an army school in Fort Henry Heights, outside of Kingston, Ontario. Somehow the gods rewarded me for my efforts as an army cadet, by directing me to engage in a different form of army experience, one that laid the foundation for my lifetime career in education.

When I moved to my country home in Caledon, I still had my 22 rifle safely tucked away, unloaded and unused. But one day, my son, a film director, asked me to be the off-camera marksman for a scene he was shooting for his movie, Road Kill. The star of the movie, playing a serial killer, was filmed firing at glass bottles lined up on a wood pile. His revolver held blanks. I was the real shooter, assigned to smash the bottles. My aim was deadly accurate. The scene did not require any retakes. For my efforts, I was listed in the film credits, as marksman!

Once again, I proved that I can shoot straight and hit the bull’s eye.


Dr. James F. McDonald is a retired elementary school principal who lives in Dundas, ON.
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