I was seized by the panic in her eyes. There she was, twenty feet in front of me, drowning in three feet of water. Seemingly impossible, it took me a few extra seconds to react; to jump from my lifeguard chair five feet above the surface of our community outdoor swimming pool and leaped toward her from the edge of the tiled pool deck.
It wasn’t a critical situation. I had responded to similar events many times before, when small children would lose their feet from under them and needed a helping hand to right themselves. But this was puzzling. This victim was an adult, or as near to being an adult as my nineteen-year-old lifeguard mind could judge. And gorgeous too as my nineteen year old lifeguard eyes could absorb.
I had her in my arms now, scooped from the chlorinated brine that continued to shed from our bodies as I lifted her tighter to my chest. Her head rested on my shoulder as I walked, slowly, to the pool’s edge. Arriving at the side of the pool, she lifted her head. Her eyes had regained a softness, there was an invitation in them now, and her lips were the offered reward for my heroism. I bent forward in acceptance, a trumpeting sound of anticipation resounding in my ears.
A trumpeting sound? A trumpeting sound! Followed by a shout,
“Shut that friggin’ thing off!!!”
My dream collapsed as I woke and looked around the large open room that had become my home for the past two weeks. And as my head cleared I remembered that I had traded a lifeguard whistle for a gun. Above me was a speaker blaring a military reveille, a seven AM wake-up bugle call that had dragged me from my dream and robbed me of my sensuous reward. Because the speaker was over my bed, I was responsible for dampening the sound with a pillow. While the wires could have been pulled with better effect, the consequences for the destruction of government property were just too onerous to consider, never mind act upon. The room was actually a barracks, a military version of a college dorm, home to a troop of 32 recruits of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Canada’s National Police Service.
The year was 1973 and the RCMP was structured as a single, male dominated paramilitary police force whose regular members worked as required in usually understaffed detachments, and who were moved with little notice at the discretion of the provincial Commanding Officer. No overtime was paid for extra work. Neither women nor married men were eligible to apply and single Regular Members could not marry for the first two years of service. And while the visibility of women was shadowed during this time period, their contributions were significant. Civilian analysts, operational dispatchers, matrons, records management personnel and detachment clerks were invaluable to the operation of the Force and the wives of Members were many times pressed into service to perform each of the above mentioned functions where these support staff were lacking. But none worn a red serge and Stetson hat.
Now, as I sat up on my bunk and watched my colleagues rise for the start of a new day, the reality of my decision to join the RCMP started to jell. Although the recruitment process was rigorous and unsuitable candidates were vetted through a measurement of work ethic, education, criminal background and character investigation, we had already lost two of our group. While suitable, both had quickly decided that the pain was not worth the gain. And pain in many forms there was.
Training was based on a military model. Recruits entered training as individuals, passed through training on a learning curve that was both steep and demanding, and graduated with a common discipline that would continue to support the organizational structure and provide predictable and consistent policing services to towns and cities from sea to sea to sea throughout Canada. Clients contracting policing services from the RCMP were buying an affordable “brand” of trained, equipped and operationally supported officers that had historically proven their competence and success.
Procrastinating from my morning routine, I reviewed my first two weeks of training, wondering if the next 5 ½ months would be as chaotic or affect me as deeply. Arriving as individuals, we quickly became a collective. Military haircuts removed our external individuality and military “fatigues” reduced us all to a vanilla version of humanity. As individuals we lost all status and consideration. As a troop we earned it back. Initially we ran everywhere. As we learned the skills of regimented marching we were granted that concession, which later became a full reward as we also earned the right to wear our uniform; our colours.
We slept together, ate together and were each dependent on the success of the collective. And within the collective, failure had its consequences. We were punished as a troop for the weakness or mistakes of our troop mates. And while it was an organizational goal for all to succeed, it was a troop responsibility to identify those individuals that were unable or unwilling to contribute to the collective success of the troop, and encourage them to change or leave.
While academic subjects were taught for the most part in a traditional environment, physical subjects had an added element of abusive “boot camp” conduct. Swimming lessons, drill class, driving class and physical education sessions were at times brutal, made more or less so by instructors, some of which were unnecessarily abusive. The goal of course was to expose potential law enforcement officers to the rigours required for service in sometimes hostile environments and the experience of maintaining composure in physically critical and emotionally challenging situations.
Sitting on the side of my bunk, I thought back to my PhysEd class from the day before. It was a challenge circuit; 40 minutes of lifting heavy weights through repetitive cycles designed to test progress that could never meet the instructor’s expectations, except from those with exceptional abilities. Yesterday, I didn’t possess those abilities, my forte was swimming, my nemesis was PhysEd instructor Corporal Coulter.
“Adams, are you taking a break?” (obviously I had done something to draw his attention)
“No Corporal, I think I’m gonna be sick.”
“You puke on your own time Adams, you still owe me reps.”
“If you wanna quit Adams, I’ll help you with your discharge papers.”
“You might as well quit Adams, you’re probably not going to make it anyway. Save yourself some effort.”
“I’ll make it Corporal.”
And while I did give the reps, I was sick in the washroom after it all and passed out from fatigue, on my bunk in my uniform until summoned for supper by my troop mates. Considerate you might think, but we were duty bound to eat as a troop. They couldn’t go to supper without me! And as tired as I was, I couldn’t refuse.
In the next few months we all got stronger, shedding fat for muscle and gaining strategies to work together as a team toward the common goal, graduation and a badge.
We did get time off for recreation and fun. The weekends were usually unencumbered unless special duties were required or punishments were to be served. We had our “Mountie” bars with music and live bands. We were boisterous and attracted numerous women our age who knew we had discretionary funds and who enjoyed the mix of adrenaline and testosterone that we leaked; curbed by the fact that we had curfews at closing time. It was a 70’s version of “speed dating” and most of the women knew our routine and training schedule better than we did. Bar evenings ended on the dance floor, sometimes in the middle of a dance when the arrival of a unspoken deadline had us rushing for local taxis who raced us back to “Depot” to beat curfew deadlines. Pushing the envelope many times, this taxi service often required a surcharge for the risk of getting a speeding ticket enroute.
As training progressed we, as a troop, became more accustomed to the physical and emotional abuse as it became a routine and were able to rationalize negative instructor behaviour against the progress we were making. By the half way point of training we figured out that the majority of instructors who were abrasive to us in our learning process applied their sometimes unrealistic demands with an undercurrent of humour. Encouraged by this, the emotional and physical strengths of troop mates emerged, and those individuals with stronger skills spent time to help their weaker troop mates meet expected training performance levels.
We graduated with 30 Members, were scattered across the country, and followed different paths to successful and rewarding careers. Within two years, females and married applicants were invited to apply, and the 2-year marriage restriction was lifted. Through the years of our service we adapted to these and other changes as a matter of course; our obedience to the collective deeply enshrined through six months of Depot training.
Bonded by that time together, we promised to reunite. But as often happens, life got in the way and our first troop reunion did not take place for 42 years. Then, many of our troop converged in Regina, our RCMP birthplace. While some of our mates were absent from cause and others had sadly passed, the rest of us, joined now by our spouses, started our reunion weekend steeped in the same strong emotion and celebration as our last time together at graduation, albeit with fewer beverages and an earlier night. It was a surreal experience, one that we promised to repeat.
From this weekend of reminiscences and a personal health crisis of my own, an idea to document highlights of my career emerged. Stories to Tell My Daughters Before I Die is my attempt to share a career of experiences that was filled with both personal and professional challenge, hardship and happiness; caused by or because of a career with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.