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Many memories of West Point remain vivid for Bob Booth

July 30, 2014

One of a series of stories of conversations with ex-cadets from Royal Military College, as they reflect on their time at the college, their sporting endeavours and what they’ve been up to since graduation.

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

Any Royal Military College cadet who was ever a part of the annual exchange with the U.S. Military Academy has a story to tell about that weekend. Typically it’s a momentous tidbit from one of the spirited athletic competitions, tinged often with humour, pride or sadness.

Often, though, the cultural differences between the two military academies are sufficiently striking to create an impression of their own.

That was the case for Bob Booth.

A varsity hockey player in the early 1970s, Booth scored a goal in the last minute of the game at West Point, N.Y., in 1973, giving the Redmen a 4-4 tie, but beyond the satisfaction that endures to this day, something caught his eye that had perhaps an even greater impact.

“They had such a different culture than we had in Kingston,” Booth said on the telephone from Calgary, where he’s a partner in the law firm Bennett Jones.

Foremost among those differences was the routine in the massive dining hall, where the distinct hierarchy among the Army cadets became apparent for the visiting Canadians. Positioned in the room where everyone could see it, Booth said, was a curious set of lights, much like what you see at the start of a drag race, the purpose of which was to indicate the time cadets had remaining to finish their meal.

“The plebes were required to consume their meal and be gone from the dining hall first and within a relatively short period of time. Progressively they ramped that up to the point where their seniors were given an unlimited time to linger at their meal.

“That, to me, seemed strange.”

Later, when Booth was in fourth year and a squadron leader at RMC, he noticed a similar, though less formal, phenomenon among the first-year cadets. He discussed it with Bob Edwards, a rugby fullback who, as the cadet flight leader, was Booth’s boss when it came to turning civilians into functioning cadets, with all the requisite military and social etiquette.

“I remember talking to Edwards about the bad habits of recruits, in terms of dining, in the sense they were compelled to gulp their meal down and take off from the dining hall as fast as they could in order to get back to do stuff that they didn’t otherwise have time to do,” Booth said, allowing there’s always a shortage of time and too many things to do, such as polishing shoes or pressing clothes, or organizing or cleaning one’s room, all things about which first-years are carefully scrutinized.

Edwards and Booth concluded that if the objective is to educate cadets in the British tradition of officers in the Canadian Forces, they weren’t doing themselves any favours in terms of their table manners or their camaraderie — or their digestion — to allow them to be carrying on this way.

“Life in the Forces, as would be experienced in a ward room on a ship or in an officers mess, was quite the contrary,” Booth said. “It was all about collegiality and courtesy and fine dining in the sense that you were expected, as a junior officer in Her Majesty’s Canadian Forces, to be able to be sent anywhere and dine with anyone and carry on in a respectable fashion.”

Edwards took this to heart, Booth said, and he soon compelled the recruits from their squadron not to be so hasty. “They could eat at the pace they were eating, but they had to sit and engage in good social conversation after the meal,” Booth said. “I’m sure it seemed like a long time to them, but it was probably only 10 minutes or something, and that meant having coffee, maybe an extra dessert. Just engage in conversation and then leave as a group, after at least 10 minutes of social discourse.”

The doctrine wasn’t immediately embraced. “This drove them crazy,” Booth said. “They were like ants in the sun, bouncing around. While every other recruit squadron had cleared out of the dining hall long ago, they were left at the one table in this now otherwise empty dining hall, supposedly carrying on discussion when they’d really rather be somewhere else.

‘That did not go over well, but after a couple of days it did catch on and it became the highlight of their day, because they were ordered, effectively, to put all their worries and stresses aside, because there wasn’t anything they could do about it anyway, and enjoy themselves and their colleagues. It didn’t take too long before we observed others in the dining hall wondering what the heck this was all about, and it did catch on, not exclusively, but to enough of a degree that it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.”

In Booth’s time, the Redmen were competitive against West Point, winning once and tying twice in four games. It was in his third year that Booth scored his memorable goal in the dying moments of the game to salvage a tie. “As a result, it felt like a win,” he said.

“I was not a big goal scorer, for sure, on that team or most teams. I was a utility, checking centre. I got my share of goals but I was not in the league with the natural hands guys.”

A turnover at the RMC blue line ended up on Booth’s stick with no Army players around him. “I don’t remember if it was a blocked shot or whatever,” he recalled, “but the puck came out and it was fairly clean. I don’t remember having anybody hacking me (on the way).

“I don’t remember being very smart about (my shot). When you are in those circumstances it’s all instinct. I think I roofed it and it managed to stay below the crossbar.”

There was one other element of that trip that, 40 years later, remains vivid in Booth’s memory.

“West Point is dry,” he said, “and we would always make sure we had something to imbibe in case we were fortunate enough to win.” After some celebratory indulgence, the players hastily changed, showered and donned their dress scarlets to leave to meet their companions for the formal ball that was the social highlight of the weekend.

“It was quite a production because in those days they had to import women from a girls school to be our blind dates,” Booth said. “They’d bus them to some point and bus us to some point and then we’d be thrown together and injected into this event. It was all fun, it was great.”

That year, a CBC TV crew was at West Point to tape a documentary. When he saw the show, Booth was mortified.

“They had this very long receiving line of scarleted RMC cadets on one side, with the ladies in their pale gowns on their arms on the other side, walking in to be received by the dignitaries,” he said. “There was a constant line of red-coated cadets and one out of whack, on the girls side, with the girl on the other side, and sure enough, that was me.

“I guess I was carrying on and talking too much and not paying attention.”

Born in Winnipeg and raised in Calgary, Booth was “a jack of all sports” as a teen, skiing and playing soccer, baseball and lacrosse, but mostly he was a hockey player. Playing in a juvenile AA league that he says today would be the equivalent of Tier II junior, Booth was good enough to be recruited by Harvard.

RMC didn’t do a lot of recruiting in western Canada, Booth recalled, so it wasn’t an easy place about which to find information. His father had served in the RCAF as an airborne radar specialist but he got out of the service after the Second World War. Booth had encountered a couple of ex-cadets in Calgary, “just by fluke,” but other than that he felt no connectivity to the military. Still, what he was able to discover about RMC intrigued him.

“My options came down to hockey at Harvard or RMC,” Booth said. “I knew I wanted to go into law but in this country you need an undergraduate degree before entering law school. It was a matter of deciding what you were going to study as an undergraduate and my strengths in high school were math and physics and stuff, definitely not social sciences or arts.”

Having worked in the oil industry for a couple of summers, Booth said he saw what the combination of degrees might mean, so he wanted to study engineering as a prerequisite to law school. “RMC, being a great engineering school, was an obvious choice for me on the academic side.”

Booth attended RMC in the Reserve Entry Training Plan, meaning he paid “a very nominal amount for tuition, room and board,” and at the end there was no obligation to serve in the regular force. “All the training is identical,” he said. “Upon graduation you got a commission, and you have the choice to serve or not.”

A teenager who had never been east of Winnipeg — save for a school trip to Expo 67 when he was in junior high — arrived in Kingston “in the depths of muggy August.” One bit of culture shock out of the way, some weeks later Booth encountered another when he reported as a walk-on to tryout for the varsity hockey team.

He met The Major, coach Danny McLeod.

“He was an icon and a towering presence, not withstanding his stature,” Booth said. “At least I had one year of exposure to The Major. I wish I had a more memories of him than just one year.”

To a rookie on the varsity  team, McLeod could be intimidating.

“I was not a big point getter,” Booth said. “I remember vividly one of the very first practices with that team, and The Major screaming out so that all could hear, ‘Booth, your shot couldn’t break the skin of a rice pudding.’ That stuck with me for a long time.”

If nothing else, Booth said, McLeod brought passion to everything he did.

“He was a taskmaster but he was a great educator, and he was a tactician before his time. The Major kept it pretty simple. He knew that the talent with which he was working was on a different level than other university talent, but he put together tactics and strategies that actually had a chance of working. It was all about team, it was all about conditioning, and it was all about the types of things that gave a team a chance to succeed against opponents, who were perhaps of different levels of capability than we were.”

When speaking of his time on the hockey team, Booth also recalled the team’s chairman, a faculty advisor who would travel with the team and serve as an unofficial counsellor to the players. In Booth’s time it was Alf Bake, the head librarian.

“He was a fantastic man who would open his house and bring players in for Sunday dinner throughout the year and went on every road trip with us,” Booth said. “He brought a measure of maturity, experience, levity — just a different perspective. It made for a very different environment than I’m guessing what other civvy universities had. Army had the same thing. They had a colonel who would travel with the team, maybe attend practices … just be around the team and give them a grounding that they would not otherwise have.

“I always thought that was a brilliant thing the college supported.”

When he left RMC, Booth attended law school at Dalhousie in Halifax and then articled with the firm where he still practises. His specialty is energy and corporate law, a field in which he maintains connections to the military.

He’s done a lot of project work in areas of energy and resource law, mining work for Japanese clients in the uranium business, power work for independent power generators in Australia and the U.K., pipeline projects in the U.S. Northeast and California, and he serves on the board of ATCO, a utility company based in Calgary that grew from manufacturing trailers into workforce housing in remote locations. ATCO, for instance, provided the fire and rescue, water and security services for NATO at Kandahar airfield in Afghanistan.

Booth is also a director of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, a Calgary-based think tank that produces research in matters of security and defence; he’s honorary counsel for the Conference of Defence Associations based in Ottawa, and he’s involved through his practice with NATO Training Flying Canada, a public-private partnership that involves Bombardier that runs the jet-training programs in Moose Jaw and Cold Lake.

Active in the RMC Club of Canada and its charitable and fundraising arm, the RMC Club Foundation, Booth served the alumni organization as president, 2005-06. He was a member of the Calgary branch when 10 years ago it established the Birchall Leadership Award in honour of former commandant Leonard Birchall. This year’s recipient, Romeo Dallaire, will receive the award at a function in St-Jean, Que., in September.

“It’s been an interesting ride,” Booth said, “out of which I’ve had the pleasure of meeting all sorts of fascinating people.”

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From → RMC looking back

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