Joining Up - The Enlistment Experience
by Stanley Scislowski
Perth Regt, 5th CDN ARMD DIV, 1943-1945

Editor's note - Contrary to popular perception, the road from civilian to 'Herbie' in the lines was sometimes a long, involved process of mental adjustment, which began the day the prospective new soldier reported for induction into the Khaki Machine. Stan takes us through his first week in the Canadian Army...

Part I - Induction
Windsor Ontario, 14 November 1942 -- My call-up notice directed me to present myself to the powers-that-be at the enlistment depot at St. Luke Road Barracks sharp at 6:00 a.m. on the morning of November 14 for attestation. In other words I'd be going through all the rigmarole that would transform me from Stan Scislowski the civilian to A116651 Private Stanley Scislowski, Canadian Army. And so to make sure I wouldn't go into the army on the wrong foot I had my mother wake me up at the ungodly hour of 4:30 a.m., so I'd have plenty of time to present myself to my new keepers. Naturally, I got very little sleep, tossing and turning, pounding the pillow all night long, thinking about all that lay ahead for me. I vaulted out of bed even before my mother could shake my shoulder. In almost nothing flat I washed, got dressed, wolfed down a breakfast of  bacon and eggs, porridge, and coffee, and was on my way along the dark and silent streets. Not another soul was in sight.
In those days of the thirties and forties, no one thought anything about walking the streets at night, or in the wee, small hours of the morning. People didn't have to worry all that much about being mugged or waylaid in those days like they do now. In fact, walking almost anywhere at night was reasonably safe. I didn't even pause to think twice about taking a shortcut along the Essex Terminal railway tracks; I made good time, and arrived at the barracks a good half hour before the place opened for business. For the next quarter hour at least, I was the only guy standing outside in the cold under a street light. The barracks building was dark except for a single light glowing in what I presumed to be the guard room at the corner room of the three-story former factory at Edna and St. Luke Road. Five minutes to six and I was still all by my lonesome - I began wondering if I misread the date when I was supposed to report.  A few minutes later, however, a couple more souls emerged out of the darkness and joined me under the light. And not long after six bells, another half dozen or so came on the scene. 
The Barracks
Over the past decade and more, the St. Luke Road Barracks had been used as a factory warehouse, and then for a few years served as a Ford Motor Company 'sick leave' employees' food distribution centre. But shortly after war was declared, the Department of National Defence took it over and converted it into some semblance of an army barracks. Pre-fab wooden huts were built on the property across the road to serve as Mess-hall, Sergeants' and Officers'  messes,  staff quarters, and a vehicle workshop. When war was declared on September 3, 1939 the newly-mobilized Essex Scottish Regiment's first home was the Marketorium Building (a short time later handed over to Navy).  Within the month the Regiment had moved across town to the newly refurbished old building on St. Luke Road, and there the rabble-at-arms learned the basics of what it takes to become a soldier. The Essex occupied the barracks up until May 25, 1940, when it entrained for Camp Borden. I remember how thrilled I was every time their long column marched through the city streets, once even down Parent Avenue where I lived. The peal of the pipes made my blood fairly race through my veins. God, but was it ever exciting!  I'd invariably follow the parade down Parent to Ottawa Street, then along Ottawa as far as Lincoln before I turned about and headed back home. Little did I know at the time that in less than two years I'd be doing the same thing, only this time in uniform and in the column, not as an Essex Scottish, but as a plain soldier, untrained and as yet unattached. About the only training the Essex did outside regular parade-ground drill was to conduct field training around Walker Farms and Yawkey Bush. After the Regiment had departed for Camp Borden, St. Luke barracks became an enlistment centre making up drafts to be sent on to the Basic Training camps.
Sharp at the stroke of six, a bugler from somewhere inside the building started tooting-out reveille. No sooner had the last note faded away, when another god-awful sound emanated from behind those brownstone walls. "What in the hell is that?!", I think we all exclaimed at the same time. It took at least twenty seconds before we could make out what it was that was causing all the racket. It sounded like a couple of alley-cats in the high heat  of love-making. And then we realized that it was only a piper adding his own bagpipe reveille to start the soldiers' new day. If the bugler failed to stir the two floors of newly-inducted soldiers into awakening, then sure as hell the Pipes did. It must have scared them shitless.
Now, let's get back to our small group of soon-to-be soldiers, shivering outside the barracks while the Piper played "Brose and Barley" or whatever tune it was that begins the days for Scottish fighting men. Almost at
the instant the piper stopped playing, the big doors swung wide and out strode, with great military bearing, this imperious-looking guy with a single chevron on his upper sleeve. He directed us to the documentation room with a snap and a flourish as though he was on some Royal Inspection Ceremonial. He was our first contact with the lowest status of army command structure, known by the less than glorious title of Lance-Corporal, also somewhat known by the mildly derisive term as a Lance-jack. Being the naive civilians that we were,  we looked up to him with some considerable awe and respect at the power he seemed to wield. It didn't take us long, however, to become educated on just how low on the command totem pole they were. I don't mean to say they were all bad eggs - as with everything else, there were some really good ones amongst the one-stripe wonders.
Anyway, this little peacock of a man herded us inside and indicated to us to make ourselves comfortable on the hard wooden benches outside this office with a sign DOCUMENTATION alongside the door. In the almost two hours I waited for my name to be called, I was able to observe the 'comings' and the 'goings' inside the barracks, men hurrying every which way on some particular errand or order. And what struck me the most was the incredible squeakiness of the wide wooden stairway. No haunted house could have ever stairs that loud! With scores of people constantly going up and coming down, the din was not only hard on the ears, it was also distracting. It's a wonder any of the staff were able to keep from going nuts listening to the infernal racket day-in and day-out. When the bugler sounded mess-call there was a godawful stampede shaking the old staircase so hard you'd swear it would bring the whole building down.
The  place reeked of pine-oil disinfectant. But as strong as the smell was, it failed to mask completely the pervasive stale and musty odour of antiquity. The two odours blended into one of such peculiar quality that it 
impinged itself on my memory permanently. Whenever and wherever I had the occasion to enter an old factory building or even a government office housed in one of the old structures built back around the turn of the century or before, I instantly could smell that old familiar penetrating odour, and my memory shot back to the days I spent at St. Luke Barracks. In retrospect it seems odd that I could associate or connect a specific smell with a place or an event so long after first contact with it.
Hurry Up & Wait
As the morning wore on, quite a few other fellows joined us outside the documentation cubicle. I was there for  the better part of the morning before a Corporal stuck his head outside and called my name. I hadn't really 
minded the wait all that much - after all, the activity going on around me was too exciting to miss and I took in everything, the faces, the platoons marching in and out, the orders being shouted... it meant everything to me.
I might say here, one of the most interesting pastimes overlooked by many can be found in the mundane interest of 'people-watching'. I watched a lot of people hurrying one way or the other inside St. Luke Barracks. I was young yet, still wet behind the ears, as my mother used to say, as I got my first introduction to this quite unspectacular pastime. Before this I'd been much too busy doing all those things and more that a growing lad is usually involved in, like playing endless games of ball, hunting for golf balls in the roughs at Roseland and Dominion Golf Courses, picking up junk in the alleys, and just hanging around with the gang in general. I hadn't the time or the inclination to be wasting an hour or two watching people go by. There were far more interesting things for me to do.
But now, here I was sitting on a bench with nothing else to do but wait for my name to be called, watching and being fascinated by all that was going on around me. I took note of their mannerisms, their facial make-up, their attitudes towards others, the way they carried themselves. Some were tall, good-looking fellows, sure bets to be leaders, I mused. Others looked to be farmers, no mistaking their clothes and their "walk behind the plough" stride. I couldn't help wonder how in bloody hell they'd make out on the parade-square. Still others were small, skinny and obviously undernourished. How did they get this far without being rejected?  Then I wondered what some of these same fellows might have thought of me. 
From where I sat on the bench I could see the counter at the Q.M. stores where recruits like myself were being issued with clothing, webbing, and all the other gear necessary in their new way of life. With their arms heaped and steel helmets plopped awkwardly on their heads, they hurried up the stairs to their assigned bays to begin transforming themselves from civilians to soldiers, or reasonable facsimiles thereof. I could hardly wait for my own turn to come.
My introduction to army cuisine was a disappointing one. I didn't like the looks of what the kitchen workers behind the counter deposited on my plate at my first meal.  Not too appetizing. It was a stew, but not the kind that ma cooked. Fat, even the smallest shred of it was like poison to me, and this particular stew was loaded with it. Great lumps of it were still attached to smaller pieces of the edible meat. And when I unknowingly guided a 
thumb-sized hunk of the stuff into my mouth I gagged. "Oh God!", I'm thinking, "Is this the kind of cooking I'm going to have to put up with from now on?". As it turned out, this particular brand of cooking happened to be one of the bad ones I had to suffer through, not counting, of course, what we had to face on the daily menu in Italy.  At breakfast next morning, things meal-wise got even worse. The scrambled eggs looked to be only half-cooked, the bacon was stringy, and the slices of fried potatoes were so greasy you scraped the grease off the roof of your mouth when you were finished. Another thing about this breakfast was that I had never eaten potatoes in any form in the morning. It was strictly evening-meal fare as far as I was concerned (I eventually got used to it, a mind over matter thing). The coffee only vaguely tasted like the real stuff. I don't think I had a single meal at St. Luke which came close to what my mother cooked; the meals were barely edible and that was about 'it'.
Continue to Part II

Return to Stan's Page
Return to History

Copyright © Maple Leaf Up & Stan Scislowski, 2000 - All Rights Reserved