Lion September 2013 : Page 36

L E A R N I N G TO F LY S OLO Air Cadets in Canada help youths soar by Leif Gregersen

Learning to Fly Solo

Leif Gregersen

Air Cadets in Canada help youths soar

Three years ago, ending a vacation in Toronto, I arrived at the terminal for my flight home. From a distance I saw a person’s back–fit build, neatly combed short hair, close to six feet tall. Could it possibly be Gord Gregg? Since our last names were alphabetically close, we had adjoining lockers in high school. We were always in friendly competition with each other, whether it was for the push-up record or the highest grades.

The man turned toward me. “Leif!” he cried, extending his arm.

Gord and I shared something else besides school: we were in the Air Cadets together. Air Cadets is sort of the junior wing of the military. We got to soar through the sky at thrilling speed. That was somewhat ironic. The whole point of Air Cadets was to keep us grounded, to learn discipline, dedication and teamwork.

I knew many of my fellow cadets had done well. My best friend in cadets was the mayor of a town in Alberta. Another was a decorated war veteran. A third friend became such a distinguished pilot for the Air Force that NASA courted him to join the space program.

Gord had done well for himself, too. He was not only flying to Edmonton with me–he was the pilot. He showed me the cockpit and joked that it was his responsibility to get this pressurized metal tube 35,000 feet in the air at 500 mph all the way back to Edmonton.

Air Cadets. I was with them from the age of 12 to 15. It left a lasting impression on me. I quit too early. Young and headstrong, I wanted a job, a car and a little money of my own. But cadets made me who I am.

Air Cadets was fun–and intense. The Canadian military provided us with uniforms and paid for our summer camps. Cadet officers kept us in line. We were full of energy and mischief, and they stood like a wall between us and our own destruction.

My typical week included shooting at the rifle range, a sports night of floor hockey and volleyball and an elaborate parade night. I attended classes on the principles of flight, photography and public speaking. We smartly wore our dress uniforms on Thursdays. We played in a marching band and took part in a formal flag ritual.

It’s probably true that a person’s most formative years are the ages of 14 to 15. Back then I loved to play sports, loved flying and would do anything to add a badge or rank insignia to my uniform. I wore short, neatly combed hair, often came to school in shirt and tie and tried mightily to be a good student who was well-behaved.

I think I tried so hard because of a pain I felt in my life. My relationship with my dad was extremely strained. I knew he was under stress. He owned a sign shop and the business was faltering. Somehow he always managed to pay the mortgage and keep food on the table. I just wished we could talk and enjoy being around each other.

I did see my dad at the Air Cadets: his club, the St. Albert Host Lions, sponsored my squadron, the 533 St. Albert Air Cadets. My dad was very involved with the cadets, serving as the treasurer of the sponsoring committee.

The Lions have been the gas that fuels the squadron. For 55 years they’ve been a sponsor. They’ve provided facilities for our training. They’ve joined with parents of cadets to raise funds through wood cutting and delivery of phone books. Cadets can fly because Lions prop up their wings.

A short time ago I decided to visit my old squadron, out of curiosity and also to make peace with the past. I was nervous like a school boy on his first date when I approached Community Hall, which the cadets use for parade night. A boy about 14 with the rank of corporal on his sleeve jumped up to open the door for me and addressed me as “Sir.” My nervousness disappeared. I remembered doing the same thing when I was on duty at the main door.

I signed in as a guest and took a couple of photos of a drill class. I can also remember taking new cadets through basic drill. Twenty-five years later, one of my students has become one of my closest friends. I didn’t disturb any of the classes but took a few snapshots and headed to the administration office.

Melanie Franko greeted me warmly. She wore three hats: office volunteer, parent of a cadet and president of the St. Albert Host Lions. We made small talk and she invited me to the Lions meeting in the Hall on Tuesday.

Next I met Mike Clulow, an office volunteer when I was in cadets. A former cadet himself, he had earned his pilot’s license. Mike earned something else: a medal from the Air Cadet League for 25 years of service to the squadron. Mike had my dad’s old job as treasurer. He had instantly recognized me despite the passage of time. The circle of time seemed to come back around. Things had changed and yet they hadn’t.

That following Tuesday I had the honor of attending my first Lions club meeting. There was no drinking and no smoking in the meeting, and everyone was friendly. Melanie Franko and her husband were there. So, too, was Claude Carrigan, the chairman of the sponsoring committee who had been my dad’s friend. Funny he even knew me because I was now a lot taller and a little wider than when we had last spoke. He had a relaxed attitude about the meeting though he held a briefcase full of documents and a large list of meeting topics to discuss. It was all business except for the occasional interruption when a joke was cracked.

St. Albert Host Lions have their finger in just about every charitable event or fundraising effort in the city. They sponsor a youth volleyball tournament. They support Habitat For Humanity with funds and labor. They provide permanent housing for impoverished families so they can stay in their community and own their home rather than have to seek lower rents in sketchy neighborhoods. I was surprised that with just the help of a few Lions who drove them around, the cadets had raised over $3,000 in one day in their bottle drive.

Two days later I headed back to St. Albert, a half hour drive from my home, and met with Andrew Lejeune, the commanding officer of 533. He was a young man, always ready with a joke but he really seemed to know his job. He told me that when cadets first start out they try to get them involved with all the fun stuff as soon as possible. Get a bush camp going, take them flying or gliding, introduce them around and organize dances.

I remembered my first night of cadets. My dad had to force me to go, but after just one meeting I was hooked. Andrew spoke fondly of the Lions and his own cadet days and told me about how he had done most of his thesis for his master’s on the cadets. His graduate degree was in educational psychology, and he seemed like a great choice for CO.

My friends kid me that all my stories start with “when I was in Air Cadets.” Yes, those days stay with me. But I know I did not take full advantage of the cadets. Now that I am 40 years old, I find there are a lot of gaps in my life. I never nailed down a career I was happy with until I made the decision to write magazine stories and books. I never married, and never travelled much outside of Canada. On the other hand, I know the friends I made in cadets and the training I received made a huge difference in my life.

It really felt good to visit with the cadets. I have no doubt that by becoming cadets, as happened for me, youths become stronger, smarter, more disciplined and harder workers. The St. Albert Host Lions Club deserves a lot of credit for making this possible. I think that one day soon I might move back to St. Albert and join up with the Lions and hopefully do as much good as those that have gone before me.

I realize if I become a Lion I would walk in the footsteps of my dad. He is someone I have grown to love and respect. Maybe time and aging softens us up. Maybe relationships have their own life cycle.

My dad has always been an incredibly philanthropic person. He did all he could for his community and was honored once as Lion of the Year. That was the year he was in charge of the Canada Day Celebration in the Lions park. He planned it down to the second–from the free pancake breakfast to a paratrooper display and fireworks at the end of the night.

The most amazing part of the day was when we gathered to sing “O, Canada.” Somehow he arranged to have a camouflage C-130 Hercules Transport with four turbo prop engines buzz the park at a very low altitude. It blew the hats off half the people in the park. It was unforgettable, just like my dad.

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