Memories of the Toronto Sun - Steve Payne
My last memory of the Toronto Sun is bittersweet, having been unceremoniously dumped along with a number of others on a Monday morning (who would have driven in knowing that)?
But I will diplomatically move on to a better recollection of the time photographer Norm Betts and I visited the Soviet army for several weeks before the breakup of the communist empire.
I had contacted the Soviet embassy in Ottawa asking if I could spend time as a recruit in their army. My wife thought I was nuts and, to be honest, I did not expect anything to happen. Then, suddenly, a Soviet official called me and said it would be possible if our forces would reciprocate for two Soviet journalists.
To cut a long story short, I contacted our forces and was put in touch with a major. He and I subsequently met up with the Soviets and the exchange was set up. (I must say that much more went on behind the scenes while this was being organized, but I will let that remain a secret).
Anyway, in the deep of winter, Norm and I travelled to Gorky (where few westerners had ventured as it was off-limits) and I was recruited into an artillery unit for more than two weeks of basic training, helped by an interpreter.
It was quite something, especially being allowed to fire all kinds of high tech weaponry; I hit the gym; learned how to goosestep; slogged through early morning runs; ate basic rations; skied and listened to the Soviet army doctrine in the classroom.
The officers and fellow recruits, who came from all over the Soviet Union, were great. Frankly, they were the same as us Canadians. They loved sport, had a similar sense of humour, liked to have fun, liked to talk about all subjects under the sun and had no wish to go to war, even though it was clear that they would be a formidable foe.
The base commander told me, quite emphatically, "We will fight if we have to, but I would rather sit with you and have a vodka."
We did have a few drinks one night, as Norm will remember, as he had to be rescued from unconsciousness in the snow after getting lost on the way to a toilet. That night, his snoring was so loud the awoken recruits took it in turns to come to his bedside and look at his beard going up and down.
"Norm was so ill the following morning the doctor was called and he gave him some medicine to swallow. Trouble is, the medicine was actually another shot of vodka and Norm promptly vomited on him. The hair of the dog that bit Norm came up with one hell of a growl.
Bloody hell, that was funny.
To this day, I wonder where my platoon members ended up, especially my immediate superior, who was a tugboat operator somewhere in Siberia. Another lad was from close to the border with Mongolia and another was from an intellectual family, as he described it.
I also discovered a few things about myself, one of them being that I turned out to be such a crack shot on the pistol range (number 1 in fact) that the Soviet officers instructing me could not be convinced that I had actually never fired a pistol before.
"You come from the army," one of them kept saying.
I also remember preferring to throw grenades barehanded despite the cold rather than wear gloves. I had no doubt in my mind that I would not drop the thing if I took the gloves off.
Here at home, I still have every piece of uniform the Soviets provided, including winter combat jacket and pants, the boots (which I often use when shovelling the driveway) dress coat, achievement pins, a photo album presented to us, a perspex model of an artillery weapon made by the soldiers, even my Soviet Army identity card. I reckon they would have given me my Kalashnikov had I asked.
Back home, the adventure was turned into a week of features put together by Luke Betts.
And yes, the Soviets did send a pair of journalists over and they spent some time at Cornwallis. It was rumored one of them was more a spy than a journalist, but who knows and frankly, who cares. Both of them were great guys and the Canadians gave them a great reception.
They did not get to go home with anywhere near as much stuff as Norm and I did, but soldiers got together to send them home with gifts for their entire families.
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