Carry On: A few anecdotes from Captain (retired) Arthur (Sparky) McLean of the Toronto Scottish Regiment.
A custom that was still in place (just barely) in the Toronto Scottish Officers' Mess when I joined was the Subalterns' Scribe. This was a means for the junior officers to poke fun at (and gently chide) the more senior members of the Mess and Regimental goings-on. The Scribe was a ghostly apparition that appeared relatively early in the dinner program (after the haggis, before dessert), as I recall at the foot of the table (near the empty place setting for the Absent Friend) in an obsolete form of dress. He could only speak in questions, which he in turn answered. After a minute or two of this, he then disappeared, re-donned his mess kit and returned to dinner. The one time I played the role I ditched my jacket, waistcoat and tie and threw a WWII leather jerkin over my shirt. An example: our CO of the time was trying to increase trained soldier retention (always a challenge in the Reserves) by putting one particular Captain in charge of many of the trained junior NCOs and giving him free rein to organize adventure-style training. This was called Dirk Platoon; for whatever reasons, it never seemed to work very well and the fancy training didn't happen very often. The Scribe's sphinx-like query? "What do you call a pile of 31 knives? A Dirk Platoon." Sad to say, the Scribe has fallen out of custom since the early 1980s. I suspect I may have been the last Subalterns' Scribe in the TorScots; yet another obscure entry on my CV.
Some customs, of course, are very time-and-place specific. The CO of the Scottish when I joined was a height-challenged, flame-haired Glaswegian, Jim Parker. Indeed, at Toronto Garrison functions when all the COs were introduced, his least-loved of all phrases was "Stand up, Colonel!" Within his own Mess, of course, such comments were never heard. However, whenever the head table was piped into a Mess dinner in the TorScots Officers' Mess he would find a fat Toronto telephone book on his chair as a booster. He took this with reasonable grace, but clearly he had tired of the jibe. So one dinner, he decided to pre-empt this joke.
The Saturday afternoon of the dinner he arrived two hours early. As CO of a Reserve unit he had access to the Battalion key press. He used his access and confiscated every phone book in the Battalion lines. He scooped the books from the Fort York Armoury phone booth. He went into the Mess and seized the Mess phone book. These were all locked in his office. He changed into his Mess Dress in his office and then waited for the bar to open. Life proceeded normally thereafter, though a localized shortage of phone books was noted by all. At five or so minutes to dinner, as you can expect, diners finished their drinks, left the anteroom and made their ways to their places. The head table was lined up in the hall before its entrance and the piper was tuned and ready to go. As we were all standing there, dinner minus sixty seconds, suddenly the CO ran into the dining room, went straight to his place at the centre of the head table and found – of course – a phone book on his chair. He grabbed it, ran the half-dozen steps to the balcony window and with a brief scream flung the phone book out towards the Fleet Street streetcar tracks, never to be seen again. He then turned to us, standing behind our seats, and emphatically ordered us all, "Get out! Get out!" Somewhat startled, we all moved back into the anteroom as the CO watched. When he was the only person left in the room, he shouted, "Piper, start up!" and told the rest of us we could come back in. He ran out the back door of the Mess to fall in with the rest of the head table. We ordinary diners returned to our places just as the head table marched in. Padre said grace, we all pulled our chairs out to be seated – and the CO found another phone book on his chair.
Confession is good for the soul; the last phone book was on *my* chair until dinner minus twenty seconds. When Colonel Parker ran out to rejoin the head table party I ran into the Mess ahead of the rest, scooped the book on my chair, took three steps, tossed it gently under the table onto his chair and made it to my seat just before he got back in. Prior planning prevents poor performance.
When Colonel Parker stepped down as CO, as a parting gift we had a star named for him in the International Star Registry. Of course it was a red dwarf. He put up with a lot from us.And when one of my fellow subs became CO of the Scottish twenty or so years later, at his dining-in he had to explain to the 32 Brigade Commander why there was a phone book on his chair when the head table marched in.
I remember a particular Subaltern's Court session from the early 1980s, when I was a young sub in the Toronto Scottish Regment.
It was well-known in the Officers' Mess that I was teetotal (I just don't like alcohol – it all smells and tastes like jet fuel to me). After a Mess dinner a court was convened and, after a couple of other pieces of business, I was arraigned and charged with excessive sobriety. With due dispatch I was found guilty (as if I could argue?) and was sentenced to consume two ounces of single-malt scotch, neat. The instrument of my punishment swiftly was obtained by a court member from the bar and all awaited my first public drink (and, I assume, my first intoxication or first sick-up). I stood at attention in my Mess kit at the foot of the table and clarified that I was to consume the scotch, down the throat and to the stomach. This indeed was the case, I was told.
I lifted my chin, pulled the collar of my shirt out from my Adam's apple and poured two ounces of expensive scotch down the front of my neck, across my hairy chest and onto my tum. Having successfully soaked the waist of my kilt and my shirt-tails with somebody else's single-malt, I put the empty glass on the table, smiled sweetly, turned about and marched out. My kilt smelled like a distillery for some time after. I thought the court members all were going to cry.
AHE (Sparky) McLean CD pmsc
Late, the Toronto Scottish Regiment (Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother's Own)