NEW GLASGOW, N.S. – With no work available in New Glasgow and area, 17 year-old Ken Langille joined the army in 1957 and became a member of the famed Black Watch. He also spent 30 years as a volunteer firefighter, 16 years on New Glasgow town council and served on two national museum boards. But the memories of those early years in the armed forces have stayed with him.
“My father had to sign a paper so I could join and he wasn’t too happy about it but he couldn’t really argue because there was nothing going on. Even the Trenton car works was dead,” said Langille.
He had worked at a service station for a short time but business was so poor the owner had to let him go. He also worked as an “extra guy” with the Canadian National Railway, shovelling snow in winter and doing odd jobs in summer.
“You just went down to the station in the morning to see if the foreman had any work. If he did and if he thought you were a worker, he’d pay you 80 cents an hour. When I heard the army paid $90 it sounded pretty good.”
The army, Langille quickly discovered, was a place where a young fellow grew up fast.
“‘Suck it up, buttercup’ was the answer to everything but I stuck with it, even though it was tough going for a while. It was only a little over 10 years after the Second World War was over and Korea (the Korean Conflict) had just about ended so I was in with real veterans who had been through a lot and let me tell you, they were tough guys.”
He trained as an infantryman and was stationed at Aldershot, Sussex, Gagetown and Debert, which was a unique experience. In response to escalating Cold War tensions, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker ordered the construction of six underground bunkers, including one at Debert, which were supposed to be able to withstand a nuclear attack.
“I was one of the first privates to report there and I was shown to our sleeping quarters. There were three rows of bunks and I took a middle one along the back wall. I had no idea I was going to be the only guy in there that night or I’d have picked somewhere closer to the door where the light switch was.”
It was as dark when you woke up as it was when you went to sleep, he noted.
“It was kind of a strange place but I was only there for six months or so and I didn’t mind it.”
As a member of the Black Watch, a highland regiment, he was a kilted soldier.
“We wore the tartan kilts with pride and our hat badge was the red hackle. I think we were known to be a first-class regiment, a proud regiment.”
Langille left the military in the early 1960s when he was unable to transfer from the infantry to an ordnance corps. He and his wife Gayle, who he married at 19, after meeting her at a dance at the IOOF hall, above today’s Coffee Bean. Once again, he required a note from his father since the age of majority was still 21 and they settled down in New Glasgow where they raised a family of four and recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.
“I’d had enough of being an infantryman. It was hard to get out of it and it was hard to move up. I wanted to do the kind of work I ended up doing – to look after equipment, supplies, repairs, that kind of stuff, but I couldn’t get into it in the army so I quit.”
He knocked around doing a variety of jobs before being hired at Lenargo Industries building modular homes. When that work ran out, he joined his father in business.
“My father, Dunc Chisholm and George Purvis had started a mattress business in Stellarton, Stella Bedding, but it burned down. After that Dad set up on Stewart Street and later he bought the building I’m now in on Trenton Road. He’d been there quite a while when I joined him.”
Today, business is mostly limited to upholstery and custom work including awnings and covers for sail and motor boats but the mattress industry once thrived.
“My father was a mattress builder by trade. People also rebuilt mattresses in those days. For $12 you could get your mattress rebuilt – the spacing improved, the padding fluffed and a rolled edge. We’d also pick it up from you and deliver it back.”
Hospitals and universities were regular clients and the company also did a lot of work for with Ferguson Industries, a Pictou shipbuilder that needed lifeboat covers and an array of furnishings for trawlers. There were also large orders from the motel industry.
“When business was good it was pretty good and if we got paid for everything we did I’d be driving a Cadillac but it didn’t work out that way. There were times when we got stuck with the bill and one time in particular that pretty nearly took us under. Another time we got a tip that a company we were supplying was in trouble and that allowed us to get some protection.”
Besides the contracts that went sour, some of the business simply went away.
“Can you imagine hospitals sending out mattresses to be rebuilt today?” he asked.
Langille made a couple of bids to be mayor of New Glasgow but was unsuccessful.
“When it came to council business, sometimes I had support and sometimes I didn’t have enough. I was involved in some pretty unpopular decisions like the anti-smoking bylaw but I stuck with it. It is hard to believe today how hot that one got.”
He has long believed municipalities in Pictou County would benefit from amalgamation.
“When it comes to securing government funding or attracting private business, we put ourselves at the bottom of the list and we’ve been hurting ourselves for a long, long time. We’ve lost a lot of government offices to Truro. I don’t know what it is going to take for people to see the light on this one.”
Langille was delighted to be offered a spot on the board of directors of the Canadian Museum of History and to chair the Canadian War Museum, both in Ottawa.
“I loved being involved with the fire department, with the Shriners, with the Pictou County Sports Hall of Fame and a lot of other organizations but being involved with the museums and representing the museums at travelling exhibits was something I will always treasure.”
In spite of a heart attack and a few joint replacements, Langille likes to keep busy. Throughout the years he has maintained ties with members of the Black Watch, even serving as president of the Nova Scotia Black Watch Association.
“Next year will be 50 years since the regiment’s colours were turned in and we still get together. Our numbers are declining due to deaths but we keep meeting.”
Asked why the two battalions of the Black Watch, Royal Highland Regiment of Canada, were removed from the Canadian Armed Forces regular order of battle in 1970, Langille’s first response was limited to two words.
“Liberal government,” he said, as if that was all the explanation necessary.
It was, he eventually added, a decision that originated with former defence minister Paul Hellyer and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who promoted it as a cost-cutting efficiency measure.
While the colours of the battalions were laid up forever, the stories will surely live on this weekend at Stellarton Legion.
Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer. She seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you know someone you think she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org