T. E. Lawrence - THE MINT 
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T. E. Lawrence, The Mint

PART II


 

14:  CEREMONY

The drill programme has been changed. We do P.T. in the first afternoon period, on top of dinner: and the rest of the time is to be spent on ceremonial. Stiffy is preparing for the Cenotaph Service next month: Depot always provides the R.A.F. contingent to line its bit of Whitehall while Kings and Princes lay wreaths: the recruits, they say, are smarter on parade than serving airmen whose drill-training may lie years behind them in forgetfulness.

Our sergeant is angry at this new programme. He finds the routine three-months' course just enough to ground his squads thoroughly in drill (of which after all we do only five hours daily: the rest is school and signalling and lectures) and the effect of cenotaph practice is to torpedo all ordinary instruction. We, the raw material, waste no tears on that.

Corporal Hemmings again supervised the gymnasium-work today. He slave-drove us as usual: and again the flight was mulish and hung together, so his rage blunted itself on a ring of bowed backs and found no particular victim. He is new at his job and knows few exercises: instead he repeats each three times over to fill his hour and a quarter; and gives no easies so that the chief instructor may never see his men lolling about.

P.T. ended: but Corporal Hardy was not at the gym door to march us back to the hut. When he's away Sailor sometimes takes over the flight. He clowns it well with us in his commands: - orders 'Guys stiffen' for Attention and 'Twos into fours git': - traditional relics of the American army in France. Perhaps the root of Sailor's voice is not so much laughter as delight in living. Some madness of joy seems to take us whenever he marches us about. But he may do it only after Stiffy's gone: at tea-time and at night.

So we waited five minutes for the corporal who was behind the canteen. He came out wiping his mouth. We told him how late it was and he doubled us at one run the five hundred yards to the hut. This came a little heavy upon us, just after P.T. and in marching boots. The other flights had already fallen in for the ceremonial: we hastily draped the puttees round our legs, snatched equipment and rifles and dashed after them. Stiffy punished us for being late by another double, fully equipped as we were, to the main gate and back. Need everyone take a pleasure in kicking our mute inglory?
The parade was an awful show but the stoutness of the bandmaster gave it a relieving moment. Stiffy was discontented with our first pace, which the opening crash of the band should stimulate to a complete stride. 'Try it again, Bandmaster. It's not right.' The apprehensive-eyed first Sergeant Major, standing woefully behind Stiffy, echoed him. 'Try it again, Bandmaster.' His final syllables pealed into the treble, like Welsh lamentations.

'NO — THAT — WON'T DO!' roared Stiffy for the second time, punctuating each word with an angry stamp. The Sergeant Major unfolded his long wooden legs and ran to lend the bandmaster his two extra arms, to help conduct the music. The great running feet, like floats at the end of fishing-lines, splashed up the square's puddles. We looked out of the corners of our eyes for fun: these two warrant officers hate each other.

'Now then, both together, Sergeant Majors: Royal Air Force - by the centre - quick - march. STOP STOP STOP!' Stiffy was dancing mad. The brass had followed the bandmaster, while the drums copied the S. M. A titter smudged its quick way across the five hundred strained faces of us airmen.

Stiffy went over to the band. 'Now then: band ready: one, two, three:' - everyone blared a cacophonous great note, haphazard. Stiffy beamed. 'That's it, Bandmaster.' 'Yes, Sir, that's the right way to do it,' agreed the bandmaster too emphatically, taking the wind for a moment from Stiffy's full body. 'Well, what was the other way, then?' he feebly rejoined ten paces too late.

We had been forgotten, nailed stiffly to attention, all this time the great ones experimented. A black east wind froze the sweat mushily over our skins. Some nerve in the flight seemed to have parted, leaving us useless. We could not slow-march or quick march or change direction. Even we muddled fours into two and twos into four on the march. Lofty downed me, in one wheel, by sliding on a banana skin. His great length fell across my track. I tried to jump him on the sudden but alighted with a bent ankle and flew headlong. 'Sergeant Jenkins' roared Stiffy, red with rage 'take those two idiots behind the wash-houses and fuck them.' 'Done it, Sir' yelled Taffy, happy for a moment. But this was only momentary relief. As the hour passed conditions worsened. The Sergeant, ordinarily most patient and good-humoured all the day long, cursed and blistered, jabbed with his stick to hurt, booked real punishments. In vain. We were past amendment. This consoled me for hitherto I've been the only one dead-tired and ill after the P.T. which these fellows swore they loved: but here and now it has got them all beat, though the instructor today was Hemmings to whom we pay only lip-service.

Yesterday Sergeant Cunninghame had taken us, with his science and pleasant keenness: for him we worked like Trojans. At the end we were puffed but happy. Some happiness: which in my case thinly survived the fit of sickness that overexercise brings on punctually in the tea-hour. This straining out every dreg of my dinner, twice or thrice a week, is a tiresome nuisance to me: though the effort to vomit silently in the latrine so that the others won't hear has given me an iron throat.

I proved this late in the night, dog-fighting. Dickson had arched me back over a bed and was doing his utmost to throttle my windpipe. I got my chin forward in the Port Said manner and so my shortened muscles were able to hold out for minutes against the full squeeze of his fingers. Finally he drove a knee into the pit of my stomach, suddenly, and shifted his other hand to that fatal 'bollock-hold' of our impolite wrestling code. You bunch the things tightly and knead them. Not a brass monkey could resist such pain for sixty seconds.

I was yelling for pardon when Taffy's stick slid between us and pinked Dickson fairly in the tender spot under the armpit. He folded up beside me on the bed. 'What's the ruddy entertainment?' demanded Taffy, who'd come in to advise about tomorrow's ceremonial and allay the failure of today. 'I'm learning him' invented Dickson on the spur of necessity. 'Yesterday, when we marched down-town on the bloody tram-lines, would he keep step? Would he fuck?' I was coughing and spitting too helplessly to deny the baseless yarn. 'Put that where the monkey put the nuts' retorted Taffy. 'Now there's Gaby, the lovely blow-fly, my wet dream. Go and learn her: and let Ross alone. You want to grow a bit, sonny, before you take on Dickson.'




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