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T. E. Lawrence, The Mint




The mess-deck is long and bare, chill as a vault, and moist smelling from its rows of white-scrubbed heavy tables and forms. On each table is a pile of twelve plates. As we come in we put our mugs on the end of a table. When he has counted twelve waiting mugs, the supervising corporal throws down a tin ticket: and the end men, the last comers, go to a serving hatch and draw their bucket of tea and an iron ration tin, holding twelve breakfasts.

The food in this camp is miserable: little and bad. Hence the flourishing canteen. Today's offer to our appetites was a scrap of cold ham, swimming for its desperate life in a flood of tinned tomato juice. Yesterday it was steak, stewed to a good imitation string. The irks grumble also at the tea, because it is not strong, and not sweet. I am thankful for both lacks: and wish, besides, that it was not hot. A pity that men strive to surpass water, that cheap, easy, affectionate and subtle drink.

A feature of Cadet College is that we have not to wash our plates. It is done for us (not well, but who looks a mercy in the mouth?) by a special squad whose utter greasiness of life and work is redeemed by unlimited pickings in food. All that we leave is theirs. So every belly-favouring man jumps at the job. I ran the risk of being put among them, when I enlisted as unskilled: but after my sorrows in Farnborough in 1923 I dared not try for photographer again. For the time, though, the risk of mess-orderly is past, with my enrolment in B. Flight.

After breakfast we go on parade: about two hundred of us men, and one hundred cadets, would-be officers. We form three sides of a hollow square. On the eastern, open face is a flagstaff. We face this, after some shifting back and forward. The R.A.F. colours are broken at the peak: the trumpeter (imported for the ceremony from East Camp) blows a royal salute: the cadets, who have rifles, present arms. We who have nothing, stand still.

The salute is the shrillest note a trumpet can sustain. It goes through us, however densely we close our pores. The thrill of exceeding sharpness conquers, in blades, sounds, tastes. Everything else upon the square, a huge asphalt place, hut-circled and echoing, is deadly still. Imagine a raw wind, and a wet early sunshine, making our shadows on the tarred ground the exact blue colour of our clothing.

After the salute Jews and Roman Catholics fall out: while the chaplain says prayers: we all bowing our heads meekly, standing at ease. Having been prayed over (a little ironical, it sounds, the petition that this day we fall into no sin, neither run into any kind of danger, when some of us will fly an hour later, and all of us have been misdoing and swearing obscenely since the dawn: however . . .), at last the Wing Commander dismisses us: and we march off by flights to the hangars and our day's work.

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