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T. E. Lawrence, The Mint

PART III


 

15:  FUGITIVE

My Cadet College notes shortened, grew occasional, stopped. Months and months flowed silently away. I think I had become happy. 'Why,' complained E.M.F., 'as the years pass, do I find that word harder and harder to write?' Because when we write we are not happy: we only recollect it: and a recollection of the exceeding subtlety of happiness has something of the infect, unlawful: it being an overdraft on life.

If happiness was vested in ourselves, we could make it our habit, by selfishly shutting ourselves away: though this complete peacefulness of the restricted circle is not to compare with the half-peace of a wider one: but happiness, while primarily dependent on our internal balance of desire and opportunity, lies also at the mercy of our external acquaintance. One jar in all the circumambient - and our day is out of tune.

We, in the service, if a good time comes, snatch at it: knowing that blind chance has overlooked us sports of circumstance for the moment. Cadet College, during my spell, was passing through such a golden weather: and B. Flight was probably the best of Cadet College. Look up from the bottom as high as we could, even to the A.O.C., and each degree of our commanders was benignant. We were fortunate in Tim, fortunate in our sergeant and corporal. Within the hut we were free and equal. Troops can exist in harmony by tolerating one another. In B. Flight we were luckier than that. We liked one another.

There was a quality of desperation about this liking. We knew our transience. The flight was as fugitive and feeble as a summer cloud. Every week some rumour of change would shake our trust. Every month or so a change would take effect. For the days before it we would go about - knowing that old Tug was posted, trying to estimate what we should specially miss in old Tug: and the new man? Who would he be? How would he muck-in?

I shall not forget the black despair which overwhelmed me as the day approached of my own going into self-appointed exile, to save my R.A.F. skin from the repercussion of a folly in 1918. I lost, then, the best home and companionship of my forty years' living. I wonder who took my place? In a society of twelve, each player has a solo importance, and a bad man will spoil the whole. For three weeks we had an unfitting sergeant, who turned the best pleased and best-working flight of Cadet College to rebellious misery. The fortune of an airman is gossamer, disordered by a single breath, and his life poignant, from its fragility.

Of course we strive to mitigate the evil. A first instinct of existence teaches us to sacrifice everything which might endanger our solidity. Twelve men in a constricted bedroom: - indeed we cannot afford the luxury of our own angles. The ideal of troops is to be as like and close-fitting as bee cells. If one dislikes another, and shows it, the flight will be out of joint: and the egg-shell of its comfort crack. We so cultivate the face of friendliness that from a mask it becomes a habit, from a habit conviction. To preserve it we jettison our realities... or cover them so deep that we fail to hear their voice. In the hut no point is put without qualification, no opinion pressed far enough to hurt. We run on half-throttle, in company.

This constriction within doors demands a venturesome outlet elsewhere. Out of it comes a degree of the heat and heart of our work. Out of it, too, comes our passion for games. In the practical argument of football a fellow can do his damnedest, giving and taking knocks; can be gloriously reckless of mud, and of his clothes and his body. To live as hard as we play would make life earnest. Those who do not play can find an escape in immoderate social exercise among the neighbouring towns and villages. A few find it in the wet bar of the canteen.




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