20: OUR COMMANDING OFFICER
I woke as the lights flashed on. A headache, a burning throat, a body which ached from head to foot as though a steam-roller had worked over me all night. Oh yes, of course, I was on shit-cart, yesterday. However, now it's P.T. and a new day.
Yet not good. The idiot gym-corporal, whose word of command Madden had likened to the sneeze of a cockroach, again took charge of us. Sergeant Cunninghame was on week-end and so this brute got master hand. To support him that lost soul, the Commandant, turned up. Many mornings he does, driving over in his two-seater. He is only the shards of a man - left leg gone, a damaged eye and brain (as we charitably suppose), one crippled arm, silver plates and corsets about his ribs. Once he was a distinguished soldier: - and now the R.A.F. is his pitying almoner.
For P.T. he does not wear his artificial limbs: instead he crutches himself with empty trouser-leg to the cook-house wall, and props himself against a buttress, while with his arm he attempts to follow the instructor's movements. Magnificent, you say, of a cripple so to defy his disability? Theatrical swank, done at our expense. He, being always resentfully in pain, is determined that we shall be at least uncomfortable. His presence drags out the P.T. to its uttermost minute: and however hard the sky may weep on us, the exercises must be gone through. Then he drives home to change his clothes, if in his ruins there is a bone whole enough to feel the chill of damp. The airmen have to walk these their only trousers dry.
The Corporal hustled us off our feet, barking and snarling. Everybody was sick of him, and the drill fell to pieces. The best instructor can make nothing of an unwilling squad: and this corporal was one of the worst. Cursing and threatening are barren means of instruction. On me the exhaustion of yesterday lay heavy, and the slippery asphalt made running more arduous. Once or twice I was nearly done; but they clouted me on as a slacker, and I staggered at it again. Eight fellows did actually fall out, instead of the usual daily two or three: but I have searched myself exhaustively, and know that I can hardly faint. As well, for if I did, the doctors might spin me as unfit, and then all these pains and hopes would have been wasted.
Of course I missed breakfast: for the strength of its food would have sickened my blown body. Afterwards Corporal Abner told me I was detailed as headquarters' runner for the day, and must get into blue at once and go over. It would be a chance for me to break in my 'horse-bandages': - the birds' nests in our puttees had mightily worried him before church parade. The R.A.F. issue puttee is inelastic, with no give to fit it round the leg like Fox's puttees, which are the first purchase of an airman with twelve shillings to spare: but at the Depot recruits may not go on parade in Fox's. So somehow these horse-bandages have to be made serviceable. Abner's tip was to put them on very tightly, wet: so they would stretch where strained, and shrink where loose, and after two or three such wettings would have fairly moulded themselves to the spring of our calf muscles. Meanwhile the torture of their compression crippled us. I was more a hobbler today than a runner: but still the messenger job promised to be clean and light, so I was grateful to the Corporal for choosing me.
At headquarters I was dumped on a form in the passage, till wanted: which was not for two hours. At intervals of about a minute officers came past. My orders were to rise to my feet each time in silent salutation. The plaster behind the runners' seat shone with the six-years' friction of their backs. It was a relief from the game of mechanised toy when the Sergeant Major had me set and light his fire.
Soon after eleven the Commandant sallied out to inspect the kit of a trained draft about to leave the Depot. Where he went I had to follow, like Mary's lamb, two paces behind him: and I was studying how to keep step with his dotting false leg when he swung round on me and shouted to know why the bloody hell I'd let the point of my stick droop towards the ground. The rage-distorted face was thrust down into mine, making me sick at the near squalor of those coarse hairs which bushed from his ears and nose, and the speckle of dark pits which tattooed his skin. 'What's your number?' (Incidentally, never call the fellows 'man'; and be careful to ask for their names first, not their number. We are not proud of being ticketed.) 'What's your squad?' 'I've not been squadded yet, Sir.' Beaten, he faced round and stumped on. Not even the arch-punisher could punish an undrilled man for a fault in drill. To inflict misery pleased him, for his body so pained him that only tight lips and a scowl kept him going: and it was an alleviation to see the circle of terror widen about him.
More shame was my portion in the hut, where the kit was exposed neatly on the beds. Without a glance, he thrust his stick under the blanket of the first lot, and flung it to the floor. 'Lay it out again, properly,' he thundered at the dazed owner. The same with the second and third. By then he had assuaged his failure to put me in trouble and the other kits were not ravaged.
'That your best hat?' to one man. 'Yes, S-S-Sir,' he stammered. A knowing fellow. The Commandant liked men who cringed. He passed on. 'And yours?' to the next. 'Yes, Sir' replied this one, undauntedly. The Commandant jerked the cap forward over the man's eyes, then pulled it off and threw it behind him. 'New cap,' he spat towards the sergeant at his elbow. 'New cap, Sir,' repeated the sergeant obsequiously. 'And put the man down for a regimental haircut' he went on. That meant the clippers all over his head, and him a disfigured convict for weeks.
The bullying went further. I found myself trembling with clenched fists, repeating to myself, 'I must hit him, I must,' and the next moment trying not to cry for shame that an officer should so play the public cad. Fortunately this hut ended the performance, and we stalked back to headquarters in procession, Commandant, myself, Sergeant Major, Orderly Sergeant, Service Policeman. The fellows who saw our crocodile coming scuttled back or dodged behind huts. If the Commandant were on the road from the bridge we would go round to M. Section by the half-mile detour of the Canteen, to rescue ourselves from the smart of his glance.
One day he started to walk across with a leashed dog in each hand. The excited beasts sprang forward after a cat. Down went the cripple, fairly pulled over on his face. He would not let go the dogs. Nor could he raise his blaspheming self. The slopes thickened with airmen silently watching him struggle. The contagion of interest reached the squads, and drill stopped. At last the duty officer, seeing the derelict, rushed down and set him again on foot. 'Let the old cunt rot' had muttered airman to airman.
Yet were we kinder to him than his next command. The day he first flew there, the aerodrome was ringed with his men almost on their knees, praying he would crash. Such hate of a brave man is as rare as it is hurtful to the service. His character was compounded of the corruptions of courage, endurance, firmness and strength: he had no consideration for anyone not commissioned, no mercy (though all troops abundantly need mercy every day) and no fellowship. He leaned only to the military side of the Air Force, and had no inkling that its men were not amenable to such methods. Partly this may have been honest stupidity. His officer friends urged that he was kind to dogs, and had the men's material interests at heart. It was that which hurt us most. We felt that we should be more considered than our food and our clothes. He treated us like stock-cattle: so the sight of him became a degradation to us, and the overhearing his harsh tone an injury. His very neighbourhood grew hateful, and we shunned passing his house.
After dinner the Adjutant rang for me, and with manifold instructions handed over a sealed packet for the pay section across the bridge. That untidy hut seemed full of trestle tables loaded with documents, and I wandered about it unable, in the multitude of clerks, to find the one whose function it would be to relieve messengers of their responsibility. Dimly I became conscious of the gold braid marking an officer in the furthest recesses of the room. Suddenly he called 'Don't you salute an officer?' In astonishment I gabbled out 'Yes, Sir, if he has his hat on.' Stepping back a pace, he put a bewildered hand to his head and gasped, 'But I have mine on.' 'So you have, Sir' replied I, gaily: and saluted him: and thrust my encumbering letter into his empty hands: and about-turned smartly into safe air before he could close his mouth.
The rest of the afternoon I was servant to the gentle-spoken Adjutant, whose shy reluctance to use me fired me to forestall his orders. Four-thirty came, and the Commandant prepared to return home, my signal of release. I bore his attaché case and papers to the little car. He struggled hardly in, unhelped; for we knew that he would swipe at an offered hand with his crutch. On the seat he made room for the dog. I swung the engine. He waved me away while he let in the clutch and backed her round: then roared, 'Now jump, you damned fool!' I took a flying leap to the sloping back, and clung there apelike between the hood and the luggage rack while he drove smartly across the park to his tree-bowered house by the golf course.
He pulled up at its gate: and shouted to me, 'Attention!' I stood as if on parade. 'Carry your stick properly, next time. Fall out!' I turned to the right, saluted and marched off. Only by having companions in misfortune is the absurdity of being drilled made bearable. So my back, as I walked away, was blushing with the idea that my legs were not stepping straightly, to his eyes. They were sore legs, too. My shrinking puttees were a good reason for my wish that he had not inflicted on me this long walk back to the camp. Before I was out of earshot I could hear him loudly drilling his little children, in the garden