A.G. Bole #1588 – 1949/50

It was January, the sun was shining out of a clear blue sky and we had just returned from leave as ‘old salts’. The ‘chums’ were a pathetic looking bunch – we never looked like that, did we ? – and final exams seemed years away. The stories of amouratory successes – both real and imaginary – during the vacation were flying around the locker room and caps were, for the first time, truly at a rakish angle. The world was wonderful and we were without a care.

Then the notice appeared. The ‘guest list’ of those cadets who would be dining with the Captain and his wife during the coming term. This was on ordeal which made even the braggarts quail.

This was the test at which one was expected to prove one’s potential for becoming an officer and a gentleman. There would be no special coaching. This was where breeding showed – polite conversation, good manners and etiquette; which knife and fork to use, who sits down first; when does one stand up; what is the correct form of address – the list of niceties was endless. It was strongly rumoured that one’s performance at ‘Dinner’ weighed heavily in the selection of future SCC’s. Even if there was no chance of promotion, nobody wished to be regarded as a slob.

I was to be in the first group of six and the date with doom was only two weeks away. Preparations occupied every waking hour – that is when one was not engaged in dashing from pillar to post doing the million and one things which had to be crammed into the normal ‘GB’ day. You were permitted two extra items on the ‘laundry list’, it was summer and Number 10’s would be rig of the day, shoes to be ‘boned’, – would one need a lanyard ? The list seemed to go on forever.

Very little was known of the form that the evening would take but it was known that the food itself would be very good. On reflection though, very few claimed to have enjoyed it. More importantly, a failure to actively participate in the conversation was deemed a social deficiency.

Prior to the dreaded evening, the six doomed individuals met on a number of occasions to share what meagre knowledge they had gleaned from previous participants and to plan ‘strategy’.

It was well known that the Captain Superintendent had a passion for fishing and by an amazing stroke of good luck, we had a fisherman in our group. A heavy responsibility was to fall on him to initiate the conversation and to pick up the ball during the awkward silences which were bound to occur. Unfortunately, this chap usually crewed for the Captain on his fishing trips and had already discussed tackle, bait, etc. etc. ad nauseam. Nonetheless, he was to read up on some obscure aspect of big game fishing in the Caribbean as there was a book on the subject in the library. We had a rugby player and a boxer who could converse knowledgeably on their topics, while I was happy to tackle ‘surfing’. The remaining two could only offer ‘Ostrich Breeding in the Karoo’ and ‘Tobacco Farming in Rhodesia’ with any semblance of authority. Attempts were made to discover the correct order for using the cutlery and one chap demonstrated the correct method of eating a banana with a fruit knife and fork and so it was decided that we would all have bananas when it came to the fruit course.

Finally, Zero Hour was only minutes away, Sunday at 1900 hours. We assembled outside the Captain’s house some 10 minutes before the appointed time in order to be inspected by various officers, the ‘duty’ Cadet Captain and an ill assorted group of cadets who had gathered to observe the condemned pass through that ominous gate. The ‘Ostrich farmer’ had just been to the ‘heads’ and was frantically trying to dry the rash of damp spots spattered down the front of his starched white trousers.

In we went and were met by a black steward who took our caps and ushered us into the drawing room where the Captain introduced us to his wife, with a brief précis of our year as ‘chums’. The steward handed out glasses of orange juice and the party split naturally into two loose groups. I gravitated towards the Captain’s wife who was charming. She put us at our ease with questions about our homes, our families, the summer vacation and our hopes for a career at sea. In the background, I could hear technical terminology on deep sea angling, flying to and fro. The book on Big Game Fishing in the Caribbean turned out to be a non-starter as it had been donated to the library by the Captain and he knew it virtually verbatim but a few points did merit discussion. The tobacco farmer had been stroking the Ship’s Mascot – A Great Dane – who now had an erection and the Ostrich breeder had spilled orange juice down the front of his starched trousers to accompany the wet parches he had tried to dry earlier. In trying to conceal the evidence, he pretended an interest in a painting of a ship which allowed him to face the wall but an inadvertent step sideways, sent a bowl of peanuts scattering across the parquet flooring. Things were going downhill rapidly.

Just in time, the steward announced that dinner was being served. The Captain’s wife led off, we all stood back waiting for the Captain – faux pas – we should have gone ahead of him as we were the guests.

This was the moment of truth – who was to sit where ? The two dreaded seats were on the Captain’s right and left. The place cards showed that the fisherman was on the right and I was on the left – c’est la vie. I still had my surfing repertoire untouched. We took our places and after a bit of a jumble, we all managed to sit at about the same time. The “boxer” was asked to say Grace. He had heard Grace said three times a day for the whole of his year as a chum but he set off on a long diatribe which seemed to include most religions and many ingredients for meals ending up with a heartfelt ‘ thank God’ – definitely not Cadet Captain material.

The soup arrived and it was obvious that I should launch the topic of ‘surfing’. I had prepared what I thought was a natural lead in to the subject but it came across exactly what it was – a prepared introduction – but as soon as I was into the subject it flowed more easily. Australia, the big waves of the ‘pipeline’ in Hawaii which I had conquered many times in my imagination, it all came tumbling out. While it was not to everyone’s taste, it did come across with conviction and enthusiasm. The soup bowls were cleared away and the main course arrived – it was the ostrich breeders turn.

At this point, disaster struck; my starched napkin – the size of a small bed sheet – had slipped from my starched trousers and was lying under the table at my feet. How to retrieve it inconspicuously was the question. The ostrich breeder droned on and the Captain listened politely while at the other end of the table the pugilist was provoking chortles of laughter with his impersonation of a punch drunk boxer with a cauliflower ear.

While the Captain was being served and looking away from me, I managed to establish the position of the lost napkin and devised a plan whereby I would grip it between my shoes and drag it under my chair from where I would nonchalantly lean forward and retrieve it at the next clearance of crockery. All was going well. The dragging operation was proving successful but then at the last moment, the napkin seemed to break away. Two more attempts had the same result.

Suddenly, the Captain excused himself, rose from his chair and spoke harshly to the dog which until now had been lying quietly under the table, and escorted it from the room. On his return, he explained his action with the announcement that he could not understand the dog’s behaviour in continually tugging at the leg of his trousers. During all the activity, I had managed unobtrusively, to restore my napkin to its proper place and had tucked in into my belt for good measure.

I don’t remember much about the rest of the evening other than that the Captain’s wife took the only banana from the fruit bowl and the boxer spent the rest of the evening mumbling until he decided to swallow the mouthful of grape pips that he had accumulated.

Back in the drawing room for coffee, I couldn’t help noticing that there were obvious streaks of black boot polish on the cuff of the Captain’s left trouser leg.

I didn’t make SCC at the next round of promotions. I wonder whether the dog squealed.