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Letter From America: Three 'Alves

...He stepped forward three paces, which, considering that there had only been two paces between us to start with, brought us very close. His eyes, though a good foot and a half above mine seemed to meet as with lowered voice he entreated, "Listen, laddie! The British Harmy is made up of three 'alves: Church of Hengland, Roman Catholics, and hother denominations! Which are you?"...

Ronnie Bray announces that he is a Mormon, presenting the Regimental Sergeant Major with a problem.

Arithmetic has never been my strong point. I usually managed to keep off the bottom of annual examinations at Spring Grove School only because Mary Appleyard usually got none and I managed two more than her. It wasn't until I was almost eighteen and in the army that I learned how to do long division. That was thanks to the Army Education Corps.

A year and a half later, serving in Cyprus, I was still making use of the Army's Education programmes to advance my limping edification to a standard that would let me compete in life on a more or less even playing field. The woolly-haired young sergeant-teacher became so gently frustrated when attempting to indoctrinate me in the lesser points of trigonometry that during a moment of histrionic over-emphasis, he aimed to bang on his desk, missed, and was next seen climbing back into a standing position with an air of complete and utter resignation not usually seen on the face of one so young.

Even though I could not grasp or remember any of the simple formulae that some very young children are so adept at internalising and using as common language, there were some things I knew about arithmetic, and the "three-halves-rule" was one of them. Of course, it might never have come up had I not been a high profile Mormon when about all that was known of them was that they caused a bit of trouble with their religious, social, and matrimonial customs in frontier America in the Nineteenth-Century, and that some of these had spilled over into the British Isles at the hands of some exceptional missionaries.

The British Army has a language all its own. It is not amenable to analysis, it defies description, and you have to be a British soldier to understand the mind-set that generated it and that perpetuates it. During my first year as an untidy and often inept soldier, I still had some way to go to appreciate the military mind and its place in guarantee the security of Britain and, thereby, the safety and continuance of Western civilisation. However, I gained an important insight into that mind-set one cool Saturday morning on the parade ground under the tutelage of one of the bastions of the Armed Forces of the Crown, the Regimental Sergeant Major.

This warrant officer, the highest non-commissioned rank in the British Army, wields more power than any other officer with the exception of the Battalion's Colonel. Junior subalterns are subject to his discipline and woe betide any young officer who ignore him or his regulations, every one of them out of the Manual of Army Discipline, or the book of Queens' Rules and Regulations, each publication having strict rules of conduct and discipline meticulously applied by the RSM. Sensible soldiers respect and fear their RSMs and take extreme care to avoid their disapproval.

It was, therefore, with some difficulty that I managed to refrain from laughing out loud that Saturday morning after we had been assembled, inspected, and drilled by the RSM at Sudbury, when he announced that the company would dismiss to that ailing institution of military life, Padre's Hour. This was the time, usually held on a Saturday morning when more important duties were out of the way, and the attendance at a religious meeting with either the battalion's chaplain or a visiting minister or priest was all that stood between the soldier and escape for the weekend on a thirty-six hour pass.

The RSM called the parade to attention, and then barked, "Church of England, fall out and regroup at the top of the square!"

Around one hundred and eighty Anglicans turned to the tight, paused for a silent count of "Two, three!" before driving their right feet into the asphalt of the barrack square with a crack that echoed off the hillside above the camp. Another silent count of "Two, three!" and they filed to the tope edge of the parade ground and formed a threes slowly.

"Roman Catholics, fall out and fall in to the left of the square!"

The sixty or so Catholics repeated the ritual drill for dismissal and filed to their side of the square.

"Other denominations, fall out and get fell in to the right of the square!"

About one hundred and twenty 'other denominations' performed the rhythmic procedure and made their way to the right, regrouping with little obvious enthusiasm.

The parade ground was now empty, apart from an RSM who appeared to be at least nine feet tall - and me, feeling about four feet tall, standing facing him. It is difficult to describe the look on his face to anyone unfamiliar with the slow burn of Edgar Kennedy. He approached me purposefully shaking his massive pace stick to assist him with emphasis as the spiny ends of his waxed moustache described little circles in the air as his head moved in an indescribable motion and he bellowed at me, "What are you, Laddie?" Although I felt that his addressing me as "Laddie" was hardly showing respect for one of England's warriors and a true soldier of the Queen, I did not raise that point with him.

I assumed an air of military importance, knowing that demonstrating a military bearing would persuade him that he was in the company of an equal and make him think twice before treating me as he had done a full corporal a little earlier in the parade when he had dismissed him with the charge to "Take yourself down to the guardroom, corporal, and chain yourself to the wall!"

"I am a Mormon, sir!" I said with conviction, remembering a book I had read about lions and looking him straight in the eyes.

"A Mormon, laddie?" he thundered back, apparently not intimidated. "Are they Roman Catholics?''

"No, sir!"

"Are they Church of England?"

"No, sir!"

"Then they must be other denominations, laddie!"

"No, sir!" I repeated, resolutely.

He stepped forward three paces, which, considering that there had only been two paces between us to start with, brought us very close. His eyes, though a good foot and a half above mine seemed to meet as with lowered voice he entreated, "Listen, laddie! The British Harmy is made up of three 'alves: Church of Hengland, Roman Catholics, and hother denominations! Which are you?"

"Neither, sir! I'm a Mormon!"

"Right! Take yourself off to the cookhouse and tell the cook sergeant to find you something useful to do for an hour. Dis-miss!"

I turned to the right barely concealing a chuckle that I could feel forming somewhere down near my knees, rising as I completed the dismissal manoeuvre, but the remains of my cold fear made it disappear before it reached physical expression.

The cook sergeant was highly amused when I reported my errand and my reason for being there. He laughed and told me to go and wait for dinnertime in my barrack room. I went and lay on my bed to mull over the happening and to ponder what I had learned that morning. The main lesson was that it was alright to speak up for what you believed in, and that there was justice to be gained from principled stands. I also learned something that neither Spring Grove School nor the British Army Education Corps had not taught me, and that was that your could have "three 'alves!"

Copyright Ronnie Bray



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