Monday, March 4, 2013

Cane, part one

This is the first (and longest) of three blogs on some of the uses of a word which has many senses. I first knew this word as applying to an instrument for corporal punishment. I don't think that teachers of elementary schoolchildren eighty years ago were still telling "naughty" small children to "Hold out your hand!", but when I attended my British-style Prep School (mostly teaching boys aged between 8 and 13) the Headmaster kept a cane in his study. I can only remember one occasion when he used it on a misbehaving pupil. It was different at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth (age 13 through17). There were several users of canes with which to beat cadets. Cadet Captains, the equivalent of Prefects in a civilian school, were authorized to administer canings for disciplinary offenses. It was mainly the six House Cadet Captains who undertook the punishment. They usually limited their beatings to three or four "cuts". The two Chief Cadet Captains (much like the Head Boy at other schools) also caned other cadets for various offenses. I don't remember any cadet receiving "six of the best", but perhaps they were authorized to administer as many blows. I hated the idea of being caned, and mostly stayed out of trouble. Once the Chief Cadet Captains sentenced me to a caning for talking when I was supposed to be silent in the Mess Room (Dining Hall). I responded by saying that I always felt that the punishment should suit the crime. "Well, what would you suggest?", I was asked. "Sentence me to silence at mealtimes for a week", I said, and both agreed. I suppose most cadets were caned about half a dozen times during their eleven terms at Dartmouth. I was probably unique--and lucky--in never being caned. On one occasion I was in charge of two junior cadets at a fire drill. Some water was spilled, and at the end of the drill I ordered them to mop it up. I then left. Alas, they failed to do a good job, and this came to the attention of my House Officer. He pointed out to me that, as someone training to be in charge of seamen, this was a good opportunity to learn that it is not enough to give orders; it was important to see that they were carried out. He sentenced me to a caning, which I deserved. However, I had injured my coccyx (tailbone) playing Rugby Football, so I said that perhaps I should first obtain medical clearance. He replied that he didn't believe in postponing punishment, and that he thought I had learned my lesson (I certainly had!) "You can go" were his welcome words. There was one ritual of corporal punishment that was more serious--and painful. We called them "Official Cuts", and they were administered harshly by one of the Physical Training Instructors, Petty Officers in excellent physical shape! I think they might have been instructed to give up to twelve cuts. I can only recall one incident--perhaps the offender had been detected smoking, a Serious Crime at Dartmouth! Readers of the Hornblower or Aubrey/Maturin novels would recognize that some of the aspects of traditional naval life remained, such as the manner in which flogging was carried out. "All hands to witness punishment" applied, and the Officer in Charge would engage in dialogue with the Petty Officer, giving permission to commence punishment, and carefully counting the blows. Talk about "Man's inhumanity to Man" , as Robbie Burns once wrote! More about canes in my next blog.

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