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Saturday, 23 April 2011

Char


Char is the name given in the British Army for Tea.  I do not refer to sitting around a table laden with delicate sandwiches and fairy cakes, but the liquid itself.



Every British soldier is issued (or was in the 20th century) with a 24hour ration pack, containing amongst the tins of steak and kidney pudding, processed cheese and oatmeal blocks, a tube of condensed milk, sugar and tea. 

I can remember the most perfect cup of tea I have ever had.

We were in Germany on a big exercise.  I had been recently promoted to Lieutenant, and I was in charge of our Observation Posts.  We were the guys who set up camouflaged hides surrounding the area we wanted to defend with our anti-aircraft weapons.  We would sometimes sit there for days, looking for attacking aircraft, waiting to give the alert to the Battery, and it was part of my job to keep these guys supplied with the essentials of life.  Beer, cigarettes, food and radio instructions.

Spot the Land Rover?

The whole regiment had just moved into a hide in some woods, and we had been on NBC (nuclear, Biological and Chemical) alert for the last 36 hours.  We had to wear our NBC suits all the time, although we didn't have to keep on our respirators.  Luckily it was Autumn, and getting a bit chilly, as the NBC suits could be suffocatingly hot in Summer.  I hadn't had any sleep for the whole 36 hours, and I kept going through willpower, fear (sleeping on duty was frowned on) and many, many cigarettes (I smoked like a lum in those days.  A lum is Scottish for a chimney).

British Army NBC Suit


Round about 4 am, I finally completed everything required, and had about 2 hours before Stand-To.  Stand-to is the delightful custom adopted by the British Army since time immemorial, where ½ hour before dawn, until ½ hour after dawn, everyone gets up with his/her personal weapon and takes a position to defend your area of responsibility.  Seemingly most attacks occur during this time, and we were supposed to be ready for it. 

I fell asleep.
I fell asleep sitting in my seat in my Land Rover.
I didn't have a wash or even a chance to brush my teeth.
I was out cold, in a warm (I still had that bloody NBC suit on) dark quiet pit.

My radio operator/driver woke me up with a shake on the shoulder, a whispered "Time, Sir", and an out thrust mug of tea.



I can still see the mug in my minds eye. It wasn't one of the modern black plastic mugs, made to fit around the base of a personal water bottle, it was an older style, traditional enamelled metal, with chips around the edges and the handle wound with string to avoid burns.  It was mostly green, but had a deep blue showing at the chipped rim.
My mouth tasted like....difficult to describe.  I've heard phrases like "...it's been slept in by a decomposing ferret"  or "....some thing's crept in during the night and died" or even the rather crude "...some thing's shit in it".

As I mentioned before, I hadn't managed to brush my teeth for the past two days. I had fallen asleep sitting up and had probably been snoring like a train.  I must have smoked over 60 cigarettes in the last 24 hours, and I think every one had left a furry nicotine deposit on my tongue and teeth.


The first cautious sip was ambrosia.  I could feel the tarry deposits dissolving and flushing away. I could feel the fur on my tongue lying down.  I spat the stuff out through the window at my side, and had another, much bigger slug of the brown, steaming glorious TEA.

It was almost too hot.  I could feel it sluicing down through the spaces between my teeth, dissolving and removing the tartar and plunging down my parched throat.  I could taste the slight plastic left over from our water jerry cans.  I could tell he'd used at least three teabags to make a really intense brew, and had used about ½ a tube of condensed milk. By the sweetness, and additional 3 sachets of sugar had been added and stirred with what I suspected was his chinagraph pencil, because I could just detect the slightest hint of engine oil (he was the driver, and that meant checking POL every 12 hours) and wax.  (The chinagraph pencils used a wax crayon so we could write on plasticised maps and notepads)

The Tea was magnificent.  Every gulp awakened more of my shut-down body, and by the time I had finished the entire pint mug, I was fully aware. 

I've never had tea like that before or since.

I promoted the guy to Lance Bombardier at the first opportunity.  Any man who can make as good a cup of tea as that was wasted as a Gunner.  He had potential.

6 comments:

  1. I find a bit of ginger goes well in tea too, especially if you have a flu like I do. You should seriously consider righting a novel. Though I could be wrong.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I've tried ginger in tea, and while I quite like it, I really prefer honey and whisky.

    Which novel do you think I should fix?

    ReplyDelete
  3. No thanks.
    I want to say he's a bit of a wanker who can't write for peanuts.but it's too dangerous.

    ReplyDelete
  4. If you are a fan of black tea, there is a very good tea you should try called Willow Stream Caffeine-free (Malawi). I tried during my visit to Victoria BC at the Fairmont hotel and it is a spectacular blend.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Good Story! Reminds me of being a vehicle commander in Iraq (in the infantry, go figure). It is the littlest things sometimes that contrast so well against a backdrop of ugliness and misery, and hence are that much more enjoyable.

    ReplyDelete

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