Range Practice

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The calendar has it that these events occurred fifty years ago last summer. It is hardly more credible than that a thousand aees can be like an evening gone. But as President Lincoln said, “we cannot escape history.” Nineteen sixteen was the year of the Wilhelmstrasse’s amazingly successful plot to distract President Wilson’s attention from the war in Europe by involving him with Mexico, of General “Black Jack” Pershing’s invasion of Mexico in “hot pursuit” of Pancho Villa, after that worthy had staged a raid across the Rio Grande on Columbus, New Mexico. Poor General Pershine never causht UD with Villa.

But President Wilson caught up with the realization that the United States had no army. Improvising, he called out the National Guard and mustered it into the federal service. This is where I came in. Having finished the first year of law school and being without plans for the summer, I was easy prey for the press gang in the form of friends in the so-called Yale Battery, Battery D of the Connecticut National Guard’s Regiment of Field Artillery. In no time I found myself that lowly form of military life, a private and “driver” in the old horse-drawn field artillery. Garbed in a hilariously ill-fitting uniform and Stetson hat with its red cord, I made my small contribution to the gloriously unorganized confusion of our journey from New Haven to training camp at Tobyhanna in the Pocono hills of Pennsylvania.

None of our batteries had ever owned any horses. Those used in the evening drills in New Haven had been moonlighting, supplementing a more mundane daytime existence as brewery and dray horses. We would get our horses, so we were told, at Tobyhanna. They would come to us from the West—an interesting thought, this. Would we be, we wondered, the first bipeds they had ever seen? Our imagination was far inferior to the reality.

The first disillusion came on arrival. It was with mankind. We had been preceded by a New Jersey regiment which had, quite naturally, appropriated the best sites and everything movable. Our relations with them soon resembled those between colonial contingents in the Continental Army, meaning that had Hessians been handy, we should have preferred them.

Then came the horses. Those assigned to the New Jersey regiment arrived first. Words sink into pallid inadequacy. Our first impressions were gay: a vast panoramic cartoon of our enemy campmates in side-splitting trouble. Blithe horse-spirits from the Great Plains seemed to be enjoying a gymnastic festival, with inanimate human forms scattered around them. But the comedy was not to last.

Our horses emerged from their boxcars strangely docile. Only occasionally would an eye roll and heels fly or teeth bare in attempted mayhem or murder. No more was the landscape gay with mad scenes of separating centaurs. Over the whole camp a pall settled, broken only by asthmatic wheezes and horse coughs. Stable sergeants and veterinary officers hurried about with worried faces. The wretched horses had caught cold in the chill night mountain air, so different from that of their warm, free prairies. The colds had become pneumonia and contagious.

Then they began to die. One has no idea how large an animal a horse is until faced with the disposal of a dead one, and in the Poconos, where solid rock lies barely two feet under the surf ace I It was no illusion, to those whose picks drew only sparks, that the bodies of the deceased grew faster than their graves. Soon we were all pleading with the sufferers to be of good heart, not to give up the battle for life; we put slings under them to keep them on their feet; tenderly gave them the veterinarians’ doses; manned round-the-clock watches at the stables.

At just this time, far off in the higher echelons of the Army, some keen leader of men decided to raise the morale of the troops by inspecting them. The choice fell on Major General Leonard Wood, late a physician and Teddy Roosevelt’s C.O. in the Rough Riders, then commanding the Eastern Department of the Army and soon to be Governor General of the Philippines and a presidential aspirant. At that time not even Alexander the Great would have impressed us, much less imbued us with martial spirit. We were sunk too deep in the horse-undertaking business.

A friend was doing midnight-to-four sentry duty at our stables. Lanterns bobbed and boots slid on stone as a party approached. Tearing himself away from the nuances of horse breathing, he shouted “Halt! Who goes there?” Back came the ominous answer, “The Commanding General of the Eastern Department.” Rapidly exhausting his knowledge of military repartee, my friend ordered, “Advance to be recognized.” General Wood stepped into the lamplight. The sentry did not know him from the mayor of Philadelphia, but the stars on his shoulders were enough, and, anyway, he had run out of small talk. He managed a snappy salute and the word “sir!” which seemed safe enough.