Range Practice


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.

General Wood took over. His examination brought out that the sentry was guarding the battery’s stable, or part of it, and that the stable was, not surprisingly, inhabited by horses. He then sought to probe the vaunted initiative of the American soldier. “What would you do,” he asked, “if, while you were on duty, one of these horses was taken sick?” For a moment the enormity of this question flooded my friend’s mind, submerging all consciousness of military protocol. When he could speak, the outrage of it burst through. “Jesus, General, they’re all sick!” Like Bret Harte’s Ah Sin, when the ace fell out of his sleeve in the poker game, “subsequent proceedings interested him no more.”

At the height of the horse crisis I was ordered to report to the Captain’s tent. General consensus recognized Captain Carroll Hincks as a good guy. A few years ahead of us at Yale, he had just begun to practice law in New Haven. He did his best to be a good soldier and a good battery commander. To say that his natural gifts lay in his own profession is no disparagement, since he was destined to become a highly respected federal judge, first on the district bench and later on the court of appeals.

The Captain began—truth forces me to admit— with a gross understatement, followed by an even grosser untruth. “You may be aware,” he said, “of the dissatisfaction of the men with the food being served to them.” Remembering the troubles of my friend at the stables, a simple “Yes, sir” seemed an adequate reply. To coin a phrase, the food was God-awful.

“Very well,” he went on, “I’m going to give you a great opportunity.” A clear lie, obviously. Captains did not give privates opportunities; they only gave them headaches. “You will be promoted to the rank of sergeant and put in charge of the mess.”

A nice calculation of the evils before me would have required an advanced type of computer. In the descending circles of hell, horse-burial details were clearly lower than mess sergeants—closer to the central fire and suffering. Mess sergeants suffered only social obloquy. But redemption worked the other way. The horses might get well or all die. But those who became mess sergeants all hope abandoned. Corporals, even little corporals, might become emperors, but no mess sergeant ever got to be a shavetail. However, the Captain had not offered me a choice; he had pronounced a judgment. “Yes, sir,” I said again, and was dismissed.

As things turned out, life proved tolerable. One help was that the food could not get worse; another, that one of the cooks was not without gifts which, when sober, he could be inspired to use. It only remained to convince the regimental sergeant major that after the cook’s Bacchic lapses the true function of the guardhouse was to sober him up, not to reform him. All in all, things began to look up. Although the very nature of the soldier requires that he beef about his food, the beefing in Battery D began to take on almost benevolent profanity. That is, until the Major entered our lives.

In real life—if I may put it that way—the Major was a professor, a renowned archeologist and explorer of lost civilizations, obvious qualifications for supervising regimental nutrition and hygiene. He turned his attention first to food. The rice we boiled, he correctly pointed out, seemed to flow together, in an unappetizing starchy mass. In the Andes, he said, they prevented this by boiling the rice in paper bags. Aside from the inherent implausibility of this procedure, it seemed to have no relation to the end sought. But the professor-turned-Major showed no inclination to debate the point; and an order is an order according to the Articles of War. After all, it seemed to make little difference, since the bags, and even the hemp that tied them, simply disappeared into the gelatinous mass. But our customers found otherwise. They reported an indissoluble residue, impervious to chewing, soon identified as wood pulp. The Major was the killing frost that nipped the tender buds of the battery’s good will toward me.