Range Practice

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Realizing that the reader, like a court, must not be wearied with cumulative proof, I mention only the deplorable incident of the Colonel’s inspection and pass on. Lower officers did more than enough inspecting to maintain desirable standards. The Colonel’s perusal was rare and was of purely ritualistic significance. No one, least of all himself, looked for or would call attention to defects, not because they weren’t there, but because it would have been embarrassing. It would defeat the purpose of the ritual, just as it would for a visiting chief of state, reviewing a guard of honor, to point out a dusty shoe or a missing tunic button, or for the pope, being carried into St. Peter’s, to tell a cardinal that he had his hat on backward.

The Major, however, lacked a sense of occasion. He seemed unaware that in ritual, form, not substance, is of the essence, that the officers attending the Colonel were there as acolytes, not fingerprint experts. As the least of the acolytes, I joined the party at the mess hall and tagged along to the cookhouse. Everything shone. The cooks, sober and in clean aprons and hats, saluted. The Colonel returned their salute and murmured, “At ease,” as he turned to go. The Major chose this moment to hook his riding crop under a large and shining tub hanging against the wall and pull it out a few inches. He might have been Moses striking the rock. A stream of unwashed dishes and pans poured out and bounced about. The group froze as the Colonel looked hard at the Major and then asked our captain and first lieutenant to see him at his quarters after the inspection. He walked on.

The first necessity was profanity. Little could be added to the already exhaustive analysis of the Major’s failings. The shortcomings of the cooks and kitchen police hardly exceeded primitive stupidity. My own problems were not serious. Some sacrifice must be offered on the altar of discipline—passes curtailed, pay docked, and so on. But underlying opinion was clear. The real faux pas was the Major’s, and the Colonel would see it that way—as he did.

Meanwhile the summer was passing. The horses’ particular brand of pneumococcus seemed to lose its zest. As they recovered, they became more amenable to military discipline. Soon the drivers had the caissons rolling along; and the gunners grew proficient at mental arithmetic as they listened to the shouted numbers, twirled the wheels that moved their gun barrels, and learned to push home dummy shells, lock the breeches, and jump aside to avoid a theoretical recoil as lanyards were pulled.

South of the border the political temperature cooled as the days shortened. General Pershing came home empty-handed, rumors flew that the National Guard would be demobilized; but not before we had had a day of range practice, not before the effort and sweat of summer had been put to the test of firing live ammunition. Labor Day came and went. The mountain foliage began to turn, the blueberries to ripen on the hillsides. A few trenches were dug on a hill across a valley, enemy battery emplacements were simulated with plywood, notices were posted to warn berry pickers off the range on the chosen day. The Major was posted as range officer to ride over the target area before firing began to ensure that it was clear.

On a glorious autumn morning the regiment set out for the firing position, a plateau some miles beyond our camp at the far end of the military reservation. On the parade ground the sight of the full regiment in formation was a moving one; but when Battery D brought up the end of the column of march and our rolling kitchen took its place at the end of that, martial spirit suffocated under a pall of dust. Not a breath of air moved it. Only a wet handkerchief over the nose and mouth kept lungs from filling solid.

A brief respite came when the column halted and the kitchens moved up from the tail to the head of the batteries. The drivers watered and fed their horses while the gunners ate and then took their place. Even though the Major was far away on his assigned range patrol, we risked no chances with that meal—no boiled rice—there was too much live ammunition around. Not long after lunch the column debouched onto the plateau and moved straight across it. As Battery D emerged, the column broke into a trot, then swung at right angle into regimental front with guidons fluttering. When they were aligned, a bugle sent the whole command into a full gallop, a brave sight. As they reached firing position, they swung around, unlimbered guns and caissons, and took the horses, still excited and tossing their heads, to the rear.

We left the kitchen to the drivers and joined a group at the steps to a platform from which the Colonel was observing the terrain through field glasses. The last preparations for firing had been completed, gun crews and officers were in their places, range finders manned. Soon officers shouted numbers as they computed distances, angles, and elevations; wheels on the guns turned. The regulation procedure from here on was pretty conventional. One or two guns would fire a long and then a short—that is, on the first they would add to the estimated range, on the second, subtract. Having thus, hopefully, bracketed the target, they would split the difference, or make other correction, and everyone would be ready for business.