Range Practice

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The Colonel turned to his second-in-command. “Range clear?” he asked with rising inflection. The words were repeated across the platform and down the steps. The words were picked up and rolled back as a receding breaker is by an incoming one. This time the inflection was reversed, assertive; not a question but an answer, “Range clear!” Then from the platform came the electrifying command: “Regimental salvo!”

The usual procedure might be conventional, but the Colonel was not. He would start this exercise with a bang that few present would forget. In sixteen guns shells were shoved home, breeches slammed shut; gunners jumped clear while lanyard sergeants watched for the signal. “Fire!” said the Colonel. The resultant roar was eminently satisfactory. Some of the horses snorted and gave a plunge or two. The whole hilltop across the valley burst into smoke and dust.

About a mile our side of it appeared a separate source of dust bursts, moving toward us at great speed, touching, so it seemed, only the higher mounds. An order to cease fire stopped the reloading, and field glasses centered on the speeding horseman. Word spread that it was the forgotten Major. As he came nearer, he seemed to be urging the horse to greater effort. Panic or rage or both had clearly taken over. He would certainly gallop up flushed and breathing hard, fling himself from the saddle, and run toward the steps shouting, “What damned fool …?” One could see him, stopped by the Colonel’s cold stare, salute and stammer out, “Range clear, sir!” I didn’t wait for the confrontation. The platform would soon be the scene of high words, possibly controversy, in any event, unpleasantness. It was clearly no place for a mess sergeant who belonged with his field kitchen.

For a few days much talk and questioning revolved about who said what to whom. Unfortunately I could not help with this since I had rejoined the kitchen group before the dialogue began and was quite as puzzled as the others about what had happened. Anyway, it was all forgotten in a few days when we broke camp for the move home and mustering out.

Years later I met the Major again. We had both exchanged military titles for somewhat higher civilian ones. But although we were to see a good deal of one another, not always under the pleasantest circumstances, it never seemed to me that our relationship would be improved by probing the events of that memorable range practice.