Faithful Service To the Service

THE milk-train ride up the Hudson River Valley had taken what seemed forever. Finally we arrived in Pawling, N.Y. Matching my mood, a somber November sky glowered above: It was 1945 and the ``Big War'' had been over since August. Now we had been assigned to this Army Air Force Convalescent Hospital, to idly squander time while the military bureaucracy leisurely decided our fate. Unheard of for the Army, personnel gave us a choice of duty. Since no one could work at their specialty, we were permitted to choose from a list of low-skill jobs: supply, military police, clerk, stable hand. (The horses were here for convalescing patients to ride.)

Because my new bride was a horse devotee, I chose the stables. It turned out to be good duty. Once the stalls were cleaned, we were free to do as we pleased. This left much of the day to write letters, read, play cards, or take leisurely horseback rides through handsome Duchess County.

After six months, orders came to close the base. Someone asked the Quartermaster Corps Headquarters in Washington what to do with 18 remounts (saddle horses), a team of light draft horses, and a span (two) of mules. Word came back: Send the remounts to Cornell University, the draft horses to Front Royal Remount Station, Virginia, and alas, destroy the mules. The latter order was disobeyed; a local farmer took them.

And that's how I found myself aboard a slow freight to Front Royal, Va., with the team of light draft horses, the kind that the World War I cavalry and field artillery had used to pull caissons and ammunition wagons. Why the Army had decided to go to the trouble and expense of shipping a team of past-their-prime, 20-year-old draft horses to Virginia, was a puzzlement.

I was shaken awake by the conductor at 2 a.m. as the freight train arrived at Front Royal, a breeding farm for the US Army Cavalry. During World War II, General Patton sent the famous Austrian Lipizzaner horses here, in an effort to protect them; his personal horses were here as well. However, to my knowledge, no mounted cavalry had been used in World War II outside of mules in the mountain campaigns in Italy. Why were we breeding horses for the cavalry? Sociological inertia seemed the most likely explanation.

After arriving, I decided to mosey about the facility and visit some of the handsome stucco barns. As I strolled about, I noted enlisted men and German prisoners of war who provided labor necessary to maintain the facility. The enlisted men's dress was completely new to me: They wore short overcoats or leather jackets, breeches, and puttees. Perhaps their most distinctive apparel were broad-brimmed Stetsons, campaign hats, like those my father wore in World War I. One had the feeling of stepping back 30 years in time.

Meandering from barn to barn, I watched a POW lunge a colt in a spacious indoor ring; nearby, young stallions challenged on another through the bars of their roomy box stalls. Suddenly a bespectacled German POW appeared, came to rigid attention, and saluted. My reaction was one of embarrassment; my corporal stripes likely precipitated the salute. As quickly as the POW appeared, he disappeared. It was then it struck me! It was I who was odd, sporting my ``fifty-mission-crush'' cap, flight jacket, and khaki trousers. I'd considered the dress of the personnel on the post an anachronism ... true, but here, I was the different one.

Where the POW had stood a squat, grizzled, cavalryman now took form. Bandy-legged, wearing a campaign hat, leather jacket, breeches with puttees, and the stripes of a first sergeant, he stood quietly. His weathered face eyed me carefully. After a brief acknowledgment of each other's presence, he broke the silence. ``What you got on your head, soldier?'' he queried gruffly.

Taken aback, but unable to allow that challenge to go unmet; with an insolent smile, I replied, ``Sergeant, I'm Air Corps; they invented the airplane and won the war by dropping bombs on the enemy ... afraid horses are a a thing of the past.'' He energized his facial muscles into a grimace of anger. ``All right, wise guy, come with me!'' he ordered. Obediently, I followed to a neighboring barn, where we came to a halt before a spacious box stall.

There, standing knee deep in fresh straw, was an aged mare. Her head drooped forward and low to the ground, her hoary coat tattered; she looked desperately forlorn. On the stall front hung battle honors: Meuse-Argonne and others recognizable as World War I. The first sergeant growled defiantly. ``Show me the airplane that can match that record!'' he demanded. ``She belonged to a colonel, made it through six major battles in World War I ... 39 years old. Kept one of General Pershing's horses 'til it was 41....''

It was then I realized, with regret, that I'd hit a nerve. For several minutes he scolded me for my insensitivity to the virtues of the horse and boasted its superiority over the airplane. His eyes smiled as thoughts of past glory scrolled through his memory. Suddenly the revelation struck me: My Air Corps patch and uniform personified for him the inevitability of the end of an era, the end of a way of life that he'd known 30 or more years, a way of life that he'd treasured and didn't wish to relinquish, and I ... I was the enemy. As his anger sputtered out, I managed a, ``Thanks for the tour, Sergeant,'' as I tried to hide my distress, sorry now that I had taunted him.

It was this poignant image of the veteran cavalryman that provided the answer to the questions previously posed ... Why transport two 20-year-old horses from New York to Virginia? ... Why maintain a facility to fulfill an obsolete function? ... Why keep a 39-year-old, worn out horse? The answer was simple. Unlike airplanes, tanks, or other machines of war, horses, like humans, exhibit courage, diligence, good judgment (horse sense), laziness, deceit, contrariness, and other ``human'' traits. Like us, after serving well, they receive the same reward; they are retired, put to pasture. I had brought the team of caisson horses home to their Hemingwayesque reward ... sweet grass, cool water, a life of ease. Front Royal Remount Station was, for them, horse heaven.

Later, as my train sped homeward, an image of the crusty old sergeant appeared in my reverie, and I thought how fortunate that, for a time at least, he would oversee his cherished horses.

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