The Tin Lizzie Troop

Excerpt

The Philadelphia Light Horse Report to Fort Dinkle

 “Damnation,” said Stanley Dinkle.
          It had taken him half an hour to compose the sentence, and he had just read it aloud. He read it again, listening. “’The perfect service mount must possess good teeth, good digestion, a good appetite, soundness, size, and strength to carry his burden easily, legs long enough to maintain regulation gaits without over-exertion, and good proportions.’” He heard the word “good” four times and the derision of the Rio Grande and laughter in the leaves of the pecan trees.
          Oiling the tip of his pencil stub with his tongue, he changed “good proportions” to “beautiful proportions” and read the sentence again.
          “Damnation,” he said. He could never get away with an adjective as flowery as “beautiful.” He groaned, and after some cogitation, and after scratching a mosquito bite on a shoulder with the pencil stub and one on an ankle with a big toe, and after twisting his chair to the right oblique, then to the left oblique, by changing “beautiful proportions” to “fine proportions” he gave the entire sentence a more manly, even a military in his opinion, ring. Now he had a definition, a base of operations, and could continue. First things first.
          Instead, he thumbed the pages of the April 1916 issue of the Cavalry Journal, the service quarterly published in Leavenworth, Kansas. There were articles on various subjects of interest to cavalrymen, including the first field notes from majors and captains chasing Villa with Pershing and the Punitive Expedition, plus advertisements for Blickensderfer typewriters, Capewell nails, Moet and Chandon champagne, Whittemore shoe polish, and Gurley engineering instruments. Champagne ha, he thought. Although he had never attempted anything more literary than a letter home, Stanley Dinkle was engaged in composing an article for submission to the Journal entitled “Selecting the Service Mount,” a subject which, while not perhaps as engrossing as tactics and equitation, ought to be recognized by the editors as fundamental. Besides, it was the only theme upon which he dared to write. Horseflesh was his meat and mistress. And besides that, he had been a second lieutenant for eight years, and it had recently occurred to him that contribution to the Journal bearing his name might suggest promotion to his superiors.
          He put down the magazine. Resolutely he bent to task and table. If he could get another sentence, he would have two, and two, he assumed, would breed a third. It should be as simple as bringing a mare to a stallion--lock ‘em up and let ‘em go. He started a second, disapproved it, wadded the sheet of YMCA stationery, poked it into a hole in the screen, scribbled a few words, repeated the process.  Most of the holes in the screen were already stuffed with socks too darned to salvage and handkerchiefs too infirm for the nose. In breeches, bare feet, and BVD top he sat on the porch of a one-room adobe house painted by the previous tenants, unknown to him and long departed, a noble purple. It had been his home and depot for a month. It stored this bachelor inventory: chair, table, cot, cardboard suitcase, weapons, ammunition, clothing, rations, kerosene stove and lamp ,a pot, a pan, and his immortal soul. Fifty yards below the door ran the Rio Grande, glazed by the sun. Since the river was thirty yards wide at this point, and the middle of the stream marked  the international boundary, according to his calculations he was situated sixty- five yards inside the United States of America and sixty-five yards and any fraction of an inch from revolutionary Mexico. He was on the brink.
          His problem he decided, was that he didn’t know what in hoot he wanted to say. So he commenced a list under the heading “How to Tell a Plug,” enumerating both the physical and temperamental defects of animals not up to service snuff. “Narrow chest; molars wearing,” he jotted down. “Blind in left eye; loins long and weak; tucked up, rough trotter; parrot mouth; stumbler; cribber, chews picket line constantly; teeth and digestion not good as evidenced by amount of corn passing through whole.”
          I am off my trolley, thought Stanley Dinkle.
          I wish they’d show up.
          I hope Flossie Grebs don’t.
          I have got to quit thinking about sex.
          Locating clean socks, he tugged on his boots and banged out the screen door and strode through the May heat into the cool of the grove to the picket line and fed his horse, Hassan, a handful of oats and tickled his ears and leaned against a pecan tree. His command of six men from the Keystone Lancers had decamped that morning for El Paso, their month’s tour of duty ended. Good riddance to bad rubbish. He hoped the new batch, due any minute on assignment for another month, would be a better lot, men for a change, not boys, and     from an ordinary, dirty-neck National Guard outfit.
          I am lonesome. I am lonesomer, admitted Stanley Dinkle, than Woodrow Wilson in a whorehouse.
          I am thirty-two years old and not getting any younger.
          Returning to the porch, emplacing himself once more at his table, and finding his plug list dull as dishwater, he addressed himself to one headed “How Contractors Will Hornswoggle You If You Let Them,” which registered the deceptions practiced by horse sharps attempting to foist inferior stock upon the government. “Blowing up a sweeneyed shoulder,” he began, “doping with arsenic or lobelia to prevent detection of the heaves; doping with cocaine or gasoline for bone spavin; filling cavities above eyes with air because such  cavities are very evident in old horses; freezing a bad joint with chloroform; pulling a rag wet with ammonia between the hind legs to force an animal to go wide if he is a brusher.”
          Rising, he put down the pencil, picked up the Cavalry Journal, and banged out the screen door. The bowels might be a bother at certain times, but at others they were a blessing. Striding round the house and down the slope towards the Rio Grande, he disappeared at its edge into a thick strand of river cane, the reeds green and ten feet high. Here, entering an outhouse painted pink, he disposed himself comfortably, and in this verdant bower passed a few minutes in perusal of his favorite magazine. One article in particular fascinated him. It was a short defense of the saber authored by a second lieutenant named George S. Patton, Jr. “Truly,” wrote Patton, “a saberless cavalry in the face of the foe would be like  a body without a soul. It is the saber, and the hope of some day fleshing it in an aggressive enemy, which gives to cavalry the dash and initiative which has made history on many a field, and has inscribed so many historic names on the scroll of fame. Can infantry produce such men as Murat, Seidlitz, Sheridan or Stuart? No!”
          He thrilled.  What he would give to pen a style as peppy as that, to roll  out periods as balanced and sonorous as the cannonading of the sea. With the sentiment, however, he disagreed, albeit regretfully. Patton was right about cavalry “dash and initiative,” wrong about the saber. If there was one thing an officer must be, it was up-to-date. He was. He prided himself on keeping   up with the times, military speaking, on staying abreast of every new-fangled weapon and drill. And if there was one thing the U.S. Cavalry must soon face, it was the obsolescence of the saber as an instrument of warfare. The day of the automatic pistol had come, and he was ready for it. There were no flies on Lt. Stanley Dinkle. He remarked a note to the effect that Patton, whoever he might be, was at present on duty with the expeditionary forces in Mexico--lucky devil. Some men could have their cake and eat it, too, could turn out articles and be published and at the same time tear around Mexico mounted on gallant steeds doing gallant deeds, while others, equally meritorious, equally brave, were held prisoner with their pants down in a pink privy, their “scroll of fame” a Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue.
          He couldn’t imagine what he’d done to deserve this fate. In the two months since Villa’s attack on Columbus, New Mexico, the War Department had mobilized 75,000 men and railroaded them to the border, and more thousands were on the way. From Vermont to California, from Oregon to Florida they had been called up, from forty-seven of the states, and now, by National Guard division and brigade and regiment they were camped from Dryden, Texas, to Yuma, Arizona, cussing and discussing and learning one end of a rifle from the other and marching up and down comparing blisters and writing mournful letters home and whistling for a war to happen along,     any war, to give them something useful to do. Only the cavalry units among them were functional. These had been cut up into six-man squads and stationed along the border at twenty-mile intervals to patrol it, a chore for which they were obviously better suited than infantry. And where was the real, the regular U.S. Cavalry while this semi-civilian fandango was being danced? It was in Chihuahua with Blackjack Pershing where it belonged, every splendid regiment of it but two, the 6th at Fort Riley, Kansas, his own, and the 8th, at Fort Bliss, acting as a “home guard,” to which he’d been attached on temporary duty. And it was these unfortunate regiments which had been stripped of junior officers to tend and motherhen and spank into fighting trim the squads of National Guard pony boys at the patrol posts. Instead of being where Patton was, therefore, where most of the career men were, south of the border, he, Stanley Dinkle, sat twiddling his thumbs, sat quite literally on its lip.  For the last month he had wet-nursed six of the Keystone Lancers, charming lads and dandy polo players. He waited now upon a second month’s allotment and in the same breath cursed its coming. He despaired.
          Emerging from his pagoda, he kicked the door shut and climbed to his house, his table, his one sentence and two lists.  He reread them. The first list seemed to fit him to a T. His loins were weak. He was tucked up. He was a stumbler and a cribber, he chewed constantly the picket lines of life.
          I am a plug, thought Stanley Dinkle, slipping pleasantly into melancholia. I will never be a thoroughbred.
          I remember a girl in Zamboanga had eyes like Smith Brothers cough drops and bubs like ice cream cones and made those bedsprings clang like a gong.
          I ought to pull a rag wet with ammonia between my hind legs to cool me off.
          He heard something. To ears which delighted only in the sweet harmony of hooves, the sound was an affront. It was a chugging, not a clop. It advanced from the direction of Edhogg, and as it neared, and grew in volume, it became absolutely identifiable.  It was the racket of internal combustion engines.
          That was impossible. No vehicles passed this way except an occasional wagon or, once in three weeks, the Jeffrey Quad truck sent out from Fort Bliss with a load of hay and grain and rations. The truck was not due for two weeks.
          He came to his feet, peering. Whatever the conveyances might be, they were obscured by the grove. And then they cleared the trees and chugged into raw, appalling sight. Even then it took him a minute to see what he saw.
          He saw two Model T tourers. Though dusty, they were obviously new. The wheel spokes twinkled. Sunlight glanced from brass headlamps and radiators.
          Each auto trailed a string of three horses of beautiful proportions.
          The tops were down, and each Ford carried a complement of three soldiers, two in front and one in the tonneau, the latter almost lost in a mound of baggage.
          Hanging from the radiator cap of each vehicle was a feed bag, from the mouth of which protruded the neck of a whiskey bottle. 
          To the right-hand upright of each windshield, a white polo mallet was lashed like a flag standard.  To its end was tied, in lieu of a guidon, a pair of lady’s bloomers.
          “Thunder and damnation,” said Stanley Dinkle.
   

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