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Mexican Border
by Herbert W. congdon
Taken from Chapter XXXIV of his unpublished Memoir.

The National Guard of New York, and other States, was alerted early in 1916. As I look back, I am amazed at the perfection of the organization, in New York State at any rate, that brought a large citizen-army into a preparedness for whatever trouble was ahead. Our Battalion adjutant called the Company commanders, his Sergeant-major the First Sergeants. I called my lieutenants. My First Sergeant called my line-sergeants, who called their squad leaders and they called their men. It was as smooth as silk.

I ate a hasty breakfast and hurried out to the Armory, finding men pouring in. Barring brief leaves to go home and get what was needed in the way of clothing other than their uniforms, and to notify their businesses, we were to live in the Armory until we were ready to entrain. This took a couple of days, so we ate and slept there. Those who had adequate excuses to stay home were given honorable discharges as were the men who could not pass the physical tests which were given to every officer and man, and were rigorous, were also discharged. All who were accepted were given anti-typhoid shots for they remembered the havoc spread by that disease at the time of the Spanish-American War. It was grim, but business-like and there was a lot of preparatory work to be done and plenty of men to do it. Visitors were barred. We were too busy to be bothered by them.

The days flew by so I cannot remember how many, before we marched down to the ferries that took us to the waiting trains. Our vehicles were put on flat cars, a baggage car in each train was fitted up as a kitchen, the enlisted men were in coaches and the officers in Pullman sleeping cars --- both of ancient vintage and shabbiness. We were to run on "freight train" schedule which meant very leisurely speed and giving way to all fast traffic. That meant taking sidings that were long enough to contain us and consequent long waits for the other trains to pass us. Mostly, the train was made up by companies, the men in the passenger car with the officers immediately behind and our designations chalked on the outside of the cars. They used what we might call skeleton crews. That meant that our men had to do all the daily cleaning up of the cars but we did have an ancient porter who made up our bunks, in our sleeping car. The men sat up to sleep!

At the time of the Spanish-American War our 23d and New York's 7th were kept as a "home guard" and for years afterwards our Regiment was hissed in some parts of Brooklyn for having been "cowards" whereas we were kept home because we were VERY valuable troops. This time, as we marched down through the Brooklyn residential section, it was to the accompaniment of cheers. When we were halted for the requisite rest, we took off our blanket rolls and sat or lay in the street for the few minutes needed. It was a very different send-off than any we had expected! We bore that in mind as our train began to move, and we began to realize the gravity of all that lay ahead of us, for an indeterminate period.

I slept fairly well, despite the fact that I had never had any sort of experience with my two lieutenants other than drills in the armory. That shows little of how a man may stand up under new conditions. My 1st Lieutenant, Foote, was a placid and dependable man, but far from brilliant. When he and his brother were both Privates, they were known as "Right" and "Left", for rather obvious reasons --- Left, staying a private, was a school teacher, brilliant and temperamental, always talking about when he could get out, which he did as soon as his term was up. His stolid brothers became Corporal, Sergeant and Second Lieutenant, so when I went up and he took my place as First Lieutenant, he had a good deal of experience behind him. Edmunds was different. Popular and talkative, but a light-weight --- and as it turned out in later years, long after we had both gotten out of the military, without sound principles. Fortunately, during the Border service, he did pretty well --- but needed prodding.

But I woke up every time the train stopped for a siding, and again after it jerked into a start. Once, however, I was wakened from a sound sleep by loud shouts from Edmunds, who was in the upper bunk, over me. I woke, turned on my berth-light, and saw a long hairy leg drooping into my bunk space, as its owner called in an agonized and terrified voice "The Guard! Turn out the Guard!" I grabbed the foot, shoved it up and sternly said "Be quiet. It's all right." Meekly he answered "Yes Sir" and subsided. Next morning there was a good deal of gentle teasing! As far as disturbances, that was the only one during our journey.

We stuck to the regular routine of "Reveille" and "Taps" but no bugles were used! With us in the officers' sleeper, the Adjutant "who bunked with the Colonel in the State Room (!)" just made the announcement and as most of us were bored at the inaction, none had an urge to sit up --- and getting up, another day nearer our intriguing new experiences, we were glad enough to get up. Meals were brought in to us from the cook car forward --- tin plates and cups, army utensils --- and later the empty dishes were taken away and cared for.

As we began to get into the Middle West we found small crowds at the stations we passed, mostly out in the country where this was an Event. At one place, Ohlwein (I have no record of the State it was in; it may have been Missouri) --- His Honor the Mayor, in a big automobile, made us a speech of Welcome. Their railroad station had a sort of island platform, our train on one side and on the other a baggage car, gaily decorated with flags, where we were served ice cream cones in unlimited quantity. It was much appreciated.

Obviously, it was difficult for us to get properly bathed on the train --- a "cat-wash" seemed the only thing possible. Somebody had the bright idea of arranging for the long train to stop as it crossed a shallow lake, with never a house in sight. Protected by the railroad flagmen, before and behind, the stop was long enough for the men, stripped, to go in for a wash and brief swim which was greatly appreciated. I hope it was not the reservoir for some town's water supply! When on another siding, I went forward, ahead of the train, and photographed our locomotive which had American flags stuck in the holders above the cowcatcher in place of the usual white flags that denote a "special" train. On another time I walked 'way back through the moving train to the caboose at the rear (freight-train style) and made a picture of the long train as we rounded a curve. This was after we had got into Oklahoma, new country for me. I was interested to note the low rolling hills, the very rich farm and grass land, and the patches of trees, generally used as windbreaks around their homes. Once, our engineer finding that I was interested (nobody else seemed to have any desire to be friendly) asked me to come up into the cab and stay until we came to our next long wait on a siding. I was delighted, and as both engineer and fireman were friendly, glad to explain things, I had a very good time and thanked them profusely when I left for my own place.

At last we crossed into Texas. It did not impress me at all favorably --- too different from New England? The land looked poor and was drearily flat. The few little villages we passed were a shabby lot, with flimsy houses and stores on inordinately wide, dusty roads. It looked poverty-struck and utterly lacking in the smallest amount of Romance. But at last we pulled into Pharr, which was our destination, and a far more prosperous little village with neat buildings, some of them almost handsome in their way. All very modern. It was hot --- but later I found that they were enjoying a spell of what they called "cool weather". Later on, I found that this was unhappily true, and that the normal rainless heat was far from agreeable, until we got used to it, more or less.

A detail was set to work unloading our wagons from the flatcars while the rest of us detrained with all our stuff, formed as Companies and marched to our camp where we were to live for many months. The US Army Engineers had staked out all the camps, marking tent locations for everything, even digging latrines and putting up board partitions around them, with roofs over. It was a fine job. Shortly the wagons came beating our tentage and hauled by a lot of "critters" provided by the Army, which we were to care for on a picket-line, also duly marked out. The Camp rose like magic. Everything seemed to have been provided by the Army for us to use, field stoves, mesquite-wood fuel, big bags for chlorinated drinking water, everything but wooden tentfloors which came later on after they were sure how many were needed --- only the Officers' tents had them at the start.

I admit that my detailed memories of Mexican Border life were limited but I have TWO sets (why two, I wonder?) of pictures that I took, mostly, with that excellent camera I had won as a prize for rifle shooting! Probably I had them developed locally, sending one set, serially, back to Father. Incidentally, I tried not to think of him too much. He was over 81, and in the care of our housekeeper as far as that went, going over to the Office every day. Luckily perhaps, our architectural practice was practically dead and we had one draftsman to look after things. The Tubbys looked after him on weekends, somewhat. Father had not offered the slightest protest when I was retained at the time of the physical exams. He had left HIS parents and home with the 7th. in Civil War days.

I have always felt that I was doing my duty, even if it was far from a pleasant one. He wrote me regularly, but they were not a bit newsy or at least I do not remember them. The Tubbys must have done more looking after him than I realized at the time, for I see that one set of these photographs was addressed to Father at our 18 Broadway office by Jo Tubby, and is postmarked October 11, 1916 so I imagine that Father had taken the lot of them out to Westfield when spending a weekend with them, and they had sent them back to him by mail.

I regret that I did not DATE these pictures. The titles do not always bring clear memory-pictures that would connect with the photographs. I do note in the few portraits of myself, presumably taken for me by one of my lieutenants, show rather amusing changes in what are politely called "hirsute adornments". One shows me clean-shaven, sitting cross-legged on the bank of the Rio Grande apparently, enjoying a sandwich. The next, taken inside my tent, shows me without any moustache but with a most repulsive smirk. I am seated at my desk. The tent has been closed In, as it was after we had been down there for some months. It had a screen door as well as a means of closing the screen light-tight, and was furnished with an excellent desk with shelves above it. What puzzles me completely is that it also shows, hung on the front wall, my double-barreled Francotte shot gun, with cleaning rod, a box of shotgun cartridges and the usual oil etc. for protection. I know there was plenty of game thereabouts, but WHEN would I have time to go shooting, and how and when did I get my shotgun from home?

There other things about these portraits that annoy me more than they puzzle me. Perhaps I may charitably think that it was the general aura of "The Mauve Decade" --but wearing a seal-ring when on active service would surely be considered improper today. What is worse, I remember only too well that after I received my commission as Captain of Brooklyn's fashionable Company A, I introduced the fashion of dressing for dinner (Tuxedo, black tie and vest, white starched shirt) every night and went up to the Armory clad that way! The other officers had a long tradition of hiring a colored man to do valet service for them helping them out of civilians and into uniform! In the Regular Army an enlisted man, of course a Private, was detailed as "striker" for this duty! Our man wore a sort of livery that could not be mistaken for uniform and he was an exceedingly black negro. "Edward" obtained another one to go down to The Border for us, a skilled cook. We kept both until we could manage an enlisted cook --- I was the only man in our entire Company who had advanced in that skill beyond making toast! I remember, in those early days when we whites were tanning to a deep Texas brown, commenting to Edward that I never had known that exposure to sunshine could make him DARKER! He flashed a shining smile to me as he pushed his sleeve up to show that I was correct. Apparently it pleased him! "Oh yassr!"

Of necessity, we shook down rapidly into military life and the extended guard duty along the banks of the Rio Grande. It was a long line, from somewhere up towards New Mexico down to the mouth of the river, where it entered the Gulf. There were a few bridges, with Custom Houses of the two nations at either end, and immigration offices to take care of those who wanted to come over, either for a new life or for a temporary harvest-job. We had a small guard of Regular Army men at our ends of these bridges; there was none in our Sector however.

The Rio Grande is very different from any river I had seen before. It runs through arid country, very tortuously, cutting its clay-and-sand banks on the occasions when it is in flood, but in that climate, it is not often. It is tapped by irrigation canals at a number of places (probably on both sides) and these highbanked canals spread quite far back, bringing water to rich soil that otherwise grows nothing but cactus, Spanish-bayonet and such scrub as mesquite --- which we used for fuel in our cook-stoves. As we settled down and improved our camp, we dug fairly deep pits with earth roof and wooden doors, where we stored ice, artificial ice plants being scattered all along the railroad. Each Company also had a neat wood-pile --- sometimes a source of huge and loathsome tarantulas which we dispatched with the handy ax. All the soil is mineralized heavily, and the mixture of clay and sand is all but waterproof as we realized when we had a heavy rain, a regular cloudburst with terrific lightning and thunder --- the first rain, we were told, in five years. Naturally the small children were wild with enthusiasm, splashing and paddling, sliding on the slippery mud and in general making a high holiday of it. For us it was all but a disaster! Some of our company streets were flooded out. All of us had to wade as we went about our duties. We did not rejoice.

We had inherited from the Regular Army the line of outposts and outguards that we were to man. We did a little in the way of improving them --- perhaps repairing is a better word. The Rio seeps underground for an amazingly long width on each side, so immediately next to the river, on our side at least, there is a strip of woods --- forest almost --- and the Mexicans who tilled the land, on our side at least, built their crude homes in these woods in order to enjoy there grateful shade. On the landward side was a wider strip of farmland, some of it still in use, but the huts built out in the open as a slight defence against the murderous, thieving raids that had been their lot before the Army took over. THEY had built regular blockhouses, with more or less bullet-proof walls loopholed, etc., and between these "strong points" small almost circular guard-posts, big enough for a squad, the wattle drums filled with clay. Now that the raids were all over we put up tents, from which small groups were sent out on the usual guard periods to man the earthworks on the high banks of the Rio. These were spaced about 500 yards apart, and while nearly hidden, at least from the other side of the Rio, had a clear view in a series of overlapping arcs --- each could see almost half of the flanking squads view of the Other Side. A raid by the Mexicans would have been an absurdity --- and they knew it. All we ever saw were a few peons, maybe watering their cattle, maybe weeding a crop.

It was part of my duty to inspect this part of our Company both in daytime and at night. I do not remember how this tied in with my duties back at the main camp. I know I got Plenty of exercise!

I had a couple of interesting experiences on these trips. My route to the main guard was plain enough -- practically a road. Being challenged there was routine. But in going down to the scattered posts along the Rio I tried, always, day or night, to take a different route, just to see how alert they were. Of course as I got within hearing it was a matter of tippy-toes; but they always did hear me and challenged as I had hoped they would.

Several times I had passed a deserted house that was a good deal better built than the usual peon's farm home; it had a much more prosperous appearance, with its shingled roof, railed piazza and a fairly good little barn alongside. It gave me the feeling that it was not abandoned, but the owner was away for a few days. As time went on, I noted the vines and mould;, and opposite the house a big live-oak tree, which had a cross rudely cut in its bark. With lively curiosity and a little time to spare, one day I went up the steps to the piazza, noting the little gate that if closed would keep a small child in. I saw the front door, and the windows, curtains drawn, and decided I would try the door and go in. There, a scene of confusion met my eye. The table was still set with the remains of a meal, all mouldy. Chairs were overturned and smashed, signs of a struggle everywhere, and on a bare spot of the floor a large dark stain, apparently blood. Who? When? What was the connection with the cross hacked in the bark of the tree? Did its horizontal limb have a grimmer use than for a child's swing? I never was able to find answers to my questions, but I had a good idea that the "wild" cattle that were in the neighborhood were a part of the story.

On another trip I was informed that at the changing of the riverguard on the previous night the sergeant, bringing back a corporal and four men had got lost, and did not reach the support post until dawn. It was not a long trip, the night was moonless, to be sure, but the brilliant starlight, with the familiar path should not have been a good reason for getting lost. Lacking a compass, they might steer by the stars --- but not a man Jack had the faintest idea of the stars, or what to do if you were ALMOST lost. I commended them for just settling down for the rest of the night but no sergeant should let such a thing happen. I demoted him then and there.

I learned via the grapevine that some thought I had been too severe. So I talked to the Support group, stressing that EVERY man, not only a Sergeant, should notice everything about him as he roved, so he could retrace his steps. That when going on the path at night he should note the location of prominent stars. I showed them how to find the North Star which could be as useful to them as a compass, and ended by saying I would take the relief down and bring the others back, with the "busted" Sergeant to come with me as observer. So far, so good.

The path was not too obscure. I stopped every now and then to show them how to orient themselves, how to note "landmarks" of trees and the like, urging them to use their eyes, constantly. All went well until we reached that "haunted house", when all at once, apparently everywhere around us black shapes arose! I admit my hair stood on and, but I said "That's the little herd of wild cattle. Just move quietly and they'll get out of our way. They are scared, but if we move slowly and quietly they will open up and let us by". It worked. Then I said "Now which way do we go?" The demoted Sergeant kept quiet. The Sergeant in charge was sure of himself, and pointed "The outpost trench is just about that way." The Corporal and most of the men agreed. So, as the North Star could not be seen but the Pleiades were in plain sight, I said to use that as a reference point, and keeping it about 45 degrees to our left, we would be near enough to the correct route. Time passed, as we worked our way down, getting occasional glimpses of our guiding constellation. The "busted Sergeant" began to look snooty, apparently sure that I had lost them. All at once we were challenged! There we were, right on the button. Back we went with the relieved men, and I continued back to Camp and my bed, which felt very good. Later grape-vine reports were that "the Captain was dead right", an opinion colored a bit I am afraid by the fact that said quondam-sergeant was greatly disliked which I had not known before!

Of course we posted a Regimental Guard. Lacking a band, we managed to form a fife-and-drum corps which was used for the weekly FORMAL Guard Mount but usually the Guard was changed informally. We had too much to do for fuss-and-feathers, and after all, the guard along the banks of the Rio was the real thing ---- what we were in Texas for. This interior guard had little to do. If we got a visit from the Major General, who made careful inspections about every six weeks, of EVERYTHING, from the Paymaster's records to potato bins in the Company quarters, oh, IF, we had to Turn Out the Guard with all the fancywork, the fifes "sounding off" the appropriate squeals, different for each rank of Honorables, the General always wanted the full honors. No "Never mind the Guard" from him! Sorry --- I always disliked that man.

One time when I was Officer of the Day I was shaken awake in my tent by one of the guard. "Compliments of the Officer of the Guard, Sir, and would the Captain come to the Guard tent at once?" As I was napping, fully dressed, I could and did and soon found out why my messenger was chuckling and the Lieutenant wanted me, pronto.

Our Regiment was the extreme left of the New York Division. Next to us was a Brigade from the South somewhere, its right Regiment at the prescribed distance, not very great, from our left. It was calm, brilliant moonlight night and our sentry was enjoying it as he paced his post. Suddenly, he heard a yell from our left, and there, a stark naked man, brandishing a bayonet, was running towards him, uttering yells and as well as could be understood, yearning for the blood of a damyankee. The Sentry shouted "The Guard, number eight" --- or whatever the number of his Post and met the menacing figure with a neat thump on the chest and blow under the chin, from the butt of his rifle. His enemy dropped, quite knocked out. The Guard arrived, a squad under a Corporal, commended the sentry and between them dragged the stranger off to the Guard-tent. The officer ordered him tied to a cot and a sponge wet in cold water to be used as a restorative. The man "came to" as I arrived, and I went over to question him. He was regaining consciousness and with the aid of some strong coffee getting his senses-back, too. I found a terribly embarrassed, repentant Southerner, anxious to apologize and explain. "Cap'n" he said, in a fine Southern drawl, "I've been a drinkin' man since I wuz seven yeahs old but I ain't never had any likker like this. I got some o' this Mexican pulque, and didn't have much, but Cap'n, I shore do believe that if a Rabbit drank a teaspoonful of it, he'd spit in a Haound's eye."

We communicated with his Regiment and they sent for him, with a stretcher and a blanket to cover his nakedness. And that was all. No official notice was taken of the incident, but none of our men did any experimenting with the local "likker".

We went into the northerly desert, as a Regiment, for two or three "practice marches", complete with advance and rear guards, flankers, and all the rest, and bivouacs en route --- always carrying our own drinking water in tank-wagons, for there was no local water. It was real desert, with desert plants, and all we needed for our sustenance carried by pack-train or wagon-train. Our mounted officers were the lucky guys. Foot soldiers had it hard, but we got out and back every time with no unpleasant experiences of an unexpected sort.

We also had a few close-order drills, apparently just to keep the officers from forgetting what we had been doing back home in the Armory. Again, for practice, we all had a chance at higher rank duties. I found that drilling a Battalion outdoors was by no means easy. You had to use a carrying-voice and give orders slowly. Our non-coms also had their chances to drill the Companies to which they belonged, the officers standing by and taking notes to pass on criticisms to them, later. Good idea.

Sundays were mostly days of rest --- and some of us were glad to do just that. Our Chaplain had come down, not with us, but a few days later when his tent would be all ready for him. He was the Pastor of a large and fashionable Protestant Church --- not on Brooklyn Heights --- and he was rather like a fish out of water, not being accustomed to our rugged life and indeed, I think, any other sort of outdoor life. Attendance at his one Sunday service was, of course, voluntary. The bugler would sound "Church Call" from the headquarters tent, and our 1st Sergeants would march the men to the designated place where they formed two sides of a hollow square, his position being marked by an orderly with a small "church flag". The officers who wanted to attend the service gathered, behind him, on the open side of the half-square . He mounted an ammunition box, and gave us a brief service beginning with a prayer, then a short sermon. Not good at remembering, I do not now know whether he spoke to the point or not. I do remember that when he went with us on one of the test marches, he was mounted on a very depressed looking horse, and over his right shoulder a curious thing wrapped in canvas that looked very much like a shot-gun! Fortunately for all, his ghostly counsel and spiritual comfort was not needed. A few weeks later, his parish asked for his honorable discharge, and his return to Brooklyn. For the rest of our tour we had no chaplain of any sort and managed to get along, short-handed on that side of life. I wonder now, if Gen. O'Ryan (I would guess by his name, R.C.) had one on his staff?

I think we were a little disgruntled to have our routine interrupted by a Division Review up at Headquarters, ten miles off at McAllen. It was for a Congressman. That added nothing to our enthusiasm for it meant a long march, in full marching order but without wagon-train, and of course in the middle of the day and the heat when the Natives were wise enough to take a siesta. In these later years, when I have found out more about New York's "Little Flower", Fiorella La Guardia, I can "put two and two together" and suspect that Gen. O'Ryan needed help, and got it from this man. A month or so later, our camps were to be very greatly improved. Officers' and men's tents had wooden walls added, the old Mess Tents were replaced by inexpensive but far better wooden structures, and so on. But we went on an all-day march in considerable discomfort and I am sure, made a fine display of our marching and discipline.

Here is what I have found out about La Guardia, from the encyclopedia. His father was a bandmaster in the Regular Army and his childhood was spent in Arizona, New Mexico, and other States of similar climate and characteristics to ours. He was Deputy Attorney General, of New York State and a newly elected Congressman at the time of this review. Later, when we went into the World War, he tried to get in the army but was rejected on account of his short stature --- but the Air Force was glad to get him for the same reason. He served in it as a combat pilot, with rank of Major, to the end of the war --- when he returned to Congress, where he served for a number of years, leaving to become an admirable Reform Mayor of New York, backed up by the decent people. The best thing about his mayoralty was the proof that good government depended on honest voters participating in elections instead of taking Election Day as a holiday in which there was no time to go to the polls.

Our new mess-shacks went up quickly enough, with soldiers as carpenters. They were a blessing for off-duty hours. Each company discovered that --- and for their nominal purpose, a place in which to eat comfortably and much as they did at home, they did a great deal to foster contentment with the present. They served other purposes, too. When Election Day rolled around each Company had its registration officials --- new voters were sworn in, old ones verified. The actual voting booths were in the mess Shacks, where each Voter prepared his enormous ballot. I have never seen one like it, before or since. I have a snapshot that shows me holding this 8-foot ballot (about four or five inches wide) which presumably I have marked. Ballots were deposited in a sealed box, at my tent, and when the Polls closed, the box was taken to Headquarters, where the suitable officials did the counting and reporting to the Near York State Board of Elections. It is one of the oddities of United States law that citizen-soldiers may and should vote, but the entire Regular Army personnel is disfranchised. It is a protection against the Military Dictatorships that plague the South American countries. Probably a Good Thing. What we were voting for, and for whom, I have completely forgotten. Well, it gave us a holiday which did no harm.

I do not know if the other Company commanders had Schools for Non-commissioned Officers, or, if they did, what they taught. In our former Officers' Schools back in Brooklyn, I had realized that the other officers had troubles with "scale" which to me, as an architect, was kindergarten stuff. Maybe. Making maps was even more of a mystery to them, but somehow, somewhere, I have forgotten now, I had learned the plane-table method, and judging by one of my Border snapshots, had acquired a simple, sketch-pattern, planetable with the simplest of alidades [a rule for measuring degrees]. The real thing as used by the U.S. Geological Survey men, has a telescope (with cross hairs) mounted on the ruler bearing the scale [of degrees], by which the pencil is guided in drawing the line of the proper length, determined by pacing (if approximate) or by more accurate means of measuring length. The type of alidade shown in the picture, is merely a short piece of hardwood, triangular in cross section, scales marked on its sides. The sight is taken over the length of the apex of the ruler. The drawing-board has a small magnetic compass inserted in a recess in an out-of-the-way corner, which orients the survey and the resulting map. This board, resting on the top of the tripod (similar to that uses for photographic cameras) is level. This outfit is of little use for making contour maps. I do not know whether this was Government Issue or one that I had bought. It looks exactly like the one I still have here at home with which I mapped a lot of The Long Trail of the Green Mountain Club in later years. Nor do I remember whether this was a project I devised for my own non-coms, or was part of a regimental plan.

These snapshots are confusing in several ways, for they are visible proofs of my activities down on the Mexican Border of which like the map-making, I have no recollection at all. One, evidently taken at one of our outposts down by the river, shows two men, one with a fox-terrier puppy, the other with an odd-looking kitten; the penciled label on the back, in my handwriting, says "wildcat kitten" and I know that along the river there were some of that southern variety that is much smaller than ours here in Vermont.

Then there is another record, a pair of snapshots. One, evidently made by me, shows Charlie Ulrichs, then a Lieutenant on our Regimental staff, alongside a clump of cactus and Spanish bayonet, holding an intrenching shovel. Next, shows me, same place, same tool. Why? Incidentally, I am moustached, and wearing the glasses I got against glare and wind; plain lenses slightly tinted, and the frame of fine wire-gauze to protect me from the dust when we were marching. I look amazingly scrawny.

Another picture reminds me of the kindness of the Company A Veteran Association, which provided us with a medicine kit of ample size, for use when we were outposts and far from medical aid, or for my use in treating minor disorders, cuts, sunburn, or "ate too much" just as a parent might look after a child for disorders too minor for a physician. It was really very useful.

There are a good many pictures taken from the various outposts along the Rio, showing that sullen and repulsive river. One or two of our outposts were close enough to a sandy beach so the men could draw water for washing dishes. Parts were very dangerous, due to quicksands. We were warned not to go too close to the edge of the water unless it was coarse sand --- there is no gravel in that part of the river --- and never to wade out at all. On one of my trips to our outposts I was told a grisly tale of what they had seen. One of the "wild cattle", poor things that had once belonged to murdered families, was seen to wade out a little way, then try to wheel as it felt itself sinking. It could not. It sank deeper and deeper, struggling, and finally sank from sight. That tale spread quickly and there was no experimenting by our men!

Election Day had passed, Thanksgiving Day was approaching. We had managed, so far, to live on the Government ration allowance. It was a scanty one, but if exceeded, the Captain had to pay the balance. I watched things closely, as the other Captains did. Of course, there was some money to be had as gifts. We raised a little and our Veterans back home sent down a check, and one fine day I set off with a couple of men in one of the regimental wagons that we had borrowed, for a grape-fruit orchard up towards McAllen. We found it and met the proprietor, and to our disgust, he was "on the make". We were to pick the fruit ourselves, under his eye, which saved him using one of his underpaid peons, and we were to pay 50 cents apiece for what we took. I figured we needed thirty. So I had to shell out $15 to the greedy and unpatriotic Texan. Despite this drain on our scanty funds, we managed a pretty good dinner, with a half grapefruit each as a starter. They were GOOD but back home they were selling at about six for $.50, and had not only a freight bill back of them, but labor costs AND profits for shipper, wholesaler and retailer as well as the grower! Well, it is probably true that fruit growing is a gamble. Texans don't have frosts as a risk, and in most cases drought does not worry them as the land is irrigated from the unfailing Rio.

That brings up Finances. I do not remember whether we were paid once a month, but I think that was their aim. The scale was small in those days. Privates got $1 a day and the scale rose with rank. If I remember aright, I got a straight $200 a month. Out of that I had to pay for my food and all my uniforms as well as side-arms. The men, with a sliding scale of pay, got their food ($1 a day), their weapons and all their clothing. Both officers and men got "fogies", or long-service additional pay. I lost mine when I got my commission! Payment was quite a ceremony. The Paymaster had sent word to the Regiments in advance; he stopped in at each Company of our Regiments, where we presented him with our roster, showing name rank and "fogies" if any. He checked that against HIS list which our Headquarters had sent him previously. Then he began to shell out, seated at his table in the Company street, a sentry alongside. All pay was in coin. No paper money. Officers were paid in gold, and Boy! Did It look big? Double-eagles are $10 and there was a batch of them big as a 50 cent piece, then the smaller Eagles, $5 and by the time I had pocketed my pay I had quite a list to port. Even Privates, with thirty big cartwheel silver dollars, bulged. So, for a while there was an air of Prosperity around the. Company street. I had opened a checking account at the local bank, and some of the men did likewise. There was little we could spend money on, for there was no movie-house In the little village of Pharr, and the hotel-restaurant did not serve any food better than our own Mess --- which If simple, was good. There was no drinking in our Company that I knew about. Certainly, none of the men got "the worse for Liquor". The old Co. A spirit was strong, and public opinion, as usual, was stronger than rules!

It was all too good to last. One morning I woke up feeling like the Wrath to Come, and turning the Company and my duties over to trustworthy Lieut. Foote, betook myself to our Surgeon, after his morning Sick Call was over. He took my temperature --- I had a high fever and was feeling progressively worse, took the necessary steps and the next thing I know, I was in an ambulance and on the way to the Hospital in McAllen, for we had only an infirmary, with no nurses. I believe that I was delirious for a while, and when I "came to" found myself in a cot, a male nurse (greatly overworked) to look after me --- us --- and in the corner of a small "ward" mostly for officers. On my left was a sort of wall of wire mosquito netting. The other side of it was an enlisted man, also delirious, and I understand had yellow fever --- which did not comfort me. I believe, however, that it was only a case of jaundice! On my right, when I began to take notice, was a Major, a surgeon in one of the regiments who had a broken bone so he was very chatty and also in a position to be encouraging, and told me what it was thought was the trouble with me --- "breakbone" fever, or dengue [the Spanish term, pronounced "den-ga"] as it was called locally --- but as he acknowledged, none of the staff was well equipped to diagnose "these semi-tropical diseases". [Dengue, break-bone, dandy fever: a mosquito borne, semi-tropical, infectious disease, often near water. Has severe pains in the joints and muscles. After a few days a crisis is reached and after an interval of 2-3 days the fever and aches return to a lesser degree, with an eruption like measles. It is rarely fatal except in the aged or infirm. It is usually epidemic, sometimes pandemic and in some areas almost endemic.]

I found the Major a very entertaining companion, ready to talk when I was awake and restless, ready to nap when I felt that way. I did NOT find the food pleasant. After several days of liquid diet what was my horror to have the orderly bring me a well filled plate of corned beef and cabbage --- the latter cooked In the old way, until it was rags, repulsive in odor, taste and appearance! No tea. Drinking water strongly chlorinated. Coffee weak as dish water. My enthusiasm for food and drink was not great. The only bright spot was talks with the Major.

I seem to remember that he was on the faculty of Columbia's "P & S", College of Physicians and Surgeons, where he was doing research, as well as on the staff of New York's largest hospital. His research, about which he was very enthusiastic, was on the new work of transplanting bones, or parts of bones, to repair large damages to the patient's skeletal structure. I found him very, very interesting; ready to answer questions and discuss matters that may have been well over my head --- but he seemed to find my questions intelligent! He left the hospital a day or two before I was taken back to my Company. There I was put on resident sick-leave, and having found a most attractive small plantation, with a spare room in the house, I went there to rest up and get back on my feet gradually. It was then that my shot-gun was a blessing, as I was able to go out and shoot quail, which were numerous, and a most welcome addition to my hostess' menu. They were pleasant folks; the man was a Harvard graduate, and my stay there was a delightful interlude.

Getting back to my Company, I found myself far from strong, and after a few days of trying to do my duty, the Regimental Surgeon advised our HQ to send me home on sick leave for a month. I think this was because the Division was planning extensive maneuvers inland, leaving enough troops behind to maintain the River guard, but a small skeleton force only in the regimental camps. In other words, my absence was better than my company!

The trip back was a lot quicker and pleasanter than that on the way drawn. Naturally, Father was glad to get me back, even if work in the Office was practically at a standstill. As I was still "in", it seemed proper for me to stay in uniform, according to the custom of the time. I did get out of the olive-drab for Sundays, going to church in dress uniform, blues, but not causing any perceptible flutter. I have not the faintest memory of what I did all day nor for how long I was there until I was notified that the 23d. was ordered back to Brooklyn and that I might join it anywhere in New York State that I found convenient. I managed to catch our train In Utica, thanks to the co-operation of the Station-Master who was able to give me a close approximation of its arrival-time. When I boarded the train I got a hearty welcome --- it was a great surprise to them to see me, as they expected to find me waiting at the Armory! Instead, I was at the head of my Company when the Regiment was marching back to the Bedford Avenue "home", through cheering crowds, greeting "Ours". A somewhat fickle public! Everyone was given a twenty-four hours leave that wanted it. Most did. Then we re-assembled in the Armory for another raking over in preparation for an indeterminate tour of camp duty and training for overseas duty. This was a more leisurely affair than the gathering before we went down to the Border. I was transferred to the Reserve, as too old for overseas duty! A hoary-headed 40-year-old! Probably my recent physical condition was also taken into account. That, as far as I was concerned at that time, meant civilian life again for nobody knew how long.

After a little the Regiment was sent to camp, and the slow attrition and disappearance of the old 23d. began. Those who had said of us that we were "Invincible in Peace, Invisible in war" were not jeering. They were completely realistic in their appraisal of war conditions. West Point just could not produce enough officers for a large army. They would have to come from the best trained National Guard units. Every non-com that I had in my company down on the Border was given a commission in the new regiments that were being formed, and some of my better Privates, and even our Cook, got lieutenancies! Many of our older officers were retired to the Reserve "for age". I was one of the younger ones who stayed back in the Reserve. Wilson had tried to "keep us out of War" but the wise ones down in Washington saw that it was inevitable, and when the United States declared war in April, 1917, it meant building an army rapidly. Privates in the better National Guard regiments were used as non-commissioned officers of ranks according to their ability, mostly in their branch of the service. The new Army had to be formed quickly, and the Draft was getting young men by the hundred. There were also many volunteers.

The Regular Army was reorganized, an infantry company being increased from 50 to 150 enlisted men. Such an increase was not easy to absorb, especially as some of their higher officers had to be transferred to commands in the new citizen-army, AUS, the Army of the United States, instead of the old name for the Regulars, USA, United States Army. Volunteers and drafted man were divided between these two main groups. Volunteering was undoubtedly increased by a music-hall song that swept the country: -
"He don't belong to the Regulars,
He's only a Volunteer . . "
Whether the deprecating reference to a "volunteer" had any real effect nobody knows. Lots of men ENLISTED, instead of waiting for the Draft.

The men who had been drafted but not yet called up were a bit of a problem until the New York National Guard top brass formed a "Provisional Battalion" to be organized at the Peekskill State Camp for training these men so when they were called up and assigned to one or the other Army, they would not be RAW recruits, but men with sufficient training to be used as squad-leaders at least. I was assigned, as a Reserve Infantry Captain, to head such a Company. I do not remember that they could spare a Lieutenant for me. It was an enlargement of my old experience as a Corporal with a squad of ignorant men. This was a lot more men, and they were not only far from ignorant, but they were eager to learn, to a degree that was unusual and exhilarating. I was ready to give of my best. I do not think that any of my fellow officers had been down on the Border, and I found them amazingly do-less.

An example of this utter disregard of their men was when I had batch of a dozen new men delivered to me. It was while we were waiting for Mess Call, and I went over to the Quartermaster's big store tent immediately, to find him just closing up, not to reopen until the next morning. I had brought four of my men with me, and asked the officer in charge for a dozen blankets for my new men. "Oh my dear Sir" said I, "these men are new ones, just arrived. Of course we can wait until tomorrow to outfit them with uniforms and so on, but these May nights are cold, and I want to get blankets for them so they may sleep." He thought the idea was silly, and said so. Being of equal rank all I could do was to be very firm indeed, insisting on the issue. Reluctantly, he turned to his waiting man and said "Issue what the Captain wants" and walked away, evidently indignant. I got them. My men took them to our tents which had cots all set up and issued them to our new recruits. I directed the "head squad leader" to march them to mess when the call blew and see that they were fed. I am sure that the tale was spread in my "provisional company" for all of them were even more eager to obey than they had been. Greenhorns got a lot of dope from their more experienced comrades.

There were other incidents, perhaps worth recording. One night I was wakened by one of my men, bringing one of the recruits who was in great pain from a "jumping toothache", for he know I had my little medicine-kit, received from Company A. Turning on my light, I had him sit on my cot as I explored. He had a huge hole in a neglected molar. I got a little wad of sterile cotton on the end of the forceps, dipped it into a little iodine, and pushed it in the gaping hole, plugging it with some plain cotton. To my horror the man collapsed in a dead faint! They carried him back to his cot, made him comfortable, and the next morning I turned him in to the camp infirmary, who sent him down to Peekskill to a proper dentist. Anyhow, I meant well.

Our morning drills were rather elementary, but as my group progressed I gave some training in minor tactics to those who in another organization would have been non-coms. Finally, we had progressed so I might have some Tactical Problems --- pleasant in that beautiful country, and excellent from the instruction they got, both in concealment from enemies and small-unit actions. On one occasion, a blistering hot day, an orderly rode up as we were doing a bit of discussion, saluted and said "The Colonel's compliments, and as it is so hot you may return to camp". Message delivered, he rode off. Some of the men heard, and begged that we continue for "we're hot and sweaty already and we want to go on with the problem." We did, very satisfactorily, and marched back at the usual time.

I had hardly got into my tent before an orderly appeared, with the message that I was to come to the Colonel's tent at once. On my arrival, he called me into the tent and wanted to know what I meant by a flagrant disobedience of his orders? I told him of the situation, that I was faced with a threatened mutiny at the idea of abandoning their instruction, and that with that in view, I considered that his message "You MAY return .... " was a permission to terminate the day's scheduled instruction, not an order. I figured that he was one of the old-style dugouts who had not the faintest idea of field service or war tactics but might be swayed by my interpretation of the message. Obviously, he was. He hemmed and hawed a bit, then said "I consider it was flagrant disobedience but as your intentions were good, I shall overlook it." I saluted and went back to mop off and get ready to go to Officers' Mess.

As had about four months duty there, I think, going back to the city after the Declaration of War --- quite a bit after --- and about the time my old Regiment, entirely new from top to bottom, had been installed in our old Armory. So I resumed my Reserve status and began to pick up the threads of civilian life. The 23d. of that intermediate time was strange to me. I did not know a single man there by name or even by sight. Our neat Company Room with its various trophies was a shambles. That Chapter seemed to have come to an end and I began to settle down to the old Brooklyn routine, the old life in our Clinton Street apartment, the old friends like the Tubbys, the Burnhams and enjoying concerts and the like.

My brother Ernest had died, an expatriate, in Kingston, B.W.I. [Jamaica], a melancholy end of what might have been merely a passing sorrow, if today's AA had been in existence. It was a relief, as well as a grief. My job was to make life happier for Father --- if I could and to endeavor to discover ways to increase our dwindling income.

Over all was the shadow of War. It was a difficult time.




New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military History
Last modified: December 10, 2010

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