1878 Shoulder Buddies

(1582 words) The recount of a soldier’s life at Camp Charlotte of West Texas.

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Life is tiring; but at least we get a salary. That was the motto of the regiment at Camp Charlotte.  Their tough roadwork job was secure because no one else at Fort Concho wanted it.  Bram and his fellow soldiers were shortening road lengths and fixing damaged lanes to Head of Middle  Concho.  By straightening curvy routes, the soldiers reduced travel time to the western parts of the district.

Two months of work at Camp Charlotte equated to twenty-six dollars in greenbacks or (because of the exchange rate) twenty dollars in silver coins.  

Private Bram (short for Abram) was from Virginia; his momma was still there awaiting money to travel to Texas. But it wasn’t easy making currency for his momma because he was handicapped.

Recently, Bram’s leg became permanently injured.  He could walk, but he was slow. So his road job lately had been a sitting one.

Lucent, Bram and Roy double jacking

He sat on the ground holding a three foot spike while two privates alternately struck the spike with their sledge hammers. This technique of double jacking, drilled holes in rock for blasting powder.  As he sat, he turned the spike a quarter turn between each hammer punch.  Bram depended on Lucent and Roy (his shoulder buddies) to make contact with the spike; not his hands or wrists.  Many a sitter, such as him had been maimed by blows on a missed target. And Bram needed his hands to make more money for Momma.

Strike. Turn. Strike. Turn.  Road building involved blasting and clearing the routes.  Some say that telegraph lines and roads banished Comanches of West Texas, more than any other military tactic. 

Unfortunately the ten man detail would rather have been back at Fort Concho, building the chapel schoolhouse.  The fort promised more comforts with a town, San Angela across the river.  San Angela and Fort Concho were a good stopping point for Bram.   

When Bram became a soldier there, he teamed up with another private who loved to play pranks on their company.  In the army, the reward for a job well done was more hard work. So during down time, they performed comical tomfooleries to preserve morale. 

For instance, they did the boot switcheroo some nights.  They hid personal items. And once, Bram successfully tricked desperate young recruits into meeting non-existent ladies.

The cook would let them switch blasting powder for pepper and sugar for salt in the mess hall.  

Sometimes cook would give Bram two extra slices of bread to hide in the barracks.  Only Bram would tell the recruits that there were three slices.  It was fun watching them frantically searching for that third fictional prize. 

At Camp Charlotte, fifty miles west of the fort, the pranks were limited to tents and campfires. 

No one could forget the time when Bram used grass roots to form fake spiders to put into bedding.  And once, Bram hollowed out a rotten apple; then enclosed a live grasshopper inside. The wiggly apple became a prop in one of Bram’s comic acts. 

He learned as a child to style dolls from grass stems and roots, as well as string.  He improvised that skill and made tiaras to put on his sleeping friends.  When reveille woke the camp, hilarity ensued upon fellows finding crowns in their hair.  No one felt bullied because morning was the time when everyone felt jealous of the unemployed. And it’s said that laughter is the best medicine.

Bram was good with his hands. Hence he never wanted the sitting job while Lucent and Roy hit the peg. 

Bram would use string and grass to make dolls to sell to men with families outside the fort.  He would weave grass and roots into many other things, too. 

But given a fifteen inch diameter circle of string, he could make Jacob’s ladder, a hammock and cat whiskers.  His workmates were fascinated by the many illusions he could do with twine. 

But sometimes Bram could be shrewd with his cords and his antics.

One evening after stable and mess call, Bram set out to find a mark.  He yelled, “Does anyone want to see some tricks I’ve been practicing?”

Roy was the only taker of the bait, though others gathered to see what Bram had in store.

“How much money do you have to bet, Roy?”

“Maybe I have four bits,” he replied.

“Alright.  Do you mind if I borrow your wedding ring?  I won’t hurt it and I’ll give it back shortly.  I need to do a little bit of practicing on a string trick that I plan on doing at the fort. In the meantime, I’ll make a bet with you and you can probably make some money off my mistakes while I rehearse,” Bram went on.

Bram put up two bits saying that he could successfully remove the ring from the middle of the looped string which was stretched taut between Roy’s index fingers.  Of course, after some crafty maneuvers Bram removed the ring and won Roy’s money.  Transfixed, the company closed in on Bram and Roy near the campfire. 

Lucent in the audience laughed at the blunder. The bookie in Lucent emerged at the opportunity of another trick.  Men started fingering their dimes.

“I need to run through another illusion for back home. It could be a way for you to win your money back because I’m just training myself.  Roy, do you want to try?”

Frustrated Roy nodded. 

Glances within the group were exchanged and Lucent started taking bets.

“See my mug of cold coffee on the rock?”

“Sure,” Roy responded.

“See my hat?   Here, hold my hat.  There’s nothing odd about our military issued hat, right?  So you’re going to bet me two bits to do the trick, right?”

“Yes,” said Roy. 

“Don’t you want to hear what the trick is first?”

“That’s probably a good idea.” Roy rolled his eyes.

“The trick is that if you place my hat over the coffee, I will never touch the hat but will still drink all my coffee.  Yes, I will drink that coffee from the cup without touching the hat.  Go ahead and put my hat over the coffee on the rock. Do you still want to bet me, then?  I bet you two bits I can drink my coffee without touching the hat.”

Roy nodded.

So Bram pantomimed drinking his coffee, and then smiled big. 

“That coffee was good,” emphasized Bram.  

Roy countered, “You didn’t drink the coffee.” 

“Sure I did.”

“No you didn’t.”  

Roy picked up the hat. “See the coffee is still there.”

“You’re right.”  Bram said as he grabbed and drank the coffee quickly.  Can I have your two bits now?  I never did touch the hat.”

Half the men groaned while the others chuckled.

At that point, Bram didn’t pull any more shenanigans.  He didn’t want to press his luck.

In his tent, Bram had a strange dream.  In it, a demon and angel sat on his shoulders. One looked like Lucent and the other like Roy.  Lucent was telling the Aesop’s fable, The Boy and the Filberts

Lucent recited, “As the story goes, a greedy boy was given the opportunity to remove tasty fruit from a narrow necked pitcher.  He put his hand into the pitcher and grabbed as much fruit as he could.  His hand was so full of fruit that he couldn’t remove his hand from the pitcher. But the boy was unwilling to release even one filbert.  So he began to cry.”

Bram remembered the story from his childhood.  But Roy finished the story for him. 

“The boy’s mamma said, ‘Greed leads to trouble.  Do not attempt too much, at once.’ And so the boy released half the filberts and was free of the confines of the pitcher,” said Roy.

Bram didn’t know why he’d had such a dream. 

But the next morning, off to work he went as usual.

The inspections of all of the previous day’s holes revealed no unexploded duds.  So Lucent, Roy and Bram went to the next blasting area while the rubble of yesterday’s boom was spread into road and made into retaining walls.

Strike, turn, strike, turn–and then a near wrist smash–when Roy’s hammer came down wrong.  Fortunately Bram had fast reflexes.  But rhythms and assurances were dampened.  Bram looked up to Roy and saw anger in his face.

“Why’d you have to be so greedy?” Roy asked.  “I lost more than a day’s wage to you last night. And you made me the laughing stock of the camp!”

Bram got up.

“Why do tricks unless I can make myself some money?” he asked. “Do you want me to give your dollar back?”

“Yes, no; sit down.  My pride’s been injured.  But I’ll be alright.”

They continued the work till it was time to fill the holes with blasting powder and feathers.

That night, alone in his tent, Bram counted the money he was saving for his ex-slave momma to get passage to the fort.  They planned for her to be a laundress there.  If they were smart and lucky, someday they would buy some land near the Concho River. 

But success was bittersweet for Bram.  The other soldiers had family members that were ex-slaves, too.  Money was precious to all the privates.  The all black regiment of Buffalo Soldiers would try to make roads.  They would find their way in a privileged white country for decades.  It would take some time.  But that is another story.

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