Old Mack’s Tales

January 13, 2012

Memoir of Old Jack, an Army Mule

Filed under: Short Stories — Ron McKinney aka "OldMack" @ 8:34 am

Call Me Old Jack,

This is how an Army Mule retires: working with cowboys and tourists in the Grand Canyon; this is the watering and rest stop at Indian Gardens, where a young Mack was staying while he worked on the Trans-Canyon Pipeline which supplies the water.

My daddy was a jackass stallion; Momma was a big roan mare.

I was born on Roan Mountain on Black Tuesday in 1929

I’m an old Jack Mule now, who has been most everywhere.

I was born in North Car’lina.  Had it not been for hard times, some called it the Great Depression, I might have spent a lifetime draggin’ stone boats up them hills.  A sawed off mountain lad the local yokels called Mack thought I was his pet, like that yeller hound dog and the old Dominicker chicken that follered him around those mountains.  I follered him too, because he was needy.  And, to tell the truth, I liked to munch on the parched corn the kid always carried in the pockets of his overalls.

Mack was a lightweight, a scrawny kid.  Even when I was just a colt I’d let him ride on my back; I hardly knew he was there.

Mack’s daddy got hard up for cash and had me trucked to Jonesboro, Tennessee.  I thought that was the last I’d see of Mack, but danged if I wasn’t mistaken.  I was sold at auction to a feller from Memphis who bought mules to resell to the U.S. Army.

I was most full grown when the Quartermaster from Fort Reno won the bidding.  From Memphis a bunch of us sturdy young studs (that’s just a figure of speech, you know we mules are sterile, which means we can’t reproduce—it don’t mean we’re queer) and a few Jennies were loaded on a train and hauled out to Oklahoma.  I fell for the cutest blue-nose Jenny you’ve never saw during that long, smoky train ride.  Prettiest eyes and ass you’ve ever seen, love at first sight so to speak.  But they kept us apart, chained to the stanchions of that cattle car.  Maybelline was my Jenny’s name.  Our romance was brief and unrequited as they say, but I’ll never forget those eyes.

At the Remount Depot, in Fort Reno we had our Army physical exams, got our shots for tetanus and anthrax, and were tattooed in our ears.  Poor Maybelline caught a cold during the train ride and it developed into pneumonia; she dropped dead while we were having our hooves examined, poor thing.  I reckon the Army veterinarian though I was in good shape—better’n most due to the workouts with the stone boats in those mountains of North Carolina; some of those Missouri mules was half starved when they were recruited, or acquired—so they gave me my service number, 08K0 and shipped me down to an artillery regiment at Fort Sill.

I’m sure stranger things have happened, but imagine my surprise when they put on the chow wagon team and assigned a Buck Private by the name of Mack to ride me.

I reckon if you’ve seen those movies about the 20-Mule Teams that lug those wagons filled with Borax out of Death Valley, you probably got the wrong impression.  We weren’t driven like that, with a man sitting in the wagon, steering us with reins and crackin’ a bull whip over our heads like we were dumb oxen.  No it wasn’t that way at all.  Of course we were harnessed, collars and all, but experienced mule such as myself were put at the head of the team, saddled and ridden by our soldier.  In my case it was my old partner, Mack.

Now I don’t know for sure that Mack recognized me right off, the way I knew him by his smell.  But the first time the Private came close with a bag of corn nuts, I snatched ‘em out of his hand.

The dumb kid might have slugged me, but an old Sergeant had his eye on him.  I nudged Mack with my nose in that spot where he was ticklish, and got him laughing.  And then I gave him back his bag of corn nuts and he shared ‘em with me.  He knew from that moment on just who I was.

“Jack!” He hollered like he’d met a long lost friend, “You sonofabitch, I thought it was you.”

Well, to make a long story short, Mack got married to a girl over in Marlow, had some kids and got out of the Army.  And me, well they hauled me to California on the train, put me on a ship and sent me to Honolulu in Hawaii.  I wound up working for those dog face soldiers at Schofield Barracks, packing loads of K-Rations to feed them, when they went on maneuvers in the Kuhuku Forest on the Pali.

Next thing you know those Japanese airplanes came over and bombed our biggest ships in Pearl Harbor and clobbered all of our airplanes at Hickham Field.  That, friends, was a day to remember.  I have to tell you how dumb the Army Officers were; they had men walking guard duty and manning the anti-aircraft guns, but wouldn’t give them any ammo—dumber than horses they were.  And they didn’t get much smarter as time went on ( I heard they’re using horses in Afghanistan’s mountains, which is clearly a job for mules) but I digress.

I got another boat ride to Australia on my way to the China-Burma-India Theater of War.  For you young folks reading this I should explain that a Theater of War ain’t what you may be thinking—we didn’t put on plays.

When we got off the boat in India, we were assigned to the Engineers who were building a road across the Himalaya Mountains into northern Burma and on into southwestern China.  Now that was some damned hard work.  The loads we carried and the muck we had to hike in was hard to believe.  Then there were those jungles and the Japs.  Need I mention the altitude, or the attitude of those draftees marching through that muck?  Just think of the Ledo Road as hell on earth.  Back and forth over those mountains we went, humping loads that would kill a work horse, swimming rivers filled with leeches. It was not only hard work, but deadly boring until someone started shooting.  We reached Myitkyina finally.  That’s where the Ledo  Road joined the old Burma Road. And from there we went on to Kunming, China followed by the trucks. In 1944, I was in a column of experienced mules loaned by the U.S. Army to the Chinese Nationalist Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.

Chiang was an arrogant sonofabitch who was pulling a fast one on Uncle Sam, hoarding the loot the U.S. shipped to him over the Ledo-Burma Road and not doing much fighting with the Japanese to speak of, so it should surprise no one that Mao and Chou En-Lai’s Red Army whipped his butt.  That’s when I became a Prisoner of War.

Like all POWs everywhere, I was harnessed to a plow one day and draggin’ a Red Army wagon the next.  Little by little I made my sway from south China to Manchuria.  I even spent a while at Port Arthur working for the Russians, until the war ended—the civil war that is.

As you may recall, the peninsula of Korea was split in two along the 38th Parallel of Latitude and the Sovs occupied the northern half and the U.S. Army ran the southern half.  That situation began to change even while Mao and Chou were still fighting the old Generalissimo Chiang’s army.  In 1949, Chiang and his Nationalist Army bugged out of China and settled on Formosa, an island once owned by the Japs that’s called Taiwan.  The Red Army won the war and Mao was set up as the leader of The People’s Republic of China.

Meanwhile, one of them Koreans by the name of Kim Il-Sung, who’d been to Moscow and learned Communism, and then fought in the Red Army went home to Pyongyang and took over as head of the government in North Korea, which he called The Peoples’ Republic of North Korea.   So Kim Il-Sung got Chairman Mao to send all of the Koreans who’d fought in China against Generalissimo Chiang back home.  Then Kim got his buddy, Uncle Joe to send him a bunch of tanks and burp guns, fuel and ammo and he built himself one mighty army.

Kim’s troops were mostly experienced soldiers.  Singman Rhee’s army in The Republic of Korea, down south of the 38th Parallel, on the other hand were mainly peasants in uniforms with little or no training and though they were reinforced with a regiment of U.S. Army troops and Officers, they were nowhere near as good as Kim’s armies.

So, with permission from Uncle Joe Stalin, the acquiescence of Chairman Mao, and the promise of air support from the Soviet Air Forces in Siberia, Kim Il-Sung invaded South Korea on the 25th of June, 1950.  Let me tell you true, Kim’s troops and tanks went through the South Koreans like shit through a tin horn.  But like most invaders, Kim made a great mistake; he went too far too fast.  By the time his army was down near Pusan, at the Naktong River, he ran out of gas for his tanks, ran out of ammo too.  Well, almost out of ammo, but not quite.  And he went farther than the Soviet Aircraft could fly and fight and still get back to their bases in Siberia and Manchuria.  So Kim’s army was in about the same shape our U.S. Army was that Sunday morning in 1941, when those Jap airplanes hit us on Oahu.

Next thing you know, General MacArthur landed two thirds of a Marine Division and a bunch of soldiers at Inchon and cut off the North Koreans stuck down south.  With the remnants of the R.O.K. Army and the First Marine Brigade and some U.S. Army reinforcements whipping them down on the Naktong, in Mason and so many places, there wasn’t too much left of Kim’s army left to fight.

Well, Kim Il-Sung wasn’t the only one to make mistakes.  Danged if Macarthur didn’t do the same foolish thing of extending himself too far by pushing the fight clean up to the Yalu River—the boundary between Korea and China—with winter coming on.  Some of those old generals were dumb as stones, in spite of all the glory heaped on ‘em.

It was late in November, when the Chinese loaded me up with ammunition and sent me across the river with all those Chinese Volunteers.  It must have been the coldest damned winter on record.  Damned ice was thick enough to hold a tank, but slick!  By then my shoes were worn down so thin they looked like tin foil, no cleats on them at all.  I slid on the ice at every bend in the trail, skint my knees, near broke a leg.  And Christ knows I wasn’t a young Jack by then.  I was Old Jack, and Cold Jack.  By the time the Chinese Volunteers chased the Marines out of the Frozen Chosen Reservoir area down to their ships at Hamhung and the U.S. Army well south of Seoul, I was one Hungry Jack.  What I would have given for a bag of corn nuts that winter.  I must have lost thirty or forty pounds or more.

Then President Truman fired General MacArthur, so I heard, and put another in charge and he counter-attacked and there I was, caught right in the midst of another melee.

Tell you what, by then I’d had ten years of war, damn near continuous war, and I was tired of it.  You can call me a coward if you like.  But I’d had enough, thank you.  I clomped down through the rubble of the Railroad Station in Seoul and hid.  That’s what I did.

After the battle was over, a little Korean boy found me hiding in the dark.  I reckon he must have thought I was a pony—God knows I’d lost a lot of weight.  So the kid, name of Tack Su-Tu, rode me out of the rubble of the Railroad Station and was heading for his daddy’s farm in the Taebak Mountains, when an M.P. stopped us.

The M.P. ran little Tack Su-Tu off and took me prisoner.  Before you know it, I was humping ammo up some mountains higher and steeper than any in North Carolina in a place called The Punch Bowl and a hill called Heartbreak Ridge.  It was nowhere as rough as the Himalayas, but then I wasn’t the youngster I was back then neither.  It was rough, I’ll tell you, and no corn nuts for a reward either.

I was just about worn down to a nubbin when the veterinarian ordered them to give me some R&R and new shoes.  I won’t go into all the trouble I got into during those 10 days of freedom down south.  Well, there was this little roan Mongolian filly, cute as a button, bangs and tail the color of Tennessee clay—ah me.  She couldn’t speak a word of Mule and I hadn’t learned Mongolian, but well, let’s just say we got along and leave it at that.

In 1953, three years and a couple of days from when it started, the Truce was signed in P’anmunjom and I was shipped home on a troop ship, just like one of the boys.

Old Jack was 26 years old by the time the ship docked in Oakland.  Had I been a human being, I would have had a bale of back pay coming to me.  Being an old mule, however, all I got as a reward for all my service was a small bag of corn nuts  when they mustered me out.

When it’s all said and done, I can tell you this: war’s are a bunch of horse shit, and any mule with half a brain would steer clear of armies and wars.  Personally, I’d rather pull a stone boat, or skid logs for a living than go to another war.  Well, they put me out to pasture in a place called Bright Angel to spend the remains of my days toting people down into the Grand Canyon.

If you don’t believe it, you can kiss Old Jack’s tail.

 

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