We led mules, one GI to each mule, just another exercise for us and the mules and none of us knowing where we were headed or what for. Situation normal. Tenth Mountain Division, winter in Colorado, World War II.
It had been late in the day when we joined the mules, a gray darkening day. My mule looked to me the same as all the others, and I won't try to describe their pattern of blacks and browns. Just mules, that's all, army issue, each one pack-saddled and loaded with either the barrel of a 75mm artillery piece, or its cradle. Each of us GIs had our usual: light packs and rifles, not too bad a load. We weren't carrying our skis, and the mules behaved well.
We slogged along in the ups and downs of a broad valley. Footsteps in snow and the only other sounds the creak of gear. Dark woods, no moon and a gradual realization that more than the usual confusion was under way, units disappearing, losing contact, and the group I was in — I won't even call it a squad, just a handful of infantry — decided that nobody was leading us, we were simply wandering. We stopped, bitched a little, stamped around, the snow noisier now, having re-crystalized in night cooling, but only a foot or so deep; we could be thankful for that, and the slope where we stopped was moderate.
A lieutenant wandered by. We asked where and what. He didn't know. He disappeared, looking for contact, for orders. We tethered our mules and stood around. The forest was second-growth, no decently-sized fallen logs to sit on, and they were all snowy anyway. On a cold night, keep your butt dry.
We chose trees next to our mules and leaned and felt the cold dig in. My mule stood quietly, hip-shot, paying no attention to me or anything else, or so it seemed, until I took off my mittens and laid them on a bough and slung my pack off to dig out a K-ration. The mule stretched forward just a mite and bared his teeth and delicately selected one of the mittons and began mouthing it. I retrieved the mitton and mumbled something, wondering if he'd been planning on eating it, or was it just something to do to pass the time, and the night wore on.
Another lieutenant drifted through, knowing nothing. It was just hurry up and wait and he didn't have to tell us that. Situation normal. My mule was big and stolid and high at the shoulder and he shifted his footing only once in a while, didn't seem to give a damn about anything. Well, why should he? The war effort, what was that to him? “War effort,” that's what people called it back then. Sounds sort of quaint? Never mind. Time passed, no wind, a blessing, and the trees silent and we humans standing or leaning, still as frozen statues, keeping our bodies shrunken inside our parkas, away from the cold outer layer. It was to each his own, GI and mule. But not partners, definitely not! How can you be partners with a mule? Or even, forgive me, with a dog or a cat? If a dog is someone's best friend, that dog is in big trouble. Somebody said that, and I think it's worth some serious thought.
No, the mule and I were in something much bigger than partnership; we were trapped in a decisions-made-someplace-else world, waiting for orders. Orders? You want to be careful with that word, its strong suggestion that somebody out there is in full command. Here's something we learned in that winter in Colorado: the mountains had been there long before ordinary humans with eagles or stars on their shoulders arrived to shape us up, and the mountains will be there long after those ordinary humans move on to other postings.
Standing with the mule, nothing to do, no choices, it was a togetherness, but not at all cozy; it was a togetherness of the kind that includes forest and snow and cold. That was obvious, not something I or the mule had to figure out: the forest, the snow, the cold, and not knowing what comes next. And the mule was good at it; he was waiting it out in what looked to me to be a perfectly casual way, not worrying, just being there.
In the coma that weariness and cold can bring, thoughts come and go with no interference, and sometimes they catch in whatever is in us to catch thoughts, and then there'd be re-run after re-run, how to tie a bowline, say. Or a shameful episode from the past, over and over and over. Or a weird scene that makes no sense, but then again, it might, and then it's gone and you might never see it again. Just about anything can happen. Quite a trip.
Sometimes I'd come out of it, and there was the mule, so damned quiet and self-satisfied and superior and I'd wonder how much heat he had in that big body of his. I had already tried to lean on him to get a little of that heat. Didn't work, he was keeping it to himself.
Well, dawn came and we got out of there. I don't remember the details; infantry wanderings and sloggings tend to blend into each other.
What did I learn about mules? Nothing much. But from my mule I learned that this trick of simply standing is a perfectly natural thing to do when the options run out. You can wind down and then down, and wait. Other animals do it, I've noticed that many times since. I haven't mastered the trick, far from it. But sometimes I try. It helps to think of yourself as an animal in a very big world, decisions made elsewhere.
If I ever saw my mule again I didn't recognize him, but he must have boarded the converted ocean liner that took our regiment to Italy. I think about him a lot, lately, and about my infantry outfit, and the units of the new Tenth that are said to be in the Asian mountains, winter coming on.