Blast from the Past: Burro’s Burden
Editor’s note: At the initiative of ALBA board member Chris Brooks, who maintains the online biographical database of US volunteers in Spain, the ALBA blog will be regularly posting interesting articles from historical issues of The Volunteer, annotated by Chris. Here, Sam Carsman reveals one of the conflict’s lighter moments in an excerpt from his memoir of his time in the John Brown Battery.
On the Toldeo Front
[Originally published in The Volunteer, Volume 4, Number 1, 1982.]
From the Hills of Castuera
To the Plains of New Castile
We intensely fortify the land
It’s a noble work we feel
Oh the spade is mightier than the sword
It’s the truth, we’ll demonstrate
By digging our way to Victory in 1948
These words, sung to the tune of the Marine Hymn, were a favorite among the men of the John Brown Battery. For a whole year, the battery spent most of its time digging in and fortifying its gun positions. And what guns they were! Russia behemoths with no recoil mechanism – only large wooden ramps to prevent the guns from tumbling over after firing.
As month after month passed, and the men saw little activity other than lobbing an occasional shell toward Toledo, a certain amount of cynicism and demoralization set in. They had come to Spain to fight Fascists, not to read about the battles the Lincolns were waging at Brunete, Aragon, and the Ebro in dated Volunteers and Daily Workers.
But there were humorous situations to relieve the tedium, boredom and griping. Before he died Sam Carsman, who was with the battery from the very beginning, recalled these humorous episodes in a very personal history he had written about the battery. The following excerpt is from Sam’s memoir.
About this time it became known to me and the three comrades who shared my dugout, that the hens were laying eggs. Eggs were a commodity never seen by us and at the very mention of them, our tongues would hang out and the saliva would drip from our jaws. So one day we pooled our money, and organized an expedition to the town of Noez, to see what could be done about this matter of eggs.
There was in the camp at the time a small, sad-face burro that the kitchen used for hauling food to the boys. We secretly “borrowed” this burro to aid us in our expedition.
Up over the narrow, winding path across the mountains we dragged our unwilling burro, and about noon arrived at our destination. The peasants were delighted to see us. They invited us into their homes, flooded us with homemade vino, while we sang American songs to them, and in our poor Spanish we regaled them with tales of our homeland. When we had won their confidence, we got the address of a peasant who operated a black market in eggs. He was a pleasant, accommodating chap, and at the price of a peseta an egg, we persuaded him to sell us 600 eggs. Just what we would do with 600 eggs was vague to us at the time; all we knew was that we wanted eggs, and we bought as many as our money would allow. One thing we were certain of, and that was that this was strictly a private venture, and the eggs belonged to our little chebola, and to no one else.
We now faced the problem of returning with this precious cargo down the long and tortuous mountain trail. We didn’t have much confidence in the burro who seemed so small and pathetic as we loaded our eggs in two large saddle bags hanging over his back. So off we started having first secured a goodly supply of vino to aid us on the dusty trip home.
The burro performed splendidly. So well did he travel, that Robby, one of my two companions, decided it would be a good idea to ride for a while. He mounted the burro’s back, being careful not to disturb the eggs. The burro grunted, and the deep tragedy in his mournful eyes deepened – but he carried on just the same. When he saw this, Servantes, the third partner in this venture, decided that Robby had the right idea. He hoisted his 200 pound frame up on the burro, and together, they both swayed along, singing an old English sea chantey.
I staggered along the trail, ignoring my friends’ pleas to join them, and thinking of the look of protest in our poor burro’s eye. I had grown to love him; so patient he was, so strong, and so manfully did he struggle under his load. I took several long pulls at Robby’s huge canteen, and suddenly I knew that I must do it. Without leaping or pausing in my stride, I swung my long, right leg over the jackass’ rump, and there I was, sitting or rather clinging to his weakened frame. It was too much. Our little friend’s knees buckled, and with a groan he rolled over on his side, and we found ourselves tangle up with each other, with the burrs from the mountain trail sticking to our bare arms. Our precious jewels – the eggs, were deposited on top of us. It was a sticky mess. When we extricated ourselves and surveyed the damage, we saw that it was not as terrible as we had at first feared. A few dozen eggs lay there, beyond rescue, but the great bulk of the were unbroken. I had heard that there were people who liked to drink raw eggs, but I had never had the courage to do it. But this was a desperate circumstance, and it was no time for squeamishness. There on the trail we knelt, and the broken eggs disappeared down our hungry throats. When nothing was left but the empty shells, we reloaded our charge, and once more set out on our perilous journey. We made camp after dusk without further incident.
But what were we to do with all the eggs that still remained? There were only four of us in the shack, and we had no refrigeration. The other men, we thought, could have gone up the trail just as we had done. This was strictly a private deal, we felt, and it would avail them nothing, if they came whining around the chebolah door. If we felt magnanimous we would invite one or another in for an egg feast; but on the whole we were determined to be quite gluttonous.
And so it was. Blake, who lived in our dugout, was an expert fry cook who really loved his job. All day he stayed by the fire frying our eggs in olive oil. We lay in our bunks, from time to time ordering anywhere, from six to a dozen omelets. It was nothing to consume two, or even more dozen eggs a day. Finally and I blush to confess it, we were forced to extend the door of our hospitality to a select group of friends. It was a relief one day, when we saw the last of the eggs disappear down the maw of one of our comrades. Yet it was one of my most pleasant memories to recall that week when I could honestly say that I had had enough to eat.