Well, my most popular post so far, The Day I Drove a Patrol Car, is almost up to 100 views. And I’m ashamed to say how long it took me to remember another driving opportunity I had with emergency services. Yep. The day I drove an ambulance.
Almost 140 years ago.
It was at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, and the year was 1875. Or so a number of people running around in blue wool uniforms and calico dresses seemed to think, and since several of these people were carrying firearms and others were in possession of a cannon, I recommend you agree with whatever they tell ya.
As I’ve mentioned, I do living history at Fort Lincoln State Park, and every summer, several frontier military re-enactment groups get together and bring the place to life with an encampment and demonstrations of all kinds. Cavalry …
Artillery. (I did mention the cannon, right?)
And lots of open-fire cooking and washboard laundry-doing. (And banjo playing. That would be me. Banjoist.)
Then there’s the ambulance. Did you ever stop to wonder what a nineteenth-century ambulance looks like? It looks like a wagon. (Sorry I don’t have a picture. Trust me, it looks just like a wagon. And no, it doesn’t have a light bar or a siren.)
But it does have the best suspension you’ll find anywhere. Which, on rough prairie sod, means you’ll get your backside bruised as bad as if that ambulance had no suspension at all. I’m always baffled when I remember that this was one of the most comfortable forms of transportation in the West.
The ambulance we use at Ft. Lincoln is mighty special. She saw service in the Civil War. That’s right. A real piece of history, bumping and swaying over our Parade Ground and giving rides to tourists. Heck, it’s an honor just to ride in it.
But I drove it.
Never mind I didn’t have a clue how to drive a team of horses. A pair of black and white Belgian/Percheron crosses named Muffin and Darby.
But Private Redding, the driver, had an annoying habit, and maybe he owed me. He always gave free rides to everyone–except me. As soon as I got in the wagon, he’d turn around in the driver’s seat and ask, “You gonna play that banjo?”
“If you want,” I’d say.
“The horses don’t start ’til the music starts,” he’d retort.
In effect, I was the sole individual who had to pay for the privilege of riding the ambulance wagon. Maybe I had a bug under my bonnet (literally).
We were sitting in the wagon, just Private Redding and me and another private, waiting for something to do. Private Redding had gotten off on another one of his long-winded tirades about something he couldn’t change (so he resorted to cussing it out, whatever it was).
I was bored.
And when my mind is bored, it comes up with stupid ideas.
And what the heck. Surely he owed me for all that banjo music.
“Hey,” I said, cutting in as soon as he took a breath. “Could you teach me how to drive the wagon?”
Silence. He stared skyward, chewing his thick black mustache. I envisioned his mouth on the verge of forming the word, “No.”
Finally he patted the wagon bench beside him. “Git up here.”
He showed me how and where to hold the reins and told me to plant my feet good and hard on the iron bar running in front of me. Despite the warning to hang on tight, the horses nearly dragged me right off the bench the moment they started. I thought the pulling action was supposed to go through the trace lines, not me!?
I did all right, so long as I drove in a straight line. For some reason, turning gave me grief. I’d go all wrong, and when I tried to correct it, I’d go even worse. Fortunately, we were in the middle of the wide-open Parade Grounds and not on a road. But I never knew it was possible to almost run over one of your own horses if you took a corner too tight.
Muffin looked over her shoulder, her expression as good as words: “WHO’S DRIVING THIS THING!!!”
Private Redding finally took the reins back from me.
Sheepishly, I folded my hands in my lap. “What was I doing wrong?”
The private chewed his mustache again. Finally, he looked at me and replied with Old-West honesty. “I don’t know.”
First Sergeant Johnson caught up with us later. “Hey,” he said, beaming at me,” I saw you driving the wagon! How’d she do?” he asked Private Redding.
“A snake woulda broke its back tryin’ to follow her trail.”
More Old-West honesty.
To my surprise, the next day Private Redding asked if I was going to drive again.
“After how bad I did yesterday?”
He shook his head. “I never said you had to quit.”
I got in the driver’s seat.
This time, Private Redding studied me closely. “You ain’t turnin’ soon enough, that’s what it is. Turn when I say. … Now turn!”
I finally got it right.
That’s not to say I remembered any of his lessons the next summer. Or any summer after that. Don’t get me talking about the fancy black barouche.
Or the side saddle.
Different stories for different times. But I can say that I drove a genuine Civil War ambulance wagon.
What experience am I still missing? Hmm. Anybody know where I can find a fire engine?