My relationship with horses has been varied. When I was about five years old, a traveling photographer came down Bradford Street with his multi-colored pony, charging $1.50 for a picture of a kid sitting on a pony.
My parents went for the deal and we still possess that shot of cute me sitting implacably on that tiny animal.
When I entered Massachusetts State College in 1940, as with most land grant colleges, it had a Reserve Officers Training Corps, in particular a cavalry unit. So there I was in the blinding heat of Amherst wearing a wool uniform and knee high riding boots.
We had military three times a week and freshman year the main job was to learn how to ride and care for a horse. The animals were mostly remounts from a real cavalry post, Fort Riley, Kansas, and those horses were old, mean and big. The smartest thing was to bring a couple of apples in your pockets to bribe the beast so he wouldn't deliberately step on your foot with his big hoof or throw you off when you first mounted or bite your rear end or maybe obey a frightened plea like STOP!
The career officers were Maj. Rice and Lt. Nogello and one or the other conducted each session. Their orders were given crisply and their disgust with our abilities profusely. One of the happiest moments of my life occurred when the lieutenant came galloping up to us one day and was immediately bucked off by his horse.
They taught us to trot without the security of stirrups and took us for wild rides through the state orchards and we would always end with the same game. We would be split in half on opposite sides of the field, and we would have to count out numbers. This way you had an odd or even number. When the order was given to CHARGE!, you would spur the horse and gallop toward the other side of the field, screaming your number as you went. The odds were instructed to gallop between the evens and you looked for that hellhole to safety.
The sound of horses galloping straight into each other and the screams of the riders being pitched off still echoes in my ears. I hit the ground only once during this exercise, but nobody ever broke anything and nobody ever said ‘this is crazy' and rode over to the barn. In a way, it was good training in that we learned the stupid orders were just as valid as the smart ones.
You were only required to do this freshman and sophomore years. After that, if you wanted and they thought you were good material, you could take courses the next two years and get a reserved commission. We, of course, were there when World War II interrupted, so the upperclassmen got a commission and were transferred into tanks or infantry because although horses were still utilized in one way or another, they weren't the major factor they had been in previous deadly battles.
So now we come to the meat of the matter: The recent worldwide battle over whether or not companies were using anonymous horse meat in some of their products. Europe was especially disturbed by this and rumors swept our country about who had and still might be. It was OK to ride horses but heavens to Betsy when it came to eating them.
I have eaten horse meat and enjoyed it. Even after I found out it was horse meat. When my division landed in France, we were held up at a base camp for several weeks because they didn't have the trucks or gasoline to get us to the front. We were stuck in our tents day after day after day, nothing to do but eat and sleep or throw a ball around. The monotony of the food and the so-called cooking of it was so bad that we were desperate for change.
One of my friends remarked that there was a restaurant in town that served steak. I was electrified. On our next pass, a group of us headed to town and found the restaurant. And found biftek listed on the menu. We all ordered it and it came out all brown and roasted and smelling like ambrosia.
We wolfed it down and were sated. Real food.
Upon our return, I told another friend about it. His reply jolted me.
"That's not real meat," he said. "They're using horse meat." Upon checking, we found out it was true. The restaurant owner readily admitted it and seemed to see nothing extraordinary about it. I was able to get back only one more time before the trucks came for us. All these years later I can still recall its aroma and how delicious it tasted.
And those are the major horse encounters in my life.
Milton Bass is a regular Eagle contributor.