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Saddled in the Past : When Life Gets Dull, the Men of K Troop Gallop Off Into the 19th Century

June 01, 1989|STEVE CHAWKINS | Times Staff Writer

When it comes to recreating the life and times of a 19th Century cavalry unit, Pat Coen and the men of his K Troop don't horse around.

One weekend a month, they gallop up hillsides with revolvers blazing, they practice fancy equine military maneuvers, they gnaw homemade hardtack--"It's kind of like a hard, thick matzo," Coen says--and they generally give their all to ensure the Republic's manifest destiny.

Then Coen goes back home to his wife and two daughters in Canoga Park, and his workaday gig as an RTD diesel mechanic. His 16 or so cohorts in K Troop return to their lives as machinists, technicians, engineers. For another month, settlers go unprotected, marauders go unchecked, and sunsets go unridden into. It's not a perfect system, but as Coen and company have learned in exhaustive detail, the Army never was.

"You get an idea of what it was really like 100 years ago," says K Troop stalwart Bruce Taylor, a Simi Valley plumber who hauls an 1885 saddle, a working 1873 Colt .45 and assorted century-old memorabilia on K Troop maneuvers. "It was a rough life."

On occasional "encampments" with other ersatz cavalry units in the Arizona desert, the men trudge around in regulation blue woolen uniforms and heavy boots that stop a regulation one inch below the knee. "Apaches" wear war paint in authentic patterns, made from the very roots and flowers the Indians used. Everybody yells a lot, shoots blanks at the enemy--"It's a search-and-destroy kind of thing," Taylor explains--and flirts with heatstroke.

"You eat period food--beef jerky, salt pork, if you're lucky a can of peaches," he says. "You sleep in an 1880s cavalry tent with nothing under you but a bedroll. After a weekend in the 100-degree heat wearing those wool uniforms, you're glad to get back to civilization."

Their counterparts 100 years ago had no such choice.

For decades after the Civil War, the cavalry was a haven for the unemployed, the illiterate, the desperate, according to contemporary accounts. Nearly half the troops were foreign-born. Quarters were cramped and the food was wretched. For years, no ammunition was available for practice. Pay was $13 a month.

"The majority of the enlisted men in the Army are simply human driftwood, men who have committed crimes elsewhere and are hiding in the service under assumed names; men who cannot brook the liberties and familiarities of society, and take refuge in military discipline; men who are disappointed, disheartened and ambitionless, and find the lazy life of a soldier a relief," a Chicago newspaper reporter wrote in 1874.

Coen, a mountain of a man who grew up on a Kansas farm, was first hooked by the Hollywood version of the cavalry, the square-jawed lieutenant sitting erect on his steed as he scans the ridge top for a row of feathers. The rest, he found out, is history.

"When I was 7, I can remember thinking how great it would be to be in the cavalry," he says. "I grew up with Rin Tin Tin and John Wayne movies."

His fascination with history kept growing, and, at the age of 19, he signed on with a Civil War unit. Then, as hobbyists swarmed into the War Between the States, Cohen forged ahead, concentrating on the less voguish Indian Wars. After research in military archives and Western libraries, he formed K Troop of the First Cavalry, one of about a half-dozen groups in the Los Angeles area that model themselves on old cavalry units.

"You don't hear much about the First Cav," he says. "We don't get much notice. All the attention is focused on the Seventh, which was wiped out at Little Big Horn."

Bivouacked throughout the West, K Troop took its share of lumps as well. It swept into California with Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny in the Mexican War, but was routed at the Battle of San Pascual, an engagement described by historian James M. Merrill as "unnecessary, poorly conceived, badly executed." In addition to countless Indian skirmishes, the troop suppressed poachers at Yellowstone National Park, and took part in an ill-fated effort to introduce camels to the West.

If none of that matches Bull Run or Gettysburg for stirring the blood, it doesn't faze Coen.

"The Civil War is a lot more popular," he acknowledges. "You want to do Civil War? You go out and get yourself a uniform and a rifle, and you do Civil War. This is a lot more difficult. For one thing, you need a horse."

K Troop, which is seeking new recruits, usually mounts up at a stable in Newbury Park for its monthly drills, maneuvers drawn from cavalry training manuals of the 1870s and 1880s.

To kick things off, Coen bellows, "Command march!" rather than the more inspirational but less historically correct, "Forward ho!" On patrol, the men ride four abreast, as prescribed in the drill manuals, not two-by-two, as in the movies. Their saddles sit on stitch-by-stitch replicas of the last known surviving cavalry horse blanket, a tattered 1885 shroud enshrined in a private collection.

Keeping in Period

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