Wednesday, February 8, 2017

THE REAL WEIRD WEST: The US Camel Corps Part 5


   The 'Camel Experiment', begun in 1855, saw camels imported to the US for potential use in exploring the western frontier. Within five years, a once bold endeavor was so mired in politics and bullshit that the 'experiment' barely existed on paper and the beasts themselves were now scattered all over the country.
   The breakout of the Civil War was obviously the time to bring it all together. If the thing was a film, this here would take place in the last 20 minutes and show how it all worked out. The camels all charge headlong into danger with cannons goin' off and after the North won, Grant could trot across the White House lawn on one, waving and smoking a big cigar. He'd name it Ambrose or Buckeye and there'd probably be a commemorative stamp. Sure, ol' Jefferson Davis went to the other side and the whole damned thing was his idea, but so what? We won! we'd say. We got camels outta the deal!
   After that, there'd be real interest in camel fights for a while, then o' course, camel racing. They'd go over well in zoos and the circus and hey, many actually did. The Transcontinental Railroad wasn't far off, but that didn't do the horse in, so no reason for it to tarnish the camel. In our parallel imagining, geography would relegate them west, and there they'd help in interstate trade (cheaper than a train) or pull other trade up and down from Mexico (which many also actually did).
   Despite the camel's surly attitude and fondness for scaring horses, things would smooth out. We'd keep horses away from 'em for a spell, but they'd get on, eventually. Dogs and cats do it all the time. We'd breed different types and maybe even make them more likeable. Maybe combine the one- and two-humpers into a three. There'd be camel shows and camel breeders and debutantes would ride into their parties on the back of one. Maybe a state funeral for a governor who was especially fond. A big parade of humpers down some main street, little fezzes on their heads. Maybe tassels on the ends of blankets draped over their backs with the name of some local Freemason lodge.
   Emboldened by our experience and expertise, we'd surely take them into the First World War. For any other reason than to scare the shit out of the Germans. Nostalgia for the Old West would find cowboy films made of brave men on camelback racing to save the day. Romance novels would have that scene with the paramours making love in a barn as the camels snorted from their stalls. Mr. Ed would be Mr. Abdul. It'd be the Ford Bactrian, not Mustang. Camelpower, not horsepower.
   People capable of good, solid decisions would have camel sense. Parents would tell their kids to stop cameling around. No one would ever lead a camel to water, because they can go days without it. People would be hungry enough, at times, to eat a camel. However, like the horse, we never would unless absolutely necessary. Such would be the love and admiration we'd have for this beast we brought into our home and so looked to in our hour of need.
   Oh, such a world.
But not ours. We didn't want camels in our world. And not in our 'civil' war. At the dawn of it in 1861, our pal Ed Beale asked Lincoln to make use of the herd he'd brought there years before. Ed would task them with hauling supplies and seeking in-roads for troops. He was denied.
   The mail? In 1863, a request to use camels in this small capacity was also turned down. 1864, Beale's herd was sold off to zoos and circuses. Some, like so many others, were cut loose. 1866, following the war, the 100 or so creatures that remained of the original Camp Verde experiment were also auctioned away, despite the few small, (but helpful) uses we'd been able to wring from 'em.
   Years after, they wandered through towns, through wilds, scattering cattle and still frightening their good friend the horse. They ended up in all over out west, some in the Midwest and many down in Mexico. Some even say Canada. Stories abound about who saw what or when or where this or that animal ended up or what it chased after.
   Fine stories, about a fine time in the Weird West. Shame it didn't all work out like it could've.
   But, like they say, "If wishes were camels..."

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