I mentioned storing correspondence in a military headgear box. From my arrival at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, I saved everything that was sent to me, and it rapidly became apparent that that I would need something a little more substantial than a cigar box. I say that because mail call was something that set me apart from the rest of the herd.
We had spent the first two weeks agonizing over the absence of any word from Home, groaning each day at the announcement that there was still to be no mail call. What is wrong with the army, we wondered? If it could mess up something that even the Post Office could handle, it did not bode well for us. On the other hand, forewarned is forearmed. The army holds nothing back when it comes to sending out signals that the path to eventual discharge is littered with members of an old-boy organization which places too much emphasis on longevity, and too little emphasis on quality.
I wrote to the “O'Neill people” (That's the way I addressed the envelope) twelve days after I had arrived in Missouri that, “THEY WON'T GIVE US ANY MAIL! It is so demoralizing not to get one word as to whether my family is alive or dead or what.” [Nothing like infusing a little drama into the picture] “...there is a shortage of clerks, or so they claim. That's one reason I've been feeling in such a bummer mood. I can write letters from now till doomsday, but I can't get any in return.”
I was convinced that the army could easily rationalize holding up mail as a toughening strategy I could also see ineptitude as the prime cause, so it boiled down to two nickels or a dime. It resulted in this ungrounded, uncomfortable zone of unease, from which there was no other cure than the welcoming sound of the company clerk bellowing out, “MAIL CALL!”
Thus it was ironic, that when the magic moment finally arrived, our first mail call, it found me grabbing a quick shower after our mess hall dining experience, having given up the incoming mail ship vigil for that particular day. As I emerged from the shower room into the main flow of traffic in the hall, I was instantly aware of the crackling electricity in the air.
There was a wide range of emotions on display, from joy at good news, to despair for others. Bad news meant either no news or no news from the right person. There is no instrument on earth capable of measuring the disappointment of someone who does not receive a letter he hopes for. On the other hand, happiness is achieved by the mere handling of a letter, when you know it is going to bring you news of Home.
I stopped the first guy I saw and asked unnecessarily, “Was there mail call?”
“Yeah,” he said, “but unless your name is O'Neill, don't bother to go. Jesus..” The last was muttered disgustedly, as he moped on down the hall.
I had waited each day in anticipation because I had followed a piece of advice given to me by my mom. She had suggested that, if I wanted to receive any mail from people other than my immediate family, I should send letters out, as soon as I arrived, and give folks my address. I actually planned ahead to the extent that I took a type-written list of my twenty-seven closest friends' addresses with me, when I left for basic training.
Jammed into that first week's confusion, I had found time during the inevitable waiting periods, so conveniently provided for us by the army, to write quick notes of greeting to my siblings and as many of my friends as I could manage. I gave a few tantalizing details of “Mark's Military Madness,” made sure my address was clearly legible on each envelope, and mailed them off in the Day Room. I affixed an eleven cent stamp on each envelope, noting to myself that the rate of postage had already almost quadrupled during my short lifespan, from three cents to eleven cents.
Exactly how many pieces of mail did I receive that first mail call? Fourteen. Most guys were jazzed to get anything, so my case was unique, particularly in light of the fact that I had managed to be away from the scene when all that mail hit FLW. That mail call established a reputation for me that I worked diligently to uphold; people's natural tendency to reach out to someone who was hurting, matched my own enthusiasm for responding to these letters.
Besides mail, which evoked so much emotion, the most common subject for discussion in my letters home was food. What I had grown up on was food prepared from scratch, for a household that would eventually total eleven, not counting girl friends, boy friends, hangers on and the left out. My folks generally tag-teamed dinner preparations, with solid (if unwilling) support from the small fry. I might have found myself peeling potatoes, dicing onions, setting the table, or going out to the avocado tree to see if there were any ripe ones on the ground under it.
Frequently, I'd end up pedaling madly on a last minute dash up to Sunrize Market for a gallon of milk or a can of tomato sauce. Papa would indulge in a couple of cocktails upon his arrival home from work and, inevitably, the result would be some of the most original dishes I have ever encountered.
There was the ever-popular “Gopher Stew”; when asked about the origin of its name, Papa told us that people always “go for” it. Of course, we didn't have a corner on the “Slum-Gum” market, but any combination of beef/lamb stew meat, a selection of fresh vegetables from the garden and ten pounds of potatoes, produced family meals that couldn't be beat. Rancho Styled Steak, Mulligan Stew, and barbecued fare that screamed out summer, were among the options.
My father began trekking down to Baja in 1963, and thus Mexican cuisine, in the form of tortillas and frijoles, came into the house. My folks used to prepare soft tacos, encased in flour tortillas, with hamburger, cheese, lettuce and tomatoes. The chile sauce was my father's recipe, and they used to stockpile the tacos on cookie sheets, kept warm until close to forty had been prepared. Everyone was more likely to have an even shot at the table, if there was no lag time between production and consumption.
The food was plentiful, tasty, homemade, and about as different from the food in the army as that of a four star restaurant would be to Micky D's. The army food was presented in small portions, varied greatly in taste from kitchen to kitchen, and mass-produced to provide basic sustenance for troops, who moved through the revolving doors with dizzying speed.
None of the first dozen or so letters home ignored the subject of food. For some army chow was an upgrade, but for me it was an abomination, a slap in the face, when I was already being pummeled by the rigorous agenda provided by the drill sergeants. The first letter home, after three days, contained the following excerpt,
The food (?) is so gross and that is no exaggeration. We've had one half-decent meal. You don't know what you're eating-it's unrecognizable. If you're hungry enough you eat. You get one glass of milk, one glass of coke (which is good) or one cup of coffee (iodine), and that's it.” (January 13, 1972)
Two days later, I included a one sentence summary, that seemed a little more optimistic. “Either (a) the food is improving, (b) I'm getting hungrier, or (c) I'm getting used to it, because it doesn't seem so bad.” Only two days after this, I wrote,
“I've finally decided that the food isn't too bad three out of four meals. We'll get seven decent meals in a row and then three bad ones.” (It didn't seem to occur to me that the numbers didn't add up. In the previous two days, there had only been a total of six meals...)
“Tonight we had what was supposed to be spaghetti; I positively could not eat it. We were last in line (so what's new?) and the salad and dessert and vegetables were gone, and I couldn't hardly eat anything. The best meal we had was some kind of meat that looked like hamburger and was as tough as rubber...tasted good like steak. We had it with mashed potatoes, rolls, salad and some cake. It was really good, and the best part was Friday morning; we actually had-hold on to you hats-a FRESH APPLE. It was really good.
Every morning, we have those little box cereals (Corn Flakes, Rice Krispies or Special K), the best part of breakfast, and then one or two pieces of raw bacon, which I don't usually eat. Then we get either eggs (...I haven't had enough hair yet to try them.) or rubbery tasting pancakes with one tablespoon of syrup.
One day we actually had pineapple juice...” (January 17, 1972)
Finally, we got out of Reception and over to permanent housing, where once again, we were eating in a different mess hall, with different expectations for the food. I wrote,
“The food is much better over here in basic...except you only get one small portion, and I really go hungry five out of eight times. (Even I would love to know the source of my stats) We only get one glass of milk... (I've entirely disregarded that order, and I drink as much as I want-I just haven't been caught) supposedly, or one glass of coke, or one cup of coffee. The coffee is good here, so I usually have some in the morning. We have exactly twelve minutes to wait in line, get our chow and milk/coke (located in different places from the food), find a place to sit down and eat, chow down, get rid of our trays and get out. So what little chow I get, I have to gobble. January 17, 1972)
The letters continue to provide daily evaluations of the chow; if this fixation on food seems extreme, it merely reflects my complete shock at the poor quality of the food, compared to the standard set by Papa and Mama, while growing up on Fellowship Street. It took all the way until the letter of February 2nd, a string of eleven consecutive missives, to break the run of commentaries on the chow. Even at that, only the news of my grandpa's death, appropriately commanding the attention of the entire letter, served as an important enough of an event to accomplish this overthrow.
Meanwhile, we sought out other avenues of nourishment. There was the P.X, which I would compare to something like a combination Coast-to-Coast and the old Gemco store. There was a comprehensive section for each of the following: household items, hardware, medication, music, and assorted reading/ writing materials. There was a small section for canned and packaged food items, but mostly we were supposed to go the commissary if we were after meat or produce.
We could therefore supplement our food supply outside the mess hall. With so few concessions available to us in those opening weeks of Basic Training, this one was so huge as to defy accurate explanation. We were able to load up the cargo pockets of our field jackets with packages of peanuts, raisins, or candy bars to get us through the paltry offerings of C-rations, while out on the range, or going on bivouac. I never understood the reasoning behind not giving us our fill of grub, but I expect that there is a clear explanation in the Army code of Military Operations. Not.
As far as the commissary goes, doesn't that sound nice? Fresh meat and produce? Unless you were married, you were not given commissary privileges, so we didn't even think about it. Fortunately, the base had several eating establishments (Wording is key here, so that you don't get the impression that these were actually restaurants) that we could hit, once the initial movement restrictions were lifted.
The P.X. itself had a snack bar which was reasonably palatable, especially in the beginning, when the food at the mess hall was so gross. The first time, about ten days after arriving at FLW, that we were allowed access to the P.X, it seemed comparable to a trip to Knott's Berry Farm. I did what any other normal, red-blooded nineteen-year-old American G.I. would do: I got drunk.
I didn't do it on purpose. I can even truthfully say, I did not go to the P.X. initially for beer. However, that did become the reason for future visits. No, I went the first time for sustenance of the food variety. However, as I entered this mecca of available resources, my eyes fell upon a recruit ambling somewhat unsteadily toward me. He was balancing an overfilled, mammoth plastic cup of foaming nectar of the gods.
Some of the ambrosia was cascading over the side and down onto his hand and arm. Oh, blasphemy, that any of the precious liquid be allowed to fall from the sacred chalice. He was desperately trying to prevent any spillage, but the time for that was at least two filled cups earlier. Little did I know that it would take minimal time for me to join him in this regard.
I know that sounds like questionable behavior, and believe me, the next morning, while beginning a set of twenty pushups, I questioned it. Boy, did I question it. The blood was pounding in my head to the cadence of the drill sergeant's voice, and I fought down the bile, threatening to spew out all over Drill Sergeant Fletcher's spit-polished boots, as he stood over me, noticing perhaps, that I was not my usual perky self.
There's something provocative about a pasty-faced recruit to a drill sergeant, especially if that recruit has distinguished himself physically in the past. Never to lose an opportunity for enhanced communication, Drill Sergeant Steven C. began by stooping down closer to me and asking some clarifying questions, as the entire platoon perched on hands and toes, in the classic “Push up Missouri” pose.
“Private O'Neill, how are we? You're looking a little green around the gills. Are you feeling poorly, this morning? Oh, please, don't get up. ” Not even DI Steven C. could call cadence and talk to me at the same time.
“I feel great, Drill Sergeant,” I lied.
“Well, I certainly am relieved to hear that. We can't have our P.T. Specialist falling short of the job now, can we?”
“No, Drill Sergeant.” At the inaugural physical training test site, I had scored off the charts, surpassing the number of points required by a comfortable margin.
Straightening up, he seemed to notice the other recruits all stretched out in the agony of the posture they had assumed.
Bellowing out lustily, “Maggots, AT EASE! Smoke 'em if you got 'em,” he returned his attention to me, as every guy in the platoon silently parroted back the refrain, “And if you don't got 'em, roll 'em.” I began to scramble (make that stagger) to my feet. “Oh, Private O'Neill, did you think I was talking to you? Oh no, we haven't even begun; get back down on your tips (as in fingertips) and toes.” Me? Again? “Now, why is your face all pale? Are you ill?”
“No, Drill Sergeant.” Just hung over, I added to myself.
“In that case you won't have a hard time pushing up Missouri by yourself, will you?”
“No, Drill Sergeant.” Though everyone else was taking advantage of the moment to light up a butt, or grab a candy bar, all of their attention was on me. In these kind of situations, there was always a morbid curiosity as to what was going to befall the poor clown who got singled out by DI Fletcher. At the same time there was recognition that it was a double-edged sword. Go ahead and enjoy the entertainment; just remember, it could be you occupying the spotlight.
“That's good...real good. Because, it's either you or your platoon.” Huh? What's he doing now?
“Yes, Drill Sergeant.” What else was I going to say?
All of the sudden, the level of concern inched up, as recruits nervously fingered their glowing cigarettes, and thought about needing both hands to support their weight on the icy terrain. Meanwhile, DI Steven C. was beginning to warm to the topic.
“Someone has got to help out poor Missouri, and your men think it should be you.” I didn't know that that was true, but I didn't know that it was false, either. I tried to put myself in their shoes. Boy did I try, but that was still me pushing up misery. I made that mental adjustment, from Missouri to misery, countless times per day, and it was beginning to make the jump shift automatically.
“Yes, Drill Sergeant.”
“My, you are accommodating, today. I like that in my recruits.” Whoa, big word.
“I like to be helpful, Drill Sergeant.” Whatever he was expecting, it wasn't that. His eyes sparkled, and his mustache did that funny twitching thing when he tried to stifle a grin. He was center stage now (When was he not?) and he may as well have had his feet up on the railing of the dance floor, the way he took his time.
“Do you now? I bet your men appreciate that.” Do they now? I just bet they do. Looking peripherally at the relaxed posture of my buddies, I think he pegged it.
“Yes Drill Sergeant.” My arms had begun to throb, in unison with my head. I think there was some two-part harmony going on.
“What do you say, men? Shall we let PFC O'Neill get up, while you take his place? WHO would like to take PFC O'Neill's place?”
Come on, Man. That's bogus. Those guys aren't that dumb.
This time I think I pegged it. There was some serious footwork going on as guys were shuffling their feet as though tip-toeing through a bed of embers.
No one said a word, except me. Everyone was facing DI Steven C. and me, so they had their backs to the range. In the background, from my vantage point twenty-four inches off the ground, I could see the range commander gesturing frantically at DI Fletcher.
“Master Sergeant Chase, if you don't mind my saying.” There was a catchy wobbling going on in my lower extremities, as my arched back fought to repel gravity's pull long enough to direct DI Fletcher's attention away from the entertainment, and back to the range.
DI Fletcher didn't get to his place on top of the world by being slow on the uptake. Before he even flicked his eyes, he was bellowing, “Fall in, Fokwads! Why are you still helping out Missouri, Private O'Neill, when you are needed here on the range?”
I had survived another performance, and would live to star again.