In the Army, written formal orders from above can be good; they can be bad. When you’re not expecting orders, they can be like getting a notice from the Internal Revenue Service, it will make your stomach feel uneasy. Upon being told to report to the captain’s office, I was very apprehensive. When I arrived and was told the captain had orders for me, all I could do was hold my breath. I received orders to go to typing school on base. For two weeks, I learned how to type. I got up to forty words a minute.
Upon graduation from typing school, Sergeant Bush said, “Ryan, I’m going to make you the mess hall clerk.”
I can only guess what brought this about. I had enrolled in an online sociology course with the University of Wisconsin. My first paper submitted was returned with a grade of C+. Oh, come on. It was better than that. I was expecting nothing less than an A. So, I quit. But it could be that enrolling in a class was a tip to the brass that I was looking for a challenge. Being a mess hall clerk wasn’t much of a challenge, but it did take more intelligence than making salads.
The job had its advantages. I would remain housed with the cooks in a separate wing of the building. That means I didn’t have to fall out for roll call in the morning. No longer would I have to wear cook whites, which never seemed to fit properly. There was no problem fixing my own plate and doing so before anyone got in line. I could sleep in and go to work whenever I wanted, as long as it wasn’t too late, which meant getting to the mess hall about five minutes before Sgt. Bush.
Sergeant Bush was a heavy man. If you’re any sort of a football fan, you may be familiar with Andy Reid, the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs (my favorite pro football team). Sgt. Bush didn’t wear glasses, but he resembled Coach Reid in just about every respect. He was smart, funny, firm in his ways, and he had a great nose for talent – my opinion.
One hot, humid, suffocating July afternoon, Sgt. Bush was talking about how he wanted the mess hall dining room air conditioned. I was talking to the supply sergeant one day, and he brought up how much he would like to have his own coffee so that he wouldn’t have to keep walking over to the mess hall (30 feet away). Sgt. Rodriquez was a rotund Hispanic about 5-feet tall. He had a thick mustache and wore black-rimmed glasses. He could be intimidating; most people working in supply are intimidating – they have something you want. But I wasn’t just going to give him the coffee. I noticed his office was air-conditioned. I made an offer. I would give him a 30-lb. tin of coffee for the air conditioner. I thought he would talk me down, but he didn’t. He readily gave up the air conditioner. I went back to the mess hall and picked up a full, unopened 30-lb. tin of coffee like it was mine and brought it right over to him. I helped him take the air conditioner out of the window and hefted it by myself back to the mess hall. Sgt. Bush scratched his head and laughed so hard the cigar fell out of his mouth. I purchased a large window air conditioner with a 30-lb. can of coffee. He had a couple of guys on KP install it in our little window about 8 foot off the ground. Might as well, no one could look out the window anyway. It wasn’t a panacea for cooling the dining room, but it did have a positive effect on everyone who ate and worked there.
A few days after acquiring the air conditioner, I had noticed that Sgt. Rodriquez had a new air conditioner in his window. Someday, when he needed more coffee, I would get that one, too. Evidently, there was no shortage of them.
The fact that I could operate like Radar O’Reilly came in handy when our mess hall was one of a handful of mess halls throughout the country chosen to experiment with a new program. At the time, a mess hall was given so much food based upon the number of soldiers fed. It was rationed. If you served 100 GIs for lunch, you would receive approximately 110 hamburgers for a lunch on a specific day. 110 hamburger buns, and so on. For dinner, you might receive 110 pork chops.
The pilot program in which we were selected to participate in was devised to allow the mess sergeant and mess clerk to order whatever food it felt it needed to acquire, to accurately feed the estimated number of soldiers. We were allotted a specific amount per soldier for breakfast, a little more for lunch, and more for dinner. For example: if the 260th Quartermaster Battalion was feeding 100 soldiers for breakfast on Monday, we might receive one-hundred dollars in allotted credit to shop at the warehouse. Perhaps we would have 125 to feed at lunch on the same day. At a pretend ration of two-dollars per person, we would add two-hundred fifty dollars to our credit. If we fed only 30 soldiers for dinner because it was payday, we would presumably receive ninety dollars for a three-dollar credit per person fed. For that day, we would have earned four-hundred and forty dollars. We could spend up to $440 at the warehouse on anything we wanted. We could get $440 worth of mustard if we wanted. (Probably be court martialed the following day, but we could.)
Sgt. Bush devised a plan. At breakfast, where turnout for meals was larger than the other two meals, we would ask each soldier to sign all three sheets for the day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. At lunch, we would ask the soldiers in line if they signed at breakfast. If not, we would ask them to sign the lunch register and the dinner register. Same thing at dinner. Not one GI complained. Sgt. Bush said that if someone did complain, make sure they knew that they were eating in a special mess hall with all the trimmings. They could go back to the old way if they wanted to take the complaint higher. It was never necessary.
Our mess hall had great food. We had two staff sergeants, one on each shift, who were chefs at high-class restaurants before entering the service (one in Baltimore; the other in Boston), and because of that, most cooks spent their time cleaning. We were selected as “Best Mess on Post” 12 of 13 months I was there. The food was excellent; the place was spotless; and, because we could order what we thought would provide a better variety of dishes based on the pilot program, more and more servicemen wanted to eat with us rather than go to town. The program allowed us to serve steak more often than other mess halls, and the steaks were prepared to order – unlike the others who cooked each steak thoroughly and plopped it on your plate.
When all the other mess halls on base were having beans and rice, we were offering a choice. You could get a hamburger with French fries, or you could have beans and rice, or you could have a chef’s salad. Our mess hall was a destination spot for dining on base.
We also had a guy from Washington, DC. He was the best fry cook I had ever seen. He could accurately keep track of whose breakfast order was up, even when he had six or eight orders in front of him. Each egg was cooked exactly as the person requested it.
Trays with bowls on them, each bowl containing two eggs, were set next to the grill. When you were in front of him, he knew whether you had the scrambled, the over-easy, or even the poached.
One morning, when he yelled out “next man, how do you want your eggs?” the person in line replied, “you say ‘sir’ to me!” Without looking up to see that it was a lieutenant colonel, he quipped back: “Sir, this is an enlisted man’s mess. Next man, how do you want your eggs?” I could barely believe it. I was standing a little behind the counter when it occurred.
The officer was pissed. He went back to Sgt. Bush’s office. I was free to follow since that was also my office. I didn’t want to miss this. Sgt. Bush was firm. He stood behind his cook. “Yes, this is an enlisted man’s mess hall. If you want to eat somewhere where you want to be called ‘sir’ ya’all will have to eat at the Officer’s Club.” Sgt. Bush was right, and the LG knew it. We got a lot of officers eating in our mess hall. We had a petty cash box by the registers, and, besides the LG that thought he could push power in the breakfast line, they all paid and mixed in with enlisted men.
Cooks were some of the most powerful people in the Army. If you like what you’re eating; if it’s better than the Officer’s Club; if it’s less expensive than the Officer’s Club; then you shouldn’t mess with a good thing. (Pun intended.)
NOTE: It has since been changed, but in the in the 1960s and early 1970s, the word MESS was an acronym for Meals Essential for a Soldiers Sustenance.