Order Up

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.

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That First Job

Upon writing a blog about the Coronavirus in packing houses, not too many people are aware of my extensive background in the meat packing industry.  It’s not a career I would choose, but it was one I fell into. 

My first job was mowing lawns in the quiet little town of Vail, Iowa.  Most of my clients were little old ladies, and occasionally a little old lady and her husband.  A lot of those clients invited me in for a Coke and a cookie when I had finished mowing their yard.  Although I’m a Coke drinker now, I was a Pepsi drinking as an adolescent.  And those homemade cookies were awful.  I swear every one of them had raisins in them.  I’m not a big fan of raisin.  But I ate the cookies and drank the Coke from a glass with too much ice in it.  Those clients loved me because I trimmed as well as mowed.  Other kids in town trying to compete with me didn’t understand that fast is not always the best method of making money.  I was making close to sixty dollars a week throughout the summer of 1964.

That fall, as the mowing business was winding down, Marvin Rehbein, the owner of Marvin’s Provisions, approached me and asked me if I would be interested in working for him.  I didn’t even ask what salary he planned on paying me, I told him I would have to check with my mom.  Of course, she was thrilled.  I wasn’t so sure.  I was making more money mowing lawns, and the shoveling snow season was around the bend.  Shoveling snow was a lucrative business for a young entrepreneur like me.  Also, when the streets and sidewalks were covered in ice from an ice storm, I slipped on a pair of skates (I had 3 pair: hockey, figure, and roller) and skated to stores and back to old people’s houses to deliver groceries, salt, and mail, making some easy money. 

Reluctantly, I chose to work at Marvin’s.  I worked two to three hours after school and eight hours or more on Saturdays.  I made twenty dollars a week.  I began work at 4:00 pm, or whenever I could get there after getting off the bus, going home, changing clothes, and running the three blocks to get there.  I began wrapping beef.  That meant accumulating so many huge wax-coated wrapping bags, and slipped each bag from the bottom of the meat hanging on a rail, over the front, back, or cut, folding it over, and placing a clip toward the top to hold it on.  The bags came in four sizes:  front quarter, hind quarter, chuck, and loin.  Using a black wax pen, I had to legibly write on the wrapper the name of the customer.  It was cold in the cooler, and the cooler fans were powerful.  It was like working outside in a blizzard. 

Marvin always had two high school students working for him.  Before me, there was Bob Steadman, and Laird Vergith.  Bob worked with the other men out front while Laird wrapped the beef and conducted the dirty work on cleanup.  When Bob went on to college, Laird moved up and I was the younger guy that had to wrap the beef and perform the dirty work on cleanup. 

During the summer I got to work every day.  It was the same old thing: 

“Go get me a 14-17 pork loin.” 

“Wash this out.” 

“Help the ladies out front.” 

Half of the building was the wholesale meat company; the other half was a grocery store.  Often, I was called up front, as they called it, to help bag groceries, carry out groceries, or even assist the delivery truck with unloading staples into the hallway (between the grocery store and barber shop next door).

The senior high school kid was also responsible for cutting a specific item for the grocery store’s meat case once the full-time staff and Marvin headed down the street for a drink or a beer.  For instance, Daisy Lidgett would come in a little before closing and want five pounds of ground beef, or a chicken cut up for her restaurant up the street.  At least once a week, some guy who thought he was a wheeler and dealer, would come in after sitting in the bar a few doors down and want a steak cut much different than the ones we had in the meat display case.  Without failing, they always settled for less than what we knew was already in the meat case.  It’s pointless to argue with a drunk.

When Laird moved on, I became the senior high school kid.  That also meant that I would now get to take the Ford Econoline (which was nicknamed the Weeny Wagon) out to the Vail Dump to unload all the day’s trash and start it on fire.  That was the highlight of the afternoon – any afternoon.  Unfortunately, Marvin eventually contracted with Mick Niehaus to haul away trash and the trips to the dump were over. The high school kid to follow me was Marvin’s son, Cory.  He didn’t work out.  He was trouble from the beginning.  Because his dad was the owner, he thought he could do anything he wanted.  Boy, was he wrong!

One evening, the Niehaus boys and their dad loaded up the truck with the day’s trash.  Bob and Rod were giving Cory a hard time, as I think most teenagers did.  Cory took a huge handful of bone meal from the meat saw and threw it at them, just as they were closing the dock doors.  Splat!  The bone meal hit the doors and splattered all over the place; most of the place I had finished cleaning.  I instructed him to clean it up.  He told me “no”!  I said he was going to clean it up or else.  “Or else, what?” He snapped back at me.  One thing led to another and I punched him in the nose.

He went crying to his mom, holding his hands over his mouth.  His mom was the head bookkeeper.  She came out of her office and immediately fired me.  “Okay,” I said.  I was standing next to the time clock.  I punched out (no pun intended). 

Marvin came into the store as I was getting my work apparel hung up.  He asked Cory and Helen what happened and came to me as I was heading out the back door.  He didn’t even ask me for my side of the story.  He asked me to punch back in, finish cleaning up, and that I should expect to be back at work the next day.  I never saw Cory again. As far as I know, I was the last high school kid to work at Marvin’s.

Marvin Rehbein was the fairest man I have ever known.  He was the father I had wanted, having lost mine when I was 6-years-old.  Marvin was covertly adopted by me.  I would do just about anything he asked.  The tables turned a few years later, but that is a blog for a later date.

Cory, who with his sister, was adopted by Marvin and Helen from the country of Greece when they were infants.  Today, Cory is using his birth name as he sits in a maximum-security prison in Tecumseh, NE, serving a life sentence for killing a man in Omaha.  Sometimes, I pray for him.

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Easter Shoes

Last Saturday, Stephanie was going to the store and asked if I needed anything.  In my world, need and want are the same thing.  I decided against asking for another thirty-eight-ounce package of M&Ms.  But it was the day before Easter, and I haven’t had the Easter Bunny show up in years.  I have to get candy on my own.

Easter brought up a fond memory.  As a child, I recall having to polish shoes the evening before Sunday morning Mass.  The shoes were placed by the basement walk-out door.  One year, there was a clothes dryer in the way. After shining shoes, my brothers and I went outside to pick some rye and fescue grass from the yard and make a little nest for the Easter Bunny.  I had made my nest right next to the new dryer.  It seems as though the Easter Bunny always brought the same damned hard boiled eggs we had colored the afternoon before.  I’m not sure that chocolate eggs were invented, yet.

It’s that clothes dryer that sparked an Easter memory. 

Mom had one of those washers that consisted of a big tub, with an agitator in the middle.  She had to use a stick to pull the clothing from the tub and push it through the wringer attached to the top of the tub.  To rinse, you repeated the process after draining the dirty the water and replenishing with clear, clean warm water.  Mom would have a rag she used to wipe off the metal wires of the clothesline, and with the basket of clean clothes, hung them on the line to dry.  It was a lot of work.  We take laundry for granted compared to that era.

One year, Mom got a dryer.  It’s one of those events you barely notice or remember, but I’m sure it was one of Mom’s greater memories.  It wasn’t there very long.  One day coming home from school, it was no longer in the basement by the door.  I never thought anymore about it.

Talking to Mom one day later in our lives, she told me the tale about the dryer.  She had bought it on a payment plan from our local hardware store.  After having it a month or so, she had to let it go back to the store.  Her boys needed shoes.  It was the dryer or shoes.  Mom went back to wiping down the clothesline, fighting the wind, rain, snow (yes, snow), and other elements like a neighbor mowing the lawn, a dirty dog roaming the area, etc.  I had no idea.

Several years later, she got that dryer back, along with a modern wash machine, but I don’t like the circumstances.  Mom went on with the story.  She had contacted our parish priest to see if the church could help.  The priest told Mom it was about time she got remarried.  Mom talked about it, calmly.  I was furious.  I was losing faith in the Catholic Church as it was, this information was a bit more straw on the camel’s back.  Unfortunately, marriage was the eventual solution she took to combat poverty. 

Since that conversation with Mom, I have given almost every year to the Goodwill of the Great Plains Shoe and Mitten Party in Sioux City.  No child should have to have a mother choose between shoes and keeping the family clean without spending an entire day doing so.  More importantly, every child should own a good pair of shoes, whether shined or not.

I’ll get my supply of M&Ms replenished this week.  Maybe I have to go outside and pull up some grass hoping for that chocolate egg.  I wonder if creeping Charlie would work.

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Risky Business

After a few weeks of this hibernation practice propelled by the coronavirus pandemic, I decided to take some risks.

Last week, I washed my hands a couple times for only nineteen seconds.

I saw a crowd of nine people, so I walked up to join them.  Hey, it’s perfectly legal.  Had there been ten, I would have been pushing it a little.  While in the crowd I thought I would have some fun by sneezing and coughing.  It wasn’t long before I was standing by myself. 

Never was there more fun than bringing my own package of toilet paper to the store and placing in it a shopping cart.  I pushed all around the aisles with people staring at me.  Some even asked where I found it.  I directed them through some doors that said “employees only” and told them it was in a truck on the loading dock. 

I’ve also sawed off a six-foot one by one piece of wood and marked foot increments on it.  I carry it out in front of me and swing it by my side to keep everyone six feet away. 

Actually, you should know by now that this is an April Fools message.  Please, do not try this at home without adult supervision. 

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My Worst Friend

We all have our best friends, but have you ever had a “worst friend”.  I know it sounds like a paradox, but hear me out.  I believe most people have experienced a worst friend.

When I was stationed in Fort Lee, VA, I had a guy hang around me all the time.  I couldn’t shake him; he was there when I got up; he was there when I ate; he was there – yeah, he may have been in the next stall. 

My blogs over the past year have taken you through my efforts at attempting to be a good soldier while I was in Basic Training.  [See: Run, Ryan, Run – May 8, 2019; Ryan, You Cheated! – June 12, 2019; Indoctrination – July 10, 2019; and Go Away, Sunshine – July 24, 2019.  This is a continuation of my life in Fort Lee, Virginia. 

So, there was this guy, I’ll call him Ziggy.  I can’t remember where he came from, how I was introduced to him, or even if he was in the same company as me.  He just showed up like an abandoned puppy, and stuck by my side no matter what I did, where I was going, or with whom I was with. 

I tried to be subtle at first that I didn’t want him around me all the time.  Some people just aren’t able to take hints.  So, I was up front with him.  That didn’t work, either.

Fate was the eventual winner.  Ziggy woke me one morning to ask a favor.  “If they come to you and ask if I borrowed your CPO last night will you tell them yes?”  A CPO was a popular jacket in the early 70s.  I said, “who is they?  And why would I want to tell them I lent you a jacket?”

Ziggy, serious as could be, told me that “the Military Police arrested me last night for possession of marijuana.  It was in the pocket.”  I was definitely awake at that point.  Did I hear him correctly?  He wanted to say that the jacket he was wearing was mine, and that there was MJ in the pocket when I lent it to him?  Did he think I was that stupid?  Obviously, the answer to all questions was “yes”.  I told him “no”.

It didn’t make any difference what I told him, he kept to his story.  It wasn’t long before I was scheduled to talk to the JAG [Judge Advocate General].  I showed up in “my” CPO.  I didn’t have to answer that many questions.  I think the JAG knew Ziggy hadn’t told them one ounce of truth. 

Ziggy often wanted to borrow something of mine.  He wanted to borrow my Rare Earth album and he didn’t have a turntable on which to play it.  He was constantly asking to “borrow” a cigarette, even though I could see he had a pack in his pocket.  An occasional cigarette – Okay.  He was not going to borrow my Rare Earth Get Ready album.  It was my favorite album; I only had about 3 or 5.  I wasn’t falling for that one!

I didn’t see Ziggy for a while.  Then, one evening, I was heading down the hall to use the men’s room.  Sergeant Youngblood was standing against the wall with a loaded pistol holstered on his belt.  I glanced at him and he said nothing.  I walked into the men’s room and there was Ziggy, attempting to climb out the window.  We were on the 3rd floor.  There was a second story rooftop to the right, but he was going to have to swing over to it in order to keep from dropping three stories.

I asked him: “What are you doing?”  He came back with a question of his own.  “Is Youngblood still out there?”

“Yeah, He’s leaning against the wall.  I wondered why he was there.  Going somewhere?”

Ziggy told me they were sending him up to the stockade, but not if he could escape.

He had told Youngblood that he couldn’t go while being watched, so the sergeant went out the door and told him to make it quick.  I knew Youngblood was a little slow, but I didn’t think he was totally naïve.

I did my brief chore in the men’s room and left Ziggy hanging out the window.  Youngblood asked me if Ziggy was still in there. 

“Yep.  He’s still hanging around.” 

I went back to my bunk and never saw Ziggy again.

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Gloom and Doom

By now, everyone has experienced the disappearing toilet paper caper.  We made our monthly trip to COSTCO last week only to discover that the warehouse was void of any toilet paper and paper towels.  In its place was an employee telling the shoppers parading past that a shipment will be in tomorrow.  What seemed strange is that a pallet of Kleenex sat across the aisle from the empty skids where TP and paper towels were usually located.  Wouldn’t you want to stock up on Kleenex instead of toilet paper in the midst of a potential pandemic? 

Hoarding has been around since families lived in caves.  The practice of piling up goods for personal use may have peaked during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Most Baby Boomers will remember their parents or grandparents telling stories of how those from the Great Generation began to hoard items, especially toilet paper and soap.  They saved everything.  Old clothes would not be thrown out, but would become a piece of a quilt – many of them beautiful.  Equipment that didn’t work was saved in case a replacement part from it was necessary in repairing its successor.   

The generation before us hoarded different food items, too.  Hunger was massive in the 1930s.  The period experienced more than an economic downturn; it was also the time of the Dust Bowl. Food was scarce because it was almost impossible to grow enough to feed a nation.  It just dawned on me that Grandma’s Garden and her cave was an example of how one person could not possibly have enough food to last a lifetime.

Today, the global markets are as unstable as the tornadic Midwestern air in May and June.  The NYSE is replicating the ups and downs it saw in 1929.  Many economists are predicting that we are heading for a recession.  I anticipate it may look more like a depression, such as the Great Depression that followed the Black Friday market crash of late October in 1929.

Now, with self-isolation, safe distancing, working from home, businesses closing, Alcoholic Anonymous meetings and church services canceled (even Catholic Mass, which is the first time in my life), quarantine, and short supplies of food and staples, I wonder if some of us will be thrown back into a previous time. 

Perhaps we’re in a cyclical spin.  Santayana, the famous philosopher and essayist (essayist means blogger in modern terms) said:  “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  

This time, the Greater Depression will be caused by a lack of leadership, failure to foresee and compensate for a disaster, and underlying anarchy.  It’s inevitable that we will see an increase in crime and poverty, as if the two can be separated.  And lack of addressing the issue of climate change, combined with the financial collapse of numerous economies, may add to the mental and physical decay of those living in helplessness and hopelessness. 

I’m not necessarily predicting doom and gloom.  Just sayin’, you know.

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