Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Beef with Spiced Sauce

I had to flip through my key ring the other day looking for some damn key I hardly ever use when I came across my P-38.

Those of you who weren't in the service, or were not in the forces before 1980 probably have no idea what I'm talking about, but it's the little rectangular thing on the top of the ring in the picture below. Yeah, that thing, with the little hook sort of blade piece on it.It's a can opener.

Really. I shit you not. The little hook blade opens out at a right angle to the rectangular piece and you hook it over the rim of the can and punch the tip of the blade into the top. You work it around, punching and moving, punching and moving, until you get most of the way around, and then you bend the top of the can back.

It works slicker than water off a cat's ass, usually. I've opened all sorts of cans with it, from gallon tins to tiny potted meat cans. It's slow, and you have to take your time and be thorough, but I've never had one fail on me. It does what it's designed to do - open tin cans - and does it well.

I always thought it was a neat little piece of American ingenuity, but it turns out that the original design shows up in 1913 as the brainstorm of one E.M. Darque', so the American in question seems to have been French, or of French extraction.The version I was introduced to in Basic Training back in 1980, though, goes back to WW2 and looks American as the Andrews Sisters. It worked pretty well even in the hands of a cherry private learning which meals to open and which to bury and which to try and trade away.And it occurred to me, as I was thinking about this little gadget, that the things that were of crucial importance to me; finding a way to wear my P-38 on my snap-link key ring because I hated the way it would open inside your shirt and poke your chest when you wore it on your dogtags, making sure I opened the boxes of C-rats (or Meals, Combat, Individual, to give them their right name) prior to getting on the 80-pax for Green Ramp to ensure I dumped the nasty crap and stowed the trade goods somewhere out of the way. Fruitcake? Fuck THAT. Cinnamon Dust Roll? Somebody might trade you a B-1 packet for that. Pound Cake? OhsweetjesushappydayIloveyoudarlingpoundcake..!

Were as useless now as knowing how to speak ancient Sumerian. I had carefully amassed all this knowledge and lore...only to pass on and, though retaining most of it, find it completely and utterly useless.And the hard-won knowledge of arcane foodie lore now lost and useless? Things like knowing which C's had John Wayne bars (a round chocolate bar with tooth-busting nuggets of toffee all in a silver foil wrapper found in the B-2 units [I think] - legend had it that the name came from a scene in the movie "The Green Berets" where the Duke himself gnawed on one. I've seen the movie - it's terrible, as advertised, BTW - and I don't remember the candy bar scene. But that was the story, anyway) and which had the loathed "Charms" fruit candies.Knowing which meals had the good desserts, like peaches or pears, and which had the dust rolls and the apricots. You had to know which cases had which, because to bring back a case full of Beef and Shrapmetal and Fruitcake was to be pounded by your squad.And the little tricks to eating well in the field, like humping a bottle of tabasco (I liked soy sauce, instead) or something to mask the flat, heavy taste of almost everything in the meal. Or remembering to keep the box, which could be used as a stove when you didn't get the little blue or purple Trioxane heat tabs. Punch a hole in the can, put it back in the box, light the box, and when it burned to ash the meal would be at least half cooked. Warm Spaghetti with Beef Chunks, while not as good as hot Spag & Chunks, was better by far than COLD Spag & Chunks.Mind you, there were some C's that you only ate if you were truly starving. Chopped Ham and Eggs? Sweet fucking Baby Jesus, but those were awful. Find someone who would trade for them and you were golden. Or not, and get stuck with the horrible foodlike thing and eat it or go hungry.

And remembering how to trade. Marketing was key; packaging a couple of jam tins with a tuna can for a Beans and Baby Dicks. Or, frabjous day, getting someone to trade you a Pound Cake.

One of the medics in my outfit liked to play the same mean trick on the new grunts in his platoon. At the first meal stop on a field problem he'd pick through his C-rat tins and casually ask "Who wants to trade for a Pound Cake?"

A gang of hopeful cherries would shower him with largesse in hopes of taking advantage of the obviously feeble-minded Doc, and he would wait patiently, picking his victim and make the trade. At which point the outraged new meat would squawk that he had, not the treasured Pound Cake, but a Chocolate or Cinnamon Dust Roll.

"Yes, but pound it up your ass and it will be a Pound Cake..." Doc would sneer, and all the old sweats would roar.

And sitting here, remembering Doc's scurvy trick and the laughter and the cursing, all my memories, for good or ill, of the canned meals and the guys who shared them summed up in the little metal gadget still on my key ring all of thirty years later, I realize that the are probably no more than a tiny handful of soldiers now in the Army I served who remember those cans and those days. And that they, like me, have nowhere to take their old wisdom, no reason to impart it to the next generation of soldiers. We might as well know how to load and fire a crossbow.

And realizing that I realize that time and a way of soldiering, a way of life, has truly passed by, that the Army I knew and the times I served in have gone, are part of the Past, and like all past things have left just the merest of traces behind, like the tiny OD metal shavings floating in the yellowish jelly of a newly-opened can of Pork Slices, Cooked, With Juices.

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