"JACQUES, I believe I will tarry a bit before I order tonight. I feel like something special."
"But of course, monsieur."
He spoke in his usual heavy French accent with distinct Bronx overtones. Smiling verminously, he then bowed slightly from the waist, his heavily brilliantined toupee glowing in the reflected light from the bar, and disappeared through the maze of candlelit, festive tables. I sipped my drink thoughtfully as I studied the handwritten menu of my favorite midtown restaurant, Les Miserables du Frite.
Ah! Saucisson en croute. Perhaps. I leaned back, picturing the succulent garlic pork sausages baked in wafer-thin pastry, topped with a touch of insolent Dijon mustard. The image floated above my napkin for a moment, steaming and redolent. No, not exactly right for tonight.
There are meals that are appropriate for one season and totally wrong For another, In orchestrating a dinner, the true lover of fine food will take into account barometric pressure, wind velocity, dew point and the phase of the moon, as well as the more ostentatious folk festivals and religious rites of the period in question. Outside Les Miserables, the wind rattled the canopy with the biting rasp of midwinter; holiday revelry was in the air. In honor of the yuletide, I would have to order something a bit heartier than my usual. That ruled out seafood as a main course, as well as most poultry dishes. Ah! Perfect! There it was, halfway down the menu in flowing, almost illegible purple-ink penstrokes - cotes de veau a l'ardennaisse. Without further ado, I signaled Jacques, who was .skulking lasciviously in a strategic position slightly behind a bronze-haired, bare-shouldered nymphet at a corner table in the company of a craggy gentleman of advanced years.
"The usual pate, Jacques, and I'll skip the soup." He nodded approvingly as I spoke.
"And how are the codes de veau Pardennaisse tonight?"
His eyebrows flipped heavenward. "Monsieur, there is no way to describe -"
"Enough, Jacques. I must warn you, I know this dish well. I have enjoyed its indescribable succulence as prepared under the hand of perhaps the greatest artist since Escoffier."
With an unfamiliar air of respect, Jacques asked deferentially, "Monsieur, if you will excuse me, not many Americans know of this magnifique but obscure provincial dish. If I may inquire...?"
"It is a long story, Jacques. Perhaps one day I will tell it to you. But now my hunger is such -"
"Mais certainrment, monsieur." He turned and marched reverentially to the kitchen.
I had ordered the cotes de veau more for old-times' sake than anything else; I knew they could not approach the supernal beauty of those I had been privileged to savor in the distant past. In fact, I had been surprised to see it on the menu. I watched Jacques sweep through the swinging doors of the kitchen, allowed 15 seconds for hint to relay my order to the chef and carefully set the elapsed-time bezel on my navigator/ skindiver chronograph to zero. There is no margin for error in the preparation of this exacting dish. The time is precise and unvarying: 25 minutes. As my taste buds anticipated the subtle suggestion of basil, the insinuating soupcon of lemon that would shortly seduce them, my mind drifted back through the hazy thicket of the past - stirred by Jacques' impertinent question - to a time when the placid routine of life in the Signal Corps was traumatically disrupted by a rebellion that made the fabled mutiny aboard the Caine pale to the insignificance of .a third-grade fist fight.
Company K, of which I was a somnolent 17-year-old member, was a ragtag band of alleged radar experts hastily thrown together from all parts of the country to fight the forces of evil in a world darkened by global war. Radar, a highly technical pursuit, naturally brought into its embrace a peculiar kind of soldier. Many wore thick CI spectacles, of the type known today as granny glasses, with silver frames that instantly corroded to a dull-green, causing permanent ocher stripes to form over the bridge of time nose and time back of the ear. Myopic and astigmatic, this motley group terrorized the rifle ranges of our early basic training. Only by dint of assiduous cheating in the target pits were they able to meet the lowest qualifications required by the U.S. Army. Others - pale, underweight waifs who had astounded algebra classes in their local high schools - continually caught cold, their noses running copiously into fetid gas masks. Yet another contingent consisted of ex-Air Corps cadets who had flunked out by flying through high-tension wires and plowing up cornfields. I belonged to a fourth category, a group who never could figure out how or why we landed where we did. There were many theories that had to do with the well-known vagaries of the Army classification test, but they were only theories. Shared vicissitude had drawn us all together into a sullen, compact, fatalistic band of defeated malcontents.
We were not the sort who inspires a novel by Norman Mailer or Joseph Heller. Indeed, the Signal Corps itself was then - and still is - a special limbo in the Armed Forces. No one makes movies starring John Wayne as an intrepid wire layer or Lee Marvin as a pole-line construction N. C. O. On very rare occasions, for maybe 15 or 20 frames, a quick shot of a Signal Corps radar operator is shown, usually a thin-faced Pfc., his visage green from the reflected screen, squeaking into a phone, "Sir, there's a pip at eleven o'clock. Fourteen thousand yards, at twenty thousand feet."
The entire membership of Company K sat breathlessly through hundreds of hours at post movie theaters, waiting for that one scene. A great roar, followed by thunderous applause, would fill the auditorium, followed by dead silence throughout the rest of the picture, even when our paratroops captured the entire German general staff flagrante delicto at a high Nazi revel.
Lieutenant Cherry, our fearless leader, formed the backbone of this crack team of warriors. A West Pointer, he found himself - after four years at the Point, marching ramrod-straight in the shadow of Pershing, Bradley and Patton - assigned to command Company K. He radiated a kind of total sorrow rarely seen in civilian life. On several occasions, he even went to the extent of discreetly hiding his West Point class ring when Company K was being inspected by head-quarters officers.
Why? He had been assigned to a secret training camp on the edge of a vast Southern swamp alive with cottonmouths and alligators. The heat lay over the scrubby sand dunes like a sponge-rubber blanket soaked with tepid water. Nightly, a black, singing cloud of needle-beaked, malarial mosquitoes rolled over us like some insane breaker on a desolate beach. Heat rash blossomed from head to toe, covering the entire regiment with a furry incrustation of pinkish, screamingly itchy blotches. Over it all, the steady mar of our high-powered engines made thinking a desperate struggle. Above this low-pitched rumble, the continuous whine of search-radar units added to the tropical ambiance.
We toiled night and day in three shifts, rotating around the clock. By day, the relentless blast of sun and glare of sand; by night, the mosquitoes. Once, while grabbing a fitful moment of blessed sleep under the aromatic canvas of a pyramidal tent in the early hours of the morning, I suddenly sat bolt upright under my mosquito bar, throwing off a shower of perspiration as I did so.
"Tic-a-tic-a-tic-a-tic." In the pitch darkness of the tent, it seemed to come from all directions at once.
"Fer Chrissake!" said Gasser in the next bunk. "Somebody's flyin' a mode] airplane."
It was true. A model airplane was flying around inside our tent. You could hear the propeller and the rubber band. Goldberg, the most luxuriously equipped soldier I ever met, fumbled in the dark for one of his appliances.
"Where the hell did you put my flashlight, Gasser?"
"Tic-a-tic-a-tic-a-tic-a-tic...." It roared past my mosquito bar, banked in the dark and headed toward Edwards.
"Here's the son of a bitch." Goldberg had found his flashlight. A beam cut through the darkness.
My God! There, caught in the glare like some World War One Gotha bomber over London, eyes glowing greenly, was a gigantic flapping cockroach that must have gone four pounds at least; his wingspread looked like at least a foot, and I swear he wore tiny Iron Crosses on his fuselage. Gasser's bunk overturned with a crash. His evil work done, the monster soared out the ventilating port and was gone - back to his home base.
Life was basic in Company K. There were only three moments in each day where existence sank to even lower depths: breakfast, lunch and dinner, Our mess hall, a low, tar-paper-roofed clapboard shack, squatted amid the palmettos like some flatulent toad, exhaling noxious gases and dispensing a stupefying assortment of semiedible refuse they called "chow."
Breakfast usually consisted of French toast cut into unwieldy wedges, the thick end dripping with uncooked powdered egg, the other blackened and charred. Drenched in watery imitation-maple syrup, it was a dish that would have made the Bromo-Seltzer company weep for joy. Another choice was a thick, glutinous, brownish-white paste that Banjewski, our mess sergeant, insisted was oatmeal. Gasser once pulled seven days' company punishment for referring to it in a loud voice as "camel dung." He made the mistake of uttering this pronouncement within hearing of Banjewski, a very sensitive man.
"Banjo Butt," as he was affectionately known among the K.P.s, had been a snitcher in Pittsburgh before becoming a culinary artist. Heavily jowled, sweaty T-shirt stretched taut over his bulging pot, Banjo Butt slaved 15 hours a day to feed his boys the best the Army had to offer. His pancakes, for example, were in a class by themselves. Blackened to a turn, fried viciously in sizzling kerosene, they had earned the simple yet descriptive appellation "Banjo Butt's cow flops." He was inordinately proud of them and, on the days when he inflicted them on Company K, would stand at the door, greeting us with:
"Nothin' like a big stack of flapjacks to stoke up for the day. Come arid get
The long line of GIs, hearing this, would recoil in horror, some gagging and returning to their tents, to wolf down the last of the petrified cookies they had saved from last Christmas, others to simply go to the latrine and sit for a while. Yet hunger occasionally drove us to actually eat what was set before us. On those rare occasions when a few fresh eggs were available, Banjo Butt, cackling jovially, would fry them up into small plastic BBs. His breakfast coffee was our only salvation; black, virile and virulent to the last drop, it numbed the taste buds, coated the stomach and immunized us from food poisoning.
Lunch was another matter. The sun was at its zenith, the temperature within the mess hall hovering - along with the humidity - in the high 90s. Gasser was usually at the head of the line, peering in through the screen to see what dismal surprises were in store. When all was in readiness, Banjo Butt would fling open the door to the ravenous horde. Gasser, sniffing the air, would pass the bad news back down the line in a loud voice:
"Hey, fellas, guess what we're having today? Oh, boy!"
Dramatic pause, broken only by the clatter of pots from within the mess hall. "S. O. S.!"
Three days out of five, the main entree was this much-maligned delicacy - an indescribable pastiche of creamed chipped beef on toast, justifiably nicknamed with the initials that signified the international distress signal, but only in their secondary meaning. It was actually one of the best things Company K ever got to eat. Occasionally, slabs of gray, spongy mutton dappled with tallow and covered with a thin sauce of Le Page's library paste brightened our midday repast. And every now and then was the rare treat that Banjo Butt described as "steak." We never were able to find out what it really was, but the rumors were numerous and lurid. The most prevalent view centered on the retirement and disposal of U. S. Cavalry stock. I myself did not agree with this theory, since I had always heard that horse meat, properly prepared, was rather tasty. Whatever it was, Banjo invariably prepared it in the mode that he referred to as "Swiss steak," mercifully camouflaging the meat with a dark, oily brown fluid laced with a few shriveled onions and wizened peas. Accompanying every meal were mashed "potatoes" made from some sort of white powder that the quartermaster delivered to Company K's mess hall in brown-paper sacks. This was an eerie accompaniment to every meal, having absolutely no discernible flavor and being of a consistency that superficially resembled Silly Putty. Our taste-tempting assortment of "vegetables" ran the gamut from rubber beets (boiled to a rusty brown and served at body temperature on a wilted lettuce leaf) to Brussels sprouts that looked like furry yellow ping-pang balls and would actually bounce if dropped, as they often were, on the mess-hall floor.
This Lucullan feast was washed down with Banjo Butt's Company K specialty, which became infamous throughout the entire Signal Corps: the Purple Death. It was ladled out of the usual 32-gallon GI can, in which bobbed a piece of ice about the size of a baseball. After all the intervening years, I can still taste its iridescent astringency. A liquid of the deepest purple hue, it was reputedly the by-product of an unsuccessful experiment by the Kool-Aid company that had, naturally, found its way onto the Signal Corps menu, Some said it was raisin Kool-Aid; others called it "bug piss." In any case, it was highly useful, since it was excellent for cleaning brass and was a very effective insecticide when used in a spray gun. It was good for writing letters, too, but it tended to blot. It was also a spectacular laxative.
We had only one dessert: canned fruit cocktail - warm, syrupy and insipid. The K.P.s enjoyed dishing it out with a quick flick of the ladle as you carried your compartmented tray past the serving table, drenching the S. O. S. with its cloying sweetness. There are millions of ex-GIs who have carried with them to this day a pathological aversion to chipped beef, based on their belief that it's prepared with canned peaches, grapes and maraschino cherries.
Such is the human spirit, however, that invariably, after every leaden lunch, we always felt that maybe supper would be better. All afternoon, the mess hall would give out sounds of pots banging, dishes rattling, the muffled curses of the cooks as they chose the K.P.s before them like galley slaves in the daily race against time to get supper together by 1730 hours sharp for 286 beady-eyed, hollow-soaked torpor, as Company K struggled endlessly to master the electronic monsters that dominated our lives - parabolic dishes four stories high, spinning maniacally, allegedly searching the heavens for enemy marauders who never came. The rumor had swept through the Signal Corps that anyone who spent as much as ten minutes within a half mile of a 545 radar unit might as well forget his sex life for the rest of his clays. This led to occasional misunderstandings in town on Saturday nights; there was even talk of a general strike for extra hazard pay. Finally, Lieutenant Cherry, speaking in his most authoritative falsetto, gave us a lecture on the subject, alleging that the radar, if anything, added to our potency. After that, we were sure the rumors were true. Which may be why a!l we looked forward to were our daily meals.
Lieutenant Cherry always insisted that we remove our fatigues and dress in our wrinkled suntans for supper - a touch of style that we didn't particularly appreciate. This meal, which ended the day, was the high point of Banjo's culinary ingenuity. The menu ran to several basic entrees: (I) "hash," a dark melange of gristle and unidentifiable pieces of some sort of vegetable fiber, palatable only when ketchup was available, which meant about once a month; (2) "salmon loaf," a gamy, case-hardened slab riddled with razor-sharp fishbones, speckled with dehydrated onion and covered with "cream sauce," a grayish gruel accented with lumps of flour; and (3) "chili macaroni," an exotic mixture of white shoelaces and what appeared to be raisins but tasted like lint from a Y.M.C.A. bath towel. It was colored red.
There were other favorites that showed up from time to time, such as "liver," a vulcanized obscenity that often brought Company K close to open revolt; and Banjewski's personal piece de resistance: stuffed cabbage, which Banjo proudly proclaimed was prepared "the way us real Polacks make it in Pittsburgh." Upon our first encounter with this delight, Gasser, on the spot, cracked the first Polish joke ever heard by man. It had to do with why the Polish air force didn't need wings and what propelled it. On nights when this delicacy was served, the entire company would retire to the PX and dine on Power House candy bars.
We had fallen into a routine so unvarying that it wasn't easy even to know what day it was. The weeks, the months, the seasons blended together like the leftovers from the last meal that we found again on our plates, in slightly altered form and splashed with tomato sauce, at the next meal. Little did we realize that we were on the eve of an episode that would mark our lives forever - arid enter the annals of military legend.
It started after chow one night. It had been a "fried pork chop" night - thick chunks of greasy bone to which clung large lumps of grayish fat - accompanied by beets, reconstituted mashed potatoes and melted GI ice cream (tutti-frutti) that had mingled tastily on my tray with the pork gravy. I was headed down the Buckboard street toward the latrine when I noticed a darkened troop carrier drawn up before the orderly room. Three or four figures in suntans had dismounted and were entering the company office. At the time, I thought: "just another load of victims."
Gasser was with me, mumbling something about going down to the PX and grabbing a beer. We entered our tent. Goldberg sat on a footlocker, his shirt off. sweating profusely and changing his socks. He looked up as we entered. His face, usually an inert mass of ennui, was highly animated.
"Did you guys see that truck at the orderly room?"
"Who's getting shipped?" Goldberg asked.
"How the hell do I know?" Gasser answered with his customary friendliness.
"It looks like some guys arc shipping in," I told him.
Goldberg heaved a giant sigh of relief. Ile was deathly afraid of getting shipped anywhere, presumably on the theory that his present post, however miserable, would be preferable to any new one. Later events, amazingly enough, were to prove him wrong.
That evening was like every other evening in our little six-man tent. Edwards, as was his wont, finished polishing the hinges on everybody's footlocker and started to work on the bedsprings: Gasser snored, belched and scratched his heat rash as he dozed. Goldberg tried to pick up Tokyo Rose on his Halicrafters short-wave radio. I read my Donald Duck Big Little Book for the 27th time. Zinsmeister continued the nonstop letter he was writing to his girlfriend in Passaic; she had long since gotten married, but it was so far along that he decided to keep writing and send it off to his next girlfriend, whenever he met her - which at this point looked as if it would be after the War, if ever. And Clarence W. Dye of Winona Minnesota, a pimply-faced mathematical genius who spoke only in Algebraic, read his logarithm tables and chuckled in appreciation.
Our tent was on the day shift that week, which meant that we stood reveille at 4:45 A.M. After our few short hours of fevered sleep, we stood in the dark while Kowalski, our beloved first sergeant, read the roll front the clipboard he clutched in his talons. Hot, sweaty and sleepy, we answered "Yo," each with his own inimitable style and inflection. As Kowalski read off the details for the day, the voices of other first sergeants could be heard in the darkness, along with a few catcalls and muffled curses. The Everglades Defense Command was starting another day. In retrospect, it must have been a little like five minutes to eight on that Sunday morning of December 7, 1941, just be-lore the first Zeroes roared in from the sea. We wandered down to the latrine. A few guys showered. Most just scraped die beards off their faces. painfully skirting the more violent areas of heat rash. I went back to the tent and put oil my sodden fatigues. Gasser was already dressed. In sullen silence, the two of us headed for the mess hall - and a new life.
Groggy as I was, 50 feet away from the mess hall I had looked at so many times in the past that I could no longer even see it, I was aware of something. There was an air about it. It was different, somehow. It hit Gasser at the same time.
"What the hell is up?" he asked in a wary voice, sniffing the wind. "Be careful."
An almost imperceptible puff of tropic breeze fanned our faces. We stopped in our tracks. An aroma of stunning and sensuous complexity wafted over us for an instant and was gone.
"What was that?" I asked incredulously.
"Damned if I know!"
The usual odor of the mess hall at this hour was an oily fog of oxidized lard, What we had just experienced was as alien to what we had always known as the scent of flowering mimosa on an arctic ice floe.
"I'll reconnoiter," hissed Gasser, using a word we had learned in basic training but had never found a use for until now. Skulking to the mess hall and up the steps, he peered cagily inside. I saw his face transfixed with amazement in the yellow light front within. Then, like a shot, he disappeared through the door faster than I had seen him move in over a year. Knowing that I would he safe - since Gasser was ahead of me, instead of behind me - I decided to follow.
I could not believe what assaulted my senses when I opened the screen door. Tray upon tray of rich, glowing, brown-glazed Danish pastry and French hot breads, of spectacular variety, stretched out on the stainless-steel counter front which we had troweled so many impalatable gallons of Banjo Butt's indescribable oatmeal. 'The scent of baked almond, prune and citron drenched the air. Gasser, tray in hand, had already dug in with the maniacal fury' of a man who has spent 17 weeks on a life raft. Containing my hysteria with a supreme effort of will, 1 picked up a hot croissant so delicate and fragile as to crumble at the touch, and stared at it in disbelief. So stunned were we with the epicurean panoply spread out before us that we never even paused to wonder how or why it was there. Naively, I suppose we took it for granted that Banjewski had somehow miraculously whipped it all up for us.
Working our way silently and steadily down the counter with the efficiency of a threshing machine, scooping up two or three of everything in sight and shoveling them onto our trays, we reached the end of the wondrous pastries and stopped short. In front of us was a huge tray exuding a richness of aromatic: bouquet such as I had never experienced in all of my 17 years. An odd-looking K.P. stood behind it. He was wearing a spotless white apron and carrying a near-ly folded towel over his forearm, like a waiter in a William Powell movie. Clearly, he was not one of the coffee-stained wretches who regularly doled out our powdered eggs. I extended my tray tentatively in his direction. Delicately, using a silver spatula, he carefully placed beside my foot-high mound of fragrant buns and sweet rolls a portion of what turned out to be a major turning point in my life.,
"What is it?" I asked.
"Oeufs a la benedictine, sir." "What?"
But he was already serving Edwards, hard my heels. Two more K.P.s, tongs at the ready, awaited me farther down the line; I passed on in a daze. At the end, I turned, tray in hand, arid stopped, unable to believe my eyes. Our bare hall of roughhewn wooden picnic-type tables, flanked by long benches and topped by a white GI sugar dispenser, a couple of salt shakers and a tin pitcher of Purple Death, had been transformed into a field of dazzling, snowy napery, sparkling silver and iridescent glasses glistening in the yellow light. Oblivious, Gasser was already seated at our usual table, shoveling it in. I put my tray opposite him and slid into my seat. Without looking up, Gasser gasped hoarsely through a mouthful of cinnamon croissant, "Jesus Christ! Have you tried this stuff?" With heaped trays and stunned expressions, GIs were scrambling into seats gall around us. I picked up one of the two gleaming forks that were carefully aligned next to an elaborately folded napkin at my place. The oeufs a la benedictine - which I was to learn from Zinsmeister were a kind of poached eggs I had never run across in Hammond - steamed next to a succulent slice of apple turnover and three finger-length sausage links so heartbreakingly perfect that I felt unworthy of them. Picking up a morsel of the eggs, I touched it to my lips. A thrill of discovery and revelation surged through my being in a crashing wave of ecstasy. I came from a simple, earthy family whose idea of true luxury in food con-sisted of lemon meringue pie from the A. & P.
Goldberg, next to me, snout deep in his tray, was throwing off a fine spray over the table in his immediate vicinity. Edwards, across the table next to Gasser, sat mesmerized before his un-touched plate, face ashen with Fear of the unknown. Leaning forward, he whispered to me: "I heard a guy say onc't back at Camp Crowder that before they ship guys to sonic really rotten place, they give you this last great meal!"
At this, Gasser, eggs Benedict dripping from his chin, shot back: "If you don't like it, Edwards, gimme your tray!" A jostling but subdued throng now filled the mess hall, a far larger crowd of breakfasters than Banjo had ever drawn, The news had obviously spread all the way to the latrine. I saw faces that I had not seen at this hour for over a year. Even the guys who staggered back to their bunks after roll call for that last precious ten minutes of sleep before the clay's hell began were lugging trays, their eyes bright with anticipation. White-coated dining-room attendants moved from table to table, bearing chilled pitchers of milk and steaming pots of coffee.
"Excuse me, gentlemen," said one of them, leaning solicitously over our table. "Do any of you care for strawberry preserves? Perhaps a pat of butter for your brioche?"
Edwards, visibly shaken, sat unmoving and unspeaking, his face drawn with fright.
Gasser finally spoke up: "Don't mind if I do, bud." Gasser was ready for anything.
The waiter gracefully placed on his tray two rosettes of pale-yellow butter, each adorned with a tiny sprig of parsley. Next, a long-handled spoon dipped into an earthen pot he carried on his tray and transferred its contents to Gasser's teetering mountain of delicacies. Goldberg eyed the waiter with open suspicion.
"Hey, are you a GI, mac?"
"Excuse me. sir?"
"You ain't from Company K. are ya?"
"Not exactly, sir." Bowing slightly. lie turned and moved on to the next table. The mystery remained unfathomed.
Fifteen minutes later, wearing cartridge belts, canteens, gas masks, class-D work uniforms, leggings, bayonets and helmet liners, Company K marched back into real life. Already the sun was high and glossing white-hot; but we swung along with a new spring in our step, as the low hum of illegal conversation filtered from platoon to platoon. There was, naturally, only one topic.
Taking up my position high over the scrub pines far out on the boom of an SCR 545, I peered into the mystical glow of my azimuth scope, intercom phones hanging heavy on my sweating ears, and listened to the chatter of the crew as they dissected every detail of the morning's miracle. For a while, there was a spirited argument about who this "Benedict" was. It was finally decided he must have been some guy at Q. M. who took pity on us and sent some eggs to Company K.
"But who cooked 'em like that?" asked an unknown voice.
There was a long silence. No one had thought of that point yet. The food had been so overwhelming that it had not yet occurred to anyone that there was more to it than that. The high, quavery voice of Lieutenant Cherry cracked in: "Can it, you guys! This is no goddamn party line."
As the morning wore on. breakfast receded into memory. After all. months of anomie do not vanish in a few hours. Besides, it was field-exercise day, which meant we ate K rations for the midday meal. I lay in the shade of a prime mover, a monstrous truck with tires that must have weighed a half ton apiece, and gnawed on the crumbly bar of chocolate-flavored pool chalk that came with the K rations. Gasser stirred a concoction in his canteen cup, a lemony powder poured from tin-foil envelopes into water dipped from the nearby swamp, with two chlorine tablets dropped in for flavoring and o stun the larger bacilli. It made an interesting drink.
"Ya know." he said thoughtfully, "I been thinkin' about this morning." "What about?"
"Didja notice Banjo wasn't around?" His face had the crafty look of Charlie Chan sniffing down a clue.
"What do you mean?"
"I dunno. Bur another thing: I'll lay ya five to one them K.P.s weren't real K.P.s."
Gasser paused dramatically for a noisy swig of his villainous, algae-dappled drink, then added: "No real K.P. ever said 'sir' to a buck-ass private."
I hadn't thought of that: but in those clays, that was only one among a multitude of things I hadn't thought of. Goldberg ambled by. dragging his gas mask in the sand behind him.
"Let's go, you guys. Cherry's got a bug up his ass."
We followed him through the heat haze and back o work. Placidly. the hours inched by, until finally it was time for the four-mile hike hack to camp. Through the low sand dunes, dusty pal-mettos and scraggly pines we trudged, canteens clanking, sweat dripping down our backbones to gather over our cartridge belts. Eventually, we moved past the motor pool, the outlying peninsula of civilization in those parts, past G Company, an alien, sharp-faced lot of doomed beach-radar specialists. These teams landed on enemy shores hours before the first wave of infantry came ashore. Hollow-eyed and withdrawn, they drank heavily, because they were expendable and they knew it. We avoided them like the plague. It might be catching.
Past P Company, M Company, N Company and, at long last, we were home. Sergeant Kowalski took charge as we lounged in ragged ranks, waiting to be dismissed. The duty corporal trotted out of the orderly room, carrying a clipboard. Casually, Kowalski glanced at the sheets clipped to it, his green Air Corps sunglasses shining in the late-afternoon sun.
"All right, you guys. At ease. From now till furder orders are issued remanding dis order, all E.M. of K Company will wear class-A uniforms, including blouse, class-A tie and o.d.s, at all meals in the mess hall, as of 1800 today. By order of da company commanda."
A sullen rustle stirred the company like a breeze moving through a Kansas wheat field. Now what?
From far off to the left from somewhere in the first platoon, a muffled voice asked: "Breakfast, too?"
"You heard de orders." Kowalski looked up and clown the ranks, his green lenses flashing sharply, quelling further signs of rebellion.
"Company ATTEN-SHUN! ... DISMISSED!"
He turned and disappeared into the orderly room. Gasser immediately grabbed me by the elbow, his helmet low over his eyes.
"Do you smell what I smell?"
I tilled back my head and sniffed the tropical air. "Yeah."
"Jesus Christ, let's get dressed!"
He bolted at a dead run for our tent. I followed as quickly as I could, still sniffing the air as I ran. Inside the tent, Goldberg was already half dressed, his cartridge belt flung out on his bunk, his helmet rolling on the floor, Edwards sat on his footlocker, shaking violently, muttering over anti over: "I don't understand. I don't understand."
Ten minutes later, a long line of U. S. soldiers snaked around the whitewashed walls of Company K's mess hall. Dressed to the nines, brass gleaming in the tropical twilight, garrison caps laced with the Signal Corps' orange braid, they waited patiently in front of the tightly shut screen door.
Gasser, an imposing figure in his usual spot at the head of the line, turned to me anti whispered: "Watch for Banjo Ass." I nodded as a couple of Philistines from L Company slouched by in their rumpled fatigues, peering at us suspiciously. All around us the mess halls of our sister companies were well into the ritual of dispensing their nightly beets and salmon loaf. Finally, the door to ours opened wide; a white-coated K.P. stood within.
"Gentlemen, the evening meal is served. If you will. . . ."
Gasser hesitated. His usual practice prior to this evening had been to hurl himself headlong into the mess hall, sneering as he went. Tonight was different. With a slight bow, Gasser shuffled in.
Our mess hall, like all the others, was lit by a long row of yellow light bulbs that hung from the ceiling, giving the place all the warmth and hominess of an IRT subway station at four A.m. For a moment after I had entered the hall, my eyes could not adjust to what !ay within.
The entire place glowed with the soft. sensual flickering of candles casting dancing shadows on sparkling glassware. Linen tablecloths reflected the light of the flames onto the shadows of the ceiling. In a quiet voice. one of the K.P.s said to Gasser: "If you will select your table, we will begin serving."
"Serving? Oh. yeah, sure."
Adapting himself quickly to the situation, Gasser sauntered to our usual table halfway down the hall. In stunned silence, the rest of us filed in after him and took our seats. A new era had dawned. Two hundred and eighty-six men had begun an odyssey that none of them would ever forget.
A phalanx of white-liveried waiters placed crocks of a fragrant. fluffy substance on each table. At each place was an array of silverware that would have sufficed for the entire company: forks of varied sizes, several knives, a half dozen spoons of graduated capacities. Our waiter, placing a dish at tile head of the table, said simply: "Gentlemen, your pate.
Gasser, watching him leave, said to no one in particular: "Your what?" Zinsmeister, who had been strangely silent throughout the day. finally spoke: "Pate de foie gras, Gasser." He had been to college.
Goldberg perked up: "Patty de what?"
"What do you do with it?" asked Edwards in a shaky voice.
"Watch, you slobs," replied Zinsmeister in a voice redolent with sarcasm. Selecting a short, flat-bladed knife from among his cutlery, he delicately scooped a small dab of pate onto the plate before him. The K.P. suddenly reappeared, bearing a wicker basket lined with a snowy napkin.
"Bread sticks and wheaten wafers, sir?"
Zinsmeister selected a nut-brown cracker, spread it with pate and daintily began to nibble.
"Hmmm," he mused. "Not bad at all."
Gasser went into action: "HOW ABOUT PASSIN' IT DOWN!"
"Of course, Gasser. Excuse me. I was thoughtless." Zinsmeister passed the crock of pate down the table toward our end, along with the wicker basket.
"What is this stuff?" asked Goldberg as he got a whiff of it.
"I told you, Goldberg - pate de foie gras," said Zinsmeister patiently.
"But what is it?"
"This, Goldberg, is an age-old marine/ of preparing goose liver by force-feeding the goose, thereby enlarging and enriching the flavor of its liver. It is indigenous to the French. I might also add that this ranks with the finest pate I have yet enjoyed, May I have another wafer, please?"
"Is it anything like chopped chicken liver?" asked Goldberg.
"Pate resembles chopped chicken live/ about as closely as champagne does celery tonic, Goldberg,"
A totally inexplicable elegance had begun to permeate the filter of our corn pan. Gingerly, I tasted the pate, and once again knew ecstasy beyond measure. The surrounding tables seemed to be undergoing the same transformation. Quiet, genteel conversation drifted over the plates. The waiters efficiently cleared away the crocks and placed shiny white howls at each setting. Dye, who rarely joined our conversation, leaned forward: "Uh, oh. I knew it couldn't last. Now for some of Banjo Ass' elephant soup."
The waiter returned, carrying a large tureen, and carefully ladled some of its contents into Zinsmeister's waiting bowl. Zinsmeister nodded approvingly.
"Properly chilled, I trust?"
"Of course, sir."
"And die chives?"
"I'll be back directly with them, sir."
This little scene was not lost on the rest of us. The waiter neatly dispensed a bowlful of vichyssoise for each of us and left for the chives.
Zinsmeister quietly explained to the group: "Vichyssoise - a chilled cream soup prepared with leeks and the hearts of new white potatoes, boiled no longer than fifteen minutes. Although not properly a French dish, having originated at the old Waldorf, it was, nonetheless, refined to its present perfection by one of the master French chefs of the late 19th Century."
Although there are no actual records to prove it, this was probably the first time in the history of armed warfare that this kind of talk had ever been heard among enlisted personnel of any known army. Uncertainly, Goldberg began to spoon up some of the vichyssoise.
"Excuse me, Goldberg, old man," said Zinsmeister. "The wrong spoon,"
From anyone else, Goldberg wouldn't have accepted the reprimand. But Zinsmeister had been, after all, first among us o make Pfc. and carried -with him everywhere a strange collection of un-readable paperbacks. One night, tiring of my Donald Duck- Big Little Book, he had lent me one of his - Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. I hadn't understood a word in it - even though it was in English - but. I was impressed as hell. Zinsmeister wasn't one of us. But we now instinctively leaned toward him for guidance in these uncharted gustatory seas.
The vichyssoise scoffed down, our bowls were removed and the next dish placed before us. The waiter stated simply: "Ponlet saute a la bordelaise."
The snapping-hot casserole of chicken and what Zinsmeister informed me were artichoke hearts and shallots was beyond description. Side dishes of asparagus dabbed with a dollop of hollandaise accompanied the chicken. Gasser, forking in a bit of artichoke, said what all of us had been thinking: "I guess poor old Banjo Butt has had it. Did any of you notice those cooks back there in the kitchen?"
Indeed we had. Four swarthy men wearing crisp chef hats had appeared from time to time, speaking only to the waiters and staying well back in the kitchen, glimpsed occasionally as they hurried to and fro, working over the ranges. Edwards, relaxing after the stupendous entree, said: "We if ya gotta go, this is as good a way as any."
Dye, always fatalistic, added: "It can't last."
How right he was - but we had no time or inclination at that moment to brood over our fate, which we all assumed would be dark. The waiter had returned to our table.
"Dessert tonight, gentlemen, is creme moulee au caramel. Or, if you prefer, petits fours."
"How about a little of both, mac?" asked Gasser, speaking for all of us. Indolently, we lounged over our dessert, as the candles sputtered low.
The creme moulee au caramel melted in the mouth. its subtle vanilla flavor contrasting nicely with the black coffee. Zinsmeister stretched lazily and asked. "Would any of you enjoy a stroll before we turn in?" Out in the night air, we discussed the eventful day on our way back to the tents. where we lay on bunks wondering whether we had all died and waked up in heaven. Gasser, stretched out under his mosquito bar, looked up at the black-canvas ceiling, humming to himself. Goldberg, squatting on his footlocker polishing his shoes, burped softly. Zinsmeister, puffing a cigar, said: "You know, Goldberg, belching is a sign of appreciation for hospitality among the Arabs."
Goldberg grunted contentedly and continued polishing, A disquieting sense of well-being--premonitory of sure disaster - had conic over all of us.
Before the last notes of reveille had died out at 4:45 the next morning, a jostling throng of draftees - headed by Gasser - was jogging double time down our company street; it looked like the first lap of an Olympic marathon.
We were not disappointed. Breakfast was even more superb than the day flambees. baked Canadian bacon and delectable hot pecan honey buns heaped with butter. Lunch? Madras curry with mango chutney, endive with vinaigrette dressing, glaceed pineapple wedges and Turkish coffee. And so it went - meal after meal, day after day. By the end of the month. Company K had been transformed. No longer did we spend hours in our pyramidal tents chewing on Mr. Goodbars. No longer did we rush into town on the weekends to gorge ourselves on sodden cheeseburgers and Dr Peppers,
Of course, not everybody in Company K was ready for the good life. I began to realize that the lower orders among us will not be ready until the wheels of evolution have spun a full circle once or twice again. One night at dinner, Elkins, our fearless jeep driver and a primitive of the first order, yelled in fright: "THEM GODDAMN PANCAKES IS ON FIRE! THE WHOLE GODDAMN PLACE IS GONNA GO UP!" as he flailed his arms in a futile attempt to beat out the lovely blue flame that flickered over a magnificent serving of steak Diane.
Another night. Pfc. Hulbert Ledbetter snarled, "This lousy sissy food makes my butt ache!" as a souffle au Grand Marnier was placed before him. Some people are just natural Jell-O eaters. They were a shunned minority, dimly aware that the others saw something in these exotic foreign concoctions that totally eluded their concrete palates. But the classic meat-and-potatoes Neanderthal, like the Norwegian rat is a hardy specimen and no doubt will survive long after the last recipe for mousse au chocolat has crumbled into dust.
While it lasts, however, the price of gentility comes high, even for those of us civilized enough to enjoy its rewards. A continuous stream of Company K enlisted men waddled over to the PX tailor shop to be measured weekly for alterations. First on trousers, then on shirts, until finally raincoats and even ponchos had to be let out. At least two guys I knew in the second platoon had to turn in their helmets.
But this was the least of our problems. Before the month was out, unfamiliar faces began to appear in the nightly line that waited for the next culinary triumph in Company K's mess hall - which, by this time, even Gasser had to admit was no longer being run by Banjo Butt. Sensing the danger of security leaks, we had clamped a top-secret lid on all information pertaining to the mess hall; somehow, the word had spread anyway, not to mention the aroma. But the air of L Company, M Company, P Company and 0 Company was still redolent with the unforgettable stench of burned pigbelly and charred string beans. Contrasted with the scent of pot-au-feu and poisson ford a la florentine that drifted past our latrine, it was obvious that something had to give.
A strict mess-line identity check was finally instituted. At every meal, our supply sergeant, who knew each man in the company by sight, name, rank, serial number and expanding neck size, ticked off each of us on a clipboard as we bounded into the mess hall. Inevitably, nasty scenes resulted when impostors were apprehended and heaved back out into reality. One incident was particularly poignant. An ashen, threadbare corporal from G Company was caught hiding in a GI garbage can, hoping for a few of our scraps. Even Kowalski felt sorry for him when the man was carried, weeping, back to his company and into the arms of his mess sergeant, who made Banjo Butt look like Brillat-Savarin.
Out of simple Christian charity, a few of us who had acquaintances in other companies would occasionally slip a bit of pastry or a small portion of coq nu vin out to them - just enough to fan the rising undercurrent of resentment that began to overrun the entire camp. We no longer traveled singly after dark: the have-nots made no attempt to hide their bitterness.
Six weeks passed, then two months. Finally, another subtle change began to take place. I believe I was witness to the first hint that Company K hadn't really changed at all. It happened at the evening meal, by candlelight, of course. Gasser, in his usual place at the corner seat directly across from me, glared without warning at the subservient white-coated waiter and said in a voice dripping scorn: "This cotes de veau a Pardennaisse is fit for Company P. Who the hell do you think we are?"
It tasted all right to me. But Goldberg grunted over his fork, "Yeah, it's rotten."
Taken aback, the K.P. said: "Sir? This is the first complaint we've -"
Zinsmeister, taking control, spoke up: "The juniper berries, you oaf!"
"Here. Taste it."
Zinsmeister persisted, spooning up a portion of sauce for the K.P. to sample. Gingerly, he took a sip of the dark hot liquid.
Zinsmeister continued: "No decent cotes de veau can be made without four fresh juniper berries per serving."
The K.P. flushed in embarrassment, apologized and disappeared into the kitchen. From behind the swinging doors came a babble of excited voices, all shouting in different languages, then cursing - identifiable in any language - followed by the crash of dishes and the sound of a struggle. But no one emerged from the kitchen. The four new cooks and their special platoon of K.P.s remained men of mystery.
Sequestered in several tents apart from die general company area, they never mingled with mere mortals and rarely spoke unless spoken to. One of them, a tall, gaunt, storklike man, wore a red bandanna knotted about his neck. Another, a completely round man with heavy jowls and cold, beady blue eyes, could be heard late at night humming strange nines as he prepared his fragrant croissants. The third - short, wiry and blue-jawed - seemed to be carrying on a constant muttered argument with himself; he carried a cleaver in his left hand, always. The fourth, a Sidney Greenstreet type with a great black drooping mustache, once refused to open the mess hall for a good half hour after chow call because his lobster souffle had fallen. He cried a lot.
Endless speculation about who they were and why Company K had hit the jackpot went on night and day. Edwards was sure they had been sent to fatten us up for the kill. It was Gasser's considered opinion that they were spies, since (l) they acted suspicious, (2) they kept to themselves and, especially, (3) they weren't even Americans. "Nonsense," said Zinsmeister. "It must be some kind of experiment in psychological warfare." Goldberg just ate, content to leave such speculation to his betters.
The real secret did not come out until the night of the Big Raid. There are many versions of what actually happened on that unforgettable night; most of them are fanciful. All I can say is that I was there and I saw it with my own eyes.
It had been a bad day around the SCR. 545. First the overload relays in the power supply had shorted out when a smuggled can of beer had overturned into one of the generators, setting off a spectacular fireworks display and throwing Lieutenant Cherry into a rage, during which he became the first officer in military history to demote a buck private. Then the dipoles had to be retuned when an albatross laid some eggs in the radar dish during the night. To make matters worse. The Signal Air Warning crew hadn't even picked up her pip coming in - a fact that battalion headquarters would have found enormously reassuring. For the rest of the afternoon. Cherry stalked back and forth. grinding his teeth audibly and hurling an occasional handful of pebbles at us - laughing when he bounced one off a helmet - as we pretended to man our dials and switches. which had long since ceased to function, because the batteries had gone dead.
But the travail of the day was forgotten by evening. for supper that night was unquestionably die topper of them all, and we had seen some great meals. Trauma, sadly, has blotted out my memory of the menu. but just recently I remembered that the dessert - peches cardinal. with its touch of kirsch garnished with creme Chantilly - had brought tears to my eyes. Even Gasser was satisfied.
We were lingering over coffee, a brew that resembled ordinary GI Java about as closely as Twinkles resemble baked Alaska. Ordinarily, it was an unpretentious espresso: but tonight it was a tart, aromatic mocha laced with a hint of crushed vanilla husk. Zinsmeister had just touched a match to the end of an elegant Cuban panatela, a nightly ritual he had lately begun to affect. Between puffs he had taken to regaling us with an after-dinner anecdote or two, like the one about how Elkins. drowsing at his post. had inadvertently touched the wrong feed line on the 545, thus blasting his tin hat ten feet into the air and. resulting in the sudden disappearance of his eyebrows. Or the one about Corporal Chester L. Dumwetter's attempt to wangle six successive three-day passes in order to visit his ailing sister, who had taken up residence in a trailer outside the camp. where she was dying of an unnamed disease. When Dumwetter returned from the trailer one day with the news that he had contracted the same disease as his sister, Lieutenant Cherry suspiciously sent him to the medic for a checkup; but sure enough, it was true. Private Dumwetter spent the next month scrubbing down the latrines with a toothbrush. It was the kind of small talk that made life in Company K so rich and rewarding.
Chuckling benignly, Zinsmeister allowed the aromatic blue smoke to trickle from his nostrils. Gasser munched on a salted almond, while Goldberg tried to launch a Brazil nut on the rose petal that floated in his finger bowl. I was just about to remark that I had heard a rumor that beginning next week, Company K would be served post-prandial brandies and, in fact, had just opened my mouth to speak, when it happened.
We sat frozen for a long moment. I think all along we had secretly felt, each in his own way that something like this was going to come sooner or later. It was too good to last. Our life of deca-dent sensuality had been an invitation to retribution from one quarter or another.
Zinsmeister's cigar hung suspended between his fingers. Gasser, the first to recover, finally blurted: "It's them goddamn bastards from Company Ml" A large rock had been hurled through a window screen and scored a direct hit on Dye's creme aux framboises. It was the first salvo of a military engagement that was destined to eclipse the exploits of the Six Hundred riding into the valley of death.
A dull roar of angry voices surrounded the entire mess hall. By now, most of us were on our feet, ready for anything. The rest, including Goldberg, had dived under the mess-hall tables, taking their desserts with them. Another rock bounced through a window, narrowly missing a burnt-almond seven-layer cake one of the chefs had thoughtfully prepared for the second platoon. In the guttering candlelight, two K.P.s raced toward the main entrance in an attempt to head off the coming tidal wave; but it was too late.
A flying wedge of emaciated, fatigue-clad figures charged through the door, supported by flanking waves of screaming hostiles crashing through the window screens, invading our sanctuary as the barbarians must have hit Rome, sacking and bellowing lustily as they roared into action. I caught a glimpse of two long-lines repairmen from Company AI snarling at each other over a tray of brandy &lairs. A swarthy tech sergeant rushed back out into the night, lugging a five-gallon jar of creme de menthe maraschino cherries under one arm and a brace of cold capons with wild-rice stuffing tinder the other. Elkins, outraged at this sacrilege, tackled a wiry Pfc. who was attempting to make off with a large tin of almond paste and a succulent strawberry torte. They fell heavily to the floor - on top of the torte - the almond paste oozing out in a rich tidal wave as both men slid under a table. Gasser, his deep-seated hatred for Company M suddenly unleashed, threw a vicious hotly block - he had been an all-star defensive tackle before his Company K days - at a corporal who was frantically attempting to escape with a large tray of cream puffs prepared for our before-bed snack. The corporal grunted as Gasser hit him, the tray spinning high overhead and spraying cream pulls over a radius of 15 yards or more.
Zinsmeister, carefully balancing his cigar on the edge of our table, stood up quietly, took aim and carefully belted a passing motor-pool private across the back of the neck with a stalk of stuffed celery. The private whirled in rage - just in time to get a slab of Key lime pie in his left eye. He went down in a heap, skidding across the floor through a pool of marmalade. I was impressed. Zinsmeister had always seemed to me a man of peace.
From somewhere up near the front of the hall, a hoarse voice shouted: 'FER CHRISSAKE! HERE COMES P COMPANY!"
Fresh troops had been hurled into the fray.
Unfortunately, months of easy living had taken their toll on Company K. The taut muscles of P Company's shock troops, who had been living off K rations and cigarette butts for over a year, were the final stroke that broke our last line of resistance. Like a school of hungry tiger sharks, they raged through the dining room into our beloved kitchen, frenziedly gulping heavy cream -we no longer used plain milk in our coffee - and wildly stuffing themselves with leftover Danish pastry. The hysterical chefs - with the exception of the short, angry one, who had just missed a fleeing figure with a misaimed cleaver shot - cowered, screaming in three Mittel-European lan-guages, behind our huge breadbox, which was being systematically rifled of its anise loaves, fresh rye, magnificent pumpernickel and delicate French breads.
Teams had apparently been organized. Three Pfcs. passed Smithfield hams, decorated with pineapple rings, into the darkness, where waiting hands spirited the booty into the boondocks. Gasser, incensed at the sight of the pillagers working with such audacity, charged and grasped the leg of a superb baked turkey just as it was about to depart into the darkness; outside in the night. the unseen looters fought hack, finally disengaging it with a judo blow to the wrist. Gasser fell to the floor in pain and shouted for a medic.
As I left through a window in the rear, I caught a fleeting glimpse of a 200-pounder from P Company staggering under a giant loaf of canned artichoke hearts and fragrant wheels of brie, around his neck was a heavy garland of saucisson; the four-foot Florentine salami stuck in his cartridge belt made running difficult, but he moved like a streak. Fatigue cap low over his eyes, he looked like a delicatessen with feet. All around him, other scurrying wraiths carted off armfulls of bounty, leaving a wake of Norwegian sardines, pickled capers and candied dates.
Amid the melee, Lieutenant Cherry's jeep skidded to a stop before the mess hall. Without leaving the car, he stood up and surveyed the scene, white-faced and inscrutably expressionless. A slab of baklava squished against the jeep's hood as the moiling rabble surged around him. For a moment, a look of weary resignation passed over his face; then he sat down, adroitly ducked a f!ying petit four and took off in the direction of battalion headquarters.
Three minutes later, the first wave of MPs hit the beach, white helmets shining. whistles screaming as they waded in. The mob scattered like rabbits, stampeding into the darkness and back to the relative safety of their tents - or into the swamps. A great cheer resounded among the beleaguered men of Company K as the MPs swung into action. It was the first pro-MP sentiment I had ever heard expressed in the Army by, enlisted personnel. And the last. A historic moment.
Almost on cue, as the last looter fled into the night, the skies blackened and a tropical deluge roared down. turning the street into a river of melted whipped cream and sauce Bearnaise. Company K's days of glory were over. At the time, we were not aware with what finality they were over, but it was just as well.
An hour or so later, back in our tent, we talked it over. The pounding of a Florida cloudburst on the sloped roof of an Army tent, once heard, is never forgotten. Over the din, Gasser shouted:
"HOW 'BOUT THEM SONSABITCHES?"
Goldberg, stretched out on his bunk, chuckled: "Did you see that skinny buck sergeant trying to run through the bushes with all those hams hanging on him? And then, when they threw him in the wagon, how he went limp?"
The rain roared on as we hashed over the wild night. I was scratching away at my heat rash when it occurred to me that one of our little band was missing. Raising my head, I peered through my mosquito bar. I could see Gasser's cigarette glowing in the dark.
"Hey. Gasser," I called. "Did they pinch Zinsmeister?" Gasser didn't answer.
Edwards piped up: "I saw him take off into the bushes. I think he got away."
Silence descended on our tent, except for the thudding rain. A few minutes later, the tent flap opened with a rush of water and in stepped Zinsmeister, soaking wet and smelling faintly of may-onnaise. In the dark, he removed his waterlogged combat hoots and portenously made his announcement: "Well, are you interested in the truth, men?"
Several bunks creaked inquiringly. We all knew a rhetorical question when we heard one.
"I have just come from a revealing conversation with a close friend of mine up at battalion. I cannot reveal his name, for fear of reprisals."
Gasser snorted derisively: "Can the crap, Zinsmeister!"
"Very well - but I don't know whether you guys arc ready for this."
"Ready for what?" I asked.
"Company K has been the subject of an interesting experiment, men." We waited as he peeled off his soaked uniform, milking the suspense for all it was worth. "I have found out about those cooks."
Even Dye was listening now.
"Have you ever wondered what happens to the head chef of the Waldorf or the pastry chef from the Ritz-Carlton when he gets drafted?"
"They make dogfaces out of 'em and probably teach 'em to drive trucks," said Gasser. "Arid when they draft truck drivers, they make 'em into cooks."
"No, Gasser," continued Zinsmeister. "When a man reaches the top in this exacting profession. That does not occur. He is carefully culled from the mob of draftees and put into a secret pool of snarlers, patissiers, rotisseurs and fellow masters of haute cuisine." Zinsmeister loved flowery talk of the kind that maddens the yahoos. "Just such a group was sent to Company K for training in the field, working with GI equipment and personnel, before further assignment."
Gasser. Now all ears. Sat up on his bunk. "Further assignment where?"
"The kitchen of a high-level general. Let us say. Perhaps the Joint Chiefs." Gasser toppled back ino his bunk and grunted. "Jeezus Keerist."
"D'ya mean that's the kind of stuff generals always eat? Them burnin' pancakes and everything?" asked Elkins with awe.
"Yea, verily. Elkins. The lucky ones." Each wrapped in his own thoughts, our humble little band of Pfcs. Lay silently in our bunks. After staring at the dark shadow of my mosquito bar for about an hour, I finally dozed off. Returning to half-consciousness only briefly. When I heard the sound of a couple of trucks roaring off into the night. Then silence. I lay half dreaming, then became aware of a familiar sound amid the pelting rain. I sat tip in the dark.
"Hey. Goldberg," I whispered.
"Shhh." He was listening, too.
Heavy footsteps of an unmistakable tread clumped along the duckboards, moving in the direction of the latrine. "You know. I'd swear - " whispered Goldberg.
He stopped in midsentence. I sniffed the air. Once, twice. "Goldberg, do you smell what I smell?"
In a low voice he answered, "Yeah. S. 0. S.!"
"Banjo Butt is back!" I hissed.
We both knew that aroma as one knows the warp and woof of one's own life. Goldberg sank back heavily on his bunk. We were back in the Signal Corps. The rain trickled down the tent pole and spread in a widening puddle beneath my bunk as I cried myself to sleep.