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.


mike said...

The 'John Wayne' is what we called it (the P38) back in the sixties.

But there were no John Wayne candy bars that I recall in the C-rats of that day. They then all had a five-pack of coffin nails - unfiltered Lucky Strikes, Camels, or Chesterfields. The worst meal I remember was the 'Ham & Limas'. Every box had crackers and a tin of cheese and a tin of peanut butter. We used them as meds. Eat the cheese if you had Montezuma's revenge and needed to dam the flow, eat the peanut butter if you needed to dynamite a blockage.

Worse than the C-rats though, were certain of the lurp rations (LRRP?). They were freeze dried and I recall the Chili in particular had beans that stayed crunchy no matter how long you pre-soaked them and no matter how long you boiled them.

I always tried to supplement with rice and nuoc mam. Great stuff!! Or occassionally I could swap off the ham and limas with the Korean Brigade that adjoined us for their crats that had kim-chi and fish.


FDChief said...

mike: I came along after the days of ham and motherfuckers and the smokes in the C's. We got candy, instead.

But the LURPs were the same. I hated the amount of water the fuckers needed, and even after you soaked them they'd pull water out of you. I was dehydrated for days after eating them.

And like you, we always tried to scrounge whatever civilian show we could. The monkey meat guy in Panama did some good business with us.

mike said...

Your point on water is well taken!

Thanksgiving Day in 1969 somewhere on the high western slope of Que Son mountain, they brought in cold turkey sandwiches, raw sweet onions big as softballs, and #10 cans of dehydrated shrimp by helo. The sandwiches were great compared to C-rats. The onions were outstanding, we ate them like apples, perhaps they were the fabled onions of Maui. The dehydrated shrimp I and most others stayed away from. But there always appears to be a platoon glutton, ours ate those dehydrated shrimp like peanuts. Later he looked like one of those dead shrimp and ended up being medevacked.

Lisa said...

What a lovely homage to simple things made precious via need and want. I have heard of the famed poundcake, and Jim told me a story about how gluttony once ruined the coveted cake.

Meghan H said...

I was in the Army Surplus store in Seattle recently (against my will, I might add) and noticed that you can PAY GOOD AMERICAN MONEY for a C-Ration there. I stood there thinking, "Who in their everloving mind would PAY for this gut bomb?" Not me, suffice it to say.

mike said...

Meghan -

I might out of nostalgia, but then nobody ever accused me of being in my right mind. And when I return from vacation to home sweet home I will be visiting the daughter and granddaughter in Seattle. May I ask what the address is of the surplus store??

FDChief said...

Meghan: as odd as it seems, I had some damn good times that centered around the nasty things. Do you have a song, or a fragrance, or a color, that reminds you of a place or a person you loved? It's kinda like that only with more sodium.

Not that I'd spend more than two bucks for a can of Beans and Baby Dicks. Nope. But pound cake..?

Hot damn!

FDChief said...

Lisa: Ta. When I was young I yearned for something beyond C-rats. Now I think back and realize that they were a part of my life when I was young, strong, and foolish, and the world was, too. Makes them seem more lovable in retrospect.

But not the fruitcake. Oh, no. Satan's fecal impaction, then and now.

Lisa said...

Yes, I understand that association with time and place, and the fondness that remains.

We are in solidarity on fruitcake. One has to be fruity or nuts to like it, I think. I remember my parents having this inexplicable fondness for Claxton fruitcake and sending it to friends @ Christmas, and my thinking: They will not like you for doing this.

But what could I say? I was mild and retiring, and would just sit and deconstruct the small piece I inevitably had to suffer into its constituent radioactively-colored bits, incredulous at what seemed like the loaf's endless, unrefrigerated half-life.

Fruitcake seems more like a weapon to be lobbed than a food to be ingested.

Lisa said...

I used to carry dried onions in a glass bottle to put on my chop.
Also i acquired a Aussie version of the p 38 that had a spoon built in as part of the device. It had better leverage, but over the years it's now lost.
I carry a 40 yo p 38 on my keyring.
The thing i remember is how brother Rangers would steal your rations if you were dumb enuf to leave them in your ruck when dropping equipment. I ALWAYS carried my c rats in a gi sock tied to my web gear. Fool me once and all that stuff.
Usually i only carried meat when choosing rations for a extended stay gig, and usually this was light rations as food was not my objective. As you point out water was more important.
We used PIR's that were water intensive and sun dried. I reckon Lrrp's were too expensive to waste on SF assets.
BTW, in the mech infy i used to heat my rations on the engine block, and /or stuffed in the heater , if i were so blessed.
Nice reminisence.

rangeragainstwar said...

The JW bar that is referred to in this blog MAY BE in fact the tropical chocolate bar found in the sundry packs.

FDChief said...

jim: I don't think it was the same thing. I've seen the "tropical" choc bars - they were a lot like the old "D" bar in the WW2 and 1950's C's. What we called a "John Wayne bar" was actual chocolate, disc-shaped, with a silver foil wrapper. IT came in, if I remember, the B-2 unit can.

I've read that it was supposed to come in a variety of flavors but the only ones I ever saw were the choc.-and-toffee with the rock-hard little toffee bits in them.

OTOH, you may be right, because the damn things didn't melt like normal chocs, either.

They were kinda nasty, either way.

I used to like the cocoa powder you got in the B-1 units, tho. You'd dump it in your canteen cup with the sugar packet, and sometimes the instant coffee and mix it into a kind of syrup or pudding. It gave you a massive sugar and caffeine hit. Got me through many a morning until the mermite with the coffee showed up...

rangeragainstwar said...


I used to put the creamer under my lip like snuff. I also combined the cocoa and coffee.

Yes, now I remember the little brown chocolate bars you're talking about, about 1/4" thick. Those are probably the John Wayne bars. I think they were in the B2 or B4 units. It's longer ago than my memory can reach.

However, i do remember the pound cake fondly. When we graduated from the Ranger class, we went downtown and bought commercial pound cake. We ate it all, and promptly threw up. Too much of a good thing. The booze probably didn't help either.

My friend Ernie McMullen actually threw up his false teeth, losing them in the toilet of the old Colony Inn at the circle @ route 27 at Victory Drive. It's no longer there -- his teeth or the hotel.

My favorite rations were the simple meats because I was an early proponent of the Atkins diet :) -- 160 lbs of dancing dynamite with a 2" fuse.

Meghan H said...

Just returning to this -- "mike" asked about where the army/navy surplus is in Seattle. It's in Belltown, almost in downtown. Been there for eons, apparently.
Federal Army & Navy Surplus
2112 1st Avenue, Seattle, WA 98121

Lisa said...

Thought you might be interested in this recent bit from the NYT:

A Taste of Home in Foil Packets and Powder:


JohnLloydScharf said...

I considered the P-38 an object of self-abuse and useless as an opener. I have great patience, but this bit of metal made me rather open a can with a hammer and a machete.