Won’t Wear a Hat, Won’t Stand in Line, Won’t Touch Sweet Potatoes
November 11, 1989
Human memory is wonderfully selective. On this day dedicated to veterans, which my generation always will regard as Armistice Day, I find that my memories of time in uniform generally are pleasant. There were many experiences back then which were not so, of course, but the passage of years has blurred those unhappy images. Now it takes a conscious effort to drag them up from the hidden depths layered over by almost half a century.
The British have a term for my kind of military experience during World War II. “You had a good war,” they say. The reference is to those who saw combat without being killed, wounded or captured. Millions of Americans had that experience between 1941 and 1945. Veterans of the fighting in Korea would seldom hear the term “a good war” applied to their service. Theirs was a war which didn’t even bear that name. We called it a “police action” And that nasty bit of business still is not over officially, since only an armistice and not a peace treaty ever was signed. As the Vietnam Ware grew in unpopularity, those brave men and women who fought in it discovered much to their surprise that they were being tarred with the same brush; that Americans who were beginning to despise our involvement in a land war in Southeast Asia also began to despise the men and women to whom the government had handed the responsibility of winning it.
But now they all have a day, World War I, World War II, Korean and Vietnam veterans. For many years, I regarded it as dreadfully unfair that almost all veterans had to work on the day designated as their national holiday, while millions of civilians got the day off. Advancing age now has made me far more tolerant. (Almost all World War II veterans now either have already signed up or are becoming eligible for Medicare.) Some GIs were assigned to a quartermaster depot in Cleveland for the duration of World War II. Some workers have Veterans Day as a holiday. Both groups are just lucky and not to be scorned for enjoying their good fortune.
For some unfathomable reason this Nov. 11 has been marked by publication of a great deal of gory reminiscing from veterans. There are as many millions of these kind of stories as there are veterans who have heard shots fired in anger. As mentioned, after almost 50 years, these unpleasantries need be dragged from memory. Better to dwell, instead, on how in basic training for infantrymen we were measured for our first pair of G.I. clodhoppers. Remember how we stood barefoot in a box of sand while holding another one; how our splayed-out feet then were fitted with clodhoppers so heavy we never thought we could walk in them, much less run five miles? So loose we thought surely they’d fall right off our feet but how snugly they fit as we lugged a full field pack and B.A.R. (Browning Automatic Rifle) over red clay Georgia hills?
Remember the immunization shots, one after the other, left arm, right arm, left arm, right arm and how invariably some miserable solider waiting in line would keel over in a dead faint?
Remember the food, which we bitched about constantly in the mess halls and then devoured in great quantities? Remember how implicitly we believed that the Army was lacing our chow with saltpeter to curb our youthful carnal desires? (A World War II buddy tells me he thinks it finally is beginning to work.)
Once on maneuvers I was ready to attack with great anticipation a candied sweet potato dropped into my mess kit by a surly cook who obviously was suffering the acute throes of a world-class hangover. As I prepared to wolf down the first bite of sweet potato, an irregularity on its glazed surface caught my eye. The irregularity was a cockroach; not, mind you, a cockroach anywhere near the size of those with which I was acquainted in civilian life. This was an enormous, monstrous Georgia cockroach candied over right along with the sweet potato. I returned to the cook, who by now was sweating heavily, shaking and turning an evil gray in color.
“Look at this,” I said, holding the potato carefully so that the cockroach was outlined against the bright sunlight. Comprehension swept over the cook’s face, as he realized what he was being shown. He carefully removed the sweet potato from my mess kit with a large serving fork. He then used that fork to scrape the glazed cockroach from the surface of the sweet potato and dropped it back into the mess kit. “Bon appetit,” he muttered, as he plunged the serving fork back into the huge container of candied potatoes from which we had been served.
Military service of veterans leaves some with foibles. One of mine is an aversion to sweet potatoes, which I have not tasted since that long ago day near Macon, GA. Neither do I now wear a hat or stand in a line after having been required to do so in the military service. It is easier to remember such things as these than the fear which gripped guts when flak ripped through thin metal skin of a bomber over Italy, than watching in helpless horror the twitching headless body of a buddy decapitated by a round from a German 88 far below. Veterans remember these things too, but we won’t. Not on this day. Not on our day.