Mess Hall Blues

It was a few minutes after evening muster formation when it hit. My platoon sergeant bellowed the command to fall out, and as calmly as possible, I double timed it toward the barracks.

I had barely removed my fatigue cap when it was clear that I would never make it down the hall in time. So, I did the only thing I could and made a beeline for a metal garbage can that stood all by itself in the long hallway. (I guess it’s pretty weird to have such vivid memories of events that most people would rather just forget, but I’d be more than wrong to discount them.)

Yeah, a lot of people make a living out of hiding from the past, and I get it. Over the years, though, I’ve found myself hunting for mine – sorting through the details that eventually defined me.

So, when I finished heaving that day, the first thing I thought of was that I’d never been sick without my mother around to comfort me. I was just a few months shy of my 19th birthday.

Shortly after my adventure in the barracks hallway, I dragged myself to the post hospital, more than likely the victim of some of Uncle Sam’s gourmet cuisine.

Led down the corridor by a heavyset nurse with an ancient-looking clipboard in her hand, I entered a large hospital room with the beds all lined up along the far wall. Still feeling queasy, I sat down and was about to pull off my boots. And one look down the row of beds quickly revealed that I was not A Company, First Platoon’s only not-so-fortunate son.

Randal B. Chadwick (AKA “The Cheetah”). Arguably the fastest man for 50 meters I have ever seen, somehow he was far more famous for being a victim of circumstance. A standout pole vaulter in high school, legend had it that he’d outjumped the protective pit.

Afraid that he might break his back, he improvised on the spot, purposely landing directly on his left hand. Snapping his wrist like a matchstick, he toughed out his next two vaults and won the meet anyway. No one knew for sure if he was telling the truth, but as far as I was concerned, the story was gospel.

In the bed, just to Chadwick’s right, was Lucius Franklin. Some years before, in the stairwell of his
South Florida elementary school, he’d lost his virginity at the age of 11. (It seems that one of his older sister’s friends had a crush on him and just wouldn’t take no for an answer.)

Yeah, I guess it didn’t sound like it could possibly be true, but my early impressions of Lucius were that he was anything but a liar. And knowing how barracks “trash talk” was always at such a premium, I decided that someone must have simply called him on it. (Still a virgin myself at the time, any tale involving anything about sex – no matter how vicarious – was OK by me.)

As I watched both men sleeping, I wondered how each might describe me. Maybe to them, I was just another confused white kid from the suburbs who had just a handful of blacks in his whole high school, none of whom he talked to. Or maybe I was just some cherry mama’s boy, who except for a couple of family vacations, hadn’t spent much time away from home before.

Stuck on that last thought, I started to feel sick again. And within seconds, I was on the run again, my head racing with thoughts of what my two sleeping mates thought of me. One thing seemed certain, though; if they felt anywhere as ill as I did, we were all stuck with each other for a while.

It had to be the ham and cheese with mayonnaise. That must have been the culprit. Like a lot of things on the base, that batch of submarine sandwiches had just sat around too long.

And back in the mess hall, while Corporal Laranaga was busy in the kitchen, scraping the last of a chicken dish out of the bottom of a baking pan, he had forgotten to turn off the warming light on the food carousel. And there they were for the taking.

Having arrived at the meal later than usual, I didn’t see too many other options. I grabbed my tray and scooped up the sandwich, without even thinking about it. Chadwick and Franklin must’ve done the same.

I don’t even remember getting into bed. For all I knew, I had crawled there after I finally finished puking. (Bearing in mind that it was the second time in under an hour.) It only took me a moment to realize that I’d fallen asleep, still wearing most of my uniform. Except for my boots and my web belt, I was basically wearing everything else I’d put on that morning.

“Don’t sweat it, man. I didn’t even get my boots off.”

The sound of Franklin’s voice, although somewhat familiar, still startled me some.

“Ham and cheese, huh?” Franklin quipped.

“Yeah, with ‘lotsa mayo,” I said.

We both chuckled a bit and then looked over at Chadwick. He didn’t look like he had moved at all since I had first seen him sleeping, close to 12 hours earlier.

“You talk to him at all,” I asked.

“You ‘kidding? I think he might be dead.”

As awful as I still felt, I couldn’t help but laugh. Neither could Franklin. Pretty soon, we were both stifling hysterical laughter. Franklin tried to bury his face in the pillow, thrashing his feet with glee. And when Chadwick still didn’t move an inch, I started up, too. Two virtual strangers, sharing a laugh in an army hospital in the wee hours of the night.

We talked for a while, and then I guess I fell asleep again. When I opened my eyes, one of the orderlies handed me a large, floppy hospital gown. “Put this on, okay?” The orderly spoke very quietly, so as not to disturb the others. (Meanwhile, just one bed over, Chadwick, still dressed in his uniform, hadn’t budged.)

Although I didn’t feel completely awake yet, seeing Chadwick virtually motionless shook me up some. I suddenly became concerned that there was really something wrong with the guy.

The orderly, though, whose name was Pena, quickly reassured me. “Most of us ‘gotta heave all night long after eating something bad. I guess the lucky ones just have to sleep it off,”
he whispered.

“When did he get here?” I asked.

“He didn’t; ambulance brought him in.” Then motioning to Franklin, he said, “found your other body out on the front lawn, holding onto a big tree. We’re still waiting to get a few more guys, but you three are it so far. Doc says it might be salmonella.”

“Jesus,” I said. Is that what I’ve got, too?” I paused a moment, searching for whatever composure I could muster. “But it was only a ‘coupla bad sandwiches, man.” I practically whimpered, as I
said it.

I had read an article once about how salmonella had killed several people on a camping trip in the Adirondack Mountains. So, needless to say, the mention of it made me more than uneasy.

But why sugarcoat it? I was scared shitless.

Pretty soon, though, Pena let me off the hook. Maybe whatever compassion he had hiding beneath his stoical exterior forced its way out in the open. I found out later that he’d recently been transferred from a V.A. hospital somewhere down in North Carolina. He couldn’t have been much more than 20 and was probably happy just to be around someone his own age.

“Look, man, I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to shake you up. Believe me, the doctors don’t tell me shit. I just pick up scraps of info here and there.”

I did feel somewhat reassured, as he continued. “Yeah, don’t listen to me, man. About the only thing they let me do around here is change out the beds.” “And if it makes you feel any better, I haven’t even seen your chart. OK?”

“Yeah, that’s cool,” I said, trying to seem a whole lot cooler than I actually was. (Looking back, I was grateful to him for being decent to me, proud of myself for not crying.)

We both sat there for a minute, and then I asked him, “What are they ‘gonna do to us?” It wasn’t too difficult to figure out that I was still pretty scared.

“I look like a doctor to you, man?” Pena smiled and reassured me again. “You’re ‘gonna be fine, man. I promise that there’s nothing wrong.”

I smiled when he said that, and then he suddenly became more serious.

“It is ‘gonna be wrong, though, if you don’t take off that ratty uniform and get into this Wee Willie Winkie, the ‘nurses’ll have my ass.”

“The what?” Now I was just confused.

“You don’t know your nursery rhymes,” huh? That’s just one ‘a those bullshit army names for this thing.” He held up the hospital dressing gown he’d mentioned earlier.

He must have seen that I was still pretty spooked. “Look. I won’t let anything happen to you.”

Then he smiled. “And hey, I’m thinking you’re the prize winner of this bunch, brother. You’re the only who made it in here using his own two legs. That’s ‘gotta be worth something.”

“And he even got his boots off.” Lucius Franklin, now awake again, echoed Pena’s sentiment. Even after so many years, I still remember those two guys, trying to gently reassure me. And although I wasn’t sure if either man knew my first name, I suddenly felt closer to both of them than anyone who’d ever roamed the halls of my old high school.

“Well, I ‘mighta walked in here by myself, but I’m thinking that they’re still trying to clean up the walls back at the barracks.” I hoped my attempt at humor wouldn’t go unnoticed.

“Nice surprise for the dudes on garbage detail, huh?” Franklin picked up the ball and ran with it, smiling like there was just no other place to be. “And get this,” he continued, stifling more laughter. “Word has it that our man, Chadwick, was busy decorating some full bird colonel’s front lawn just before they hauled him in here.”

It didn’t take more than a second or two before Franklin was laughing over what he said, with Pena quickly joining him and begging Franklin to stop laughing so loudly. As much fun as we were having, I’m sure Pena was still afraid of getting in trouble.

The next day (mid-morning of day 2), Pena came around with a list of meals that would be available during our stay there. I was feeling a little better, and I thought I might have the strength to try to make a call to my parents. I had gotten in the habit of calling them on a weekly basis, and I didn’t want them to worry. One foot on the floor, though, and I quickly retreated to the bed. Whatever equilibrium I did have was very slow in returning.

When I retreated back into the tiny hospital bed, I saw that Chadwick was awake. I thought for a minute that Franklin might start goofing on him again, but instead he simply, he asked,
“You OK, man?”

“I guess so,” said Randal Chadwick. “But what the hell am doing here?” It was strange to see him awake after we’d watched him in uninterrupted slumber for so long.

Pena handed him a menu which had a selection of meals marked on it for the rest of the week. “Jesus, you did a Rip Van Winkle on us, brother. We thought you’d never wake up.”

Chadwick, who probably had no recollection of ever even seeing Pena, studied the menu, no doubt oblivious to all the enjoyment his prolonged nap had provided. “You got me picking meals clear ‘til Friday?” Looking a little bewildered, he turned to Franklin, “Hey, Lucius, why didn’t you just shake me or something? I ‘woulda gotten up.”

“The hell you say. The doctor tried to move you on Tuesday, and you practically slugged the guy. And jesus, the nurses had a pool going on what time you’d actually wake up. Right, boys?”
Pena chortled.

Chadwick looked like a little angry, but turning to Pena, his voice inflection pretty much gave him away. “There’s actually nurses in this hospital? For real? Then how in the hell did we get stuck with you?”

I tried hard not to laugh, but as had been the custom, Franklin started things off. He slapped his knee and pounded me on the arm like we were really friends. Pena laughed, too, and in that moment, I didn’t want to be anywhere else.

“So, you want me to pick food for all of these meals? How in the hell long am I ‘gonna be here?” Chadwick suddenly seemed concerned with how many servings of jello and strained vegetables he was going to have to eat until he could go back to the barracks.

Pretty soon, though, he joined in, and I think it was a pretty safe bet that if any of the guys in our outfit could have seen us that day, they might have taken a chance on one of those tainted sandwiches, too. With all the fun I was having that day, it was more than worth a few
hours of discomfort.

The rest of that morning moved along, with the three of us still more or less confined to our beds. Chadwick tried to get up and walk around once, but he needed to take a quick rest down on the floor before he realized it was time to retreat back to his bed. Meanwhile, Franklin, seemed content to just sit tight, perhaps convinced that he needed more time to steady himself.

As for me, I found the courage to make it downstairs to a row of pay phones, only to find every last one of them in use. I hung in for as long as I could, but the vertigo I was feeling made the decision to retreat back to the relative safety of my bed more than an easy one. I remember thinking that my parents would be worried, and I could only hope that they’d understand.

Pena came back periodically throughout the day to check on us, making a point to bust on Chadwick in the process. And when Chadwick finally got around to wearing his hospital nightgown, Pena joked that Chadwick’s uniform, now sitting in a pile next to his bed, would soon be ready to get up and walk away on its own.

After a while, it was more like Pena was just hanging out with us instead of doing his job. I remember thinking that his days working at the V.A. had taught him to appreciate simple conversation. And by the time he was off duty that night, we’d learned that his first name was Ray, and that he had a young wife, living back in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

He told us that he liked being in the army, but that he missed his wife and his home. If he wanted to, he could have gotten out in less than a year, but he explained that he could never find a job back in San Juan that would have paid even half as much. (I found out years later that Ray Pena stayed in the service for more than 10 years after that; and I could only hope that he knew how lucky the three of us were to end up in his care.)

As for those three A Company grunts, having collectively logged enough sleeping hours to make Rip Van Winkle look like an insomniac, we spent the rest of our time there simply shooting the shit. We hung out until 0300 over the next two nights, none of us wanting to spend any
more time sleeping.

Except for a very warrant officer, heavily doped up on pills, having broken his leg in a training exercise, we had the whole room to ourselves. I just listened most of the time, letting my two new friends have the floor. And it soon became clear that Chadwick and Franklin didn’t know each other much more than I knew either of them.

Randal Chadwick was the oldest of three brothers, raised by his grandparents just outside of Washington, D.C. He reconfirmed the pole vaulting story for us, his claim to fame. He also told us that he was never quite the same after that. With track scholarships all but out of the picture, and with next to no money available for college, he’d joined the army, thinking that he might have a shot at the G.I. Bill. He’d never been out of the Washington, D.C. Metro area, and although he never actually said it, until day 1 of basic training, I doubt he’d ever spent a single night away
from home before.

For as much of a talker as he was, Lucius Franklin didn’t share much about his personal life. In fact, all I really knew was that he was the only son in a family with five sisters.

Apparently his late father was a highway patrolman who’d been tossed off of his motorcycle somewhere in Dade County, Florida. After that, Lucius had to drop out of high school, becoming the de facto man of the house. Such awful circumstances could have ruined him, made him bitter and hateful. But to this day, I’ve never known anyone who knew how to make other people feel good the way he did.

I swear I saw him at a very crowded Kennedy Airport once about ten years ago, but I couldn’t get close enough to be sure.

As for me, I’m not sure I had much of a story back then. The truth is that I wasn’t really full formed yet. I joined the army right out of high school to try to start saving money for college, convinced that I might waste my parents’ hard-earned dollars, due to my own immaturity.

Toward the end of the summer, just a few months after graduation, my father drove me to the recruiting station. A mountain of a man, though gentle in his way, he encouraged me to join up, but he never pushed. I didn’t think to ask him, but I guess he figured that the drill instructors couldn’t have been much harder on me than I already was on myself.

For her part, my mother wasn’t all that crazy about the idea. But she played along and let me try it. I think that in her heart she knew I needed something different. And you’ll laugh, but as I looked around that tiny hospital room on the last night we were there, I think I might have
actually found it.

Yeah, maybe we were just three strangers who’d simply had the shared misfortune of eating the wrong thing from the chow hall. But that first morning, right after Randal Chadwick finally awakened, something changed. Somehow, every barrier, every prejudice, every misunderstanding that could have existed just didn’t. It may have only been for a few days, but make no mistake; we were like brothers.

When the three of us left the hospital on that Friday morning, now some forty years ago, we learned we were granted a day’s leave. I wish I could tell the story of a wild weekend that ensued shortly after, especially since we were all cleared to start eating solid food again.

Time has taught me, though, that any moments spent away from that tiny hospital room could never be recreated. Each of us did have the satisfaction of knowing that we all brought something to the table, somehow bettering each other just by being there.

I ended up using my day’s leave to go visit my parents. And as the bus to home sped into town, we rolled past my high school. I distinctly remember smiling, knowing my true identity was waiting for me right where I left it, back on base where I knew I belonged.

©Copyright 1997 by John L. Fischer

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