Poor Richard's Almanac says "There's many a slip twixt cup and
lip." Ben Franklin wasn't thinking of the Army when he said that. But
he'd have been right on the mark if he had been.
Patton II was very much changed from what we had left a few months before.
Civilization had finally arrived. Twice a week a truck arrived with big bundles of
clean uniforms. We could strip off our old, dirty fatigues
and put on clean ones right there in the middle of the compound. There were also
fancy new command bunkers with wooden floors, a large radio complex and microwave
transmitters with crypto-encoders. The most impressive addition was a new battery of
six self-propelled 155 mm. howitzers.
These big guns were mounted on a tracked vehicle - usually the bottom part of a tank.
The breech end of the gun was enclosed in a massive steel box the size of a small
room, with the business end sticking out about ten to twelve feet. They were
monsters and they fired a shell which was six inches in diameter and a foot and a half
Whenever a field unit needed artillery support, the call came in for these guns, and
others, to respond. Gun crews loaded the big shells, closed the breeches, lined the
guns up on target and pulled a lanyard. The following Boom! shook the walls of our
bunkers. It sometimes even knocked down the foam padding in the radio building.
When all six went off together, it was loud! Talk about noise pollution . . .
But for all the changes, one thing was the same. Our favorite cook was still
there, along with his unforgettable fried chicken. When dinnertime came I walked
down to the mess hall. I picked up a paper plate and held it out as the mess
stewards ladled up mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, salad, and golden brown fried
chicken. Yum! Meal in hand, I started back for the bunker, up the slight
incline, and across the open dirt compound.
Shortly before dinner that evening a fire mission came in. While we were loading
our plates, men were loading the heavy projectiles, closing the big steel gates, and
turning the guns on their turrets to aim for the Ho Bo Woods fifteen miles away. The
guns were loaded with their heaviest charges, to push those big shells all the way out
there. Gunners stood by their lanyards, waiting for the order to open fire.
I was directly beneath the barrel of one of these guns when that order came. I
was thinking only of chicken, and of getting to my bunker before the potatoes got
cold. I never saw the elevated barrels pointed toward the horizon. Wham!
The muzzle blast stunned me. Involuntarily my arm and hand jerked first left, then
right, then back and forth again. The roar of the guns echoed against the small
forest to the south of the fire base, and then died away. There I stood. The
paper plate was still in my hand. But it was empty. I had shaken all the food
off of it and into the reddish brown dirt that carpeted the base. Not even the gravy
was left on the plate.
For several moments I just stood there stupidly looking at my dinner in the dirt,
before it sank in that it was gone. Slowly I retraced my steps to the mess hall and
begged for seconds - they wanted to know what had happened to the firsts. The cooks
were really good guys - they did let me have more. And I carried it with both hands
this time. As I got close to the guns, I heard the commands issuing forth again.
I gritted my teeth and let them blast away. They weren't getting my dinner
twice. And when I finally settled down to eat, I savored every bite - the chicken
was just as good as I remembered it. Maybe even better!