“An Army marches on its stomach.”
As we take our own little march down memory lane, let me state up front that I can’t stomach applesauce, just can’t. I liked it as a kid but now it has less appeal than the prospect of being duct taped to a chair, face down, in prison. Yeah, I hate it.
This may seem unreasonable, but anyone who was in at the time, at least in the Army or Marines, and some portion thereof that actually went to the field a lot, will probably remember the Great Applesauce Blight of 1977 and 1978, which was the reason I can’t stand the crap.
The “Great Applesauce Blight?” you ask. Oh, yeah.
The story I got, after some years and some digging, goes like this: It seems that sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, a fruit company – the Monterey Fruit Company, so it was said – was going out of business. So the Monterey Fruit Company, if that’s who it really was, called the Department of Defense and said, “Boys, have we got a deal for you. Hundreds upon hundreds of tons of Grade A applesauce, and you can have it. All of it. Cheap.”
McNamara and his Whiz Kids – neither of them ever sufficiently to be damned, of course – were gone, but their spirits remained. Department of Defense, ever conscious of the value of a well-squeezed penny, bought that inventory of applesauce, and began to put it into the old style, canned, MCI; Meal, Combat, Individual, which is to say, “C-Rations.”
C-Rations of the day were entirely canned and composed of a main meal, for one meal, plus either a cake (or very rarely, canned bread) or fruit of some kind, usually a small tin of peanut butter or cheese of some kind of jam or jelly, and one or another type of B Unit, which would have some variant of crackers plus either candy or cocoa. Sometimes, as with the B-2 unit, the cheese was in those.
Now, perusing a case of 1978 C-rats,1 which would have been newer than those of the Great Applesauce Blight, but still broadly similar, one notes that there were twelve menus, twelve different main meals, and twelve different kinds of dessert, a sundry pack, plus variable candies, spreads, etc. Of that latter twelve, eight were fruit and four were cake of some kind. I seem to recall that, possibly for reasons of economy, the amount of fruit during the Great Applesauce Blight had gone up to usually ten cans out of twelve, some extra cheese or peanut butter seemed to be included with some, and the cakes went down to two, one of which was going to be Chocolate Nut Roll, essentially inedible, from the Nashville Bread Company2 and the other would be the even more thoroughly disgusting fruit cake. I don’t recall who made that, and that lack of memory may have been an automatic defense against a future charge of capital murder. None of the cakes except pound cake could be relied on to be edible, and pound cake was always rare.
Now picture this, you’re a soldier in the Panama Canal Zone, training – training hard – to fight for the Canal, living in the jungle maybe twenty-five or more days and nights a month, eating C-rats to the tune of sixty or seventy a month, and virtually every meal contains applesauce or something more innately disgusting. “No, none of that nice fruit cocktail or those ever so delectable pear slices for you, young man; Department of Defense, to save a few bucks, has determined that applesauce is good enough, three meals a day, for weeks on end.”
Now we were already kind of thin, because no military feeding system can ever completely keep up with the caloric requirements for a soldier either continuously fighting or realistically training to fight. Normally, this isn’t a problem because he can pack it on in the mess hall.3 These were unusual circumstances, though, with an unusually high chance of fighting – or riot control, which is worse – over the Canal. So we’re pretty much living out there, in pretty much trackless jungle, with nothing like enough helicopters for regular hot rations from the mess. Besides that, the old 193rd Infantry Brigade, in the Panama Canal Zone, was unusual in that it made a very serious effort to train even the cooks to fight, which takes time, too. C’s are pretty much it.
Even so, thin and hungry or not, after a month or two we could not eat the applesauce. That was probably seven or eight hundred calories a days that just got tossed. We began going from thin to frigging emaciated.
When I think upon the Great Applesauce Blight, though, I do not think about hardship or hunger. No, I think – as we old farts are wont to – about happier aspects of it.
Now this is no shit:
There we were, the heavy mortar platoon of 4th Battalion, 10th Infantry, stuck on top of a non-descript hill4 somewhere southwest of Gamboa, Canal Zone.
PFC McBrayer had a birthday out there in the jungle. I think it was his nineteenth birthday. None of us had been able to do any shopping, so we were all just stuck for getting him a birthday present. “I’m not giving up my pet scorpion,” said Big Al, who in fact, had a pet scorpion for the mega-ant versus scorpion gladiatorial combats we used to stage. “I’d offer to give him some of my crotch rot,” said Art, “but I think he already has some of his own.” “Howler monkey?” “Who’s going to catch it? And those suckers are mean, too.” “How about a sloth? They’re easy to catch.” “If the Lord God didn’t see fit to give B’rer Sloth an asshole, I don’t see why we should add to his troubles by catching him and wrapping him as a present.” Finally someone, I don’t think it was me, might have been Sergeant Sais, said, “Gentlemen, there can be only one proper gift under the circumstances,” and then he held up a – you guessed it – can of applesauce.
So we stuck nineteen or twenty Canal Zone Matches5 in a Nashville Bread Company Chocolate Butt Roll, invited McBrayer over, torched off the matches, sang Happy Birthday, then presented him his can of applesauce.
He was touched; you could see that. As he dashed tears from his eyes while making his, “Gee, you guys are just all so special…you shouldn’t have,” speech, you could see the emotion radiating from his face. And then, all choked up, he turned to go and tossed that can of applesauce off the hill with a seemingly casual but utter contempt I have never seen before or since, and which my poor words can’t do justice to. It was the sheer, distilled essence of everything we all felt about applesauce and the mind-maggots who had inflicted so much of it on us.
PS: I’m going to be spending the next few weeks elaborating on military chow. You can think of it as an educational experience.
2 Though the Chocolate “Butt” Roll from Eunice King’s Country Kitchen was quite nice.
3 No, I refuse to say “Dining Facility.”
4 Might have been Cerro Urraba. Not sure.
5 These: https://www.maksimsmuseum.com/panama-canal-matches.html. Amazing things, really.
Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.
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