Friday, October 23, 2009

Absolved: Chapter 23, The Four Fingers of Death

Screaming Eagles

Fort Campbell, KY: Nine Months and Two Days After the Battle of Sipsey Street.

"Sir, I protest this requisition. If we fill this order it amounts to a full fifteen percent of our existing stocks. It puts us below our own required minimums we may need in case of deployment." The Captain looked for hope in the bird colonel's hatchet face. There was none to be seen.

The Colonel was sympathetic but his hands were tied. He replied in a voice of flint, "Captain this order originated in the E-Ring. The Corps Commander protested it and was overruled. I assure you that you have less stoke in this outfit than General Mackey. You understand why these people want our rations, don't you?"

Of course O'Toole knew. Anybody who read the front page of any newspaper in the United States knew. The Feds and the Brightfire mercenaries carrying out Operation Clean Sweep had started turning up poisoned by their own rations. Thousands had sickened, hundreds had died. Some mess hall or supply chain perpetrators had been caught, but many had not. They no longer can trust their own food so they need ours, and they need it fast.

The Colonel snapped, "This order will be obeyed, regardless of our opinion of it. So shut up and soldier and get it done."

A lesser man would have withered under the Colonel's glare. Captain O'Toole could just not bring himself to say "Yes, sir." The Colonel paused. He hated that they had been tasked with supporting Operation Clean Sweep too. The pained look on O'Toole's face caused him to add, almost kindly, "Look son, you don't think that the present National Command Authority is going to deploy us overseas, do you? They promised the voters and the voters, God forgive them, gave them the power. The only military operations they're interested in pursuing at the moment is against elements of our own people and the services won't get involved in that, thank God. So if we have to give the Feds and the mercenaries some of our rations, understand that it could be a lot worse. We could be fighting our own people."

The Captain mistook the Colonel's softening voice for a weakened resolve and risked an insubordinate observation. "Sir, it's just that I hate supporting those murdering sons of bi-."

"Enough." The command was iron. "Get it done Captain."

"Yes, sir." The O'Toole retreated as fast as military decorum permitted. Exiting the G-4's office, he walked outside, putting his cover back on as he strode across the street to the warehouses beyond. Tall, blond-haired and handsome but for the curving scar that ran from his cheek up through the right side of his nose (a souvenir of Operation Iraqi Freedom), O'Toole was every inch an officer. He was a mustang, not a Pointer, and he was damned proud of it. His rise, courtesy of the killing op tempo of the wars, had been just short of meteoric, but then no one begrudged him that. He was very competent at any task he was assigned and although unknown to O'Toole, the Colonel intended to try to get him a leaf and bring him along with him when he finally got his star.

The Captain entered the relative gloom of the warehouse and removed his beret, crushing it in his right hand with a killing grip. He walked to his office, shut the door behind him and flung the beret across the room in frustration. The cover struck the corner of the black frame of his favorite picture of the war, an image of O'Toole and his men outside Uday and Qusay Hussein's death house, smoke still rising from the rubble. The force of the blow knocked the picture from the wall, and gravity took over, bouncing it off the bookcase below and then to the floor, where the glass shattered in a hundred pieces.

"Shit!" the Captain began and followed with 40 or 50 words and phrases, all of them profane, some of them scatalogical and some worse than obscene. He hardly repeated himself.

The Good Soldier Schweik

Master Sergeant Joshua Robinson watched him through the glass, smiling at some of the Captain's more original combinations. He sure still swears like an enlisted man, Robinson thought with a grin. Finally, O'Toole slumped in his chair, defeated, spent. After a few minutes, MSG Robinson entered. The Captain ignored him.

"No luck, Sir?" the big black non-com ventured. The Captain looked up. He was still so angry he did not trust his voice, so he just shook his head.

"Sir," Robinson continued, "I think I have an idea. I've been on the phone to a buddy of mine at Bragg. They've got the same orders, and well, we talked about and I think maybe we can obey the order and still retain our honor."

O'Toole, not daring to hope the Master Sergeant was right, asked "How's that?"

"Sir, have you ever heard of "The Good Soldier Schweik?"

O'Toole smiled broadly for the first time all day. "Yeah I have, first back when I was a smart-ass Specialist, and several times since. I've still got a copy of The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Ċ vejk During the World War on my bookshelf at home. Too bad Jaroslav Hasek never got a chance to finish it. But what's your point?

"Well, Cap'n we've got an order here, and we've got to obey it but that's no reason we can't obey it the way we want to, just like Schweik, is there?"

"Go on," urged the Captain, still wondering where this was going.

"Well, you know how they'd give Schweik an order, like, 'Take this important message to headquarters,' and Schweik would run right over to HQ with the message but then not give it to anybody because they didn't tell him to?"

"Yes," said O'Toole carefully.

"Well Cap'n, they didn't tell us what KIND of rations to send them did they? If you read the order again you'll see they don't specify."

O'Toole didn't have to consult the text, he had it in his head. "That's right, so?"

"Well, talking to 'Willy' Mayes over at Bragg, we started thinking about all the really crappy stuff that's built up in the warehouses over the past few years. Stuff we never touched because we were either deployed, or we were on mess hall rations. Stuff troopers wouldn't eat, or got returned from FTXs unopened. You know we never threw that crap away if it was still within its expiration date, we just tossed it in big palletized cardboard boxes."

O'Toole nodded, he knew exactly the kind of rations Robinson meant.

"Well, what got me thinking was 'Willy' mentioned that they had a whole bunch of overage 'Four Fingers of Death' MREs that they'd never got around to throwing away and said it'd serve those bastards right if he sent 'em those. And that's when I thought about Good Soldier Schweik." Master Sergeant Joshua Robinson paused. "Sir, you know we've got some of those 'Four Fingers of Death,' too. And Chicken Fajitas. And Country Captain Chicken. . ."

"Oh, God!" O'Toole blurted. "That crap tore me up during the invasion. . ."

"Yeah," agreed Robinson, "that stuff was almost as bad as 'The Four Fingers of Death.' And you know, sir, those feds and mercenaries, they're not going to be used to eating MREs. The ones who don't puke and shit themselves to death will be sealed up tighter than a drum for a month and you know what THAT'S like."

Meals Refusing Excretion

O'Toole did. M.R.E.'s, "Meal, Ready to Eat," variously known throughout their history as as military rations as ""Mr. E" (mystery), "Meals Rejected by Everyone", "Meals, Rarely Edible", "Meals Rejected by the Enemy", "Morsels, Regurgitated, Eviscerated", "Materials Resembling Edibles", and even "Meals Rejected by Ethiopians", are high in fiber, chemicals, vitamins, hormones and God alone knows what else. Some called them "Three Lies for the Price of One" - it's not a Meal, it's not Ready, and you can't Eat it. But the nickname Robinson was referring to was "Meals Refusing Excretion." And that O'Toole remembered well.

When you first eat M.R.E's with regularity your intestines are a mess. You will not be able to defecate for several days, sometimes weeks. Then you hit the point where you are so bloated you don't want to eat and you start to feel the contractions and think, "Oh, thank you, blessed Jesus!" But then you run to the head and you are forced to give birth to a 15 pound iron rod. O'Toole's anal sphincter twinged at the memory of it. It was the kind of thing where you hold onto the seat for dear life, your legs fully extended and there's this stabbing pain that convinces you your guts are being lanced open from the inside out. And you grip that seat even tighter, and the only thing that you can think about while you groan and grit your teeth and the sweat pours from you is that there was once upon a time when your ass did not hurt that much. And you pray fervently, feverishly, for the return of that day.

Men had been shot by the enemy and later claimed it did not hurt as much as M.R.E. constipation.

Oh, yes, O'Toole remembered. So did his gut.

"You know, Master Sergeant, if we rounded up all the toxic M.R.E.'s and shipped them to the Feds, we might actually create an entire new front in the war." Robinson laughed. "Yes, sir, we would . . . the Shithouse Main Line of Resistance." Both men laughed so hard that they were heard on the street outside the open warehouse door by a passing Specialist who wondered what the joke was. Then they began planning how best to emulate The Good Soldier Schweik.

"We'll need to swap boxes on them, sir," Robinson reminded him.

"I'll get the extra hands from the Colonel, and we'll reband them, just like new. We'll still meet the deadline."

O'Toole paused. "You know when the Feds figure out what we did to them they'll just shit all over that fancy raid gear of theirs." Robinson looked at the Captain, shaking his head. "No they won't." Both Screaming Eagles laughed until they cried.


Ten days later, outside of Idabel, Oklahoma.

"Sir, the M.R.E.'s are finally here," said the ASAC's aide. The supervisory ATF agent sighed with relief, "Great! Finally food we don't have to worry about. It's about time. Fish me out one, Harkins, I'm hungry enough to eat a sick snake."

The agent pulled a brown plastic envelope out of the box and brought it over to the ASAC, placing it on his desk in front of him. The ASAC turned it around and looked at the label: "Meal, Ready to Eat, Smoky Franks and Beans."

The ASAC snorted in disgust. He was a veteran, he knew what "The Four Fingers of Death" was. "Harkins," he ordered, "get me another one, I ain't eatin' this shit."
"Sir, they're all the same in this box."

"What! No, there's supposed to be an assortment of meals in each case."

"I know, sir, Special Agent Marx said the same thing, but we've opened all of the ones we received and they all have franks and beans in them. And Charms candy. They sent us extra packs of Charms candy in each box."

The ASAC knew what Charms candy meant too. No self-respecting soldier ate Charms. They were considered bad luck, evil juju, a death wish. They came in the old M.R.E.'s but nobody but uninformed Fobbits ate them.

Great, a death wish AND digestive terror from our own Army. "Well shit and shove me in it," said the ASAC.

He looked at the brown envelope. This shit just HAD to be years beyond the expiration date.

"What does it mean, sir? Marx said something about the Charms being bad luck."

"What it means, Harkins, is that our own Army just told us, 'Fuck you.'"

"Well, shit," Harkins blurted, then remembering it was his boss, stammered, "uh, sir."

"Well, maybe," said the ASAC, "but probably not. Not for a while anyway." And then, to no one in particular, "Those dirty stinking bastards. The Four Fingers of Death." His hunger overcame his disgust. He took out his Gerber, slit the plastic envelope, and removed the contents. "Those dirty stinking bastards."


Anonymous said...

I almost pissed myself laughing. Nice Jjob Mike. I can't wait for the rest of the book!

Anonymous said...

Well said, amigo!!

DD said...

I - personally - LOVE charms. Free sugar/free energy. I've survived a lot of shiat, candy ain't going to kill me.

I don't expect to survive anyway, so... I'll take your charms if you're 'fraid to eat 'em!


J E Carter II said...

Laughing with watery eyes. That's excellent. Can't wait to get the whole thing.

Anonymous said...

OMG! ROFLOL! Times 2!
I was in when we transitioned from C's to MRE's, and I can attest as truth everything written in this chapter.

I'm Tom Bodett, and we'll leave the outhouse light on for you.

B Woodman
SSG (Ret) US Army

Anonymous said...


Jesse M. said...

Awesome keep writing...

Diogenes said...

It never fails. Everytime I read the passage about the head trip after a couple of weeks on MRE's, I giggle like a schoolgirl. Painful memories but your description NAILS it. Gallows humor but even so I giggle.

drjim said...

One of my favorite chapters.
Thanks for reprinting it!

Carl Bussjaeger said...

Ha! Those of us who encountered the generation 1 dessicated pork pucks laugh at the four fingers of death.

The constipation issue has a simple solution. You just have to remember that, compared to typical chow hall or home cooking, MREs are low moisture. You need to take in more fluids than you might think. Of course, under field conditions you're often water-limited.

Good tale.

Ahab said...

Hi Mike,

My comments on the first installment not-withstanding, count me in when you look for allies. I'm ready to fight, and right now.

Your writing is exceptional, by the way. The story you're giving us glimpses of is perfect for the situation. I pray the old adage that the pen is mightier than the sword holds true, and that the powers that be take heed; otherwise, we're in for hell on earth until it's over.

Anonymous said...

Hilarious! And more accurate than I care to remember. I used to avoid the cheese packets like the plague. And the jalapeno cheese? Yeah, that only complicated matters...

pdxr13 said...

By the mid-1990's (manufacture date, not distribution date!) MRE's in brown and early tan were getting pretty-okay IF you knew how to prepare them (and which to starve through instead of eat).

Yes, Water- you need to drink a canteen of water while preparing the M.R.E. It helps to make you temporarily less empty so that you might chew slower. Digestion starts at the teeth, so chew well.

When out on exercises st OsanAB they gave us 4 MRE's a day AND let us go to chow halls if we were close enough, so the unopened packages got dumped into duffel bags for later that became never. I scrounged original cardboard and bands and re-packed them into my wall locker. They came home with me to the States in personal property.
The case went into a 1952 stand-up freezer in 1997 and has been at -40F for 12 years. I thawed the case in the livingroom for a week and opened up a few. They taste just like 1995. 1992 M&M's suck.

Rumor always was that Vegetarian and Kosher MREs' were more expensive and better. Any truth?
I once asked about this and was told to talk to my Rabbi or SDA priest or the all-purpose Chaplain (oops, I'm not Jewish or SDA, and it felt like trouble I didn't need).

It might be time to find some retort food packaging equipment and start putting everything in MRE packaging.


Crustyrusty said...

Yup, I was in the same time as B. Woodman, when the MREs first came out.

Dehydrated pork patties. Yum.

The only good thing in the early ones was the dehydrated fruit :p

They got better as time wore on, but not a whole lot. I retired in '03 so I'm not up on what's in 'em now, though.


Anonymous said...

"The case went into a 1952 stand-up freezer in 1997 and has been at -40F for 12 years. I thawed the case in the livingroom for a week and opened up a few. They taste just like 1995. 1992 M&M's suck. "

Hell, I've still got a case of 1970's LRRP's in the attic. Might not be there much longer. ;>)

Dr.D said...

this is the second time I've read this chapter and I laughed my ass off both times..

drjim said...

I never had the pork patties, but the "beef" hockey pucks could have patched a tire!

Anonymous said...

Great read! Can't wait for the rest.

Re: MREs and C-rats:
One word - Tabasco.

Crustyrusty said...

Being a Chicago boy, I never could get into the "put Tabasco on everything in the Chow Hall" mode like the guys from Dixie; I just endured it.

Anonymous said...

Amen on the Tabasco! Even after they started putting the little bottles in each meal, I carried an family-size bottle in my ruck.

Oh and thanks a heap for reminding me about the beef and pork patties, you sick sadists. I've been trying for years to forget about 'em.


Anonymous said...

I got as many laughs from the comments as I did from the post. Got to get the book. We had C's in Nam. With enough Beer and Tobasco my folks sent me by the case most were tolerable. Except scrambled eggs and ham. I want to barf just thinking about those. Rice in a banana leaf saved many a meal.

Anonymous said...

E-Damn-Normous laughter! Thanks!

I don't do much of that these days...

Taz said...

Ahh, the memories of learning how to handle eating field rations... Remember it well, and with the 101st. Geez, did you have to open the memory box? My gut hurts thinking about it. (g) Good story. Air Assault !! III

PavePusher said...

As one of the very small percentage of USAF personnel who has had to exist on MRE's for more than a few days at a time, I learned about half-way through my first deployment to bring a LARGE jar of Metamucil or equivalent, and to get fresh fruit and veggies at every opportunity. Now that I'm a SNCO, many of the FNG's make jokes about age infirmaties, until a week or two after the start of their first extended MRE-fest...


rustynail said...

Not to be picky, but in the interest of proper lexicon, the relief trip in paragraph 29 (I think it's 29) would have been to the latrine not the head, unless they were in the Navy or Marines. Just saying.