Spam, Sonny McQuistan, and Me

Spam: I’m not talking here about junk computer mail. I’m talking about the spiced ham product in a tin can that was introduced by Hormel in 1937, the year I was born. Spam and I turn 75 this year.

My Uncle George, the World War I hero, used to tell me that the name stood for its contents: “Squirrels, Possum and Mice.”  But Uncle George was also the man who sent me to the diner to buy him a “soup sandwich.” Nice one, Uncle George. You did teach me to think for myself though and question anything that didn’t sound right or make sense. I thank you for that. I owe you a soup sandwich (you pick the flavor; I think the diner still makes Spam soup).

Spam (some say it stands for “Spiced Ham”) was made, then as now, from a ham shoulder, rump, other mysterious bits, water, spices, and a few ingredients too secret to disclose. It came in a key-opened tin can, was virtually as indestructible as it was imperishable, could be shipped anywhere without special packaging or refrigeration, and could be eaten cold or hot, alone or as part of some elegant entrée. It was perfect for both the military and the civilian markets. The armed services bought tons of it during World War II. The military cooks could do Spam and powdered eggs for breakfast, Spam sandwiches at mid-day, and at night it could be substituted in any recipe calling for beef, chicken, or even fish. Filet O’ Spam: Just imagine.

My cousin, Sonny McQuistan, was a Paratrooper serving in the South Pacific during the closing days of the war. He had fought his way through Europe and hoped to be sent home after VE Day. Wrong.  His unit got shipped out to help clear the outer islands surrounding Japan . He used to say that three things stuck out in his mind: Japanese soldiers with a really bad attitude, legions of killer mosquitoes, and Spam. The Paratroopers called Spam: “Ham that flunked its physical.”

The Spam they could handle, but the mosquitoes were only slight less dangerous than the Japanese soldiers. The troops had no insect repellent, or mosquito netting, so they sat up in their pup tents at night, swatting at the whining little buggers that were trying to consume them alive.

Sonny told me a great story: He was in his tent one night when the flap was ripped open and there stood two South Pacific Island mosquitoes. They were about 6 feet tall and weighed in at least 200 pounds each. The first mosquito said to his buddy: “Shall we take him back to the nest or eat him here?”

His buddy replied: “Eat him here. If we take him back to the nest, the big mosquitoes will just take him away from us.”

I asked breathlessly: “What did you do?”

Sonny replied: “I grabbed my M-1 carbine and shot them.”

Knowing Sonny, I believed he could do it.

He also told of the time his platoon got the word to stay in their tents between 1600 and 1800 hours one day. They did as ordered, while Army Air Corps crop dusters flew low over the island, spraying the mosquitoes with DDT. Breathing was tough for a while, but the guys didn’t mind. That night was mosquito free, as was the next day, and morale soared – only to crash soon after when the spraying stopped and the determined mosquitoes returned. Once again the battle was joined between men and mosquitoes, with the mosquitoes out numbering the men by at least a million to one.

Later, they learned the reason why the Army was concerned enough to spray for mosquitoes: General of the Army Douglas MacArthur visited the island for a one day, secret meeting, with his military staff. General MacArthur hated mosquitoes.

The men weren’t bitter when they learned this. They yelled: “Invite him back!”

The troops went back to their patrols, their raids, their fight with the mosquitoes, and their Spam. “By this time,” Sonny said, “we were eating Spam three times a day. It was about the only thing we had that stood up to the heat and the humidity – and its uses were endless.”

One day, Sonny and his squad were called to unload some transport trucks at the officer’s mess. One truck carried kegs of beer. The bill of lading was promptly adjusted and a few kegs of beer disappeared. Then, they found a truck filled with cartons marked “Steaks, tinned”. Steaks!? Once again records were adjusted and a few cases of tinned steaks disappeared.

Now, what to do with it all? They organized a feast with beer, lots of local delicacies, and grilled steaks. A feast indeed and, as Sonny said, “The tickets were reasonably priced; just enough to cover our costs.” Yeah, right. They sold well over a hundred tickets to the Paratroopers and Marines assigned to the island with them.

The big night arrived. They had music (courtesy of Tokyo Rose), beer, goodies, roaring fires under makeshift grills, and after several beers, they ceremoniously tore open the first carton of “Steaks, tinned.” The cartons had been mislabeled. It was Spam.

“That’s when the fight broke out,” Sonny mused. “At first it was ticket buyers against ticket sellers. Then it was Marines against Paratroopers. Then it was everybody against anybody. The island commander didn’t have enough Military Police (MP’s) to deal with a fight this size, so he made an inspired decision: ‘They’re all unarmed. They’re just beating on each other. Have the MP’s hang back to make sure it doesn’t get too nasty and let them go at it until they drop.’ He was so smart,” Sonny continued. “People see movie fights that seem to last forever, but that’s not the way it goes. A Paratrooper or Marine hits you a few times and it’s lights out. It was over in a short time.  The MP’s and the Medics just tended the bleeding and left the others where they lay.”

The next morning, about 0600, the sergeants moved in with their whistles and swagger sticks and a contingent of fresh MP’s. They gave everybody until 0700 to clean up, dress, breakfast down, and show up for formation. “Can you guess what breakfast was?” Sonny asked. “It was Spam and powdered eggs. It made for a long day.”

Of course, Spam was big on the civilian front too. My mother was a good basic cook and we had Spam several times a week in its own original identity, and masquerading as beef in Spam Chop Suey, as chicken in Spam noodle soup, and as fish in the weekend’s Fried Spam and Chips. I also remember Spam hash. I try to forget it, but I can’t.  I heard rumors that there were Spam brownies around too, but Mom never tried that one. We had Spam in school lunches, for snacks, and on crackers as hor’s doeuvres. I always thought it was pretty good

One Sunday in the late Forties, my parents took me to Uncle Jim and Aunt Louise’s fine home in Waltham, Mass. We arrived just as they were leaving for Sunday dinner at Uncle Jim’s club. They had given their boy, Sonny, the house for a reunion with his Paratrooper buddies, and they wanted no part of the festivities. They insisted my parents join them. “Leave the kid here,” Sonny said, indicating me. “He likes my stories and there are enough of us to keep him in line.” My parents reluctantly agreed.  What an afternoon it was. We stood around the baby grand piano and sang World War II and US Army songs. They told funny stories about their two wars in Europe and the South Pacific, and their great adventures that had me laughing for hours. They cracked me a fresh Coke every time they cracked themselves a fresh beer. I had no idea who these big guys were, or where they served or what they did. It was all great fun, upbeat, and they were my buddies. I wanted to be a soldier. I was too, but nothing even close to their league.

By the way, Sonny hosted them a fine buffet dinner. Can you guess what was in the main serving dish? Yup: Spam

Spam seemed to disappear after that. I suppose it was too much of a good thing for too long. Chicken was readily available now, as was beef and fish. The public walked away from their tasty old friend in the tin can. But Spam may have been down, but not out. It started coming out in new varieties, 14 of them in fact, and offered low fat, low salt, and low calorie choices to a new generation of health conscious Americans. It also had a sales surge due to rough economic times when younger parents, short of money, did what their parents and grandparents did: They found lower cost product that produced tasty and affordable meals.  Check out the Spam website at spam.com. You’ll be amazed at what you can do with the stuff.

I bought a can of the “low everything” variety this week, just for me. I had Spam and eggs (real eggs, not powdered) for breakfast, a Spam sandwich with tomatoes and onions for lunch, and in the evening: Spam hor’s doeuvres, with a chilled glass of red wine, and some Big Band music playing on my stereo. I sat there with lots of good memories of times past, and of the great and important people in my life.

When they compile the list of the all time American biggest food and beverage products, I’ll have to agree with Coca Cola, Hershey Chocolate, Wheaties, and maybe Cheerios or Bud in the top four places, but Spam has got to make the Top Five. It helped win the war.

Happy 75th Birthday, Spam. You done good.

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Contact: ecmcm@aol.com

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