The Army, The Orange Juice and The Nuns:
It was the summer of 1963. I was out of the active army and back in Fitchburg as a member of the US Army Active Reserve. This meant one night a week (sometimes two), one weekend a month at nearby Fort Devens, and two weeks in the summer on active duty at Camp Drum in New York.
I was a first lieutenant, and in an understaffed reserve company in a small city that was plenty of rank indeed. I had my own Jeep. Anyone who has ever been in the service will tell you that having your own Jeep is the ultimate perk. You can tote things, you can pull things, you can get lost for a couple of hours, and nobody said a word.
Each month we went to FortDevens for our weekend training. We were using training manuals that came out of World War II, while our troops in Vietnam were learning strategy and tactics that made our stuff look archaic. I remember being joined one day by a training officer just back from Vietnam. He watched us attack a hill like our books said to do it. We softened it with machine gun and mortar fire, and then marched across an open field toward the hill, firing from the shoulder as we walked. He shook his head sadly. “All you need now,” he said, “is a set of bagpipes and a drum and you can take any hill in India.”
Military techniques aside, the logistics of feeding hundreds of weekend warriors was a great challenge for the Army Reserve. We may not have known the latest techniques, but we knew how to eat, and three meals a day were absolutely essential. The problem was: How many people do you plan for? We had over 200 people on our roster, but on any given weekend they could get excused, sick, or simply disappear. How many rations should we order? We thought better order a few extra than a few less, so we’d order for the full complement, and end up with leftovers. All good food, mind you, baskets and boxes of it: All sealed and safe, even if out of the original packing container.
“What happens to all the leftovers?” I asked the mess sergeant one June Sunday as I looked at about fifty lunches untouched after an all day drill.
“We throw them away,” he said.
“What? Throw them away?” I couldn’t believe it. What a waste. “Why not turn them back into the quartermaster?”
“Reason one,” he began, as though talking to a child, “How do you turn in a sandwich?
“Reason two,” to whom do you turn it in? The quartermaster people aren’t here on Sunday.”
“And reason three,” he concluded, “if you turn any stuff back in, they get upset at your over ordering, and they cut back your order the next time, and that may be the time you really need it. You could have a food riot on your hands.”
“Then let the guys take the extra lunches home.”
“That, Sir,” he sneered, “is called theft of government property.”
I gave it a lot of thought. Well, a minute or two anyway. I said, “Load those lunches into my Jeep and cover them with a tarp. I will handle the matter from here.”
And so it was that I became a food thief from the US Army. That first time it was box lunches of sandwiches, chips, and drinks. I brought them to a Salvation Army soup kitchen. The preacher thanked me with tears in his eyes. He said, “Tell me your name so I can write the Army and let them know what a good man you are.”
“Please don’t,” I replied. “It’s not necessary and they’d probably just shoot me anyway.” I felt like the Lone Ranger leaving incognito the scene of a random act of kindness.
Nobody at the Fort noticed or mentioned the missing box lunches.
The next month, July, it was bacon, eggs, bread and milk. There were cases of the stuff. I took it all to a local nursing home. They were very happy. I did my good deed and slipped away into the night. Once again, nobody noticed a thing.
All this while, by the way, I was complaining to my commanding officer about this waste of government property (the throwing it away part, not the stealing it part). I suggested that unused food should be turned over to the base kitchen for use the next day. The paperwork, he said, would be a real killer. Then there would be audits and inspections and questions. But, he agreed, my idea made sense and he would see what he could do. I noticed the Army usually ends up doing what makes sense. Sometimes, it just takes a little time.
It was the orange juice and the nuns that did me in. All that was left in the kitchen tent that hot August Sunday afternoon was orange juice: Fifteen one gallon cans of the stuff. I loaded them into my Jeep, strapped down the tarp, and thought: “What will I do with these? Who would want fifteen gallons of orange juice?” I exited Route #2 West coming from the Fort and pulled up on South Street in Fitchburg, when it came to me like a flash. The nuns! This road took me right past the convent where the retired Sisters of the Presentation made their mother house for the retired nuns who had taught in the local parochial school systems. That was the answer. My mother worked with these elderly nuns and they appreciated every little kindness done for them. I would give them the orange juice for a Sunday afternoon treat.
I wheeled my Jeep into their convent driveway, knocked on the door, and asked for Sister “Cook.” Honest, that’s what they all called her. I gave her a brief explanation, short on specifics, carried the cans into the kitchen for her, and was on my way. It bothered me a bit that she seemed to recognize me. How could a nun recognize every little kid she had met over a fifty year career? Especially some twenty years later when he showed up in a uniform with a steel helmet, and a Jeep load of orange juice.
Yes, I had done another good deed and once again, I was sure, no one would be the wiser. How could I get into trouble giving orange juice to the nuns? The question was answered the next morning when my mother called me, “What did you do to those poor nuns?” she demanded.
“I gave them orange juice: Fifteen gallon cans of orange juice.”
“And did you read the labels?” she continued. Those were one gallon cans of concentrated orange juice. You empty those cans and then fill them up again with water four times each. You gave them seventy-five gallons of orange juice.”
“I’m guessing that’s bad?” I asked.
“Bad? Bad? They’ve filled every pot in the convent with orange juice. You know they can’t waste anything. Now they’ll have to drink it before it turns bad. The old nuns are asking for a glass of water or a cup of tea and Mother Superior is telling them to drink the orange juice first. They weren’t sure you were all that bright in grammar school. Now they know for certain.”
“I’ll solve the problem,” I began. “I’ll go down there and….”
“Stay away from them,” she warned. “Sister Cook is a little confused these days. She’s been telling people about armed soldiers coming into her kitchen and forcing her to take all that orange juice. If you show up, they’ll put the story together and you could be in trouble with both the nuns and the Army.”
“Mother,” I said, “it sounds like Sister Cook is making up what we call a cover story…”
“Just stay away from the convent. The Ladies Club is holding a bridge club and bazaar there this afternoon. Thanks to you, the refreshments will be orange juice, orange pudding, orange muffins, orange bread, and fresh fruit orange drinks.” She broke off the connection, obviously upset.
I reviewed my position. I had probably committed a federal crime. If the Army found out, it could mean Leavenworth Prison. A bunch of gentle old nuns wanted my scalp. My own mother had turned on me. And no good deed goes unpunished. I had implemented better plans than this.
Well, it all blew over. Mother and her friends helped use up all the orange juice at their bazaar. The old nuns could have tea again. I was free and clear. And by September, the Army was routing unused drill food back into the army kitchen system. Nothing would be wasted again. Mother forgave me, like always. I figured the nuns would just forget about it and it would all be over. I was wrong again.
Ten years later I went to a local benefit and they wheeled in a few of the surviving nuns from the South Street Convent. One of them must have been in her nineties. It was Sister Cook.
I smiled at her in the reception line and tried to ooze past, but she grabbed my arm with a grip of steel. “Which brother?” she wheezed, asking the question my brothers Leo, George, and I were always being asked. I told her I was the youngest, Edward. She stared at me for a moment, and then said, “You’re the nut with the orange juice, aren’t you?”
I smiled and nodded yes. She said, “We almost had a revolt until your mother and her friends got rid of it all.” Then, she smiled and nodded too. It was our shared secret and it was a safe as it could be. I went home in peace.
“The Army, The Orange Juice, and the Nuns” was a follow-up to “The Summer of ’55” published in Reminisce Magazine in the 90’s.