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The Army, The Orange Juice, and The Nuns

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.

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Fighting a Nuclear Iran

I’ve read about the ever increasing tensions between Israel and Iran over the latter’s developing nuclear capability. The Israelis believe that Iran will fire a missile at them the first chance they get. They back this up with the many quotations from Iranian leaders, and clerics, to the effect that Israel has no right to exist and should be obliterated.

The Iranian defenders make a different point: If Iran were to fire a missile into Israel, they would also kill many innocent Palestinians, the very people they support. They would also destroy sacred mosques which could turn the ire of the entire Muslim world against them. They would never do such a thing.

I fear that’s Western thinking applied to a Middle Eastern problem.

Most Americans do not understand how differently the Muslim world feels about war, life and death than we do. In our paradigm, we want to live. It was our own Gen. Patton who famously said: The secret of military success is not to die for your country. The secret of military success is to make the  other poor bastard die for his country.”

Muslims, shaped by fundamentalist religious beliefs since birth, think of death as a great honor, to be welcomed and even sought after, for the glory of their faith, and the promise of eternal happiness in Paradise. In all the wars we’ve ever fought, the closest we have come to this mentality was the Japanese suicide pilots, or Kamikaze, who rained terror on our naval forces during the latter stages of World War II. If the Japanese had more of these “martyrs,” or used them more extensively earlier on, who knows what the outcome might have been.

In the Eighties, when President Carter was trying to bring peace to the Middle East, a friend told me this grim tale that he had heard in the Middle East:

“The scene is somewhere in the Middle East. A scorpion and a beaver came to a swift stream which they had to cross. The scorpion was powerful, but he could not swim. The beaver could swim, but he was defenseless against the large vultures that circled overhead waiting for a chance to attack.

“Finally, the scorpion said: ‘I have an idea. Let’s declare a truce for the day. I will hop on your back and you will swim us both across the stream, while I protect us from attack with my deadly stinger. Then, on the other side, we’ll both go our separate ways.’

“”The beaver thought for a moment, and then said “How do I know you won’t attack me anyway?’

“The scorpion said: “Don’t be foolish. If I did that, we’d both drown. When we get to the other side, you  stop a few feet offshore, and I will jump to land while you swim safely in alone.’

“The beaver thought that sounded fair. He swam out a foot or two and the scorpion jumped on his back, his stinger at the ready. The beaver swam and the scorpion watched the skies.

“Midstream, without warning, the scorpion plunged his deadly stinger into the beaver’s neck. The beaver, feeling himself slipping away, said: ‘Now we shall both drown. Why did you do that?’

“Just before the scorpion went under, he replied: ‘Because this is the Middle East.'”

I thought about that story recently while discussing the Middle East with my brother Leo. He shared his views on the dangers of a nuclear Iran. I told him about my experience in 1959 as a 2d lieutenant in basic training at Ft. Knox, Kentucky.

We had two Iranian lieutenants from the Shah’s personal guard in training with us. They were crazy. Once, we were on the pistol range and they arrived late, to find no firing tables available. So, they stood behind us and fired at our targets, over our heads. The range safety officer went berserk and threw them off the range. There was not too much more he could do beyond filing a report. The Iranians thought it was a joke.

Another day, we were on the tank range, firing the M-48A2 medium tank’s 90 mm. cannon. We were loading the tank ammo very carefully. Each round weighed about 90 pounds and only required 14 pounds of pressure on the primer to set it off. If a round dropped, and hit a sharp stone for example, mostly everything for 50 yards around would be ashes.

One of our guys noticed the two Iranians. They were tossing a 90 mm round back and forth between them, laughing as they played “chicken.” Once again, the range officer stepped in and threw them off the range. Once again, not much could be done but file another report. The Iranians said, “We are men.”

The program ended with each of us making a short presentation on training and tactics. When the Iranians spoke, they said if their army went out on a live fire training mission (no enemy, just their own troops pretending to be aggressors), they counted the session a success if they only incurred a 10% casualty rate. We were horrified. That’s a number you might expect in combat. I later quipped to an old World War II master sergeant that: “If we ever go to war with the Iranians, we should just avoid them for the first 15 minutes, and they’ll wipe each other out.”

The sergeant laughed and said: “Let’s hope that never happens. Those crazy bastards don’t think like we do, nor like the Germans or the Italians we just fought. Westerners want to live. These guys don’t care. They welcome death as long as it’s honorable and glorious. It’s tough to fight a guy who doesn’t care if he lives or dies, as long as he gets to Heaven.”

Do I think the Iranians would fire a nuclear missile first at Israel, even if it meant killing innocent Palestinians and destroying sacred mosques? You bet I do. I think that in their eyes, killing innocent Palestinians and destroying sacred buildings is a small price to pay for ridding the Middle East of the State of Israel. It is their version of “The Final Solution.”

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The Fifties: The M-1 Garand, The Ultimate Intimidator

In the mid-Fifties, I was at UMass, Amherst, and joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) to get commissioned as a Second Lieutenant upon graduation. Both my older brothers, Leo and George, had been drafted, and my brother-in-law Paul had enlisted in World War II. They basically told me: “The Draft is on; You’re 1-A and going in anyway; you might as well go in as an officer.” I took their advice.

The summer between my junior and senior year, the Army shipped me off to Ft. Knox, Kentucky for 8 weeks of basic training. We were “cadets,” the lowest of the low, and quickly made to realize that the Army was really serious about this stuff. It was a long haul.

It was my first exposure to a whole new way of thinking things through. It was upbeat (“Yes, you can!”), simplistic (“Remember the Factors of KISS: ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid!'”) and logical (mostly; as one sergeant shouted at me when I exercised some individual decision making that I thought was better than his, and that somehow displeased him: “Don’t think! Thinking gives you headaches. Obey!”)

I learned so many things in that cycle. Most of all I learned that I could take a lot more punishment than I ever thought I could. It gave me a touchstone for comparisons. In later life, when I had to do something unpleasant, I’d think to myself: “It’s not as bad as crawling through mud,while they fire machine guns over your head, and set-off explosives all around you, and I did that.”

I learned little things too. For instance, we all took turns doing Guard Duty. We dressed up in full gear, complete with helmet and M-1 rifle, and marched around the motor pool all night to protect the tanks from evil-doers. The Army seemed to take this very seriously, but not seriously enough to give us any ammunition for the rifles. Here we were, protecting 50 ton tanks from the Soviets, with an empty weapon.

Every few hours, the sergeant would show up in a Jeep and make sure we were awake and alert. He’d ask questions like: “What is your first General Order?”

The answer was: “Sergeant, my first General Order is to take charge of this post and all government property in view.” I used to make up little couplets in my head which amused me, but never escaped my lips; such as: “Sergeant, my first General Order is to…walk-my-post-a mile-a-minute, with-a-rifle, nothing-in-it.” I knew he would not be amused.

One night, he relaxed and asked me: “Any questions? Ask away.”

I decided to do that, I asked, “Sergeant, if it’s serious enough to have us out here as guards, why don’t you issue us bullets for the rifle?” I know the answer to that question now: A scared teenager with a loaded, semi-automatic rifle. What could go wrong?

The sergeant resisted the impulse to answer correctly. He took my question seriously. He thought for a moment, and replied: “That’s another advantage of the M-1 Garand: The bad guy can know it’s unloaded; he can even know you weren’t issued ammunition; but once you pull the slide back, and let the bolt crash forward into the locked position, and point it at him … he’ll do whatever you say.”

I always liked that one: Intimidation #101.

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