The food at O.C.S. was great.
We just never got to eat very much of it.
We lived on “grotto”, (candy and cheap, factory-made, 20-cent apple pies) the money for which we had given in coin to one of our contemporaries and which he placed in a pillowcase as he went around and took our orders while we swept, scrubbed and waxed the floor and cleaned the latrines, sinks and mirrors prior to lights out.
When the cleaning work was done, and in our stocking feet, after we had carefully made our way to our “cubes”, or cubicles without stepping on the floor, we would magically find whatever we had ordered at the expense of a quarter or so, tucked neatly under the dust cover –or blanket covering the pillow on our bunks. It was like a grown-up version of the tooth fairy–only with candy instead of money.
Then we would quickly strip down to our shorts and a T-shirt and try to get into our bunks without disturbing the sheets and blankets too much, so the next morning we could just pop right up, tighten the blankets and sheets with a tug and fall out for reveille. Then the lights went out and the middle-classmen who was designated to supervise us that evening would walk up and down the middle of the floor with his boots on that we had just spent an hour and a half polishing. He would tell us a bedtime story–or invite one of us to. I had never had anything much happen to me before going into the army, so I just lay on my bunk and listened.
That’s when I would start to hear it.
“It” was the sound of my contemporaries trying to unwrap their grotto in the dark, without making any noise while lying flat on their backs.
I would live on Baby Ruths and Apple pie for the next six months.
But we were taken to the mess hall three times every day.
Careful to keep my eyes glued to the back of the shoulder area of the officer candidate in front of me, I filed into the mess hall rapidly and hungrily, until I had come to my very own place at one of the dozen or so long tables. There were four of us on each side. An upper classman, the “Table Commandant” and the “Gunner”, a middle classman, had already seated themselves at opposite ends of the table.
The table itself had only just been laid with steaming platters of meat and vegetables and bowls of other types of delicious food which we dared not look at until we were seated. Empty trays, paper napkins, stainless steel knives, forks and spoons and an empty plastic tumbler stood beside each metal tray. There was a large stainless steel pitcher of water at each end of the table.
We stood stiff as boards behind our chairs until we were given permission to be seated bolt-upright, which we quickly did, but only on the first four inches of our wooden chairs.
The Table Commandant, an Upper-classman, seated at the end of the table to my far left, spoke first.
“Candidates–bow your heads for a moment of silent prayer. One of your contemporaries choked to death on a candy bar last night.”
After about ten seconds of my trying to process this deeply disturbing information, he added, “God Bless our fighting forces in Vietnam and all officer candidates.”
My eyes remained steadfastly fixed on the nametag of the officer candidate directly across the table from me. The “Table Commandant” then reached out and picked up the tray with the main course on it, and using the large metal serving spoon accompanying each tray, helped himself to what I can only imagine, as I was not allowed to look around me, was a large helping of something scrumptious and nourishing.
Then he passed the platter to my contemporary to his immediate right, who in turn, passed it to the candidate to his right and so on until it had reached the gunner at the far end of the table.
This middle-classman then helped himself to whatever portion he wanted and proceeded to pass the tray to the by-now drooling officer candidate to his right, my contemporary, (the “assistant gunner”).
“You may now pass the food,” declared the Table Commandant, whereupon the various officer candidates, all underclassmen, barely glancing down at whichever platter or bowl of food was in front of them, gingerly picked up the platters or bowls and using the metal serving spoons or tongs, placed a modest amount of food onto their trays and then passed that particular dish to the candidate to their immediate right. In a minute or two everyone then had a tray of food in front of himself and then table commandant, who had been watching every set of eyes and noting every body-posture gave the command to “Begin eating.”
Still, without removing their gaze for even one second from the nametag of the candidate across the table from them, each of my contemporaries slowly reached out toward the white paper napkin nearest his tray.
The napkin had been folded into a neat little triangle and the eating utensils were carefully placed on it with the knife on the outside facing inward and the fork next to it. The spoon was on the inside closest to each officer candidate. If you were right-handed you picked up your fork with that hand and your other hand remained in your lap as you sat bolt upright on the front four inches of your chair.
Then you secured a piece of food, no bigger than your thumbnail of whatever on your tray appealed to you and raised that to your mouth and quickly returned your fork to the right corner of your tray and dropped whichever hand you had just used to your lap to join your idle hand.
Only then were you allowed to chew.
You were allowed only three chews and then required to swallow whatever small bit of food was in your mouth.
Sometimes it was hard to swallow– because it was hard to tell if anything was in your mouth.
Then you were allowed to pick up your fork once again–and in some cases you used two hands to secure food. One hand held the fork while the other hand held the knife which was used to cut off the thumbnail-sized piece of food.
Once the food had been cut, the knife was quickly replaced on the corner of your tray, facing inward, the fork was raised to your mouth, then placed back in the corner next to the knife, your hand was sharply returned to your lap and you took your three chews.
And then tried to swallow.
If anyone wanted to speak, he extended his fist out in front of him over the table and in short order he was recognized by the Table Commandant.
“What is it, Candidate Fourth on my right….?”
“Sir, Candidate Parker! Sir…… Would the Table Commandant care for any peach cobbler at this time?”
If his response was affirmative, as in “Yes, I would, thank you, Candidate,” it was immediately followed by the candidates’ passing the peach cobbler down the table to him.
Or, perhaps he would say, “After you, candidate.”
If his response was negative, the starving candidate would then ask, “….Sir, would the Middle-classman at this table (the Gunner) care for any peach cobbler at this time?”
If the answer was negative, the cobbler-starved candidate would then ask, “Sir, would any of my contemporaries at this table care for any peach cobbler at this time?”
If you were lucky, your contemporaries would all answer in unison,
After you, contemporary,” at which time the food would be passed to you and you could help yourself to a small spoonful.
For whatever reason, knowing that I wasn’t going to be getting to eat very much of anything under this system, and owing in part, perhaps to my being from Georgia, I determined that if I was going to be able to eat only one thing at this meal, it was going to be peach cobbler.
I boldly stuck my fist out over the table and with my arm rigid. I was recognized by the Table Commandant. “Yes, what is it, Candidate Fourth on my right….?”
I went through the various steps until I got to the step where I asked, “Sir, would any of my contemporaries care for any peach cobbler at this time?”
It was if I had called his Mother a bad name. “WHAT DID YOU SAY, CANDIDATE??” he demanded to know.
I started to repeat what I said when he rudely interrupted. “ON YOUR FEET, CANDIDATE!!”
“NOW, SAY AGAIN, WHAT YOU JUST SAID!–AND LOUDER THIS TIME!”
Standing at attention behind my chair, I shouted out to the other one hundred or so officer candidates in the mess hall.“SIR–WOULD ANY OF MY CONTEMPORARIES CARE FOR ANY PEACH COBBLER AT THIS TIME?”
There came a rather satisfying chorus from the starving multitude. The windows rattled with their answer.
“NO THANK YOU CANDIDATE!”
I sat back down and with the resounding affirmation I had just received, I felt elated at the attention I had just gotten and momentarily forgot about my growling stomach.
“MARCH ORDER!!” Commanded the Table Commandant.
Everyone dropped their forks and immediately began passing their heaping food-laden trays to the fourth candidate on his right.
As the “assistant gunner” it was my duty to scrape all of that luscious peach cobbler and other food onto one big tray –and then take it back to the kitchen and dump it in one of the 55-gallon garbage cans arrayed there for that purpose.
As I approached the can, being careful not to “dog-eye”--or look around, I could see it was already about three-quarters full of peach cobbler.
I added ours to the pile.
As I did an about-face and stepped back, I could see the forlorn face and sad eyes of one of the cooks watching me.
I wondered what it felt like to make such good food, only to see it thrown away at every meal.