Were you ever disappointed after receiving a package from home when in Vietnam?
If you read my book, Cherries, you’ll recognize this excerpt from my story. It’s about the first package my mother sent to me after being in Vietnam for two months. Resupply occurred every three to four days in the bush and if we were lucky, a red bag of mail accompanied those supplies on the chopper. Getting mail was considered to be more important than getting supplies, but when receiving a goodie package from home, it was like celebrating Christmas and your birthday at the same time. Let the festivities begin.
Sixpack approached the squad with a couple of sealed boxes and dozens of letters for his men.
“Mail call! Listen up for your name. Damn, Polack, this big box and a lot of these letters are for you.”
He took the package and nine letters back to his position on the perimeter. He set the package to the side and eagerly tore open the first letter from home. He lay back against his rucksack and started reading the words. When he turned to the next page, a smile slowly developed and then he laughed aloud. John finished and returned the pages to the envelope, tearing open the second one, which was from his girlfriend. While focused on the letter and reading the news from home, John did not notice the other squad members getting restless and whispering among themselves.
Finally, Scout called out, “Hey, Polack, what’s in the box?”
“I don’t know yet. It’s from my mother.” John opened the third letter and began reading it.
“When are you going to open it?”
John sighed slowly, then responded, “When I finish reading the rest of these letters.
“Come on, man, some of us didn’t get any mail. At least you could open it up and see what’s inside.”
“Yeah, Polack, aren’t you curious to see what she sent?”
John sensed all eyes on him and he became irritated by the interruption. He stopped reading and looked over toward the rest of the squad. “Will you guys just wait until I’m done with these? We have lots of time before we leave. Give me about fifteen more minutes.”
It was difficult for John to concentrate on the letters when those around him continued to groan and complain. John was aware that every time a package arrived from home, the normal protocol was for the recipient to get the first pick and then split the bounty with the rest of his squad. This way, everyone got to share in the celebration and receive a bit of the bounty. Nobody would be foolish enough to keep everything to himself too, because it would mean that he would have to carry around the excess weight.
John felt a pang of guilt and looked up from his reading. His fellow squad members looked like anxious kids on Christmas morning, trying to be patient while they waited for the signal to begin opening gifts. The sight was truly pitiful.
He set the letters on the ground and reached for the package. “Okay guys; let’s see what my mother sent us.”
There was a collective cheer and the men moved in closer to watch the ceremonious opening of the package from home.
“You guys know this is my first goody box from home, so I don’t even know what to expect inside.”
“We’ll love whatever your mom sent.”
After the box was unwrapped, and all the crushed paper removed, the treasure lay exposed.
“I’m just going to empty everything on the ground and then we can divvy it up.”
First, John lifted a large, round metal tin from the box, opening it to find aluminum foil surrounding dozens of homemade chocolate chip cookies. He took a couple and passed the tin to Scout who was the closest to him.
Ecstatic, they began scarfing them down, like dogs when passed a scrap of meat from the dinner table.
After the box was empty, the group surveyed the selection of gifts on the ground. There were several small cans of Vienna sausages and hot dogs, vacuum-packed cans of peanuts, candy, fruit cocktail, a one-pound jar of instant coffee, magazines, and a couple of copies of the Detroit News Sunday newspaper, complete with comics and inserts.
There was also a five-pound canned ham. Although it could not compare to the lunch they had earlier, it would make for a wonderful squad dinner in a couple of days. The group salvaged all the unused cans of C-Ration pineapple bits from the resupply and then agreed to take turns carrying the ham until the big cookout.
After splitting the bounty and packing the goodies inside their rucksacks, the men gathered all the leftover packaging for disposal, burning the packing paper, boxes, and various wrappings, and then spreading the ashes about. That was standard operating procedure when one had to leave behind anything in the bush with names, addresses, or other written personal information. Wild Bill took the empty metal tin, filled it with stones and dirt, then tossed it into the closest water-filled bomb crater; it sank easily to the bottom of the twenty-foot deep hole. The protocol was necessary to deter Charlie from salvaging anything to use against the Americans later – either as a booby trap or a psychological weapon.
The anticipation of the upcoming ham dinner made the next two days go by rather quickly. The soldiers did not even mind taking turns carrying the extra five pounds of additional weight; the thought of the mouth-watering cookout offset any urge to complain. The perfect opportunity for the culinary feast presented itself on the third night. The squad gathered and laid out their supplies. They then converted several empty C-Ration cans into stoves, punching holes into the sides, thereby providing a flow of oxygen to keep the heat tabs burning. They had ten cans of pineapple bits to use when cooking the ham; Scout opened them and set them to the side. Meanwhile, Wild Bill took the seven stoves and arranged them into a circle large enough to support the can of ham, allowing it to cook evenly in its tin container. Next, he dropped a heat tab into each of the “stoves” and lit them with a match. Everything was now ready for the ham.
John had the privilege of opening the can of ham, accepting it with ceremonial reverence from Wild Bill, who carried it through the last leg of the journey.
He pried the small key from the lid, and then secured it to the metal tab on the seal of the can. Scout, Frenchie, and BJ crowded around him and watched intently as John turned the key like a windup music box. The seal broke with a hiss of air; some juice spilled onto his lap and ran down his pant leg.
“Goddamn! What the fuck is that smell?” Wild Bill and the others quickly backed away, leaving John with a perplexed look upon his face. They fanned the air with their arms in an attempt to dissipate the foul odor.
“It smells like a bunch of dead bodies!” Frenchie pinched his nose closed with his thumb and forefinger. “It’s the fucking ham! The damn thing’s spoiled!”
John dropped the can onto the ground and quickly moved away from it with the rest of the men.
“Shit, man, get away from us. You smell just like the ham.” Wild Bill gave John a playful shove away from him.
John looked down to see that the juice from the container had spilled along the entire length of his trousers. He quickly ran to the nearest bomb crater, removed his pants, and jumped into the tepid water. There, he took a handful of mud to use as scrubbing material; he covered the length of one of the pant legs, and rubbed it vigorously against the other. He rinsed the pants thoroughly, took a whiff, and repeated the process once again. John repeated the process several more times until he was satisfied with the results. He climbed out of the hole, put the wet trousers back on, and returned to the group. Scout was in the process of scolding the rest of the squad.
“All of us are a bunch of dumbasses. During the last three days, each of us has carried this can of ham, yet none of us took the time to read the label. Here, look at this,” he pointed to some large lettering on the side of the can. “Keep refrigerated.”
“Polack, I think you better let your mother know what happened here. There is no refrigeration in the bush. In fact, it had to take at least a couple of weeks for this to get here, and I’m certain it was never chilled again after your mom removed it from the refrigerator.”
“I will. I’m sorry, guys. I was really looking forward to our open range cooking tonight, too.”
“We all were, Polack, up until ten minutes ago. What a bummer!”
“Yeah, man, thank your mom anyway. Tell her that we were all thrilled and thought that it was nice of her. Too bad this happened.”
“We have to bury this shit so it doesn’t attract wild animals. Everyone grab a can of pineapple bits and we’ll have a toast to Polack’s mom.”
They raised the cans together in the center of the small circle. Wild Bill made the toast, “To Polack’s mom, who is one hell of a fine woman and cookie maker.”
“Here – here!”
How about you vets, did you ever experience anything similar in packages that your received while deployed? I remember seeing many soldiers receive cookies in metal tins that looked like they were ground up – it was just scoop out a handful, tilt your head back, let the crumbs fall into your mouth and swallow. No chewing necessary.
Thank you for reading this short excerpt from my book. If you haven’t read “Cherries: A Vietnan War Novel” yet and would like additional information about it, then please click on the following link: https://cherrieswriter.com/cherries-book-trailer-on-u-tube/
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