The Papa Files
by VINCENT CARDEGIN
Award Winning Columnist
In 1968 my dad drove us from Florida to California, because he had been stationed there. We had a metallic blue van, and my dad turned the front back seat around so that it faced the rear back seat, put a length of plywood across from seat to seat, covered it with padding, sheets, a blanket, and pillows, and that’s where we kids (me, my sister, and brother) spent the long journey. We played board games and worked word puzzles, but mostly we stared out the windows and slept. On the floor under the plywood is where my parents stored our suitcases. Back then, seatbelts were not a thing.
The year before, I discovered the Tarzan books by Edger Rice Burroughs. I had watched the movies on Friday nights since ’66, but the books were very different. Still, I spent much of my waking hours in the van looking out the window at the landscape and envisioning myself swinging through the trees when we drove past woods. I still do, just a little, when someone, wife, kids, and now grandkids, drive me somewhere.
Dad had brought a case of C-rations for our trip, procured it from the mess hall before we left. I only recently discovered why it was called “C.” It was third in line of the type of meals served to troops in a theater of combat. “A” was fresh food for those many more people behind the front; “B” was packaged unprepared food to be cooked closer to the fighting; “C” was precooked, mainly canned food for soldiers who were in a foxhole but not necessarily being shot at; and “D” or “K” rations were used for those in deadly peril and needed an energy boost, with a dense chocolate bar, maybe a can of meat and lots of crackers, chewing gum, toilet paper, matches, and Chesterfield cigarettes. I believe those last four items were in every version of rations. And the ubiquitous P-38, which was, and still is, the perfect can opener. It was small with one moving part, folded flat, and you could attach it to your keyring, which I did for years until it opened in my pocket one day and stabbed me in my mid-thigh. Haven’t carried one since.
The food I remember most is the thick cheese spread and those wonderful crackers. They were reminiscent of Civil War hardtack, but thinner and more brittle. I tried to make them a decade and a half ago, but I couldn’t. I’d probably have to build something like a pizza oven to properly bake them. Same for my attempts at making hardtack.
A few years later we moved again, and again dad brought a case of C-rations. That’s when I got my own box. It was chopped eggs and ham, and again those perfectly crunchy crackers were there. With the P-38 I opened everything, including the flat can of old-style peanut butter, the kind you had to mix but never could fully blend the oil and crushed peanuts together, and coated the crackers. The next day I had some sort of beef slices, and instead of peanut butter I had strawberry jam. Another day I had something like sliced turkey and that can of cheese. (I might be confusing the varieties of the different versions, for I’ve lately discovered there were many.) My favorite was, and still is, the chopped eggs and ham. I suspect Ted Geisel knows what I mean.
When I was in basic training, I found that no one else liked that meal, and so I swapped for it every time, beef and other meats for the ham and eggs. I also often traded my little pack of cigarettes for the good food. That was the third week; by the fourth week I was smoking and would only trade food for food. And no, what we were given to eat on those long treks of marching, of quick-timing and double-timing up and down the hills of California, were not MCI. The box said C-ration, the same meals my dad ate during the Korean and Vietnam wars, the same kind of food from World War Two. (Continued)