The Papa Files
by VINCENT CARDEGIN
Award Winning Columnist
Years after basic, I was enduring the annual training as a medic, not my MOS or even secondary or third job at all, but anyone in the medical field had to know how to apply bandages, tourniquets, use the autoinjector on myself and others, and perform CPR, and such. That year, after additional courses on identifying Russian tanks and aircraft, we were forced to undergo the combat medic exercise of rescuing the survivors of a downed helicopter. The last time I had such fun was during my second month in basic when I had to crawl under rows of barbed wire over cratered ground at night while someone shot tracer rounds above our heads from an M60. The helicopter had been in the gorge for years for just such training, with plenty of spurs and draws around it, and we enfiladed down while shooting our blanks at enemy fire. I’m pretty sure the mission was derived from Vietnam, and I loved it. We all scored with passing grades.
It was during that weekend at a camp near a manmade lake that I first encountered MREs, Meals Ready to Eat. I don’t remember what meal I got, but it was not ready to eat. I had to soften it with hot water! Didn’t have to do that with the cans of C-rations! Well, except for packages of coffee and cocoa. And sure, it was recommended that we heat the cans of meat by whatever means, directly over coals or in boiling water, but you didn’t have to. They tasted fine right from the can. (Now and then I’ll open a can of Chef Boyardee’s several classic meals and eat it room-temperature. Much to my chagrin, he has never canned chopped eggs and ham.) Couldn’t do that with an MRE, though, especially the flat, fruit-flavored rectangle of dessert. Imagine eating one of those dry rice cakes infused with even drier bits of strawberry. In fact, I think that is, or was, actually available as a camping and dietary thing; pretty sure my wife bought a box of something just like it a few years ago.
Nearly a decade later I was training in a snowy forest in Germany. The evening meal was frozen MREs because the faculty of E-6s and E-7s hadn’t planned for the weather and didn’t have a means to heat anything, not even our noses, fingers, and toes. It was a miserable night in my half of the pup tent, but I enjoyed the new cuisine of frozen beef stew. Ate it out of the package, pushing it up and licking and nibbling and letting each morsel of meat and veggies melt in my mouth, and the whole time I thought of an old Goofy and Mickey Mouse comic book I’d read in my preteens, where they discovered that a blend of chocolate and salty buffalo meat made a tasty candy bar.
I will never eat frozen stew again, but over the years I have tried to duplicate the chopped eggs and ham of my favorite C-ration. Just like my attempts at baking the cracker, I have not been able to recreate the recipe. I even went online to get the ingredients, but still it doesn’t taste the same. Perhaps long-term storage has something to do with it. Well, my wife is manically into canning veggies from her garden. I think I might chop some ham, fry it into scrambled eggs, have her can the mixture in jars, and let them sit in the pantry for twenty years.