A beverage of your choice

... Unfortunately, the choice will be either yes or no.

by Joe Sullivan


It was going on five weeks now since he arrived as a replacement to be part
of the 8th Field’s Headquarters Battery and he was beginning to catch on as
to how things worked. The two Italian kids from Brooklyn were definitely
having their way as far as sticking him with the name of “Murphy.” When he
would say,” No, it’s not Murphy it’s Rattigan.” They would look back, acting
somewhat annoyed, and say, “What’s the difference?”  Even though they
pronounced it  “Moiphy”, the fact was more and more guys were calling him
by that name. “What can ya do?,” he mildly despaired. “Okay, the hell with it
then, Murphy it is.”

They had just finished a move three days ago. The new location was
Kumwah, North Korea. It had been christened by the GI’s as the Iron
Triangle. Joe had no idea why. He hoped that we were the ones who had
earned that name and not the Chinese. His organization, the 25th Infantry
Division was relieving the 3rd Infantry Division. It was a routine move, the
3rd had been in Kumwah for about three months and was going into reserve.
The 25th was coming out of reserve and  going back “on line” a term used to
designate the Main Line of Resistance a place where the 25th would be in
direct confrontation with the Chinese People’s Volunteers better know to
every GI as Joe Chink, Old Joe Chink,or simply, the Chinks. The North
Koreans never even got a mention.

One bedroom, heated

The position meant that fortifications were involved, trenches and bunkers.
Joe’s group was the 8th Field Artillery Battalion which meant that there were
no trenches for them but some great bunkers . Although the bunkers had
been built by some other artillery group the 8th now inherited. them. Joe
was very impressed with his Radio Section’s bunker. Its sandbagged walls
and roof were at least 10-foot thick which meant not only protection but
insulation. In a month or so when temperatures hit sub zero levels the pot-
bellied oil stove situated in a sand box in the middle of the bunker would
mean an almost toasty warmth for the radio guys.

Kumwah was  a place where bunkers meant something. The 8th Field was
now in direct support of the 27th Infantry Regiment, the “Wolfhounds” who
would depend on the 8th Field’s shooting. When the 8th was settling in some
of the Wolfhounds had come back to say hello and pass a few pleasantries.
The long timers in the 8th Field knew why, the Wolfhounds wanted to be
sure that the gunners would be remembering faces when the call came for
supporting fire.

Holding enemies closer than your friends.

Three observation posts commanded special attention.. They were not just
located on the MLR but in front of it “So far down Joe Chinks’throat you can
see his tonsils.” was the way someone had described these dangerously
exposed positions.. The 3rd Division had nicknamed the outposts Tom, Dick
and Harry. Joe knew that after a couple of weeks the 25th troopers would
have their own nicknames for them. He soberly wondered what it must be
like to know that you had been assigned to one of those places. It was a
speculation he would never resolve.

Joe had a new job. He was now one of the two radio operators who worked in
the Fire Direction Center. Just about every fire mission involved Fire
Direction. Those missions would be initiated by a forward observer who
called in the position of the intended target to Fire Direction. He also called
back the adjustments. “Right 200”, “Up 300” the incremental changes the
gunners would make to hit the target. All these changes were made through
Joe or the other radio operator who would relay them to the guys located
next to them working on the firing charts to mark the changes and relaying
them to the gunners. Joe was reluctant to admit to himself that the job was
fun. But there was no doubt that it was interesting, sometimes even
fascinating, depending on what they were shooting at. Bottom line? He liked

The other radio operator was Fish Desio one of the guys who had christened
him, Murphy. Joe and Fish worked alternate shifts which meant Joe was there
when Fish wasn’t and vice versa. Evenso, it wasn’t long before all the Fire
Direction guys were calling Joe, “Murphy.” Pretty soon there would be some
guys in the 8th Field who would know who Murphy was but had no idea who
Joe Rattigan was. The official designation of a new guy was “replacement”
and in Joe’s case they had even replaced his name.

The unfailing mark of a new guy.

Probably nothing served better as a symbol of him being a replacement than
what he was holding in his hand right now, a one-by-two foot bake-a-lite
food tray. It had a series of rectangular impressions pushed into it; each one
held an individual serving of food that would be ladled into each of them as
you walked down the chow line. This food tray was yours and you had better
not lose it.

A piece of wire was looped through one of the outside corners of the tray.
When you were through eating, you looped your utensils, a knife, fork and
large soup spoon, over the wire and then used the wire to dip the tray and
utensils into a series of  trashcans filled with water brought to a boil by the
immersion heater that was stuck down into each one.

One can was filled with soapy water to wash, the second can had boiling
water for rinse, and a third can of boiling water to take off the grimy rinse
water. After you finished the process you dangled the tray in the air to let it
dry as you walked back to your bunker. Just outside the door there was a
horizontal board that had been nailed to a couple of stakes that had been
pounded into the ground. The board had a number of nails that had been
halfway driven into it.  You hung your tray and utensils on one of the nails.

That must be me

Everybody’s tray wire was different, that’s how you knew whose tray was
whose. Joe’s tray was not new, he had inherited it from the guy he replaced,
a guy who he never saw or knew;  probably the one who attached the thick
piece of copper wire which now marked Joe as the custodian of the tray.

Joe was standing in the chow line  for the evening meal. Set up in a large
squad tent was a long table that was formed by laying boards over a series
of saw horses. On this makeshift table, the flames of heater trays licked the
bottom of the large metal rectangular pans that held each food item that
made up the evening meal. Behind each pan was a Korean house boy, a kid
about twelve to fifteen tears old, who held the spoon or ladle that was used
to serve each trooper as he walked by holding out his tray.

The ones who actually prepared the meal were the GI cooks. Wearing
grungy-white aprons over their GI fatigues, the cooks flitted up and down
the line behind the house boys, every now and then reaching in to grab a
spoon from one of the kids to stir up the simmering contents.

And the menu for tonight...

Like everybody else, Murphy held his tray in his left hand extending it out to
each server to get a whack of diced potato that had been whipped into a
bumpy mush, then beets that would be hot but tasteless, then cream corn,
(which Murphy actually liked), then the Swiss Steak entree’ which was a nice
name for the hamburger that it actually was, and finally a large spoonfull of  
syrupy fruit cocktail made up of diced pears, peaches, citrus pieces and
bullet-like grapes. Each item was spooned into the individual compartments
in each trooper’s tray so everything wouldn’t end up a horrendous hash.

With your rifle slung over your right shoulder,your right hand held your
canteen cup which you extended out over the large, steel cauldron holding
the watery-looking, ink-colored coffee so it could be filled by the very last
server. The coffee was some kind of instant variety which was made by
emptying a bag of it into this huge pot and then pouring boiling water over
it, after which it was stirred and stirred and stirred in hopes that it would
eventually dissolve into the water. It never did entirely, so each serving was
always laced with a generous helping of gravel-like grounds.

Serving you graciously

The coffee server was always the same person, an older Korean not quite five
feet tall who was dressed in a god-awful set of GI fatigues. The boots he was
wearing were at least two sizes too big, they extended out like snow shoes.
A baseball-like GI field cap was also too big, it left wide gaps at each side
of his head. He was much older than the other house boys. At least fifty, he
was baggy eyed, had leathery skin with a scraggly, wispy beard that strung
out over his lower jaw and upper lip.

Every GI called him Pappa San, the term for an old man. This old man never,
ever, spoke, not even a word to anyone passing through the line. No matter
what the greeting he never responded. He waited for your cup to be held out
over the pot, filled it, and then waited for you to move on.

If there was one thing Joe hated it was the coffee. In an effort not to swallow
the grounds he would suck it through his teeth. The process never worked.
As he moved up the line he thought he would take a chance. The guy in front
of him held out his cup, and said, “Hit me, Pappa San.” Without ever looking
up, the old guy filled it.

The stoic speaks.

Murphy shuffled up and said, almost on impulse, “Got any tea?” Pappa San
jerked back, popping his eyes in surprise and said to Murphy, “You from
Bossitun?” Incredulous, that Pappas San had actually spoken, Joe’s mouth
had dropped open, he answered, almost dazed, “Yah, I am.” He could hardly
believe this stoic actually spoke, not only that, but in English, and how, tell
me, had he ever put tea together with Boston which was ten thousand miles

Pappa San gave him a dazzling smile with a set of beautiful teeth, and with a
little shake of his head said, “Bossitun nummah wunn!”

A very good guess.

Still reeling from the surprise Murphy figured that he was probably one of a
legion of Irish guys from Boston who had asked Pappa San the same thing
over his career as pourer. Why though, was Boston so deserving of this
superlative compliment? It dawned on him what the answer might be.
Murphy remembered that when he was in his last year of High School, a
Korean runner had won the Boston Marathon. Murphy said, what the hell to
himself, give it a shot. He very deliberately said to Pappa San, “Yun Bok Su,
number one runnah.”

Bingo! Pappa San practically danced. “Yun Bok Su, Yah, Yah, Yun Bok Su,
nummah wun! Bossitunn nummah wun!” He was shaking his head up and
down enthusiastically.

The astonishment wasn’t confined to Joe The guys behind Murphy were
stupefied at this display by Papa San.
Before anyone could comment the conversation came to a crashing close.
The Mess Sergeant bellowed down the serving stations to the little group,
“What the hell’s with the line here! We ain’t takin’ no servin suggestions
tudday... Move it!”

Pappa San snapped back into his most serious face. Standing straight up, he
gave a tight little, wiggly shake of his head and coldly said to Joe, “No tea.”        

November 7, 2014          

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