Fort Dix, Basic Training, December, 1968. The surly mess sergeant used a piece of chalk to write the word “MOP” on my back. “You’re a mop, ” he grunted.
About 45 minutes earlier (somewhere around 4:15 a.m.) I, along with about ten other unfortunates, had been awakened to be marched to the Fort Dix Reception Center Mess Hall for K.P. (Kitchen Police) duty. Not knowing what K.P. was about, one of the poor souls in my group asked the sergeant marching us to Mess Hall how long we would be there. The sergeant, himself not terribly happy to be walking a bunch of “knuckleheads” around in the freezing cold in the wee hours of the morning, said, “The sooner you finish, the sooner you can leave.”
There it was – The Great Lie – “The sooner you finish, the sooner you can leave.” I didn’t know it was a lie then, but it would not take much time for me to see the light.
So, there I was – a “mop.” I looked around to see that other guys had also been “chalked.” There were two other “mops,” a couple “pots” and a few guys with “DRO” written on their backs. While I had a pretty good idea what the “mops” and “pots” would be doing, I learned only later that “DRO” meant “Dining Room Orderly.” A Dining Room Orderly, is Armyspeak for a combination, janitor, busboy, waiter, food line server, abuse taker, and all around slave. I was, however, a “mop.”
The Reception Center Mess hall was huge, and, unlike regular mess halls, which were open only at meal times, the Reception Center Mess hall, was open and ready to serve meals twenty-four hours per day. This was necessary in order to feed the waves of incoming enlistees and draftees that arrived at all hours of the day. It also served an equal number of guys processing through Fort Dix, either on their way out of the Army or on their way to another duty assignment. It was a big operation.
As a “mop,” I was not terribly surprised when the Mess Sergeant pointed me towards a mop and one of those buckets like janitors use, with the mop sqeeezy thing mounted on it. He pointed out a section of the ceramic tile floor that I was to mop. As I recall, it was quite a bit larger than most kitchen floors. I’m guessing that the square footage approximated the size of a half of a tennis court (for doubles play).
I filled my bucket and began mopping. In about a half hour, I had finished. Still believing at that point, The Great Lie, I leaned on my mop and thought, Hell, this wasn’t that bad. I can go back to the barracks and maybe even sleep for a half hour or so. Just then, one of the mess cooks saw me standing there and said, “Hey, KP. What the f*** do you think you’re doin’?”
I pointed down to my excellent work and said, “I’m finished.”
“You’re WHAT?” said the white-aproned cook through a couple missing front teeth.
Leaving no doubt about my pathetic naiveté, I answered, “The mess sergeant told me to mop this area, and I am finished.”
“Yeah, so what?” said the mess cook.
“Well, I’ve finished what I was told to do, and we were told that, once we finished, we could return to the barracks.”
“Are you out of your f****** mind? You’re finished when I say you’re finished.”
There it was – The Great Lie.
Embarrassed for having been so gullible, I asked the mess sergeant, “Well, the floor is mopped; what would you like me to do?”
“Mop it again!! Keep mopping the mother f***** until I tell you to stop.”
So, I mopped the same section of floor again…and again…and again…and again. As I swung the mop over the same tiles over and over again, my mind wandered back to the guys from my town who dropped out of high school, did drugs, had police records and, as such, were not considered fit to serve in the Army. I remembered how I saw them all hanging out in front of a local eatery the morning when those of us who were fit to serve in the Army hopped on the bus at the draft board for our ride to the Federal Building in Newark to be inducted. I wondered what they, the unfit, were doing at that very moment while I, the fit, was mopping and re-mopping, and re-mopping again the same patch of floor. This went on for about six hours.
After a short break for something to eat, I became a “pot.” I assumed, that the former “pot” became a “mop.” Job rotation – cool. After six hours of mopping the same piece of floor, I was ready to be a “pot.” I reasoned that being a “pot” might be better because I would not be washing the same already-clean pot over and over again, and, in addition, there was another “pot,” so I might get a chance to shoot the breeze with him to help pass the time. How hard could it be?
It was awful.
Stupidly, I thought that being a “pot” would be like washing dishes and pots at home. Wrong. The pots were large enough to cook a small person or large dog, and when they weren’t caked with sticky food, they were greasy as hell. Forget about dish detergent. We used yellow soap and steel wool. Not scouring pads like Brillo, but rather real, industrial-grade steel wool, some of which turned into steel splinters.
I began to chat with my fellow “pot.” I cannot remember what we were talking about, as we went about cleaning the shoulder-deep pots, but after a couple minutes, the Toothless Apron saw us talking and told us that we should “shut the f*** up” and concentrate on cleaning the pots. So much for camaraderie.
That went on for about another six or seven hours (with a short break – a very short break – for something to eat), when one of the other mess cooks looked at me, the other “pot,” and a nearby “mop” and shouted, “Any of you guys know how to roll dough?”
My dough rolling experience had been limited to a turn or two at the rolling pin to help my mother make a couple dozen Christmas cookies. I will never understand what ever possessed me to say, “I can roll dough.” I suppose I thought it would be better than continuing to be a “pot.” Maybe we all make stupid mistakes after six hours of mopping the same piece of floor and another six washing gloppy, greasy washtub-sized pots.
The mess cook led me to a table covered with flour and handed me a rolling “stick.” He said, I need you to roll dough for biscuits. Are you sure you can handle that?”
“Sure,” replied Mr. Stupid. It must have been the fatigue.
“O.K.,” the cook said. “I’ll get the dough.” He bent over into one those waist-deep pots and pulled out an armload of dough that was the size of a large beach ball and must have weighed 60 pounds. He waddled over to the flour-covered table and dropped the dough bomb on the table. He showed me how to rip off a wad of the stuff about the size of a half of a watermelon and roll it out with the stick until it was about an inch thick. Then he showed me how to use a old can to cut it into the dough circles that would become biscuits. He told me that when I was finished with the first dough bomb, there were several more in the mondo pot. Carrying and working the dough was like wrestling with the Michelin Man. Christmas cookies?? What the hell was I thinking??
A couple hours later, with a dough bomb or two still to go, the cook returned and raised hell because I had not yet finished. “You’re not finished yet? What the f*** is the matter with you?”
I bit my tongue and thought to myself, What the f*** is the matter with me? You miserable prick, I got about three hours of sleep last night. I have been mopping floors, cleaning pots, and rolling your bullshit dough for damned near sixteen hours. I feel like my feet are bleeding in these stupid boots; I’m physically and mentally exhausted beyond description, and I’m friggin’ tired of being hollered at by halfwits. Any more questions, Shit-for-brains? I said, “I’m sorry. I did the best I could.”
The cook said, “F*** it. Go see sergeant So and So over on the other side of the kitchen. He has a special job he needs to be done.” Sixteen hours, and now I get to do a “special job”? Great…Just friggin’ great.
When I got to the other side of the kitchen, I could not believe my eyes. There was sergeant So and So, along with two other KP’s (also into their seventeenth hour), standing in front of a pile of potatoes that had to be ten feet tall. I had never seen so many potatoes in one place. Potato Mountain.
Sergeant So and So explained, “The “f****** potato-peeling machine broke, and I need you guys to peel these.” Goddamned Potato Mountain.
He handed us each a butcher’s knife (yes, a butcher’s knife), and told us to get started. Each peeled potato was to be tossed into one of the mondo pots filled with water.
We sat next to Potato Mountain on overturned 5-gallon cans and began to “peel.” I actually tried to properly peel the first couple dozen, but it was impossible to effectively peel potatoes with a knife that could have been used to hack down shrubbery. So, after a while, each potato got four of five swipes with the knife, creating what amounted to potato cubes, with most of the potato going into the garbage. At that point, I didn’t much care. I honestly don’t think I had ever been so tired. It was a struggle to remain awake.
All I could think of was the Beetle Bailey comic strip, where, after screwing up one thing or another, Beetle would be shown in the final frame of the comic strip looking pitifully up at the mountain of potatoes he had to peel as punishment. OK, for the past 18 hours, I’ve been lied to and hollered at. I’ve been a “mop,” a “pot,” and “dough wrestler.” Now I’m Beetle friggin’ Bailey. Terrific…just friggin’ terrific.
After about two hours of “peeling,” the mountain was almost half gone. Sergeant So and So reappeared and told us we were “too gott-damned slow,” and that we had best hurry things up as it was almost time to cook the potatoes. As he walked away, he said over his shoulder, “Besides, the sooner you finish, the sooner you can leave.”
I laughed so hard I almost cried.