Attending the Army's Potato Ball

All of the TV reruns we used to watch about military life - "McHale's Navy," "Sergeant Bilko," "Gomer Pyle," "Hogan's Heroes," "F-Troop" - portrayed actual humor of some sort in the armed forces. Well, in reality, if we didn't have that humor, defending our country would have been impossible.

It is hard to forget what happened to me there, but I made it through that ordeal. I made it through the incident with the duplicate inoculations, and now I felt I could kick back since I had had my fair share of unpleasantness.

But, oh contraire! Someone mentioned they saw my name on the KP roster! This could not be! I was supposed to be exempt since I was in Communications!

Apparently a shortage of personnel belied this exemption. Drat. I was to prepare myself for KP.

KP required going to bed early because the day started at 3:45 a.m. and ended around 7 p.m. I tied a towel around the foot of my bunk so the duty sergeant would know to wake me alone and not the rest of the troops.

As soon as he shook my bunk, I leapt into uniform, buttoning my shirt as I ran to the mess hall. You see, the first KPs to arrive got the best jobs. The best job was the dining-room orderly, next was "tray-man"(he washed trays after meals by hand).

"Outside-man" peeled veggies and emptied the garbage, and then "pots-and-pan-man." This job was work because most of the cooks used two temperatures: off and burn.

The "lifer" sergeant in charge of the mess hall (Sgt. Carroll) did not care for us "Commo" people, as we were always the first to be fed and never had to stand in line because someone always had to man the radios.

I entered the good sergeant's mess hall fully prepared to do my best not to upset him during the 14-hour work day and rely on my previous experience as a bus boy, bellhop and waiter to do a good job.

Since I was the first one to report, I chose dining-room orderly. The last one to report had to clean the grease trap. This was by far the most undesirable job, as it required crawling under the sink, unscrewing a huge lid, scooping out grease with a big spoon and dipping it into a bucket - all the while in an enclosed area with no ventilation. It was made much worse on an empty stomach.

The sergeant must have caught me saying something funny about the poor guy cleaning the grease traps as his face was so green you couldn't tell where his uniform ended and his face began. The sergeant didn't laugh at this comment; instead, he assigned me away from dining-room orderly to pots and pans! This did not make me laugh.

We busied ourselves with these mundane duties while the troops ate breakfast and when everyone left. Sgt. Carroll poured whatever coffee was left in the urns onto the floor, ordering us to grab mops and start cleaning. Lo and behold, the coffee removed all the scuffmarks like magic. I imagined what that coffee must have done to our stomachs.

Soon the rations truck arrived, and we all unloaded the produce, with me under particular scrutiny by the sergeant to make certain I did my share. I just kept busy - don't want to upset the sergeant.

We were serving the noon meal when Sgt. Carroll yelled, "Lehman! On the serving line!"

The problem was I was in the middle of several other jobs he previously assigned me.

I was utilizing a new army innovation, "the automatic potato peeler." It was a huge, black pot with abrasive walls and rotating sections that peeled the potatoes as it tumbled them. There were still "spud eyes" left to pare out, but it was a much better way of peeling potatoes than having four or five men peel by hand. Not that this was a less messy approach to peeling, however.

We opened a large machine door, and 100 pounds of spuds fell into the awaiting water-filled pot. During this process we got sopping wet. The thunderous noise the potatoes made as they collided with the water and the other spuds caught everyone's attention.

Seeing me soaking wet made Sgt. Carroll's day a little better, I am sure, as he called me to the serving line.

"Yes, sir, sir!"

I tended to the folks in the serving line for quite some time when I remembered that the spud machine was still tumbling!

I ran over, opened the huge door and the sound of marble-size spuds fell into the stainless-steel drum, making a high-pitched, clanking sound. Everyone laughed.

For some reason it was really funny, seeing these little marble potatoes fall to the bottom of this huge pot. The good thing was I didn't get wet, as all the water had dissipated.

I joined all of the guys in laughter; in fact, I was laughing hysterically with tears in my eyes and could barely stand up! This was a good one to write home about.

The laughter shared by all in the mess hall died down and developed into somewhat of a standing ovation.

I happened to notice Sgt. Carroll behind me with his eyes wide, the veins in his forehead protruding and his face void of the slightest hint of a smile.

He yelled to the KPs, "Let's get tight! Stop playing off the wall!" It was his favorite saying.

Then he yelled, "Lehman! How did this happen?"

I replied, "Well, you see, sir, you told me to work the serving line."

He then interrupted me with another favorite saying: "I don't want to hear about it!"

It was hard not to break into a smile with everyone behind him making funny gestures that only I could see. Then to make the up-and-coming punishment a little worse, he yelled, "Get this mess cleaned up, or I'll have you cleaning the rafters with solvent!"

This was a hard job, but solvent was the only thing to cut the grease film. The only time I would have to do that was after the KP day was over.

So I said, "The only way I'll do that is if you supervise me!"

I knew he wouldn't want to spend any more time in the mess hall. But all the KPs left, and he handed me a bucket of solvent and rags and pointed to the ladder leading to the rafters.

As I scrubbed, my eyes filled with tears from the fumes in the unventilated area. All the while, the sergeant ate dinner and read the paper.

The only thing that got me through the whole ordeal was remembering the sound of the clambering spuds that tumbled down into the reverberating bucket below.

I had a couple beers months later with Sgt. Carroll and toasted him. We both broke into heartfelt laughter. He even said he told the story that night to his wife, saying how mad he was, to which she playfully retorted, "Marbles.... Marbles?"

He joined in the humor finally.

I had my last cup of coffee in that mess hall before leaving for home. Sgt. Carroll and I shook hands as he said to the KPs, "Don't ever let this man near the potato-peeling machine!"

We chuckled again at the memory, and I laughed all the way home to Madison Park, as I thought of a way to improve upon the potato-peeling machine - perhaps a timer.

Note: Spot, our 14-year-old Scottish terrier, took Karen and me on a walk one balmy evening last week and passed a restaurant where an outdoor diner recognized me from the photo in the Madison Park Times.

She said, "Hey, you write those articles about Madison Park!" and further complimented me to the point where I blushed clear past my forehead into the bald area and back to the nape in my neck.

This column is a heartfelt thank-you to that lovely, young woman.

Richard Carl Lehman is a Madison Park resident. Send e-mail to him at

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