When my second turn came up for KP, I was up before anyone else. I might not have slept that night. It was a long time ago. In any event, I arrived first and claimed one of the two openings for DRO. Unfortunately, the other DRO didn't do his share. At lunch that day he was jawing with the Mess Sergeant and I was getting upset. I complained and the mess sergeant took me to the back sink. He gave my job as DRO to that man. I was not happy.
When I finally calmed down enough to survey my new domain, I found a large stack of very greasy pots and pans waiting to be cleaned. There was no stopper for the sink and a passing cook instructed me to cut a lemon in half and use that. How about that? Lemon fresh dishwater.
I knew that hot water cleaned better than cold water. Wouldn't boiler water clean best? I filled the sink with it, added soap and dropped in a stack of pots and pans. Next problem: how to get them out.
Every cooking utensil had a hook on the end so that it could be hung up near the stoves and ovens. These appeared to be just what I needed. When I extracted the first pan I discovered that it was a clean as a whistle, no scrubbing required. As I pulled the rest out, I set them on the counter to one side. When I next turned to them, they were already dry. The heat they had absorbed in the sink had dried them.
One of the cooks was in the habit of washing his hands in the back sink. He only did that once while I worked there. He wandered up from behind me and plunged his hands into the water before I could warn him. They were beat red when he withdrew them, and he gave me a terrible look. I feared the worst, but he turned away without saying a word and left the mess hall. I don't remember ever seeing him again.
Thereafter, I slept late every morning that I was assigned to KP. I arrived just in time to avoid being classified AWOL. I shuffled to the back sink looking as sad as Br'er Rabbit when he was thrown into the briar patch (you know, the one where he had been born).
Actually, the greatest secret of manning the back sink was the fact that everyone left you alone so long as the pots and pans were clean, and that was easy. Being left alone was golden when you were a mere private in the Army. They didn't think of asking me to help unload the ration trucks when they arrived. Even the DRO's had to queue up to carry heavy bags and boxes of food and supplies.
Working the back sink also gave me the cat's bird seat in the mess hall. I got to see how the place was actually run. Most of the ingredients were as good as those I had seen in the kitchen of a restaurant that the father of one of my boyhood friends owned and operated. The food was well-prepared. The mess sergeant inspected the serving line every meal before the troops were fed. I remember once when he had the cook who was about to carve a roast, add slices of lemon and sprigs of parsley around the base of the cutting board to make the meat look more appetizing. This is a detail that could be found in any fine dining establishment.
Of course, Castro and his men never ate this well during their stay on Pico Turquino as they trained and fought to free Cuba. I learned in the research for my novel, Rebels on the Mountain, that they rarely had meat. They subsisted on boniatos, sweet potatoes, just as the American rebels had at Valley Forge. Of course, most of Fidel's recruits were used to short rations. They had grown up as the poorest of peasants, living as outcasts and outlaws in the Sierra Madres Mountains at the far eastern end of Cuba.
Most of the men who trained with me weren't used to Army chow. It seems that Southerners dominated the ranks of Army cooks and we were fed southern comfort foods like grits and creamed meats and vegetables. Creamed ground beef on toast, affectionately known as Shit-on-a-Shingle (SOS) was common breakfast fare. The Yankees hated it. I still eat it for breakfast to this day. If I learned one thing in the Army, it was to eat a good breakfast. It was often the only hot meal you got.
Our mess sergeant is one of the few men whose name I cannot remember. This is surprising as I grew to respect him as much as all the others whose names I remember so well. I discovered that he was truly dedicated to feeding us well. He often had the cooks make extra pies and other treats that he traded to the ration truck drivers for extra supplies for the men in our company. Whenever we were on a long march, he would station trucks along the way to make sure we had plenty of water and Kool Aid if we wanted it.
On one occasion, we were issued C-Rations to eat for lunch during a long march. At one point, we found our mess sergeant and his crew of cooks and KP's waiting for us. They instructed us to remove any cans of meat and vegetables that we had in our C-Rations kits and drop them in the large cans of boiling water that they had set up along the road. Farther along, we found them waiting for us with hot food.