In those first days we wore clothes from home and rose early and smoked cigarettes outside, in the authorized area. We wanted to stay on top of things as they came and it seemed better to meet the day standing and not leap out of bed because somebody you didn’t know very well hit a pipe against the top of a metal garbage can lid next to your head. They didn’t do that then, not yet, but we rose before reveille anyway because our nerves wouldn’t let us sleep. We didn’t talk much but listened for the clatter of stoneware plates and silverware and plastic trays from the building at the end of the street. The wind carried the smell of frying bacon and that smell was a comfort in an alien world with a language of its own that we didn’t yet understand.
The new language gave old words new meanings and added many new words. The new words mostly told us to do things which did not occur to us naturally to do. So we rose early to smoke and smell bacon frying and calm our nerves.
Breakfast could be counted upon not to fool us, where lunch and dinner masqueraded as high school cafeteria food covered with something like mucous. In those days they thought to hide things from us even though we could see for ourselves they were different. Rumor said the mucous was salt peter, to destroy our sex drive. It made the food flavorless and snotty-looking and we did not want to eat anything that might permanently ruin our chances for raising a family later on. There were a few who stuffed themselves at every meal as though their lives depended upon storing up extra weight in case of an emergency. They were the ones who were too fat to keep up later on and a drill sergeant walked the chow line with them telling the servers “no” to everything but meat and green beans. We didn’t like them because they were foolish and gluttonous, but we couldn’t afford not to like them too much because they were a part of our company and in those days instinct told us we had to learn to work together.
Salt peter was not mixed with breakfast because breakfast food was too individual and gave the snot no place to hide. It did not matter that the bacon was raw at the edges and scrambled eggs were partly raw, nor that the hash browns carried their weight in grease and toast was burnt on the edge and raw the rest. It was free of salt peter and we loved it more than we had before because of its cleanness.
We savored the first meal of the day and ate as much as we could stack on our trays. I watched the others and saw that milk came from a great stainless steel cabinet with rubber hoses poking out the long side. They called it The Cow.
The Cow was the first Army colloquial we discovered on our own. It cheered us up because we had learned it ourselves and because the knowledge spread in a new, mysterious and helpful way.
The Cow was a stainless steel box with ten-gallon plastic bags of milk inside and three and sometimes four turgid rubber teats hanging out the long side. Four teats were best because two white and two brown meant you didn’t feel compelled to conserve the chocolate milk by mixing half and half with white. Lifting a large-knobbed silver handle released the clamp on the teat and milk shot into your glass with the force of a fire hose. It took some practice to fill your glass cleanly. We felt very reckless and happy drinking chocolate milk with breakfast.
Later on we did not savor breakfast but ate it on the run from one spot to another. Breakfast of the early days was a treasured memory of time to smell bacon frying and learning to shoot milk from The Cow.