I was in the kitchen yesterday, engaged in one of my favorite pursuits: frying bacon. The sizzle, the smell, the whole experience is zen-ish. It is second only to the eating of bacon. Just ask Jim Gaffigen. As we settled into the den with our plates of bacon, potatoes and eggs, our old-folks recliners and our game shows, a memory flashed of days of yore and breakfasts gone by.
By and large, Mess Halls in the Army don't deserve the reputation they have for sloppy food and sloppier attitude. Mess Halls are a lot like any large scale food operation, some are good, some are bad, some are great and some...you should avoid. Mess Halls reflect the Mess Sergeant. Dedicated Mess Sergeants have excellent Mess Halls. I have had some absolutely outstanding meals in Mess Halls...and then there have been others not so outstanding. I have never had so complete a Holiday Dinner at any home as I have had in many a Mess Hall. My favorite Mess Hall meal has always been breakfast. Aside from the difficulty in finding any Army cook who can get bacon crisp without burning it, breakfast rules. Even after being retired for 16 years, I still prepare an all out Army breakfast at least once a month...blood sugar be damned.
When I was a young soldier, standing in line for my breakfast, I used to see dozens of senior NCOs walking by with impromptu bacon sandwiches...not a full-bore BLT, but just a piece of toast folded over a couple of strips of bacon...or sometimes a biscuit (only during the first week or two of the month). They didn't have to stand in line, they didn't sign a meal roster, they just went in and got a slice of toast, hit the cook on the serving line for the bacon, and they were set. It was so commonplace that no one even thought about it. We who were not of a rank to buck the line never considered ourselves worthy or elevated enough to rate the bacon sandwich treatment. But wherever you went in the morning hours, you would find NCOs chewing bacon sandwiches at their desks, in their jeeps, or on the parade field. A little old-time-Army perk for hard-working, everwhere-at-once sergeants who probably didn't have time to sit down for breakfast at their own quarters or anywhere else, for that matter.
It took me a while to discover what the reason for this was. Economics. Soldiers who do not live in the barracks and eat in the mess hall are paid an allowance to feed themselves. Then, if they do eat a meal in the mess hall, they have to pay for it. I think that breakfast in the mess hall in 1964 cost about 15 cents. Dinner was a buck something. And most of the time the food was pretty good. But getting a meal for free was a no-no unless you were on duty as an inspector or something like that. Key word: MEAL. To the point: one could argue that a bacon sandwich was not a meal, if you don't take a plate or tray, or silverware, or consume any other part of the meal. And throughout the Army in the 1960's, most Mess Sergeants made concession to that loophole and baked extra bacon every morning.
In the early 1970's the system became a little more controlled and it was more difficult for the Mess managers to cover the cost of the extra bacon, but bacon sandwiches were still common up into the 90's.
Such a little thing...a couple of slices of bacon rolled up in a piece of plain-Jane- white bread. But I remember clearly the day that I went into the Mess Hall at Turley Barracks one morning to find one of my soldiers who I needed to get into a truck right away. I was a brand new Staff Sergeant. I walked past the headcount sergeant, explaining that I was "just looking for someone" (this must have been the code word) and looked through the serving line for my guy. The First Cook (this is what the Army calls the shift leader) came out from behind the serving line with a napkin wrapped around a bacon sandwich. My first. I was shocked...but pleased. it was official: I was a bacon-sandwich-NCO. I had arrived.