I still haven’t recovered from my recent vacation. It was a nine-day road trip to several of Minnesota’s garden spots and it nearly ruined my health. My back is still sore from all the driving. My liver is acting up from all the drinking. And my lungs are shot from breathing all that clean air.
The only reason I mention these things is to explain to The Third City’s loyal readers why I wasn’t able to come up with a new blog post this week. I’ve been so busy recuperating that I haven’t had time to do any writing.
That said, I’m contractually obligated to post a blog every Monday. So, I’ve had to resort to the drunken newspaperman’s trick of posting letters from readers, adding snappy replies, and calling it a column.
Fortunately, our readers are an elite group. Most of them are movers and shakers, wheelers and dealers, high rollers, big spenders, honchos and top dogs. An unusually large number of long-legged, busty babes are also fans of the blog.
Here, then, are a few letters from our distinguished readers.
Hey, Milo, did you hear about all those dumbasses who registered at the Ashley Madison website for cheating spouses? The site got hacked and now a lot of poor bastards are going to be in serious trouble. This is going to be a bonanza for divorce lawyers.
I’ve got no sympathy for those dumb fucks. What kind of guy goes to a website to cheat on his wife? Where’s the initiative? Where’s the sense of adventure? Where the manliness? When I cheat on my wife, I do it the old-fashioned way, by picking up chicks in sleazy bars, hitting on some of my wife’s slutty girlfriends or keeping a mistress. The day I have to resort to a website to get laid is the day I’ll become a faithful husband.
Dude, I’ve been reading your blog for a long time and I’ve come to the conclusion that you are full of shit.
Hello to you, my dearest Milo. I am presently being Professor Larsen E. M’Bogo, President of the Greater Nigerian Literary Society. It is my sincere pleasure to be informing you that your ebook, WASSERMANN GARDENS, which is wildly very popular in my country and currently the #1 selling book in Lagos, has been awarded the Goodluck Jonathan Award for Excellence in Literature Endeavors. This much esteemed award comes with a very large plaque and a check for $200,000 dollars in American money. Due to international banking regulations, we will need a check from you for the amounting of 750 American dollars to process your prize of cash. Once we receive your check, the money will be deposited in your choice of banks. Congratulations to you and have a day of niceness.
Man, this is the best news I’ve heard in months. It might be a few weeks before I can come up with the 750 bucks. I might have to borrow it from my sister. But as soon as I get my hands on the dough, I’ll send you a check.
Hey, Milo! You and all those other military veterans are some seriously lucky bastards. While all the rest of us have to struggle to pay for health insurance, you guys get it for free, just because you spent a couple of years in the service. That doesn’t seem fair.
Actually, veterans do pay a price for health care. And it is dear. They risk their lives, limbs and sanity, in some of the most dangerous shitholes on earth, in the service of their country. If you ask any veteran, I’m sure he or she would say, “It would probably have been easier just to send Blue Cross a check every month.”
Bro, have you gotten rid of that rotten cat yet? I finally got rid of the miserable fuzzball that’s made my life a living hell for all these years. Of course, when my wife found out, she immediately started divorce proceedings. But, everything considered, it’s a pretty good tradeoff. Let me know if you need any help disposing of your cat. I’ve got some excellent ideas.
I appreciate the offer, but I’ve already figured how to settle the cat’s hash. I’m in negotiations to sell Otis, the rotten bastard of an alley cat who bamboozled his way into my household, to my dear friend, Mr. Choi, who owns a popular homestyle Korean restaurant on Ashland Avenue. He assures me that he’ll take real good care of the cat.
Letter #6 (via cellphone email):
Milo! Will you quit screwing around with that stupid blog and give me a hand. I need some help with the yard work. We have to re-pot plants, dig up some weeds and spread some manure. You’ve been down in the basement sitting in front of the computer all morning. I can hear you muttering and cursing down there. I know for a fact that you’ve been drinking. And you’re probably sneaking out to the garage to smoke reefer. I need your help now. I mean it!
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The first celebrity I ever met was Duncan Renaldo, who played The Cisco Kid in the 1950s TV series of the same name. Mr. Renaldo must have been down on his luck when I met him because he had been reduced to appearing at a third-rate county fair in Lake County, Indiana, just outside of Gary, where he was selling autographed photos for two dollars each.
If I remember correctly, Mr. Renaldo charged a little extra if you wanted him to pose for a picture with you.
Before Duncan Renaldo paid Gary a visit, the most well known people in town were Fat Willie Bosco, whose claim to fame was eating 22 Coney Island chili dogs during a half hour lunch break, and Harold Wozniak, who became a prominent professional wrestling referee. So, it was understandable why even a minor TV star, 15 years past his glory days, would draw a crowd. Mr. Renaldo did very good business at the Lake County Fair.
There was, and probably still is, a severe shortage of celebrities in Gary. It’s not like Los Angeles, where you can bump into Lindsay Lohan at a liquor store, or New York City, where you can run into Woody Allen hanging out at FAO Schwarz.
So, you can imagine my surprise when I ran into Elvis Presley on the streets of Gary.
It was an early Saturday evening and I was walking home after spending the day at Gene’s Billiards, playing pool, smoking cigarettes, and trying to win some money on the pay-off pinball machines. I was nearly home when a flashy maroon Cadillac Eldorado, with Tennessee license plates and carrying four passengers, pulled up to the curb in front of me.
One of the Cadillac’s tinted windows rolled down and a voice with a distinct southern accent said, “Son, can you help us out? We’re having trouble finding an address.”
I was hesitant to approach the car. I intuitively understood that a Cadillac loaded with hillbillies is something to be avoided. Still, I didn’t want to be rude, so I said, “What’s the address?”
When the man told me the address, I said, “I know where it is, but it’s a rough neighborhood and real hard to find. I doubt a map would help you.”
“Do you know how to get there?”
The man quickly conferred with his fellow passengers. “Why don’t you hop in the car,” he said to me, “and show us where it is. We’ll pay you for your help.”
“Do I look like some sort of dumbass? What makes you think I’d get in a car with a bunch of strangers from Tennessee. You’re probably all perverts.”
When I said that, the guys in the car started laughing. Then the rear passenger door opened and the guy I had been talking to stepped out of the Cadillac. I was getting ready to run when another guy followed him out of the car. To my complete amazement, it was Elvis Presley.
Elvis stood on the sidewalk for a moment, looking around and sniffing the fetid Gary air. “Man, this place is a real shithole,” he commented. Turning to me, he said, “You know who I am, don’t you?”
“The address we’re looking for belongs to Mr. Jimmy Reed. He’s a famous blues musician. I want to visit the man and pay my respects, because I’m putting one of his songs on my next record. I would consider it a personal favor if you’d show me to his house.”
I got in the car, sat between Elvis and a 300-pound man named Lamar, and gave the driver directions. After a while, someone asked if we were getting close to Jimmy Reed’s house.
When I said “We’re in shouting distance,” Elvis began singing a tune.
“Big Boss man,
Can you hear me when I call,
Big boss man,
Can you hear me when I call,
You ain’t so big,
You’re just tall that’s all.”
When we parked in front of Jimmy Reed’s house, Elvis went up the door, knocked, and went inside. He spent about 10 minutes in the house. When he came back to the car Lamar asked if he had seen Jimmy.
“Yes I did, but the old boy was passed out drunk in his easy chair. I heard he has always enjoyed hard liquor. But I had a nice talk with his wife. She’s a real sweet lady.”
After we left Jimmy Reed’s house, the guys gave me a ride home. Before I got out of the car, I said, “I recall someone saying I was going to get paid for showing you where Jimmy Reed lived.”
Elvis laughed. “Just give your address to Lamar. I’ll make sure you get paid for your trouble.”
Two weeks later, a sleek, cherry red Cadillac Eldorado was delivered to my door, compliments of Elvis Presley. I wasn’t old enough to drive, but my father enjoyed tooling around town in the Eldorado. Unfortunately, shortly after Elvis’ Cadillac arrived, the Old Man lost the car in a poker game in East Chicago.
I wrote Elvis a letter, explaining what had happened to the Eldorado, hoping he would send me another, but he never wrote back.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to numerous complaints from readers about the frequent exaggerations and outrights lies in Milo’s blogs, The Third City’s fact-checking department has been keeping a close eye on his posts. After weeks of painstaking research, we have been forced to conclude that there is absolutely no evidence, factual or anecdotal, that Elvis Presley ever set foot in Gary, Indiana. And although Indiana’s municipal record keeping is notoriously unreliable, it appears that during the period that the Elvis Presley incident allegedly took place, Milo was serving a lengthy stretch in a downstate reformatory.
However we were able to verify, through employment records at the Armour & Company meat packing plant, that Jimmy Reed did, indeed, live in Gary, Indiana, during the period in question. He was also known to have a drinking problem. Finally, we were able to ascertain that Duncan Renaldo did, in fact, once make an appearance at the Lake County Fair.
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To the best of my knowledge, the lovely Mrs. Milo has never cut a fart. Although we’ve never discussed the subject, I’m sure she considers passing gas beneath her dignity.
Unlike my ragged and freestyle upbringing, my wife was raised properly, learning the basics of correct behavior at an early age. In her waspishly proper household (both parents were from Boston and of English descent) farting was, no doubt, frowned upon. That’s why if there’s any farting to be done in this family, I’ll be the one doing it.
I don’t recall ever farting in church, but I’ve cut the cheese just about everywhere else. I’ve flatulated in schools, hospitals, taverns, restaurants, pool rooms, government buildings, Marshall Field’s on State Street, elevated trains, board rooms and foxholes. I have released unpleasant fumes in many of these United States and on four different continents. And I’m not done yet. My bucket list includes the Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramid at Giza, Buckingham Palace, the Pentagon and Carnegie Hall.
I don’t mean to come across as sexist, but I honestly believe that women are not very good at farting. They can’t seem to get the hang of it. On the rare occasions when they have to let off a bit of steam, they fire away with wimpy little tootlets that barely qualify as farts. Worst of all, in my opinion, they don’t seem to take joy in the act.
“Millicent, my precious, did you by any chance emit a bit of gas in the last few minutes?”
“Oh, Harvey, this is so embarrassing. I was praying that you wouldn’t notice. This hasn’t happened to me in years. I hope you won’t think badly of me.”
“Don’t be too hard on yourself, dumpling. Even the most refined and well-bred women are subject to an occasional lapse in dignified behavior. I’ll just fetch the room deodorizer, dear, and we’ll forget this unfortunate incident ever happened.”
Naturally, there are exceptions to male domination of the flatulence scene. A handful of women have equaled and, in some cases, surpassed men in the ability to break wind. That said, men still dominate the arena. Passing gas, loudly, frequently and rankly, is a macho activity, associated with virile types like cowboys (see Blazing Saddles), firemen, lumberjacks, Navy Seals and, of course, bloggers. The editorial staff here at The Third City is a shining example of flatulent excellence, especially Benny Jay, who has eaten nothing but fried chicken and cheese grits for the past 20 years.
To prove my point, I’m going to release a partial transcript of the minutes of The Third City’s last editorial board meeting.
“Jesus! What the fuck was that!”
“Oh, lord, will somebody please open a fucking window!”
“Goddamnit, Mike! Have the decency to give a guy a warning. Smells like a rat crawled up your ass and died.”
“It wasn’t me. It was that asshole Benny.”
“It wasn’t me, either. It was that bastard Milo. The fucker’s been drinking beer and eating beef jerky all morning.”
“Don’t look at me. It was probably that shithead Randolph.”
“You idiot, Jon’s not even here.”
“Well, what about that greasy new intern we hired. He looks like a nasty fucker.”
“Will somebody please open a damned window?”
As bad as that experience was, it didn’t rank very high on my list of all-time fart horror stories. The absolute worst happened to me when I was in high school, back in Gary, Indiana.
I was driving around with five of my friends in the 1959 Mercury I had recently purchased for $110. My friends, Dickie Kaiser, Dave Spurlock, Sandy Bordeaux, Kenny Woodside, Jim Krock and I had pooled our meager resources and purchased two cases of the cheapest beer in Gary. I think we paid four dollars a case.
We were having some good clean fun, just surfing the streets, drinking beer and listening to WLS. It was a cold winter’s night, so we had the windows rolled up. At some point in the evening, when we each had four or five beers sloshing around in our bellies, Dave Spurlock cut a monster of a fart, a fart for the ages. It was so loud that I thought one of the guys had set off an M-80 in the back seat.
A second later, the inevitable occurred and the other smelly shoe dropped. The stink that permeated the car was unbearable. It was dense, clinging and as putrid as the grave. The odor was a combination of everything vile – rotten eggs, rotten fish, dog shit, dirty sneakers and a backed up sewer. I doubt anything on earth smelled worse than that particular fart.
I almost lost control of the car. Dickie Kaiser had his head hanging out of the back window, vomiting up all the beer he had been drinking. I could hear Sandy Bordeaux gagging. It was a dangerous moment.
Somehow, through sheer strength of will, I managed to pull the car over to the curb. The guys tumbled out of the car, gagging, coughing, eyes watering and noses running. Jim Krock threw up the beer he had been drinking. I gagged and spat a couple of times, but was able to keep down most of the evening’s refreshments. It was touch and go for a while, but somehow Lady Luck was on our side and we all survived.
After blowing his nose and wiping his eyes with a handkerchief, Kenny Woodside said, “Good one, Dave. That was a hell of a fart.”
Dave had a huge smile on his face. He radiated joy and satisfaction. “I thought you guys would appreciate that one,” he said.
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I talk to Benny Jay nearly every day. He’s my partner in The Third City blog and most of our conversations are about what we’re going to post on the site. But Benny and I are gasbags, know-it-alls with loud, strong and often ignorant opinions on just about anything and everything.
Once we get on the phone, we end up talking about all sorts of things – the Chicago Bulls, politics, fried chicken, football, restaurants, music, Borscht Belt comedians, books, movies, and a few things I’d rather not mention.
There is one subject, however, that never comes up in our conversations, a topic we avoid like vampires avoid garlic.
That subject is, of course, computer technology.
I doubt there are two dumbasses on this planet who know less about computers than Benny and I do. When it comes to technology, Benny is hopeless, a pitiful case. His great grandfather, back in Kiev, probably knew more about computers than Benny does today.
Sadly, I’m even worse than Benny when forced to deal with techie shit.
About a week ago, as I was out on my back porch, enjoying a cigarette with my pre-lunch whiskey, I got a call from Benny. “Hey, Milo, we’ve got to post some new shit on the blog. The site’s starting to look shabby.”
I went down to my basement office, sat in front of the computer and got back on the phone with Benny. “Okay,” I said. “What do we need?”
“We need a sleazy ad, a headline, a pick and…Wait a minute! What the fuck!”
“What happened? Is something wrong?”
“I can’t get on the fucking internet. The computer says I’m not connected.”
“What should I do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe I should boot it.”
“I doubt kicking your computer will do any good.”
“No, dumbass, I’m talking about re-starting it.”
“That’s an excellent idea.”
I could tell Benny was getting frustrated. I could hear him over the phone, stomping around, muttering angrily, and throwing things against a wall. I thought I heard the sound of breaking glass.
After a few minutes, his computer re-started but he still couldn’t get on the internet. “Shit! Does this ever happen to your computer?”
“Every once in a while,” I replied.
“Well, what do you do about it?”
“I usually have a few drinks and smoke some weed.”
“And what’s that supposed to do?”
“It helps kill time until one of my kids comes home and fixes the problem.”
The arrival of the supply helicopter was the most eagerly awaited event on the island. It was supposed to fly in every six weeks and the islanders looked forward to its arrival with the same sense of giddy anticipation that children feel on Christmas Eve. There had been problems, however, with the deliveries in the past year or so. Sometimes the helicopter was as much as two or three weeks late.
On the day the helicopter was due, the islanders began gathering early in the day at the small, bare bluff which served as a landing pad. The blind men made their way to the site using the island’s network of guide ropes. Druliner, Jose from LA and Tony P. rounded up the crazies. Most of the madmen were docile and did what they were told. There hadn’t been a dangerous crazy in almost two years, since Collins had run amok and stabbed two men to death. Still, some of the crazies were uncontrollable and tried to run off at every opportunity. As always, they had to be hobbled, tied together at the ankles.
All of the able-bodied men were required to be at the landing zone when the helicopter arrived. Once the supplies were unloaded, the men were supposed to cluster together while one of the helicopter’s crew took photographs of them. Marlowe supposed it was simply a way of keeping track of the island’s population. If there was another reason for the photos, Marlowe didn’t know it.
The rain was light that day, more a mist than a steady fall. The men were nervously milling around, or huddling in small groups, talking and smoking and staring off into gray and cloudy skies, hoping to see the helicopter on the horizon. There were several false alarms over the course of the day. Every half hour or so, one of the blind men would shout out that he could hear rotors chugging in the distance.
“I hear it, too,” someone else would yell.
Then someone would point to the horizon. “I think I see something.”
The men became agitated, the blind pestering the sighted, wanting to know if they could see the helicopter, too. Everyone watched or listened anxiously, waiting for the popping of the rotor blades to become louder and the speck in the distance to become clearer.
As the day wore on and it became clear that the helicopter was not coming, the bitterly disappointed men began drifting away. The blind men found the guide ropes and groped their way back to Fat City. Druliner untied the crazies and watched as they scampered off, slipping and sliding in the mud in their eagerness to get away.
Marlowe, Druliner, and Tony P. wandered down to the supply shed. When they arrived at the ramshackle, canvas-topped structure, they found Kline, Vukovic and several others inside, surveying the stocks. The supply shed was a shambles. Most of the C-ration boxes were torn open, cans and cardboard scraps were scattered all over the dirt floor. Many of the cans had been opened and the smell of rotting food permeated the shed. It was impossible to ascertain how much food remained, but it didn’t seem like enough.
When the supplies arrived the men picked over them quickly. The cans of fruit were taken first, which the men used to make a foul tasting but potent liquor. Then the choicer rations, like sliced beef and pork, the various stews and soups were taken. The less desirable rations, like scrambled eggs with ham or beans and franks, were left for last. There was no system in place for distributing the rations.
Years ago, before Marlowe had arrived on the island, there had been systems in place to govern most aspects of the islanders’ lives. Old Colonel Delamare, the island’s ranking officer at the time, had insisted on maintaining military discipline. Of course, there were more than 300 men on the island at the time, more than three times the current population, and discipline was needed in order to prevent complete chaos. While the Colonel was in command, the men dutifully lined up at the supply shed every morning to receive their rations for the day.
The Colonel was a firm believer in the military axiom that idle soldiers made second-rate soldiers. He organized duty rosters to keep the men busy. They were latrine details, graveyard details, garbage details, coconut gathering details, housekeeping details for the common areas, and guide rope details. The Colonel, in fact, had been the one who devised the system of guide ropes that crisscrossed the island and made the blind men more self-sufficient.
The Colonel led daily prayer meetings and evening sing-a-longs. He organized exercise programs and sports competitions to keep the men fit and engaged. He made sure the crazies were properly clothed and fed. And on the rare occasions when one of the crazies turned violent, the Colonel personally led the team that humanely put the man down.
Everything changed after Colonel Delamare died. There was nobody on the island with the command presence, the determination, the strength of character, and the respect of the men, to carry on his work.
As the years passed and the older WW2 soldiers began dying off, there was less impetus to maintain fitness and morale. There was no more talk of a miracle cure that would restore them to the lives they once hoped to have. They no longer believed that somehow the hand of God would reach down from heaven and rescue them from their island purgatory. The Korean War era soldiers had resigned themselves to their unpleasant fates. They were, after all, creatures of their time and place, raised with an unwavering belief in duty, honor, and country. They were committed, conscientious soldiers, mindful of their responsibilities, ready and willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.
In the 10- or 12-year lull between the Korean War and the Vietnam conflict, there were no new arrivals on the island. The population dwindled and the surviving men stoically awaited the inevitable. They carried on with their miserable lives, buried their dead, and waited for their turns to visit Wassermann Gardens.
By the early 1960s, there were less than 50 men left on the island, all of them in poor health and even worse spirits.
Then, new men began arriving on the island. It seemed that the United States was involved in another war, a place in Asia called Vietnam, which none of the Korean War soldiers had ever heard of. The government was pouring men into Asia again and, unfortunately, some of them ended up on the island.
The new arrivals were a different breed of soldier than the islanders were used to seeing. For one thing, they were younger, in their late teens or very early 20s, and they, too, were creatures of their time and place. The new arrivals had been raised on television, rock ‘n roll, comic books, and the social and political upheavals of the 60s. They were rebellious and contemptuous of authority. They were mainly draftees, reluctant soldiers at best. They had nothing in common with the older men on the island, except that they, too, were doomed.
By the time Marlow arrived on the island, in 1969, there were only nine men left who had been in the Korean War, and they were pathetic cases – blind, crazed, tormented by spirochete-induced visions and nightmares, their insides rotting away from the disease that would soon kill them. The Vietnam soldiers were kind to the old-timers, making sure they were fed and clothed, but they avoided them as much as possible. The shambling, drooling, broken down and diseased old men reminded of their own fates.
In the supply shed, while surveying the wreckage that was their food supply, Marlowe realized that unless the supply helicopter arrived soon they would all become very hungry. “We better figure out what we’ve got here.”
“The chopper should be here any day now,” Vukovic said. “It’ll probably come tomorrow.”
“I wouldn’t count on it,” Kline remarked. “It was two weeks late last time.”
“It’s probably just a mistake.”
“It’s been coming in late for the past year. I’m starting to doubt if it’s by accident.”
“We should clean this mess up, make an inventory” Marlowe suggested. “It’s a job we need to do.”
“That’s what I was thinking,” Kline agreed. “We may have to go on short rations for a while, just in case.”
Looking at the boxes and the scattered cans, Marlowe doubted if there was enough to feed the men for two weeks. One of the few pleasures the men enjoyed was that they could eat whenever they wanted and as much as they wanted. Granted, the food was unappetizing, just government-issued C-Rations, but over the years some of the men had become creative in the preparation of their meals. When the spices were available, the men would cook up savory stews, tasty soups and mouth-searing gumbos. If the weather was pleasant, they’d eat outdoors, out of large, communal cooking pots. But a couple of years earlier, spices inexplicably disappeared from the deliveries. Without salt and pepper and Louisiana Hot Sauce, which the men missed dearly, there was not much the men could do to make their meals more palatable. They reverted to gobbling their meals out of cans, making mealtime just another trial to be endured.
While the men brooded over the situation, a group of four blind men groped their way into the shed and headed for the pile of rations. They started tearing through the boxes, grabbing cans and stuffing them into the cargo pockets of their fatigue trousers.
Marlowe, Kline and the others looked at each other, wondering what to do. Finally, Kline spoke up.
“Hold on a minute, boys. We’ve just been talking about the food situation and we’ve got to be smarter about it.”
The blind men paid no attention to Kline. Exasperated, Kline looked at Marlowe for guidance, but Marlowe was at a loss, shrugging his shoulders in resignation.
Kline tried again. “Come on, boys. You were all out there this morning waiting for the chopper. You know what’s going on. This shit may have to last us a while.”
One of the blind men, Blind Teddy, turned his head in the direction of Kline’s voice. “Is that you, Kline?”
“Why don’t you go fuck yourself.”
Druliner’s temper flared. “Hey, quit being an asshole. This is serious. We might have to ration the food.”
“Druliner?” Blind Teddy asked.
“You can go fuck yourself, too.”
Marlowe could see that Druliner was close to losing his temper. He went to him and put a restraining hand on his arm. Druliner shrugged off the hand and angrily stomped away.
“Fucking blind motherfuckers,” Tony P. muttered. “Never think about anybody but themselves.”
In a few minutes, their pockets loaded with canned food, the blind men groped their way out of the shed, found the guide ropes and headed back to their hootches.
“Tomorrow morning, I’m going to straighten this mess out,” Marlowe said. “We’ve got to come up with a system to deal with the rations.”
Vukovic, Tony P. and Druliner agreed to help Marlowe with the inventory. They would start first thing in the morning. That settled, Druliner invited the men to his hootch to have a drink. “The new batch is ready and I need some Guinea pigs.”
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I’ve eaten some nasty shit in my life. I’ve gobbled down food that hyenas and vultures would think twice about eating. I’ve sat down to meals that rats would cross the street to avoid.
That said, I’ve rarely eaten anything as vile and unappetizing as the C-Rations the U.S. Army fed its soldiers in Vietnam in the late 1960s.
When I was in the U.S. Army’s basic training program at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, a Drill Sergeant told my training company that we were the most privileged soldiers on earth. He said we were the best dressed, best paid and best fed military men in history.
The bastard lied.
Years later I discovered that the Canadian military is paid better, the Italian army’s uniforms are much more fashionable and, of course, the French army is much better fed. Now that I think about it, I have a sneaking suspicion that the Ethiopian army ate better than we did.
After a hard day of keeping the world safe for democracy, my comrades and I would set up a night bivouac and rummage through our rucksacks to see what we had to eat.
“What have you got, Bob?”
“Ah, shit. All I’ve got left is processed pork slices in petroleum gravy. How about you?”
“Chile sans carne. What have you got, Tim?”
“Some kind of noodle thing.”
“I don’t know if spaghetti is the right word for it.”
“Milo, what are you eating.”
“The label’s gone and it’s hard to tell just by looking. But I’m pretty sure it’s not going to taste like chicken.”
I thought my days of wretched dining would be over when I left the army. Of course, I was wrong. I had forgotten the fact that in order to eat well one has to earn well.
I wasn’t making much money in the mid-70s and what I did earn was mainly spent on liquor and drugs. Food was an afterthought.
Still, unless you’re Keith Richards, you can’t live on booze and drugs alone. A normal person has to eat every once in a while.
When money was tight and my dining options were limited I would go down to Sterch’s Tavern on Lincoln Avenue, where there was always a pot of chili bubbling on a hot plate. Sterch’s chili was hit-and-miss, to put it kindly.
Fortunately, one of the proprietors, a fine gentleman named Harlan Stern, who was always sensitive to the needs of his clientele, generally gave a straight answer when asked, “Hey, Harlan, how’s the chili today?”
If Harlan nodded, it meant the chili was edible. If he made a wiggling, so-so gesture with his hands, it meant the chili tasted terrible but was safe to eat.
If Harlan replied to your question by asking, “Do you, by chance, have any other dining options today?” then you ordered the chili at your own risk.
No matter how Harlan replied, my usual response was to say, ‘I’ll have a bowl of chili, a pint of beer and put it on my tab, please.”
Another questionable dining establishment I patronized was a greasy hot dog stand on Armitage called Doggie’s.
I lived about half a block from the place, in a coachhouse on Burling, which I shared with some like-minded friends. We were in the same sinking boat, financially, but when hunger could no longer be denied, we were somehow able to come up with enough money to pay for a few hot dogs, Polish and fries from Doggie’s.
Words fail me when it comes to explaining how greasy and unpalatable this food was.
It was served in brown paper lunch bags and in the minute or two that it took to walk back to the coachhouse, the brown bags were soaked through with grease. The hot dogs and fries tasted old, slick, stale and funky. I doubt they’d changed the oil in their fryers since the Truman Administration.
Every time I ate from Doggie’s I got a stomach ache. But I kept going back. It was handy. The price was right. And I was stupid.
Many years later, my daughter went to high school at Lincoln Park, which was right across the street from Doggie’s. One day I asked her, “Honey, have you ever gone over to Doggie’s for lunch?”
She answered by saying, “Eww, Dad, that place is disgusting.”
“Well, I’m glad to see that they’ve maintained their standards.”
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Last weekend, as the lovely Mrs. Milo, my eldest daughter and I were driving to Milwaukee to attend my Godson’s wedding reception, there was no doubt in my mind that it would be a very pleasant evening, civilized in every way. I’d run into old Serbian friends I hadn’t seen in years. The food would be tasty, the drink would be plentiful, and everyone would be well-dressed, well-spoken and well-behaved.
It was certain to be a fine wedding reception, but I knew it would pale in comparison to the Serbian wedding bashes I remember from my childhood. Instead of a spiffy place like the Hilton Hotel, where my Godson’s celebration took place, the receptions I attended as kid usually took place in the basements of Serbian churches or attached barn-like banquet halls.
My parents had been taking me to Serbian weddings, all over the Midwest, since I was a babe in arms, and all of the church basements and banquet halls looked pretty much the same. They were cavernous spaces with a small stage on one end, barely large enough to fit a five-piece Tambouritza band, and a huge, rectangular bar, that could accommodate a hundred or more standing drinkers, at the other end of the room.
In the early 1950s, when my parents first began dragging me along to these weddings, quite a few of the other guests were former soldiers, post-WW2 immigrants who now worked in the local factories. They were tough men, blooded and hardened combat veterans. Some of them, like my father, had been at war for nearly seven years, beginning in 1940, when the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia. After the Germans were defeated, they fought a brutal civil war against Tito and his Partisan Communists for control of the country.
As I mentioned, a lot of the wedding guests were rough men, poorly educated, with rough ways. It was understandable, considering their life experiences, which consisted of war, displacement, refugee camps, immigration, and hard work.
Many of the wedding guests, including my father, were heavy drinkers. They’d spend most of the evening at the bar, knocking back shots of Canadian Club, Seagram’s 7 or Christian Brothers Brandy, and guzzling whatever cheap beer was being served.
Inevitably, toward the end of the evening, fights would break out.
The fights were usually one-on-one affairs and were broken up before anyone was seriously hurt. The damage rarely went beyond a black eye, fat lip, broken nose, or a piece of an ear bitten off. By the end of the evening, the combatants would often be seen together, leaning against the bar, shoulder to shoulder, laughing and enjoying a few drinks.
But sometimes things got ugly and the fights turned into melees, free-for-alls with a dozen or more men involved.
I must have been six or seven years old when these wedding clashes entered my consciousness. Of course, I was too young to hang around at the bar. I probably spent my time in the main area where the banquet tables were set up and the dancing took place. No doubt I was with friends my age, most of us dressed in ill-fitting suits and clip-on ties from Goldblatt’s Boys Department.
And sometime toward the end of the evening we’d hear angry shouts and breaking glass and my friends and I would rush to the bar to watch the brawl. We’d stare open-mouthed as men threw punches, aimed kicks, swung chairs and tried to strangle each other. It was thrilling.
I remember once asking my father why the men fought. He may have been nursing a fat lip or a black eye himself when he said, “I suppose they are just letting off steam, having a little fun. The alcohol probably has something to do with it, too.”
That was a long time ago. Now I attend weddings of the grandchildren of those wild post-war immigrants. And I haven’t seen a good wedding brawl in close to 40 years.
As my wife, daughter and I were leaving my Godson’s reception and preparing to drive back to Chicago, my daughter asked, “Did you have a good time, Dad?”
“Yeah, it was okay.”
“Well, it could have been a bit livelier.”