Ah, The Pork Chop
c. Scott A. Stilwell 2005
You could have made up the story, but it was too good. It was one of those tales that wrapped around you so tight, you could barely breathe. One that pulled at you so hard, you felt yourself coming up out of your chair, straining not to fall on your face. It had to be true. Even the finest of fiction writers couldn't have come up with this. They could all be locked up in a room for weeks and even with their combined creativity, could not develop a story, and idea like this one. It had everything war and peace, trust and betrayal, service and loyalty, hope and despair, anticipation and the promise of a meal that would change one soldier's wartime experience forever.
Merle was a soldier's soldier. He had been in the Battle of the Bulge and it looked like the war may be coming to an end. As a sergeant, his men respected him. He held his position of authority like a flag, only so you knew it was there, not to wave it in your face. He had seen the enemy run, towns overtaken and friends die. For a man of his years, he had seen more life than his own father. His father had been made old by the coalmines before his time, but he looked and acted the part of the old man. Black lung was just beginning, but the whole experience had its hold on him. Merle was different. Though the war had forced him to grow up and see more of life and death than he ever imagined, he loved it. There was a part of him ready to go home and a part of him willing to stay and win the battle with his own hands. But today - today was special. In a small, endearing way, it was going to be special. A simple reward and show of appreciation for a job well done. A simple meal. Meals have stood the test of time as shows of gratitude and symbolic love and appreciation. When we gather with family at Thanksgiving, it is around a centerpiece of food. Jesus himself prepared a final meal for his followers. Friends meet to catch up around a table of food, wine and laughter. Yes, a meal can be a wonderful thing and a place where almost magic can happen.
Living on C Rations and doing everything in his helmet had taken its toll on Merle. Not that he was a complainer; it's just that it was getting old. You did what you had to do and had no real choice on the battlefield. However, today would be the pinnacle of the week, maybe even the year. Months of eating indescribable food in the field, was being replaced by a warm, fresh, home-cooked meal. Not just ANY meal, but the sit down kind, with real plates and cutlery. Real cups, not canteens. And not just ANY food. A breaded pork chop. Ah, the pork chop. Perhaps the stepbrother to a sirloin steak, but it embodied all the feelings of home and family, especially for an Iowa boy. In Iowa, pork was king and a taste of it thousands of miles from home would be almost as good as being there. Seated with fellow soldiers, indulging in a taste of home would almost be like gathering around his own table with the family and the anticipation of it all made Merle's mouth water.
The mess line was orderly, but exceptionally electric. A real pork chop. And breaded, none-the-less. I mean, this this was no simple task. His mom had done it before but for five, six, eight people, never for hundreds. This must have taken the mess staff days to prepare getting the pork in from the states in special refrigerated crates, cracking ALL those eggs and hand crushing the saltine crackers for the breading. Just the thought of the sheer work involved made Merle's heart pound quickly with patriotic fervor. As he snaked through the line and got closer to the serving area, he could smell it. He could smell it all the pork chop, the potatoes, the vegetable each distinct, but all rolled together combining the aromas of all three. How could he stand it? How could he not simply push his way through, pulling rank over the GI's and simply getting there first? He was so focused on lunch; he paid no attention to the other soldiers. This was now his current mission: get his pork chop, find his seat and begin the devastation.
As the workers handed Merle his plate, he eagerly asked "More potatoes?" One mess worker looked around as if he was about to give out state secrets and quickly slopped another half-ladle of potatoes onto the plate. Then, there it was. The world stopped. Truly came to a halt. Merle stood in line thinking he actually felt his heart stop beating. The noonday sun peaked through a hole in the mess tent and shown a messianic light around the pan pf perfectly positioned chops. Perfect. Perfect shape, right amount of breading, smelling like moms. It was almost too much. He scrambled for his handkerchief knowing he would have to dab a tear from his eye. He regained his composure from the moment and moved forward to claim his prize. It looked delicious, albeit a perfectly shaped pork chop. Just like the one before it and after and after and after. Obviously, if the super-power known as the US Military could obliterate a target from miles away, they could craft the perfect pork chop. A super chop, perhaps. Genetically crafted in the government's secret labs under the close guard of the CIA. After all, what is too good for the men fighting the evil menace? Is it not worth the nation's best scientists to create the most perfectly shaped, utterly mouth-watering pork chop?
Merle sat down and was faced with a dilemma pork chop first, or potatoes? There was good logic in the potatoes. They would be good, but not as good as the pork chop, so this would add to the climactic atmosphere of pork chop consumption. On the other hand, what's worse than a cold pork chop? It's served hot to be eaten hot. Not doing so could throw off the balance of nature, as we know it. Okay, not much time to think about this the pork chop wins. The fork goes square in the center. A small bit of juice oozes out around the tines and runs down the side of the morsel. Merle's Pavlovian response is running at full speed as he cuts into the chop. Eye's closed; he sees a flash of every good thing that's ever happened to him in his life. Not the "life flashing before your eyes when you die" kind of thing, but more like a slow movie of all the goodness you've ever witnessed. An open mouth awaits the morsel as a strong, military-trained arm delivers the tempting tenderness to the awaiting senses. Ohhhh, the breading. Just like moms. Not too black, not un-done, just right. Right enough to be covering the most delicious specimen of what? What? No, wait! Wake up! His mind raced. "Merle. Wake up!" he was screaming to himself in his head. He knew this was just a nightmare.
The truth would be waiting for him when he woke up. The blackness of this moment would be shattered by the bright whiteness of mashed potatoes seated next to a glistening, breaded chop.
Spam. Goddam Spam. Shaped like a pork chop. No. Wait, yes. Upon scraping off the near perfect breading he saw the truth. Spam, the soldier's companion, pressed in the shape of a pork chop and breaded, as if no one would be the wiser. His heart sunk. Merle looked like he just got a letter from home explaining the death of a loved one. Surely this couldn't be. This trained soldier knew something about military tricks and this was the grandest of them all! The Nazi's had confiscated the REAL pork chops, and they were gathered, with their Fuhrer no doubt, for a feast of unparalleled proportions. As they snacked on the US soldiers treat, they would laugh at the rouse they were able to create. Drinking their thick, room temperature beer and gorging themselves on real, genuine Iowa grown, US pork chops. As his Nazi theory began to dissipate, Merle realized it wasn't their scheme, or the scheme of anyone to intentionally hurt the soldiers' feelings. A breaded "Spork-Chop" would be just the thing to cheer up a bunch of guys who miss home, hearth and family. But today, it would be a meal that this sergeant threw in the trash and never saw the good intention in.
Many years later, at the Morrell packing plant in Ottumwa, Iowa, Merle would share an elevator with one of the company's important "higher ups". Morrell had a product at that time called Treet, which was a blatant Spam knock-off. The high level executive began telling this supervisor about his great idea to form Treet in the shape of pork chops to make it more appealing to families across this great land of ours. There, in an elevator in Ottumwa, Iowa, a high level Morrell employee was told of "the meanest trick ever played on me by the US Army" by a man who faced the pork chop shaped also-ran and lived to tell about it.