Mess Duty
An Anecdote
by Stu Russell

A light breeze moved through the Club Room as Super C delivered another one of his lectures on the Joys of the Socialist State. It was a warm spring day, so the windows and doors to the meeting room were all open. I was day dreaming, with my mind far away, wondering what Sharon was doing back at home. I was brought back to the here and now when I heard my name called. Bucher was talking, somewhere in the conversation I had missed, the Old Man told the Colonel that perhaps it would be of benefit to both the Koreans and ourselves if we could pick up some of the duties currently being handled by the Colonel's people. This was one of those deals that Pete and the Colonel had cut in one of their private chats.

The Colonel was at his best when he knew where the conversation was going. He told Pete that it sounded like a good idea, but some of the duties like guarding us would have to remain in house, we couldn't be trusted with the guns.This was followed by polite laughter, regardless of your situation in life, if a colonel makes a joke, it’s good to laugh. Bucher offered that we could start by helping with the kitchen chores. This was readily accepted and Bucher magnanimously volunteered Ralph Reed and myself for taking over the mess cooking duties. We started the next day.
Early the next morning, I knocked on our door to get the guard to come and take me to the "galley". The room was located across the hall and down a few doors, and it contained several low tables and a "hot plate" that looked like it came off the set of a Frankenstein movie. It was a wooden box about two feet square that had been filled with concrete. The designer had put a maze like groove in it and a strange looking coiled spring fitted in the grove. When the gate switch was thrown the coil got hot and we were able to boil water for cleaning utensils, pots, pans and our little aluminum bowls. Reed and I were taken to the ground floor where we picked up buckets filled with the slop of the day. We took the slop up three flights and spent about twenty minutes distributing it into the crews' bowls. Both Reed and I considered pulling KP as a POW was certainly a step backwards on our chosen career paths. We dished out the turnip soup for breakfast and then waited for the guard to perform quality control inspection.

It was pointed out to us that in a Socialist state, all get the same and if the bowls were all not exactly the same, Reed and I would receive spot guidance and the marks on the face that went with the lesson. We mastered this skill quickly, the Bear had evening duty. Reed and I were normal human beings and we were scared to death of the Bear. We had seen him kick one of the guys in the face while he was standing up. A great trick, but one we didn't want repeated. After we got the go ahead from quality control we took the bowls across the hall and placed them with loving care on the plastic table clothes made by happy workers a the Revolutionary Vanolin factory. Vanolin was a plastic devised by Kim himself. We tossed on the spoons and bread on the tables. Another feast was prepared.

After the meals were served, we cleaned the tables, heated the water and cleaned the bowls and spoons. When we asked for soap to clean with we were told that soap causes diarrhea and that we could not use it. KORCOM hygiene at its best. Maybe if you were stupid enough to eat soap you'd get the trots. We had to smuggle soap into the room to do the dishes. We got our butts kicked whenever we got caught, but we didn't mind so much when we noticed that our health was improving. For the first time since we got there John Shingleton was able to fart without having to make a run to the bathroom. Once the noon meal was cleaned up, we had the responsibility of passing out cigarettes. Ralph didn't like the job, so I got to do it everyday.

I enjoyed this part of my noon activities. Not only did I get to visit everyone’s' room, but I got to scare them a little. OK, this was a bit sick, but it was fun. When ever the door opened, everyone came to attention, because they didn't know if it was me or a guard. I got to the point where I loved popping that door open. Once when Cheeks (a guard)was accompanying me on my rounds, he gave me a thumbs up for my technique. I popped Nolte's room open once and everyone jumped to their feet. This time they had been napping so it was an automatic reflex that got them up. Old Bame just went on over like a felled tree. What started to bother me about this was that it wasn't bothering me. I was gaining insight into the guards' minds. There was still a big difference between me and the guards - they were armed.
I was getting pretty sloppy with the rules and once in awhile I would pass out the cigarettes without an escort. The regulars had no problem with this and I was able to cruise the hallways and stairs alone. This was a form of real freedom, limited though it might be.

One afternoon I turned a corner on the second floor and came face to face with a new and very young guard. He started yelling at me and I looked at him, like how long is this crap going to go on, I have stuff to do. This only made him angrier. With the blink of an eye, I was staring down the barrel of his rifle. I figured that there was no way that they would let these kids have real bullets in their guns, so I just looked at him with bored indifference.

The situation escalated, he pulled the bolt and cocked the rifle. Knowing it wasn't loaded I had no cause for a reaction. Then the lights went on in his eyes and a little sign shown on his forehead, it said, "This jerk thinks this thing is empty! I'll show him!" and with that he pulled out the magazine and shoved it in my face. In defiance of all the laws of physics, as we know them, the bullets grew to the size of artillery shells before my very eyes. I did a quick analysis of the situation and determined that the gun was loaded, cocked, a round chambered and the barrel pointed at my belly button. The guard loved my reaction, a complete face drain of blood. He smiled and escorted me on the rest of the tobacco rounds.

Mess cooking lasted one full month. I was glad when it was over, because with the Bear on duty, you never knew when you were going to get it. During the last week, the Bear came in and asked me a question. I finally figured out what he was asking me and I answered, "Naw". He looked at me for a minute then started lecturing me, in Korean that Americans always say Yeah and Naw when it should be yes or no. He asked if I understood, I said, "Yes", and he left. Lucky me, I was still intact.

A few days later he came in and caught me with my hand literally in the sugar bowl. Their doctor had given us some condensed milk and sugar to give to Hayes who was in medical isolation. There was more than enough for Hayes so I was having a spot of sweets when the door opened. The Bear must have liked me, anyone else he would have just smacked. He again lecture me on how this stuff was for the sick and I shouldn't get into it. Did I understand? "Yeah, I understood." He started his lecture on Yes and NO again. The lights went on in his eyes, he remembered that we had had this talk before. I received spot guidance right there and then with a chin for my stupidity. My head snapped back, satisfied that spot guidance would straighten me out, he left. Reed came in and told me to look out Bear was in the hallway. Then he saw my chin and knew it was old news.

Our tour ended, we were replaced by two others. One of our replacements was Dale Rigby. Hayes had returned from medical isolation and seemed to be cured of his mystery ailment. While he was off by himself he thought up a solution to the magnet problem. He figured we could use the coil in the hot plate to create a magnetic field and magnetize a nail he had been saving. Hayes gave Dale the nail and gave him instructions on how to set it up to be magnetized. We never figured out exactly what went wrong but between theory and reality. We hit a road block in our communications plan. Dale set the coil up as he was instructed and threw the switch. He managed to blow the main transformer and the compound was without power until the KORCOMs could get it fixed. Dale managed to clean up the mess and the Koreans never followed up on the power interruption. Although Hayes got his magnet the project was transferred to another room because one of the people in our room was becoming very nervous and we thought the project would be safer elsewhere. For the most part the whole thing was smoke and mirrors and nothing came of it anyhow. At least nothing positive.

Ralph Reed onboard PUEBLO
serving Chief Bouden in mess line
(official USN photo)
Dale Rigby, baker extrordinaire!
"Oh, those sticky buns!" Pete Bucher
(photo at Branson Reunion 2003)
Lee Hayes 2002
Editor's note: Lee Hayes mystery illness was hepatitis. No other crewmember was infected.
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