No Goose To Cook
©Dudley C. Pye AM JP
Brightly shone the moon that night on the feast of Stephen and the snow lay round about all pocked marked and uneven. So it was on Christmas Eve 1953 in the war ravaged land of South Korea.
The war that had lasted three long years was now at a stalemate following the "truce" which was signed in July 1953 and this was the first Christmas since 1949 that the troops in Korea had not been under fire. They were determined to make the most if it but Christ! It was cold enough to freeze the balls off a billiard table.
Eight or so chilled young diggers sat around the petrol stove of the cooking/mess tent in the HQ of the 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment. The mood was not bad considering the promised hristmas hampers had not arrived and being on Pommy rations meant less meat than usual. The young cook was the centre of attention and he knew it. The diggers had lived on tinned rations for weeks and were hoping for some finer fare on this festive occasion.
"Don't expect too much from me," offered the Ration Assassin. "I've only had six weeks training."
"And it shows, mate!" piped up a smart arsed signalman. "All you've managed to dish up is bloody bully beef and plastic spud."
Well! That's all there is until today."
"What came today?"
"Sixty two chooks and a case of frozen celery, courtesy of the septic tanks. I have no bloody idea what I can do with frozen chooks and stuffed celery, but I'll do what I can. I've got tinned Pusan pudden [canned fruit pudding], some tinned carrots and spuds and hopefully it will be hot."
The cook looked around the group and pondered on the amount of friends he had during the winter. Putting those thoughts to the recesses of his mind he started to stack tins alongside his mud covered oven so they wouldn't be completely frozen in the morning.
He had arranged to be last piquet in the morning to give him an early start. There were murmurs of approval as well as mumbled mutterings from the cynical in the group.
"Have you heard anything about the beer issue, baitlayer?"
"Yair! One bottle of Abbott's lager per man plus your usual tot of rum. The RSM will hand it out at lunch tomorrow."
"Where's he got it planted, Cheffie old son? Maybe we can liberate a couple for a taste tonight," this from the medic, who had a reputation of being a bit of a walking Wettex!
"Not on your Nellie!" fires back the cook as he pumps more life into the petrol blower stove. Just then a flurry of snow wafted in from the north and settled on the backs of those closest the door, immediately dissolving on the warm Parkas, only to be replaced by heavier falls.
"Someone shut the bloody flaps or jam a stick up my Khyber Pass and call me a paddle pop'" chattered the cook.
Once again warm, the ring of dispirited Diggers fell into their usual topics of conversation being girls, grog and never being cold again. The cook was not taking any notice of such "mundane" matters. He was more concerned whether those around him would still be his mates if Christmas dinner was not of reasonable quality.
His greatest fear was being shunned by his peers, for he knew that cooks were the perfect target for those who were consistently bitching. He was also mindful that the cooks' sleeping quarters were well away from the rest and that gave food for thought. He finished arranging the tins and offered to make a brew for his mates before they crawled into their sleeping bags.
"Beauty, Cheffie!" they chorused and were even more gleeful when he produced a billy can that held some left over rum ration. Into the mugs went the Nelson's blood with a dash of Carnation milk and some sugar. Down it went and off they went.
"See you in the morning, Cheffie!" "Nightie night baitlayer!" "Thanks for taking last piquet mate!" were some of the parting words. But from the cynical signalman: "I know you ain't got no goose, but if Christmas dinner is no bloody better than your usual garbage, then your goose may be cooked."
"Strewth! I can only serve up what I've got," moaned the baitlayer. He had no doubts certain people could and would make his miserable life worse and were more than capable of punching his lights out. The cooks record as a pugilist was well known, so much so that he was known as "The Ice Cream Kid" because everybody licked him.
He watched the snowflakes hold a meeting on the departing signalman's back, made a quick check of the breakfast items and doused the lights. Pulling his Parka hood closely around his face he started the uphill trek to the cooks' tent.
"Coming in!" he yelled as he approached the 180 pounder tent that housed the cook and the engineers bloke who looked after the lighting plant and other mechanical gear. It was the standard warning to allow the occupant to shield the heating pot-bellied petrol heater. It also gave others time to adjust any other activity they were engaged in.
"OK. Mate!" the cook replied. He then parted the flaps and was immediately pleased by the warmth of the interior and took little notice of the odours of unwashed bodies and tobacco smoke. Instantly he made his way to his stretcher. He was tired and concerned about his ability to come up with the goods tomorrow and it showed on his face.
Fred the Engineer was a man of 40 years plus and a World War Two veteran with more lurks than a plethora of politicians. He was also wise enough to recognise a young bloke with a problem.
"What's the matter young feller, them dill brained Sigs get up your nose again?"
"Too bloody right they have! They reckon if the tucker's no good tomorrow, then look out!"
"Well! What have you got planned?"
"I've got some chickens and tinned vegies and that's about all. The other stuff they promised didn't arrive, but they don't believe that. They reckon I have flogged it to the Noggies and I can tell you mate, I bloody well haven't."
Fred sat on a stool he had made from bits and pieces he had scrounged and began mumbling, seemingly to his self although it was the howling wind that muffled his voice.
"Stop bloody mumbling old feller! And think of something that will keep me out of hospital," wailed the cook, head in hands.
"How much of that issue rum have you got stored under your stretcher, mate?" enquired Fred.
"You mean the stuff I was saving for Christmas dinner? I've got eight bottles."
"In the morning give me a couple of bottles and I'll take 'em down to the Yanks and see what I can swap 'em for, who knows what I might get?"
"Fred, you are a bloody lifesaver! If you can get anything at all it will be helpful. It means a lot to the Diggers, especially those married blokes with kids who will be missing their families at Christmas. Thank Christ we're single."
"Leave it to me old mate! Now get some sleep. It won't be long before it's your turn as last piquet. I'll set the alarm, you douse the light and I'll see you in the morning!"
It seemed only moments before the cynical Sig, who had the previous piquet, wakened the cook with: "C'mon, get up you bait laying bastard, and get down to that brothel you call a kitchen and start doing your worst as usual."
"Piss off, twit! Go and stick a switchboard plug up your Khyber and connect to an idiot," the irate cook blurted out, immediately regretting his outburst. Oddly the Sig turned and left the tent without saying a word. That brought on a certain misgiving.
Shivering slightly the cook crawled from his sleeping, fully clad as was sometimes the norm, and splashed his face with some icy water from the water bag hang from the tent pole. There was no time to shave as he grabbed his rifle and checked the magazine before making his way down the icy slope towards the kitchen. The rubber-soled boots were so hard from the cold that it was difficult to gain traction and he relied on the safety rope to keep his footing.