The other morning one of our local radio personalities was pitching a fancy restaurant in the Richmond area, and he proudly announced that their most popular entre was chipped beef on toast. A ten dollar platter these days, and whudda thunk it? People paying ten dollars for the most plebeian dish in America, the breakfast anchor for five wars at least for every grunt who ever sat in a mess hall, since Pearl Harbor.
All those memories came rushing forward. I tried to remember how many of those meals I even had to pay for and certainly never more than a dollar.
Chipped beef on toast was always a part of my life. yet I never really gave it much thought.
It all came back to me.
My mother wasn’t the best cook, bless her soul, and my dad muttered little digs about it all the years I lived at home. He carried a small squeeze bottle of ketchup in his coat pocket for emergencies; brussels sprouts, collard greens, broccoli, they almost always got a dollop. Even eggs; scrambled or sunny side up. “Anything to cut the taste.”
We didn’t have breakfast with dad during the week. He was already gone when we got up. But on weekends we got a fine breakfast of eggs and chipped beef on toast, for the one thing my mother was a master of making was sausage gravy. She would toast up four slices of white bread in the oven…then bring over two slices at a time, cradled in her apron, and then brings the skillet over and ladle out that gravy. Why she did it that way I never understood.
She always kept a jar of Armour’s Beef in the cupboard, For 18 years I saw that there but never made the connection.
Every once in awhile, while traveling, dad would spot it on the menu in a small town down US 25, in North Carolina and order a plateful, plus a side of grits.
Then sometime in the 60s, dad took my younger bothers and I to a VFW function at their hall when I was home from college. They had a mess line and were serving up chipped beef on toast. I hadn’t had any for about five years, and since he’d moved up in management in the coal mines, I assume dad’s regular taste for it had diminished as well.
“Boys, line up here and have some real shit-on-a-shingle.”
I’d never heard it called that before. More importantly I don’t think any of us had ever heard dad say that word before. An auspicious day. Since my youngest brother was about 13-14 maybe this was a kind of coming out for us.
And over seconds he talked about SOS. Of all things.
And he had never ever talked about the war.
“You can’t know how important that dish was to soldiers during the war. It was breakfast in boot camp, the mess hall on the troop ship and then in a field mess. That was our number one meal. Out on the trail you lived off C-rations, but in camp it was a mess line under a tent. And SOS.
“Some of those boys never had a hot breakfast until they went in the Army. For nearly four years I ate SOS ever day I was near a mess tent, from Camp Shelby in Alabama to North Africa, then Sicily and Italy. I came home in February, 1945, and you (looking at me) were born nine months to the day after I got back home in Kentucky.”
Finally, after all those years we finally got that “facts-of-life” lecture he was supposed to give us a few years earlier.
“I don’t know of a vet who don’t still fix some up 2-3 times a week.”
That was the last time all four of us were ever together.
And that day was probably the last time I ever ate chipped beef on toast until I arrived at my duty station in Japan in 1973.
I had a three-year son at the time, so it would be two more years before he was big enough to take to the NCO mess. And that was when my wife had her first try of that chipped beef delicacy as well.
The Officer’s Club didn’t even offer breakfast. So about half the weekend NCO breakfast mess were officers, many of whom were veterans of RVN. I wasn’t but there was a strange generational connection from my dad to my son that I should want to want pass onto him the congeniality of a loud mess hall and shit-on-shingle that no other place could match.
Like me, those officer brought their kids, too, and let the wife sleep in.
My son loved it and still fixes SOS at home for his boys. Perhaps so his 7 and 5 year old may do the same thing some day, if there’s a story to pass on. though neither will ever have to crawl through muck under chicken wire in order to get it free.
Unless they want to volunteer.
It is interesting how we cling to little memories the longest, and seem to be able to pass them on without fear of harm.
My dad went out of his way to hold onto a memory, a good one, from what was generally an awful memory and, expenditure of three years of his life, from his 21st to 24th year.
On reflection, that men today are willing to pay $10 in a restaurant to hold onto a memory says much about the value of a memory that once was slopped out of a stainless steel pan into an aluminum plate free of charge.
With the WWII generation almost completely a part of history, it’s these stories about what they remembered most, SOS, the 5c haircut in Italy, the things Bill Mauldin portrayed, that need to be saved and passed on.