Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Memory Lane: Sandwich Nostalgia

In honor of Veteran's Day, here's another story from Afghanistan.

I will be the first to tell you that I had a cushy deployment.

Don't get me wrong: it was no luxury vacation. But I wasn't lugging my weight in supplies on foot patrols. I never fired my weapon. Being aircrew while I was there, there were restrictions on how many flight hours I could log in a 30-day period, so I had occasional days off.

I'm happy to tell all the fun stories about roughing it, like the slimey feel of the heavily bleached shower water, but at least we had showers. In a combat zone, all this adds up to 'cushy.'

But since stories of minor deprivation are fun to hear...

I hope you enjoy this one.

It’s the little things.

I didn’t have anything to take with me for lunch one day last spring, so before my first class I stopped at the coffee shop and got a tuna fish sandwich. I put it in my little soft-shell cooler with the ice pack I brought from home for this exact purpose, and stuck it in my backpack. Two hours later, during the ten-minute break before my next class, I took the sandwich out to eat it. It had smushed itself to one side a little, but that’s ok. I picked up one half. The bottom piece of bread was soggy. Not completely, but enough.

When I was in Afghanistan at Bagram Air Field – everyone called it BAF – the main cafeteria was called Dragon Chow. They served four meals a day and had a sandwich bar between meals so everyone had access to food of some kind 24/7. I was filling in for an aircrew position over there. Between the flights themselves, the pre-mission briefs and pre-flight, checking gear in and out, the trip to and from the flight line, and post-mission paperwork, you ended up missing a meal or two each time you flew.

We had the licky-chewy,* of course, but you can only eat so many Poptarts. At some point, you need some semblance of real food. And that was what the sandwich bar provided: a semblance of real food.

At the sandwich bar you could get white or wheat bread (the cheap stuff), and your choice of three cold cuts: turkey, ham, or roast beef. Since turkey isn’t supposed to be that shade of gray with rainbow shimmers, and ham isn’t supposed to smell like that, I always got the roast beef. Every single time.**

In addition to meat, there was cheese and some vegetables. I remember iceberg lettuce and sliced tomato, specifically. The cheese and vegetables were fine, so they weren’t as memorable. It does make me wonder in hindsight why I never opted for a vegetarian sandwich.

At any rate, you told the guys working there what kind of bread you wanted, and they put two slices in a white Styrofoam to-go box – the standard square kind with partitions for different dishes. One slice went on the flat surface of the top of the open box, the other on the partitioned base. They put the heavy cold cuts on the top piece and the lighter vegetables on the bottom one, and handed you the box, still open.

Off to the side there were condiments and you fixed it up the way you wanted or grabbed the little packages to go. Then, if you were smart, you put the bottom portion of the sandwich on top of the top portion and carried the closed box upside down, so your sandwich didn’t get completely dented and smushed by the partitions.

There was another table with small bags of chips and some drinks – water, canned soda, maybe Gatorade. A pretty decent selection, really.

The problem was the cold cuts. Beyond their questionable edibleness, they sat in a tub of their own juices. Or water – whatever they’re packaged in. When the guys behind the counter grabbed a chunk of cold cuts with their tongs, they just reached in, grabbed it, and slopped it onto the bread, juices and all. They never tried to shake or squeeze or drip any of the fluid off. They may as well have scooped it out with a ladle.

In the 45 seconds it took them to make your sandwich and hand you the box, that top slice of bread under the cold cuts was getting wet. The best you could do to salvage the sandwich was immediately dump the cold cuts in the box and relocate that slice of bread to a drier area before it was completely soaked through.^ But the damage was more or less done – I never had a dry sandwich.^*

I don’t know how many of those soggy, disgusting things I ate over there, but it was too many. When I picked up that tuna sandwich at college two and a half years later – two and a half years later – I was right back at the sandwich bar.

I’m shuddering at the thought of it, even now.

*What we called the snack bar in our operations center (there was also one out on the flight line). Basically an assortment of energy bars and junk food pretending to be real food, like single-serving sugary cereal bowls.

**After the first two times, when I made the mistake of trying the turkey and ham.

^And absorb the loose liquid in the box with a paper napkin. It only took a few drenched sandwiches to figure all that out.

^*Or a fresh one. I think, on average, these got eaten about four hours later. And they weren't refrigerated during that time.

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