I left off last week where my National Guard outfit had arrived at Otis AFB, found it had one more company-size mess hall than it needed and turned the extra one into a break room equipped with a TV set.
It was the dead of winter. The mess halls were heated with three huge potbelly stoves over six feet tall, but because only one end of the spare mess hall was being used, only one stove was kept going, the one nearest the TV set.
One night when I came into the break room it was ice cold in there and the troops were all grousing about the man who was supposed to keep the big old potbelly stove going.
As it happens, it was a cook named Nick who came in the door right at that moment dressed in his cook’s whites — to a loud chorus of angry comments.
“All right!” he said. “All right! I’ll have this thing goin’ in a minute.”
Nick’s idea of getting a potbelly stove going was to feed it some soft coal, wait a minute, feed it some more, wait another minute, feed it again, wait another ...
Doesn’t work. When soft coal burns down to ashes mixed with a few hot coals you have to toss in some kindling to get things going again. As Nick continued his open-the-door, look-in, and toss-in-more-coal routine one of the men in the room called out to him.
“Hey, cookie! You can forget trying to get that thing going that way. The more coal you toss in the worse off you make it. Put some kindling in there!”
The man, a tall two-striper noted for his intelligence, got up, strolled up behind Nick, and looked in the stove. “Oh hell,” he said. “You’ve got the whole thing full. You’ve smothered the fire. It’ll take hours to light. Shovel out some of the coal and put in some kindling.”
“Like hell!” Nick grumbled. “I ain’t shovelin’ no coal out! I just put it in.”
“You better if you want that thing to throw any heat before midnight.”
“Uh-uh! I ain’t shovelin’ no coal outta no stove!”
Just then Tech Sergeant Lewis, the mess sergeant, came in. “How the hell come it’s so cold in here?” he asked.
“Blame your cook!” someone said.
The whole room chimed in. “Yeah! Yeah!”
“What?” Sergeant Lewis said, frowning at Nick. “You can’t cook and now you can’t even light a fire?”
“I can light it. Just gimme a coupla minutes.”
“OK,” Sergeant Lewis said. “I’m going back over to the mess hall to get a cup of hot coffee. I’ll be back in 10 minutes and this place better be a lot warmer than it is now.”
“Uh-oh, Nick,” somebody said as Sergeant Lewis left. “Now you’re in big trouble!”
“Don’t worry about it, smart aleck! I’ll get it goin’.”
“Oh, yeah? How?”
Nick headed for the door. “I’ll show you how!”
A couple of minutes later the door opened and here came Nick, his arms filled with paper-wrapped, one pound blocks of white lard. Before anyone could say a word he opened the door, tossed the whole lot of them in, and clanged the door shut again. “There! Now watch it light!”
Every eye went to the big old potbelly stove. Inside of a minute white smoke started to stream out of every crack and crevice in the big old potbelly. In a minute a thick white cloud of smoke began to collect up around the ceiling. In another minute the stove was almost lost in the thick white stuff.
Cursing loudly, Nick reached for the door.
“I wouldn’t open ...” the tall two-striper started.
Too late. The door opened. There was a loud WHUM-M-MP as a roiling ball of orange flame engulfed Nick, stove, stovepipe, and everything else.
For one second there was total silence. Then the flame disappeared by some magic of its own, leaving Nick standing there in his cook’s whites with his back to us. Slowly, very slowly, he turned, transformed from all white to jet black. Like everyone in that room, I thought he was one well-done cook. But then, in the middle of a jet black face, two large white eyes opened. They blinked. They blinked again. “Told you so!” Nick croaked.
Without another word he did a neat about-face and went out the door.
And no, Johnny. He wasn’t burned, not even slightly. But he played hell getting that all greasy black soot scrubbed off his face.
And that stove sure warmed up in a rush!