The Care Of A Care Package

Vietnam 1968

            American troops overseas, especially those in a combat situation, value mail above all else.  And of the mail they receive, they value a care package most of all.  A care package is from home.  It can hold photos, tapes, and most precious of all...... food.  One officer on my ship, up the Mekong River in 1968 got a set of foam cups.  You know, the kind that you put around a can.... as in beer can.  They helped keep the drink cold longer.  That was especially appreciated when drinking a beer on that pontoon tied up along side the ship.  It was well over 100 degrees down there and a can of beer didn’t stay cold very long.  Those can insulators were surely appreciated, but food was still the number one hoped for item. 

            Its not like the military didn’t feed you, it does.  Sometimes it even goes out of its way to provide luxuries....... like lobster.  Yes, we had lobster in Vietnam.  I was on a barracks ship up one of the tributaries of the Mekong River in the Mekong Delta.  For a while we were served lobster ever Friday.  Now I have to tell you, I haven’t had lobster in years and years.  It is still very expensive in today’s restaurants. 

            The only problem with our getting lobster in the Mekong Delta is in two parts.  First is the fact that Navy cooks don’t know how to cook lobster.  Lobster is like shrimp, very delicate, and should be barely cooked.  Drop it in boiling water, turn off the heat, and let sit for some minutes...... I don’t remember exactly.  Second, there was the ship’s crew, the Navy staff, the Army staff, the gunboat crews, and the embarked Army troops........ lets say, about 1100 men. 

             Let me tell you how our cooks prepared that lobster for all those men.  They used large kettles, huge ones really, and boiled the lobster until it was done...... many times over.  By the time the lobster got to the table, you needed a hacksaw to cut it.

             I sat in the wardroom (officer’s dining area) one night eating my lobster.  One of the Army officers sitting across from me noticed the tears in my eyes and thought I was overcome by the fine delicacy that had been served us that night.  He said something to me about it.  I looked up and told him, “How could they do this to perfectly good lobster?” 

             So you can see, any package of food from home was much looked forward to.  Unfortunately, there was a problem with the delivery.  Our mail was flown by jet, mostly airlines jets, or charter passenger jets, to Saigon, then a helicopter would fly our mailbags out to our ship up the Mekong River.  A Navy helicopter arrived with the mail once a day.  I don’t care what Army helo was already on deck or what Army helo was overhead wanting to land, that Navy helo, with the mail, had priority.  He wouldn’t wait in line so we cleared the deck with some urgency. 

             What was so amazing was that we would get mail that was postmarked two, yes two days before.  If you count the fact that you lose a day crossing the international date line, the mail was postmarked...... what, yesterday.   For you Star Trek fans that is the equivalent of “Beam the mail over, Scotty.”  The mail service was truly amazing.........except when it came to packages. 

             The usual sequence of events that happened when the mail helo landed was the crew chief would kick out the incoming mail bags.  Then the outgoing mail bags would be loaded by some of the ship’s crew.  Then that mail helo roared away to the next stop.  That helo wasn’t on deck for as much as a minute.

             The first care package that I remember arriving that got any notice was a birthday cake for the executive officer.  For you non-military types, he was the second in command of the ship.  This was early in my year’s tour aboard the ship.  On that day, the crew chief, instead of kicking out the mail, had a box in his hands.  It was a cake box.  The XO’s parents had sent him a birthday cake.  They had cut out the center of the box top and substituted clear cellophane so everyone could see that it was a cake.  The helo crew chief said that stewardesses on the jet from the states had hand delivered the cake from the west coast of the US.  Wow, it was a big deal amongst the crew.  It was also the first and last cake that made it intact. 

             For the next eleven months the story was the same.  Mail call would be announced and the lucky crew members who got care packages would walk away from the mail room window with faces that positively glowed.  They were all smiles and their fellow crew men would crowd around them as they tore open the wrappings.  Of course they all hoped that the recipient of food from home would share with them.  Then there would be a collective, “Awwwww.”

             Every single care package, whether it was cookies or cake, was nothing but crumbs.  You remember that ultra fast mail service?  Some began to whisper that if there was a care package in the mail that it was delivered with special handling....... dropped from a great height by a B52 bomber.  I don’t care how they were wrapped, the result was always the same..... crumbs.  Don’t get me wrong, they ate the crumbs, but it wasn’t the same.

             I went for almost my whole year without a care package.  I’m not counting the fifth of Jack Daniels that a girl in Miami sent me.  I don’t know how it survived in the mail, but I would have been in trouble if anyone had known. 

             December of 1968 and I was counting the days until I went home.  When Christmas came I had less than a week to go in-country.  Care packages came in frequently right before the holiday, usually with the same results..... crumbs.  I finally got a care package.  Did it fare any better?

             My care package was from my grandmother in Florida. How would a 73 year old grandmother know how to pack a care package.  The answer might surprise you.  When I saw who the package was from, I knew the contents.  It had to be brownies and oatmeal cookies, with plenty of pecans in both.  I held my breath as I tore the cardboard box apart.  What I found inside was different from all the other care packages. 

             Inside the box was a fruitcake tin.  The lid was taped on securely, sealing the lid closed, and waxed paper had been put under the lid as a seal.  When I opened that tin I was surprised to find fresh brownies and oatmeal cookies, intact.  You see, my grandmother had experience sending care packages...... to my dad aboard an aircraft carrier during World War II.  That was during the battle for Okinawa in 1945. 

             Then, recently, I received an autobiography of a relative.  In it she wrote about her life in Tampa back 80 years ago.  She mentioned my grandparents and something that caught my attention.  I found out that grandmother sent care packages to granddad in France in 1918.  According to the story, written by a relative, her date cakes were “fresh and moist” upon arrival overseas.  She knew how to care for a care package.

 

Tom Sparkman   August 14, 2002