Mud! There are a few adjectives.

10 Mar

 “Mud” — a Dissertation on the Worth and Substance
of Muck, Mire, Mud, and Memories of Such.

We men were cogitating, (me and a couple of twelve year olds (whom I tutor and guide.) The teacher had ordered us to write a half page essay on a memorable subject of our choice. We had talked about Philippine water buffalo and caribou some weeks before. Mattie, chose to write about “Mud.” Mattie is a loveable, off-the-wall, laughing-talking machine – not so much with writing. His essay appeared beside mine. “When I track mud in the house my Mom yells and threatens things that she never does. The end. Mattie.”

Mud saved my life at Aparri, that non-combat air assault that cost so many broken bones, I landed up-ended in a caribou wallow. The caribou is heavy as a truck and dumb as a brick. When in need of water, it pounds the earth into bowls of muck. Water eventually surfaces. The caribou eats much and deposits it in those ripe basins. When my parachute came out like wet laundry, I cursed and waited for the end of life, as we know it. Too close to the ground it popped and I hit the slime like an asteroid. Most of us made the thirty mile, night and day hike to our air-pickup point. My recall of ‘essence of caribou’ remains vivid.

Mud is a much broader story. Mud equals rice. Half of the world’s population lives on it and it grows in mud. Rice cultivation began 7,000 years ago, say the geologists. We saw endless paddies in the Philippines, Malaysia, Japan, Egypt and Brazil” wherever climate, mud and well bent backs join to produce this stuff of life. Without mud: no rice, no life, no Rice Crispies.

Many frontier Americans lived in houses of sod or mud brick, perhaps the oldest of all building materials. Adobe is mud made into bricks and sun baked. Mud and wattle make basic homes for millions in Africa. They are cool, cheap and cost little to maintain. Among the most solid is rammed earth, a kind of dry mud, pounded into walls. Some in the mid-east have been standing for a thousand years. When we visited a Church on a Western reservation, it was being renovated with a coating of clay-thick mud. It had withstood a century of weather, and stood tall and proud in the caring hands of volunteer masons.

My wife and I paid fifty bucks each for a day at Club Mud in California. We lathered it on, sat in the sun until it caked and cracked, washed it off and did it again. It was much like New Guinea mud which didn’t cost us a dime. Didn’t wash off, either. Youngest grandson rebelled against the mud baths until he discovered that you could slap mud on people and they didn’t slap you back. He got into a friendly fight with another eight year old and they were banned from the Club forever. We had a similar mud fight on Okinawa. Platoon Sergeant Weber started it was looking for a fight. One night he disappeared. We didn’t need a mud slinger. We were getting ready to assault Japan.

Some folks believe that their ancestors crawled out of primordial mud, the slithery kind with worms in it, perhaps fifty million years ago, and they became people. They were not my folks. Mine came bellowing and swinging out of the trees about ten million years ago. I don’t remember. We haven’t learned much.

Mud was a mean burden for our fighting men in the Pacific – equally so for our enemies. Aside from our airplanes and artillery, it was mud that kept them hunkered down. Veterans of Leyte tell tall tales of mud that rotted shoes in a week, shredded clothes, brewed sores, made you smell like desolation and moldered your lungs. “Luzon was a breeze,” said one. “You guys had roads, you didn’t have no mud like we had.” “I don’t remember any roads,” I answered. “And we had our mud on the shore, loading cargo in the face of a roaring typhoon.” I said, “I can’t debate your claim that your mud was worse than ours, but some of us lost our boots at Nichols Field. And they are still enshrined in that swampy grey guck. Which swallowed up Japanese mortal shells that couldn’t explode. So let’s hear it for the Luzon mud. “Our mud was better than your mud.” “If there wasn’t as much, ours was cleaner.” I argued.

Does anyone recall the gentleman who showed us a way to flank the enemy at the airfield? He wore a rich Miami tropical suit, Panama hat and a maroon vest with watch fob and chain. No kidding. He led us round about into the rice fields, and he lost his 1920’s black and white pointed shoes. He looked mortified when he realized he was our barefoot hero.

My neighbor, Ken, tells me about the mud in Burma, India and China, the CBI campaign. He had to move whole airfields forward on short notice, sometimes by moonlight, out of one mud and into another. Ask the boys who built the Burma Road and carved the airfield on Guadalcanal, and a hundred other airfields that they floated in on goo and gunk. Ask the Seabees; they loved mud. You’ve seen pictures of those sweaty, grinning guys, muddy up to their necks in the Pacific Islands, in Africa and Europe, dragging trucks and plows out of the morass by sheer human horsepower. They also shared their food, generously. That’s a fact.

A friend, veteran of the Weirmacht and the Russian front, still dreams of mud and how it stopped everything on both sides. It stopped Napoleon before Moscow and eventually turned his retreat into a disaster. A whole generation of French knights was lost at Agincourt and Crecy. It stopped the Allies in the Po River valley. The mud stopped the big war horses and the French body armor dragged them down. Is it possible that mud could stop all wars for all times?

The guys who did battle in Korea, Attu and Stalingrad had the rock hard, frozen kind that broke your shovels and your hearts. It was the opposite of Viet Nam. – rotting jungle muck that sucked the life out of your clothes, your boots, body and mind. Whenever I meet a veteran of ‘Nam, the talk gets around to mud. At Dienbenfu, the enemy lay buried in mud and swamp grass, completely still, until the whistles blew for a frontal charge.

Photos of Americans, French and Brits in World War I show men standing in trenches sopping with the stuff on duckboards or up to their knees in slop. All have a sad resignation or a questioning look. Pictures of Germans and Russians showed the same pitiable face. It was true for the Italians, Greeks and Yugoslavs. Mud, Mud, Mud. The soldiers seem to be asking, “Why are we standing here in the mud? Nobody is winning anything here. Why don’t we all just go home?”

In my research into the history and legends of mud (Wikipedia is the easiest) I found two items of questionable value: Mud buggies are fun to watch and seem to be fun to drive – there’s a craziness there, but for the hundreds of thousands of mud racers and watchers who assemble every weekend the question must be “What else does a Good Old Boy do on Saturday mornings?” The other, perhaps more pleasurable activity can be watched live, or on your Internet and while you may feel a twinge of guilt, you’ll probably laugh, too. It’s mud wrestling, especially when featuring almost naked, healthy, screaming young ladies who seem to be … well, I don’t know. The answer must be “Why?”

Enough. You were there. You slept in the stuff, you ate it and shaved with it and washed your laundry in it. You groveled and crawled out of it. There should be a medal for all who survived the Battles of the Quagmire. Shall we offer three cheers for our adversary, mud? No? Alright, then. Let’s not.

On the subject of tea – reminds me of food. You could get pretty creative sometimes. Let’s see: we had powdered milk, a dried cereal cake, sugar, usually a chocolate bar and maybe we’d find a camote tree or some kind of fruit. You’d mix the cereal and powdered milk in a half cup of water, or you could substitute coconut milk, stir in the rest until it got a little thick. If a banana was available that could be stirred in, too. I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess it was nutritious and I know it was delicious. I once added melted cheese. Not a good idea. Cramps.

People talk about Spam like it was something terrible. It was good stuff and better than that dried meat paste which cooked up like sawdust. You didn’t get much in a can but you could get two slices out of it. Fry it and pour off the fat, put in some hard native bread. Scrumptious. You could mix in boiled corn, cut from the cob and fried in with the Sam. You had to crumble it up and it made an excellent meal. We were sometimes issued Australian lamb stew which was mostly hardened grease and lumps of fat. I haven’t had lamb in any form except when my wife hides it in the Hungarian goulash.

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