Chowing Down

Whenever I sit down to a meal, be it a quick sandwich or dinner at a nice restaurant, I tend to scarf down my food. People not used to eating with me will often ask, “Why the hell do you eat so fast?” At first, I didn’t have a good answer, “That’s just the way I eat,” I’d reply. Then I sat and pondered it a bit and figured out what was going on. One of those cartoon lightbulbs went off above my head. “Ah, ha…I picked it up in the Army”, I thought. At some point, the Army invades every part of your life.

As I talked to some of my veteran friends over time, they tell me they adopted the same habit, and they find it hard to shake. Here is how it all gets started.

Zero Dark Thirty

Imagine that it’s about 4:30 in the morning, and you got about 3 hours of sleep the night before. You just ran 5 miles or so and are covered with sweat and sand. You are wearing a gray t-shirt, shorts, and sneakers…just like everyone else.

You stand in formation outside an old “chow hall” with peeling white paint. It had to be built back in the WWII days. The year is 1986.

“File from the left, column half left!” is heard loudly in the muggy morning air—time to get in line for breakfast.

“One, two, three, four, five, six!!” The first six people in line are tapped on the shoulder.

“Enter!” The first six people in line disappear quickly into the dining facility.

After only two minutes, your drill Sergeant sounds off, “Next six!!”.

Welcome to eating during Basic Combat Training. If this does not give you indigestion, nothing will. Video from YouTube and The United States Army

Next Six!!!

The next six people in line make their way into breakfast as if they were hustling out of a burning aircraft.

At first, I was wondering what the hell was going on in there. Not exactly a very leisurely breakfast. There wouldn’t be any chatting about the day’s events over coffee here.

As a matter of fact, we were all told we would have two minutes to eat breakfast. Our goal was to consume as many calories as possible during that two-minute period. This was no time to watch our weight; we would burn off far more calories than we could ever consume. I went into basic training weighing about 180 and graduated at about 165 lbs of lean muscle.

There was to be absolutely no talking in the chow hall. I got some speed-eating advice from a buddy of mine. He told me to take several slices of bread and make a sandwich out of anything possible. Wash that down with as much juice, milk, and coffee as possible in 120 seconds. Try not to choke.

Over time, I got good at this. I’d take two slices of white bread, jam some bacon and sausage on there, and pile on the scrambled eggs. If we had sausage gravy, I’d add some of that to the mix. Since the things were about three inches high, we’d smash them together with both hands until we could get our mouths around them.

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I got to the point where I could eat three of those “breakfast sandwiches” (along with OJ, milk, and coffee) in the allotted time. There was always a guy at the exit door screaming something like, “Get the hell out of my chow hall!! No talking! Get your ass out of here!”

Before you knew it, you were out the other side of the building and getting into yet another formation while waiting for the rest of your platoon to finish. By now, it’s about 4:40 AM, and you’ve already been up and at it for over an hour.

Some people took a while to get used to speed eating. In the early days, it seemed there was always someone bent over puking right outside the chow hall. Everyone was so famished it didn’t seem to affect their appetite much.

How do we eat so much so quickly? Practice and necessity. Meals were not to enjoy; they were more like a pit stop to fuel up soldiers for what was to come.

And what to come was a lot more intense than having to choke down your breakfast.