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Even more thoughts on food, diet and writing after TEOTWAWKI and the SHTF

December 13, 2011

A lot of my experiences as a sailor and a soldier get incorporated into my fiction writing. I hope this gives more of a “real world” feel to my fictional stories. For those readers wondering what this has to do with food and diet and TEOTWAWKI/SHTF, please be patient and read more from this long-winded writer.

Many years ago during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia (now Bosnia and Herzegovina), I got a chance to be one of the few sailors on the ground. Still a sailor at the time (I became a soldier nearly 10 years later), I was assigned to a destroyer attached to the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (commonly referred to as the “GW.”)

My first rate (MOS) in the Navy was in conventional steam engineering. I had several friends both in my ship’s engineering spaces and within the GW’s nuclear engineering spaces. With the demise of the fleet tenders within the Navy, many repair tasks that a fleet tender used to handle are now either handled ashore by contractors or by the carriers.

My destroyer was brand new, being the second of her class. Like with any new class of ship she had some issues. With a back ground in conventional steam engineering and automatic boiler control systems (ABC), I was tasked by my ship’s Chief Engineer (to the consternation of my Chief) to aid the engineers trouble shooting our own automatic controls.

Despite being brand new, our destroyer still had very similar red-headed Hagan pneumatic-controlled valves. These valves were nearly identical to what an old conventional steam driven ship had used. Because the valves were nearly identical to the ones used in conventional boiler ABC systems, I was able to trouble shoot and affect repairs.

With my certification in ABC (I still have the paperwork), and nearly 8 years experience in conventional steam driven ships, I was able to help the engineers on my destroyer trouble shoot and repair the system fairly quickly. Finding several of the red head Hagan pneumatic valves with perforated bladders, I showed the engineers how to tear the valves apart and repair them, after we got parts from the GW.

This rather long winded explanation goes towards how I ended up being ashore for a week in Sarajevo, the only non-medical, non-Russian speaking, and non-Marine squid. I did not realize until many years later we were part of the 1995 Operation Deliberate Force. The food part comes later.

Despite my Chief’s misgivings about me working in the engineering spaces for several weeks, my name had been mentioned to the Battle Group Commander (the Admiral) by my Commanding Officer (Skipper). The Admiral was looking for volunteers to go ashore with a contingent of Russian-speaking Military Intelligence types, some hospital corpsmen, and a bunch of fleet Marines from the carrier, Skipper tossed my name in the lot.

Skipper figured I would enjoy a week off the ship as a reward for my hard work outside of my current rating (MOS). Surprised to be selected to be one of only three sailors from my destroyer to go ashore (the others being our ship’s corpsman and his assistant “baby doc”), I was quite excited.

Despite the rather uncomfortable trip to the GW getting soaked in a motor whale boat, a cold night spent sleeping on a cot in the GW’s aft hanger bay; I was in good spirits with my fellow squids when we boarded a CH-48 to fly into Sarajevo. Escorted by F14s and F18s from the GW we landed in what was left of the Sarajevo airport.

Setting up shop in a huge, freezing drafty, Russian cold war-era, puke green canvas tent, the corpsman ran a small field hospital and that evening began triage. Most minor injuries and illnesses the corpsman were able to treat, the worse sick and injured were flown to the GW.

Seeing Serbs, Bosniaks and Slovaks alike, and talking through translators (if you cannot tell through my writing, I am a chatty person) I was surprised to learn how bitter the fighting had become.

My job (by the way) turned out to be everyone’s gopher. Keeping the thrice damned, ancient two-cycle Russian-motherless diesel generator running, maintaining kerosene in the gen set (Russians run kerosene in everything because diesel turns to jello @32° F), and stay out of everyone’s way that had a much more important job than I did.

For those not familiar with geography, the former Yugoslavia can be damned cold in the winter time. I learned quite a few things talking to Serb, Bosniaks and Croats, but also from talking to other NATO troops, and some of the Marines. This was also my first experience eating MREs for a week (see told you I would get around to food!). We ended up giving crates of MREs to the starving citizens of Sarajevo. More out of laziness than concern for their well-being. Less for us to hump on to the helo when we left.

One of the greatest risks in any conflict (eased a tad by maintaining light and noise discipline) is cooking. Any Vietnam veteran will tell you about how strong certain common Vietnamese foods like nuc mum (fish sauce) smell. If you are unsure of how strong nuc mum smells, may I suggest a trip to a good Vietnamese restaurant?

Serbs, Bosniaks (who are mainly Muslim) and Croats (who are mostly Catholic or Russian Orthodox) told me (through interpreters) that one of the easiest ways to find the enemy was by the smells of food cooking. Due to the ethnic differences in the diets of the combatants, the enemy could be found by the food cooking.

While thankfully my fictional zombies cannot smell, a problem the Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats experienced was cooking food could attract the enemy. The Serbs and Croats find pork quite tasty, but the Bosniaks, being mainly Muslim will not touch it of course. Puts a whole new twist on your bacon being in the fire!

Strong smelling food like nuc mum could alert the enemy to your presence. Many a Vietnam veteran smelled the VC before seeing them. If you are trying to hide from a thinking enemy with a nose, best to take some precautions before cooking.

One of the most interesting things that I learned and something that I had never considered, the bitter cold in Sarajevo had led the citizens trapped between the combatants to some desperate measures. Now see I am getting to the TEOTWAWKI/SHTF part!

Nearly every single tree in the city of Sarajevo was cut down for firewood. Empty and damaged buildings were gutted from the inside, stripped of any wood to burn for heat and cooking. Any wooden furniture, a lot of it “old world” heirloom craftsman quality was broken up and used as firewood. Many 300 year old oak wardrobes got chopped up and burnt. When you are freezing and hungry, you cannot eat furniture but it can keep you warm in a fire for a little while.

Sarajevo also suffered a tragic loss of most of its pets and other wildlife. Starving citizens ate theirs (and others) pets, and stray animals. When that food source ran out, the citizens turned on the city’s pigeons, squirrels and seagulls. Nothing furry or feathered was sacred.

Many of the experiences I learned in Sarajevo appear in my fiction. Survivors after the TEOTWAWKI/SHTF will need to maintain light and noise discipline. While cooking food smells will not attract my fictional zombies, cooking food smells could attract looters.

I’ll leave it to my readers to discover some of the more creative ways to hide the smells of cooking food. Some may surprise you!

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