By Callie Oettinger | Published: October 31, 2011
“Halloween in Korea: bobbing for shrapnel. —Hawkeye Pierce, M*A*S*H television series
There’s a scene in the novel M*A*S*H, when a Congressman’s son is wounded. The father does what it takes to find the best chest-cutter in Korea—enter Dr. John “Trapper John” F.X. McIntyre. The pilot sent to pick up the doc finds him on a makeshift golf course with his partner in crime Hawkeye. A few funny back-and-forth lines fly between the pilot and the two docs, and then the three hop in the chopper, golf clubs in tow.
After landing in Kokura, the docs crawl into the back of the car waiting for them.
The sergeant in the driver’s seat says “Garrada there.”
“What?” Trapper said.
“He’s from Brooklyn,” Hawkeye said. “He wants us to vacate this vehicle.”
“I said garrada there,” the sergeant said, “or I’ll . . .”
“What’s the matter?” Trapper said. “You’re supposed to pick up the two pros who are gonna operate on the Congressman’s son, aren’t you?”
“What?” the sergeant said. “You mean you guys are the doctors?”
“You betcher ever-lovin’ A, buddy-boy,” Hawkeye said.
“Poor kid,” the sergeant said. “Goddam army…”
“Look sergeant,” Trapper said, “if that spleen of yours is bothering you, we’ll remove it right here. Otherwise, let’s haul ass.”
“Goddam army,” the sergeant said.
“That’s right,” Hawkeye said, “and on the way fill us in on the local golfing facilities. We gotta operate this kid and then get in at least eighteen holes.”
The sergeant followed the path of least resistance. On the way he informed the Swampmen that there was a good eighteen-hole course not far from the hospital but that, as the Kokura Open was starting the next day, the course was closed to the public.
“So that means we’ve got a big decision to make,” Trapper said.
“What’s that?” Hawkeye said.
“The way I see it,” Trapper said, for the benefit of the sergeant, “we can operate on this kid and then qualify for this Kokura Open, or we can qualify first and then operate on this kid, if he’s still alive.”
“Goddam army,” the sergeant said.
My copy of M*A*S*H is ripped into three parts. The spine cracked through twice, dividing the yellowed pages. The back cover sports a quote from Ring Lardner, Jr.:
“Not since Catch-22 has the struggle to maintain sanity in the rampant insanity of war been told in such outrageously funny terms.”
Insanity, boredom, comedy, honor, death, and life-changing choices and consequences rule military memoirs, biographies and novels. Political correctness weighs in, too, like a bull in a china shop, mucking everything up.
Richard Hooker, the author of M*A*S*H, left political correctness at the door when he wrote his novel. M*A*S*H pummels insanity and outrageous, ridiculous and funny, smart and sarcastic, and sad and devastating all at one time.
There’s the insanity of a Congressman moving mountains for his son—mountains that wouldn’t shimmy for most of the others deployed—without finding out the right type of doctor for his son first.
The outrageous behavior of the docs balances between funny and devastating.
And the world at war is sometimes smart, often funny, and always sad.
There’s a reason why M*A*S*H is the one book to hang with success as a book, a movie, and a television series. Though it’s fiction, it animates a no-holds-barred reality of war. The horror is there, just as is humor—the medicine that numbs the former.
The black humor that makes headlines for being “inappropriate” (remember the Mattis quote “It’s fun to shoot”) is the same black humor that makes things livable.
And, of course, there’s the writing—straight-forward, fast paced, with reality woven through the fiction.
I don’t think I’ll ever stop reading or watching it.
*** The shrapnel quote above appears in a few places online, which mention that it is in the episode “Trick or Treatment.” That episode airs tonight in a few markets. Check it out.