Summer arrived at the 4077 in full force with a searing heat that settled over the camp.
Few lingered in the blazing sun, crossing the compound at a near-run to reach the safety of shade. Staff shed layer after layer to lounge drowsily in chairs, on cots, under tent overhangs. Corporal Klinger had taken up a spot on an unoccupied table in the vacant OR, shifting from table to table once the metal lost its chill.
An armed MP was posted at the shower tent to prevent the continual running of cold water in repeat washes.
Father Mulcahy had forgone his usual priestly garb for the undershirt and shorts that served as his pajamas. He ducked into the Officers' Club, wiping sweat off his forehead. Every table was taken, occupants opting for tall glasses of water over their usual libations.
The water was far from refreshingly cool, as ice melted quicker than it could be poured.
"Padre, over here." At the table in the corner, furthest from the wave of heat brought in by the opening door, sat Drs. Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper McIntyre, and Vess, resident correspondent.
"Pardon the state of undress," Mulcahy apologized, dropping into a vacant seat. "But it's hotter than-well, you know."
"You're forgiven, Father," said Pierce, himself in a sweat-stained tank top and boxers. "Luckily the heat has vanquished my delicate sensibilities."
"Ah, Vess, glad to see you're feeling better."
"Luckily I ran into a few kind doctors with a spare needle and thread to sew me back together."
McIntyre grinned around his cup. "Mother always said needlepoint was my strongest skill."
"It seems to be a quiet day," the Father remarked, looking around at the idle staff.
"We're revelling in the luxury of boredom," Vess replied.
"I heard we're getting a visitor next week. Some kind of 'efficiency inspector.'" McIntyre waved a hand at the fly attempting to alight on his forehead. "Hopefully not he doesn't have any ties to the Health Department."
"Henry's pretty worked up about it. Apparently HQ's had some harsh things to say over our recent conduct as a unit." Pierce looked pointedly at Vess, who looked pointedly away.
"Anyone got news from the homefront?"
"Last letter from Dad said it was a whopping 65° in CrabApple Cove."
McIntyre whistled. "We should be so lucky."
"My sister-" Father Mulcahy began.
"Yes, that's the one-teaching a theology class for the local children, you know. She sent me a letter just the other week saying her students had come up with a clever rhyme. Let me see if I can remember it, hmm," he thought for a moment, "Ah, that's it:
"I once met a cow named Nell,
With knots all tied in her tail,
When I asked her why,
She started to cry,
'I moo-ved when I should've stood still!"
Pierce let out a shout of laughter, startling those sitting nearby.
"Took some liberties with those rhymes," Trapper snorted.
"Well," Mulcahy looked somewhat defensive, "they've only had a few classes."
McIntyre reached across to pat his wrist, "Hey, no offense meant, Padre. She's got some clever kids."
"What about you, Vess?"
Vess flexed their shoulder, which in the past few weeks had proved itself to have a knack for attracting lead. "MacArthur never returns my letters."
"C'mon," Pierce cajoled, "You've got to have a few adoring fans that want to pick your brain about the state of affairs."
"Get me a Pulitzer and I bet they'll come flocking in-until then, it's just letters from that newspaper telling me to watch my spelling and so-called 'crude linguistic choices.'"
"I liked the way you described Major Houlihan tripping and falling into that mud puddle during morning inspection, thought it was very well done," McIntyre took on the air of a pundit, "Though I would've preferred a little more detail about how her uniform-"
"Careful, Trap, there are Fathers present," Pierce warned.
Mulcahy made to give an uncomfortable tug to his collar as if forgetting he wasn't presently wearing one. "Well, ahem, what about you, Trapper? Any word from Louise?"
He received a crooked smile.
"Oh, she's fine, kids are fine. Well, actually, Louise is in a tizzy 'cause Becky snuck a lizard into the teacher's desk. Telling me to I need to get Beck to apologize to the teacher-one misplaced lizard and suddenly it's 'your daughter' instead of 'our.' How's it my fault the teacher's got no sense of humor?"
"Perhaps your daughter should apologize," the chaplain said, thoughtfully placing a thumb on his chin, "After all, wasn't it Peter who told us-"
"Another round?" Kwang, the bartender, made the rounds with a pitcher of water.
"Ah, thank you, barkeep." Pierce held out his glass as Kwang moved to his side of the table, adding under his breath, "Good timing." Quickly, he attempted to change the subject, "What's the news on the peace talks, anybody hear anything?"
One-by-one they shook their heads.
"I'll bet stalled as usual," Trapper replied, nodding his thanks to Kwang. "Father, I'd bet we could use some help from the big guy on this."
Mulcahy worried the crucifix around his neck. "I believe the lines are a bit backed up at the moment...Perhaps we'd like to all pray together?"
"Maybe if we shout, he'll answer it just to shut us up."
"Or file a noise complaint."
"Ah, but I'm sure you wouldn't want to-" The chaplain seemed to deflate.
"Go ahead, Father," Vess prompted, fixing the other two with a look that plainly told them to bow their heads and listen, or else.
They turned attention to the rest of the room and called, "Hey, keep it down, folks, Father's tryin' to pray."
Noise in the club gradually died down.
The priest cleared his throat. "Oh, heavenly Father, hear our prayer: We ask that the men at the table have peace on their minds and patience in their hearts. We ask for Your help in keeping them on the righteous path. May You keep them, and all the boys at the front, and all of us here, safe though we may be in harm's way. In Your name we pray." He crossed himself, head still bowed. "Amen."
All sat silently, absorbing the words. Eventually the clamor returned, though at a notably reduced volume.
Finally McIntyre spoke, "That was nice, Father, real nice."
Pierce blinked a few times, rapidly, as if to clear a speck of dust from his eye. He echoed Trapper, "Yeah, Padre, real nice."
"Does this mean I can expect to see you next Sunday?"
There was a sudden uncomfortable stuttering across the table:
"Well, you see, that's, uh-"
"Gee, I think I gotta to wash my hair that day-"
"I'd, um, I'd have to check my calendar-"
Mulcahy raised his head to reveal a sly smile.
The mood, which had abruptly shifted to discomfort, returned to merriment.
"You cad," Pierce laughed.
The door swung open, ushering in another burst of heat. In one voice, the room hollered, and Major Frank Burns, who'd just entered, blanched and quickly slammed the door.
He stalked over to the table in the corner.
"Pierce-Colonel wants you on the double."
"But this is all so sudden," the doctor clutched his chest, "Can't he give a girl time to think?"
"Move, soldier! You too, McIntyre!"
"Where's the fire, Frank?"
"I'll have you know the efficiency inspector is here, he wants to meet with all our surgeons. Can't imagine why he wants to meet with you two-no accounting for taste.
"The inspector? He's not due 'til next week."
"Apparently he wanted to surprise us, make sure we didn't have time to prepare for his visit. And some of us need more preparation than others."
Pierce's eyes flashed.
"Steady, Hawke," Trap muttered. "'Scuse us, Father, Vess."
They cleared out. Burns remained, hands twisting behind his back.
"Vess, might I...have a word?"
The man didn't move. "Might I have a word, in private?"
Mulcahy abruptly got the hint. "Oh, I-look at the time," he looked to his wrist, which lacked a watch. "Lots to do. I'll see you later, Vess."
They nodded goodbye. "Something on your mind, Major?"
Burns sat, rigidly, in the seat farthest from them.
"This concerns certain things...events-well, an event-one event, in particular, that involved...the two of-us-"
"Don't keep me in suspense, sir."
"You know very well what I'm-" He attempted a calming breath. "Our...interaction in the supply room."
"When you knocked me into that shelf?"
"Ssh, not so loud," he hissed.
"No one's listening, Major, they're all too deep in their heat-induced comas."
"I just need to know," he leaned closer. "What's your price?"
"I've already told you, was it too much?" He recoiled. "A cup of coffee in the mess tent. Two cups, final offer-take it or leave." They pretended to deliberate, "Oh, alright, you master negotiator you-one cup, no more, no less."
"This is a joke to you."
"Everything's a joke, Major. You may not believe this, but I don't hold anything against you. Don't get me wrong, I did at first, but not anymore."
He didn't look convinced. "But-well, I tried to tell Margaret that, but-" He caught himself, "I mean, Major Houlihan, I tried to tell Major Houlihan that."
"You know, if you're not careful, people might start to think there's something between you two."
They raised an eyebrow and Burns spluttered to silence.
"Look, if I took the time to care about every terrible thing someone said to me I'd lose every second of the day. You'd do well to take that approach into consideration...if you don't mind me saying so."
"I don't know what you-well, I suppose I do know-"
"Hawk and Trap like to give you a hard time."
He frowned. "How am I supposed to earn respect when my juniors constantly belittle me?"
"Not everyone's out to get you, Major."
"But Pierce and McIntyre make fun of my adherence to the rules, and my appreciation or order, and the fact I can't hold my liquor-Why am I telling you this? You're just a civilian!"
"At the present, I'm technically a journalist, which means I'm about a step or two below a psychologist-you can tell me your problems, but I can't guarantee they won't end up in tomorrow's society pages." Vess gave an amiable smile. "I'm still kidding. They're not soldiers, Burns. For that matter, neither are you. You're all stuck here together, I'm sure that'd be made easier with civility; but if I've learned anything from war it's that it's rarely civil.
"You enjoy this war, don't you?" Quickly, they added, "I don't mean-What I mean is that when I came here I looked for...adventure. For purpose. In a way, in the midst of flying bullets and falling shells, I found it. I sort of think you may feel the same."
"They think I'm sick."
"We're all sick over here. You may have more...enthusiasm than is necessarily in good taste, but we all manage our sickness in different ways."
"Those degenerates manage with an overindulgence in drink."
"Major, you're sitting in a bar. At a hospital close enough to the front you could spit and hit a North Korean tank. For some of us it's either an overindulgence in drink, or dehydration from incessant crying."
He huffed. "Well, they don't have to do it in front of me."
"Why don't you move out?"
"But I'm the senior offic-you're joking again."
Vess, who hadn't entirely been joking, joked, "Now you're getting it. I know we've established I'm just a civilian, so you shouldn't listen to me, but you should really loosen up. Let your skill speak for itself."
Burns sat pensively for a moment. They could see the gears turning in his head, and for a moment was tempted to lean back in case steam began to escape from his ears.
"Obviously you're a civilian and your opinion is therefore immaterial-"
Vess opted to take a sip of their drink rather than respond.
"-but do you think the Colonel likes me?"
Vess all but spat the water across the table. "What?"
"Do you think Colonel Blake likes me?" Burns repeated, voice rising to a whine. "Respects me?"
That was not at all what they'd expected. "I-uh-aren't you his second in command?"
Burns, pouting, nodded.
"Well, there's your answer. If he didn't, he'd've shipped you out. Or appointed you chief latrine officer."
"He couldn't do that," Burns rested his chin on his fist, "It's a rotating office."
"Why are you asking me? Why don't you ask him?"
"Oh," Burns waved a hand dismissively. "I'd hate to bother him."
"Okay," Vess sighed, rising. "My legs have started to liquify. Let's take a walk."
He looked up. "You want to take a walk-with me?"
"Don't worry, I don't think Major Houlihan will mind."
He trailed a little ways behind. "Would you tell her you're not still mad with me? I don't think she'd believe it if I tried."
"Why would I tell her that?"
"But-a joke? Hah!"
As they made to leave, the door opened to reveal an irate Radar.
"Watch where you're going, Corporal!" Burns snapped.
"Blow it out your eye." He stalked to the bar. "Grape Nehi-and make it snappy!"
Vess' brow furrowed. "Something bothering you?"
Radar took a long draught of his soda and wiped his mouth with a sleeve. "Nothing's bothering me."
"You wanna talk about it?"
"I don't wanna talk about nothing," he retorted.
"That's no way to-"
Vess, halfway out the door, called back to Burns, "C'mon, Major, let's go inspect that inspector."
A few curious glances came from around the room at Radar's back, as he sat hunched at the bar.
After a moment of scrubbing a glass with the least objectionable rag he could find, Kwang attempted, "You okay, kid?"
"Okay? Oh, I'm okay-yeah, I'm okay." A pause. "Well...to be honest I'm mad as heck."
"But don't go spreading that around!"
Radar took another swig of soda and grimaced. "Gee, is this stuff gettin' stronger or something?"
Kwang smirked. He turned away to wipe the other end of the bar.
"It's just not fair," Radar said, to his back. "People trying to tell people what to say. What not to say. Not letting people know what's really happening."
The bartender moved a few steps away. Radar followed, hopping to a closer barstool.
"I thought they were supposed to tell the truth-the newspapers, I mean. I thought writers were supposed to tell what they saw, and-and-" He shook his head. "Things are bad here, real bad. And the folks back home just don't know-they just don't hear how things really are."
"You expect your army to tell the truth?" Kwang asked, disbelieving. "That would be out of their character."
Radar sullenly sipped his drink, hunched over the counter. "How're they supposed to know? We can't tell 'em in letters, they don't see how it is on the television. My ma doesn't even have one-maybe that's good, she can't see the things they say's going on over here...we don't even know what they say's going on over here."
The barkeep shrugged. "You know what is going on, is that not good enough?"
O'Reilly picked at the label. "I guess it should be."
The door opened again, prompting a collective shout.
"That was a short walk," Kwang noted.
"Long legs." Vess slid onto the stool next to Radar. "Bottle of your vilest, my good sir."
Kwang handed them the beer and they flicked the bottle cap to the counter in front of the clerk. "Penny for your thoughts?"
"Colonel says we can't do anything about the censor."
"That's what you're-well, what'd you expect?" As he frowned into his soda, they continued, "Haven't you run into the censor before? This can't be the first time it's caused problems-they use our letters as coffee filters, for god's sake."
Barely above a mutter, Radar said, "Never like this."
"Radar, correspondents face this every day. In every war. As long as there's been American boys overseas, there's been Uncle Sam standing by with an ink blotter at the ready."
"It's not fair."
"That depends on what you believe." Vess took a sip of the beer and winced at the taste. "'Course I'm inclined to agree with you. Once we write it and post it, whole thing's out of our hands. All we can do is keep going. Keep writing what we can and sending it out, and hoping we can find a hole in the sifter for us to squeeze through."
Radar still looked glum.
"C'mon, kid," Vess urged, "Drink another Nehi and forget about your troubles. Our efficiency is being inspected, remember-blue's not a very efficient color."
A few Nehis later, the door swung open again.
"Heey-" the patrons began.
"Can it!" Major Burns snapped. He cleared his throat, "And if you'll follow me this way, Inspector, you'll find the Officers' Club."
A sniveling man -impressively managing to out-snivel Burns- entered, nose in the air. His eyes swept the room, taking in patrons in various states of undress and varied levels of non-officer ranks.
"Not much of an 'officers' club,' Major," he sniveled.
"Uh, yes, sir."
Pierce and McIntyre pushed past, resuming their position at their usual table. "Another round of the hard stuff, Kwang."
"Two waters coming up."
Burns and the newcomer made their way to the bar. "What will you drink, Inspector?"
The man raised his nose. "I never drink on the job."
"Of course, never-I never drink, I mean-well-sometimes I drink, but never-"
Vess stuck out a hand. "Name's Vess, this here's Radar O'Reilly, company clerk. And you are-?"
"Major Douglas Dodgeson, efficiency inspector." He shook their hand with stiff fingers. "What's your rank, soldier?"
"Coooorporal, sir," Radar said, with a hiccup.
"Not you," Dodgeson snapped, "You. You're out of uniform."
Vess looked around the room. "Who isn't?"
"I'll not have that lip."
"Ah-" Burns interjected, "He's known for that, sir-this is Vess, our correspondent."
"'Your' correspondent?" he echoed.
"They built me out of spare limbs and day-old grits out back 'a the OR. Tried to get glue but weren't able to requisition enough in time."
Radar let out a loud giggle, cut off by a hiccup.
"Vess," Frank hissed, sending them a pleading look.
They took another sip of their beer. "You'll have to pardon the attempted wit, Major, we're all a little on edge, given there's a war on. How's the inspection coming?"
"You've no casualties today."
"Here's hoping." Vess knocked on the wooden bar.
"C'min!" Radar called, dissolving into laughter again.
Looking to Kwang, Vess asked, "What's in that soda?"
"With no casualties," Dodgeson said, ignoring the Corporal, "I'm unable to observe your efficiency."
"Well, look at it this way, Inspector: we're so efficient, all our patients up and left on their own."
He chose to ignore the comment. "I will instead observe how this unit uses its idle time. Make sure everything's up to snuff with Army standards."
"What exactly does the Army suggest one does with idle time?" Vess asked. "Polish our boots? Recite the text of their draft card?"
"They will conduct themselves in a way that's becoming of a U.S. Army officer."
"What about those of us who aren't U.S. Army officers? How should we act?"
Across the room, Pierce and McIntyre snorted.
"You'd do well to keep everyone in your camp under control," Dodgeson snapped, "regardless of rank."
"Yes, sir," Burns said, bodily placing himself between Inspector and correspondent. "We try-some are more responsible than others. Might I show you the latrine? We recently dug a new one-" He attempted to lead the other Major away, but the latter shrugged off his hand.
"I think I'll wait in my tent. Escape this-" he looked around the room again and sneered, "degeneracy."
Another wave of searing heat marked their departure.
Vess turned back to their beer. They noticed the clerk which had previously been sitting to their left had gotten off his stool and was shuffling off.
"If I didn't know any better I'd say he's stumbling drunk." They looked at the bartender, eyebrow raised.
"Few drinks in and he doesn't notice the rum. Most Joes can handle it."
"Radar's not most Joes."
The Joe in question had made it to the jukebox in the corner, leaning heavily against it as he drunkenly crooned along to Hank Williams.
"Looked like he could use a drink," Kwang shrugged.
Vess finished the bottle and gestured for another. "Couldn't we all."
"Alright, alright," Colonel Blake grumbled, closing the door to block the heat. "Phew, what a steamer out there. Kwang, get me a cold glass-I don't care what's in it, just make it cold."
"All out of cold today, Colonel."
Blake sighed and found the stool next to Vess. "I'll settle for slightly cooler than the sun."
Vess gave him a sideways look. "That inspector's a cheerful guy."
"He could out-gloom the Grim Reaper," Blake accepted a glass. At the first sip, he recoiled, coughing. "Are you trying to kill-what is this?"
Vess peered at it, giving the liquid inside a tentative sniff. "Top shelf whiskey that took a running leap off and landed in a puddle of basement-quality gin."
Blake took the glass back and frowned into it, "Tastes like motor oil." He downed the contents. "Keep 'em coming."
"The man's a menace," Blake groaned. "According to him we do nothing right: beds in the OR are at the wrong angle; tent seams are out of alignment; even complained at the way we label things in the supply room, as if everyone in the unit weren't able to navigate it with our eyes closed! Went over everything with a fine-toothed comb and complained about the dust he stirred up-whole countryside's made of dust! We eat, sleep, and breathe the stuff."
"My beer's certainly full of it," Vess remarked.
A commotion suddenly erupted behind them, as a drink went splashing across a table and an outraged medic leapt to his feet. "Watch it, pipsqueak!"
Kwang looked over Vess' head. "Colonel, I believe that one is yours."
"Aw, Radar, what happened?"
Vess finished their beer, "Can't hold his Nehi." They grabbed his arm and headed for the door, "C'mon, kid, let's get you to bed."
"I'll say-what..I want," he slurred, trying and failing to twist out of Vess' grip, "I'll tell'm 'bout the-'m'bout the bombs. An'...they can't stop me-!"
"Uh-huh," Vess pushed him toward the door.
"What's he talking about?" Blake asked, twisting in his chair.
"It's best not to ask."
The door once again let in a wave of heat.
Pierce took the stool next to Blake as the Colonel finished his second drink and nodded for a third.
"Kwang, that looks and smells repulsive-I'll take one, and give that lovely doll in the corner one, too." He gestured over his shoulder at McIntyre, taking part in a game of darts which had broken out across the bar.
He turned to Blake. "How're we doing on that inspection, Henry?"
"Put it this way, we should've studied."
"That bad, huh?"
Across the room, the bartender delivered a drink. "From your admirer at the bar."
"You're too kind," McIntyre took a sip and grimaced. "Can't imagine what I did to deserve this."
"I mean, who measures tent seams?" Blake moved on to his fourth drink. "'S windy, you know? And the patients!-How can we be expected to keep things straight when we've got a bunch of kids bleeding on our floors?"
"Look at this as a test case, the terrible consequences of giving someone like Frank too much authority."
Blake chortled. "Heh, he is like Frank, I didn't even notice. A spitting image, down to the gold leaves, hoo-hoo."
"And that snotty expression," Pierce added, "How does he see where he's going?"
"Nose so high in the air it could be a landing beacon!" Blake slapped the bar in mirth.
He wobbled a bit as he tried to stand, and Pierce pushed him back down, laughing. "Hold on there, Henry, maybe you should have some peanuts to soak up all that firewater."
"Whew," the Colonel fell back on the stool with a thump. "Maybe you're right. I might mistake his tent for the officers' latrine."
"As fond as he is of our sanitation standards, that might be an improvement."
Blake snorted into his cup. "What does he know, huh?" He was so focused on not spilling his drink or himself onto the floor that he missed the sudden wave of heat behind him. "Comes in here with his clipboards and his rating sheets, saying we don't know how to pitch a tent or label a vial. Well, I oughta tell him something-"
Pierce glanced behind him and sobered slightly. "Henry-"
"-He should try to run a hospital just a hop and a skip from the front. See how long he can keep it all up. I'll bet he-"
"Go ahead, Colonel."
Blake's face fell. "I-uh-gee, I'd bet he'd do a, uh, a great job. Isn't that what I was saying, Pierce?"
He turned, leaning back as he did so to rest one elbow on the bar in a movement that served a dual purpose-to appear casual, and keep his upright.
"Colonel, my job is to determine how well you and your unit conduct themselves. The sanitation of your camp is regrettable, the organization outright disgraceful. Your job is to bring our boys back from the brink in these deplorable conditions. And your unit does a damn good job of it."
"If you give me just a moment, I can-" Blake did a double-take. "I, uh-what d'ya say?"
"I certainly disagree with your methods." Dodgeson sneered, "In fact, I'm disgusted by them. Many in your unit are a shame to the United States Army-but I believe they'd take that as a compliment."
Pierce raised his glass, "Here, here."
"As troublesome as I find the conduct of those under your command, I cannot disagree with their results. And though I was unable to observe your surgeons in action today, due to the unfortunate lack of casualties-"
"So unfortunate," Hawke muttered.
"-your record speaks for itself."
Henry beamed. "Well, how 'bout that. You're not nearly as cold and inhumane as I thought!"
Pierce sighed and turned back to the bar, nursing his drink.
"How 'bout a celebratory game?" McIntyre called, offering a handful of darts. "Major? Colonel?"
"How 'bout it, Major?" Blake lurched over to snatch them.
"I'm not much of a player," Dodgeson, sensibly, remained a few feet behind the bumbling drunk.
"Don't worry, hmmMajor," the Colonel reared back to throw. "We'll only put a few bucks on it, nothing to lose."
"Colonel, would you like another-"
"Mmno, Kwang, I think-" At the last moment, Blake turned as he replied to the bartender.
"Better make that a double, Kwang."
Pierce and McIntyre took hold of the reeling Major and marched him out the door into the heat of the compound, headed for the OR.
"Congratulations, Major," Pierce said to the bleeding, groaning inspector, "You'll get to see us master surgeons in action after all."