By Joseph Kerner
Author's note: If you have watched M*A*S*H as much I have, you may have noticed that the time frames and timeline don't always seem to make sense (chronologically speaking). This collection of stories takes place in an alternate timeline. Up until the season 11 episode "Settling Debts" the timeline is the almost exactly the same as the series (I say almost because you would have to disregard "A War for All Seasons" which really you should do anyway as the timeframe presented in that episode wouldn't match the timeline of the series' other events but that's just one fan's opinion) however come the year of Our Lord nineteen hundred and fifty three, this timeline goes off on its own tangent. This tangent negates any and all events from "The Moon is Not Blue" all the way up to "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen". Like M*A*S*H the novel and M*A*S*H the movie, what follows is not a central plot but a series of stories leading up to the end of a journey.
Chapter 1 Attention All Personnel
January 5, 1953
If hell is anything like a Korean winter, being on one's best behavior is well advised. The winds sweeping down from Siberia would hit the Korean peninsula every year without mercy leaving both its hapless populace and the visiting UN forces quite uncomfortable winter after miserable winter. Ask any veteran of that war and they will verify this. A surgeon in Korea had to be careful with his hands as fingers lose almost all of their dexterity if frozen badly enough and the fingers of a combat surgeon are the line between life and death all too often.
There had been no action in the sector since the annual Christmas truce. The 4077th had just sent of its last patient to the 121st Evac. Boredom could become rampant when there was no surgery but at the moment the temperature provided enough of a distraction.
The lack of wounded coming through was only the first indication that something was off. Usually the Christmas truce would come and go quickly and the carnage would resume right on schedule. But to an experienced surgical unit a mere three miles from the front, the lull in the action appeared as nothing but the calm before the storm. However, the second indication was to come promptly.
Sgt. Max Klinger, the sultan of Toledo and company clerk of the 4077, was at that very moment in his office reviewing morning reports and requisition forms. In the absence of Colonel Potter, who was at an I-Corps meeting in Seoul, the unit was under the temporary command of one Captain Benjamin Franklin Pierce. With its ranking officer, Major Winchester, proving that he could not be trusted to hold down the fort without enlisting the servitude of the company clerk, the job was left in the hands of Hawkeye's lack of leadership. Without patients to treat the only command decision he'd had to make over the span of the good Colonel's absence was to cancel intramural nude ice hockey due to a general lack of participation and the lack of a frozen body of water to play hockey on.
The phone rang in the office.
"MASH 4077. Nanook of the North speaking."
"That you Klinger?"
"Oh, hello your exalted Colonelness. How goeth things in Seoul? Hope you've managed to stay warm. It's been so cold I had to stop two guys from chopping up your desk and using it as firewood. I joke you not."
"Well if they try it again, get Pierce after them," replied Potter. "He's in charge. Where the hell was he when this was happening?"
"He was one of the two guys. The other being Captain Hunnicut. I'm telling you sir, the locals are restless."
"Listen Klinger…" Potter paused for a moment. "I can't tell you why, but I need Sophie sent down here to Seoul pronto."
"A little out of season for equestrian, sir. I'm afraid we don't have a horse trailer."
"Klinger, you remember that local veterinarian, Dr. Park? He has a truck and a trailer. Tell him I promise to make it worth his while if he'll run this one errand for me. Just have him get Sophie down to Seoul as soon as possible."
"Your wish is my command. If I may ask..."
"No, you may not," replied Potter. "You'll know in due course. And Klinger, if ever there was a time when I needed your files to be well organized when I return, now is it."
"Sir are we about to be inspected?"
"I can't say. But those papers need to be in perfect order and Sophie needs to be here. Got that?"
"Every word," said Klinger.
"I've got the next big thing, Beej. Intramural nude golf. No body checking, true, but a lot of swingers."
"I'd say your mind is in the gutter, Hawkeye," replied BJ. "Except that would be insulting to gutters. Hey what the hell is this?" They had just noticed Dr. Park loading Sophie into the back of a trailer. "Hey Klinger, what gives?"
"Don't ask me," he replied. "Colonel Potter insisted Sophie needed to be brought to Seoul."
"Why on earth would he need his horse in Seoul?" asked BJ. "And you sir, not one joke about intramural nude polo."
"I wouldn't think it," said Hawkeye with a grin. "Okay I would think it, but I swear I wasn't going to say it."
"It's too cold for intramural nude anything," replied BJ. "Be practical. We'd freeze our tail feathers off."
"I'll have you know I had my tail feathers surgically removed years ago," said Hawkeye. "Now Klinger, does Sophie's little excursion mean that Colonel Potter is staying in Seoul longer?"
"He didn't say," replied Klinger. "He just said get Sophie down here PDQ and have all the camp's records organized like never before. He was actually being kind of evasive."
"Inspection?" asked BJ. Klinger shrugged in response.
"But why wouldn't they have the rest of us tidying up?" wondered Hawkeye. "And why take Sophie out of here? Is her presence against some regulation?"
"That wouldn't make sense," said Winchester. "If there were some regulation against him having a horse here, why remove the steed but leave the stable, not to mention various bits of evidence that she's been here?"
January 7, 1953
"Welcome back, Colonel," said Klinger enthusiastically as Colonel Potter exited his jeep. "Shall I have your bags taken to your tent?"
"No need. Might as well keep it nearby. Did you organize those files like I told you to so that someone who is not you can easily sort through them?"
"Well I've never been someone who's not me but I have them in folders that are alphabetized and the contents of those folders are arranged chronologically. Can you tell me now if there's an inspection?"
Potter sighed. "Let's step into my office, shall we?" They went inside the office and Potter seemed to be looking around his office like he was seeing it for the first time. "Care for a drink? Or a stogie? Or both?"
"Sir it's nine in the morning. My system isn't even awake yet."
"So, you'll have both?" asked Potter with a grin.
"Of course. Gotta wake up the system some way or another."
Potter poured Klinger a scotch and lit a cigar for him.
"Max, I wanted a chance to speak with you privately."
"Max? You never call me by my first name."
"Hear me out," said Potter. "You are and always have been an asset to this unit. Even when you were a royal pain in my keister, hell bent on getting out of here you were an asset. You know why? You worked your tail off the whole time. And you put a smile on everyone's faces. And when Radar left us you still did all of that plus you kept this looney bin functional. I don't know what we would have done without you."
"Am I dying? Just give it to me straight. I can take it."
"You're not dying," replied Potter. "You are going to live a nice long happy life and if I know anything, I know you'll have all of Toledo eating out of your hand in no time when you get back."
"Sir," said Klinger, "you didn't bring Sophie back with you."
"Very observant. She's someplace safe. Listen, do we have any patients at the moment?"
"None sir," replied Klinger.
"Good. That would only complicate things right now. I need everyone back in the mess tent. I need to address the camp and it's too damn cold to have an assembly outside."
"Are YOU dying?"
"Klinger, just assemble the camp."
"I'm not dying!"
"Is everyone here?" asked Potter. "Let's get started. First of all, I want to thank all of you for running things so smoothly while I was gone. I want to say for the record that in all my decades of military service I have never been so proud to serve with any group of men and women. I'm deeply honored to let you know that the 4077th has been awarded a citation." Applause broke out all over the tent. Colonel Potter raised his hand and the applause died down. "Each and every one of you have done a magnificent job under the most trying of circumstances. I just got back from a relatively hush hush staff meeting in Seoul. General Barker has been placed back in charge of I-Corps."
"Does he still look like a near sighted walrus?" asked Hawkeye. Giggles broke out across the room. Even Potter who was in a somber mood chuckled.
"I'm afraid so, Pierce," he replied. "One of the reasons for that little pow wow was that we had was to go over some information that Army Intelligence gathered. It was classified up until now. The long and short of it is that the reason we've had peace recently is because the Chinese are preparing for a massive offensive." Every smile in the room vanished immediately. "Yes, it's not only going to be very bloody but based on what we're observed, it could drag on for months.
"We don't actually have much time. Uijeongbu will likely fall within the next seventy-two hours. Even if they couldn't get this far south, they're sure to get close enough where I'd have to evacuate the nurses at the very least. Our presence here is simply too risky. In fact, as we speak there is a military train heading this way so that the locals can be evacuated.
"With the casualties being as bad as they are projected to be, I-Corps has taken two steps. First of all a small Navy hospital ship called the USNS Foltz has been moved from a position far south of here to the nearest harbor. In many cases, wounded will be flown directly from the aid stations to that ship. The second thing is that up until now I-Corps has only had command of American and Norwegian medical units. The British Commonwealth nations have established an evac hospital five miles south of here. I saw it on my way back from Seoul and it looked like they're open for business already. It has larger facilities, more doctors, more surgical specialties, and because they draw personnel from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada they have enough human resources to offer something no American field hospital can. They can offer a nursing staff with a large number of male nurses. If the enemy gets close and the females have to evacuate, they still have a nursing staff and can avoid compromising patient care. The unit will be overseen by I-Corps."
"So where will the 4077 be moving to?" asked Margaret.
Potter sighed. "Everyone here knows we've had the lowest morbidity and mortality rate of any field hospital in Korea since the day this place opened. But while this place has always been elite, we have a distinct disadvantage. This is a small unit. We've always had a compliment of a mere four surgeons, less than twenty nurses and only a dozen or so hospital beds at any given time. A field hospital in this sector could expect up to twelve hundred casualties a day when things start to get rough. And they will get rough. We may be good, but four surgeons can't handle that many wounded. We also don't have the manpower to work around the clock like some units. I honestly thought Barker would tell me they were going to move us to another sector where the action wasn't as heavy." Colonel Potter paused for a moment. "There simply is no good strategic location. The only places where they even COULD move us would see so little action that it would be a waste of our talent. Folks… I don't know how to tell you this but effective noon tomorrow the 4077 will cease to exist." You could hear a pin drop.
"That's why the files needed to be so organized, isn't it?" asked Klinger after several seconds of awkward silence. "You knew the army would need records of everything that happened here." Potter nodded in reply. "Ok Colonel, but what about Sophie?"
"What else could I do? Koreans eat horse meat and if the North Koreans took advantage of the push and made it further south, she could end up dinner for the enemy." His voice broke. He cleared his throat and continued. "The police in Seoul have a mounted division and they treat their horses well. I wanted her taken care of. I really didn't have time to make any other plans. I love that old girl." Potter choked up again. Again, for a few awkward seconds no one spoke.
"So, what happens to us?" asked Winchester at last.
"Well part of the reason they don't disband another unit and have us replace them in their own sector (apart from politics) is that there are a couple of medical projects that they need to staff. First of the crew of the Foltz only has two surgeons who were in World War II and none of them have ever even seen meatball surgery before. In a couple of days they could be up to their eyeballs in it. They're totally unprepared. Until further notice, Hunnicut, Pierce and yours truly are on loan to the Navy and assigned aboard that ship to provide surgical training and support. While it's an unconventional arrangement it's the official policy of the Department of Defense that the branches of the armed services are to provide support for one another.
"Another thing is that the Army, unbeknownst to myself, has been constructing a new hospital in Landstuhl, West Germany and it's scheduled to open its doors in March. A lot of patients from here when they're healthy enough to make the trip will be evacuated there to free up beds at Tokyo General and Seoul as both hospitals will likely be overwhelmed. In fact, Seoul may have to close if the enemy gets that far south. They've done it before. As for Landstuhl, they needed experienced corpsmen and they need a chaplain so all of our enlisted personnel and Fr. Mulcahey are being assigned there.
"Majors Winchester and Houlihan will be temporarily assigned to the 135th Evac until Landstuhl is ready to start taking on patients. Bigelow, Abel and Baker will be assigned to Kokura. If you haven't heard your name mentioned already, you're assigned to Fort Sam Houston until permanent arrangements can be made." He paused for a moment. "Any questions?"
"Yeah I have a question," said Hawkeye angrily. "Has the Army lost their damn minds?! Breaking up the best medical outfit in the whole stupid war? Did it not occur to them that part of the reason we've been so good as that we work well together?"
Hawkeye had already stormed out of the mess tent and slammed the door.
"He has a point," said Fr. Mulcahey quietly. "I've seen this unit pull together and do things I didn't think were possible. Over and over again, I've seen it. It seems so senseless to take away the magic that kept this place running and saving lives. I can minister to souls anywhere. The doctors and nurses can operate anywhere. But there's only one MASH 4077. Only one well-oiled medical machine making miracles out of hopelessness. And I say if the Army has any sense, they should keep it!" The applause was nearly deafening.
"It wasn't my decision," replied Potter quietly. "I've never had to make an announcement like this in all my years of military service. Certainly not to folks so dear to me. The whole damn thing's completely out of my hands." More awkward silence. "Any other questions?" Not a hand was raised. "Ok. I get it. That was one hell of a bomb I just dropped on all of you. Unfortunately... there's no time to process this. Because we need to bug out tomorrow. You'd best gather your belongings and start packing. Dismissed."
Potter made his way over to The Swamp and ducked inside.
"Careful, Colonel; someone's a bit testy," warned Winchester pointing his thumb in Hawkeye's direction.
"Who's testy?" muttered Hawkeye. "I'm infuriated. I'm appalled. As Fr. Mulcahey would say, I'm acrimonious. And on top of that I'm testy. Stupid Army!"
"Colonel I for one simply cannot comprehend what the Chinese are thinking," remarked Winchester. "I make no claims of expertise in the realm of military strategy but this does seem like a pointless endeavor. They would take heavy losses and the odds of winning the war with this strategy do seem slim."
"I would agree," replied Potter. " At this point they may have given up on the idea of trying to push us out of the Korean peninsula. Now they may just be trying to get as far south as they can get to put themselves in the best possible position when peace is finally declared. That's what I-Corps thinks, anyway."
"And if they can take Seoul in the process, more's the better," said BJ.
"One can only hope they don't make it that far south," replied Potter. "Don't think for one second that Division Command isn't worried about that possibility. Oh... by the way, I forgot to ask something. You boys can swim, I take it? That's a requirement to serve on a ship."
"I grew up on the coast," replied Hawkeye. "I could swim before I could walk."
"I'm no Esther Williams but I have a mean doggy paddle," said BJ.
"How inhumane," said Hawkeye with a weak smile. "What did the poor doggie do to deserve to get paddled?"
"Colonel," said Winchester, "not to change the subject...
"Then don't," interrupted Potter.
"About this assignment. If it were possible... I really don't want to go to Germany."
"I agree," interjected BJ. "Colonel, I for one think Charles would look silly in lederhosen."
"Actually, I was wondering if you could pull some strings and make my posting at the 135th a bit more... permanent."
"There goes my trick ear," said Hawkeye. "Charles, are you trying to do something noble?"
"Stranger things have happened, Pierce," replied Charles. "There was a time I would have given anything to get back into a nice cushy assignment. But if things really are about to go to go to hell in a handbasket why take your very best surgeon away from the action?"
"Noble and yet he still leaves room to be pompous," replied BJ. "We were afraid you'd gone soft on us."
"A Winchester does not go soft," said Hawkeye in a mockingly sophisticate tone. "They pay other people go soft for them."
"What's the going rate for that kind of service these days?" asked BJ.
"Oh, Charles where did your mother and I go wrong with you?" asked Hawkeye.
"I think it's when we bought him that pony for his birthday when he was eight," said BJ. "He was always a little spoiled after that."
"Gentleman," said Winchester, "I shall miss this playful banter of ours. About as much as I would miss a jab with a sharp stick."
"Imagine how the stick must feel," replied Hawkeye.
"Winchester," said Potter, "not to stroke your ego..."
"Or any other part of him," interrupted Hawkeye.
"...but they specifically requested you. The Army wants to get into the field of open-heart surgery. And as a special bonus they'd like the patient to actually survive. So, I'm sorry but there's no changing your assignment. To Deutschland you shall go. Mach schnell!" He looked over at Hawkeye. "You seem to have recovered your sense of humor. I hope that means you're feeling a little better."
"I'll live. I think this is stupid... but I'll live. I just hope the wounded will live when we're not here to take care of them."
"I know that was one hell of a shocker, Pierce." Potter paused for a moment. "Concerning other relevant matters, are you boys going to be packed and ready to move by tomorrow? I hate to be a pest but this is rather urgent."
"Sure thing Colonel," replied BJ. "Just as soon as we get our most precious cargo packed."
Potter had barely noticed that BJ had been taking the still apart and packing up the pieces.
"Um... Boys? I don't know how to tell you this..."
"Then don't tell us," replied Hawkeye who was suddenly sensing what was next.
"No. Colonel you can't be serious!" Hawkeye saw every indication on Potter's face that he was. "No dammit! You can drag me out of my home for the last three years, you can make me say goodbye to my friends and force me to live in a floating tin can but the still? That's sacred! This is a living, breathing, life producing work of art! This is a fountain of youth greater than any sought by Ponce De Leon! You can't do this!"
"Look Pierce, I have to leave my booze behind too. The Navy's had a dry ship policy since 1914. If we snuck any on board and got caught, the ship's captain could be held accountable. We're their guests! We can't put them in a jackpot just because we like to have a snort now and then. Look there are other advantages to being on a Naval vessel. The food is way better. No more sleeping in a freezing cold tent. No more crapping in a latrine. No more rats, lice or dysentery."
"No more surgery in an OR that doesn't move," retorted Hawkeye. "Ships sway. I couldn't even imagine attempting delicate surgery on a ship that's rocking back and forth. Did anyone consider that?"
"Pierce, I was on loan to the Navy in the second World War for the better part of a year. I don't recall having much of a problem in that regard. I've been through this kind of experience before." He sat down next to Hawkeye. "Admit it, it's not the booze that got you through this hell hole."
"It was the friends I made," he replied. "I don't deny that."
"Some of whom, I would remind you, are coming with," said BJ.
Pierce looked across the room at Charles.
"Some of whom are not," said. Hawkeye quietly. "More's the pity."
For a moment there was complete silence. Winchester looked touched.
"You may just qualify as human after all," replied Charles. He extended his hand to Hawkeye who gladly shook it.
"Like a sharp stick, huh Charles?" said Hawkeye with a grin.
"Only on days that end in 'y'," replied Winchester. "Colonel, if your supply of spirits does indeed have to stay behind, no sense in leaving it behind for the Chinese to drink when they get here."
"Good idea," replied Potter. "Someone go fetch Klinger, Margaret and the Padre. We'll meet in my office and toast old times together. One last time."
That night if one wandered close enough to Colonel Potter's office they might have heard seven slightly inebriated voices singing. And had they gotten closer they might have picked up what was being sung.
Sleep my child and peace attend thee,
All through the night
Guardian angels God will send thee,
All through the night
Soft the drowsy hours are creeping
Hill and vale in slumber steeping,
I my loving vigil keeping
All through the night.
While the moon her watch is keeping
All through the night
While the weary world is sleeping
All through the night
O'er thy spirit gently stealing
Visions of delight revealing
Breathes a pure and holy feeling
All through the night.