Time Markers in Stories

Time in stories was the subject of an Odyssey online conference.  I hadn’t really thought of time before, at least not until I started putting light into every scene.

When I was in Desert Storm, time was strange.  We didn’t have weekends off, so it was get up each morning, have formation, go to work.  It was hard to keep track of what day it was because the war interrupted the natural pacing of a normal week. It also had the effect of making time seem like it was really long even though it was only five months.

From the writing side, time starts out as a function of setting and setting is interpreted by characters, so that’s also characterization.  Even my real life Desert Storm time was a function of where I was (a war) and how I was interpreting everything around me.

When I added light to the story in some way, it immediately anchored a specific time.  A character is turning in for the night, or starts out on a mission as the sun rises.

But then there’s also the feel of the setting, like if you’re outside and the sun is rising, it will get hotter as the day gets later and then the character gets all sweaty.  I remember in Desert Storm, during the hottest part of the day, we would all retreat to the tents and try not to move too much.

Or walking on the beach during summer and seeing the sharply cut shadows of myself sprawl across the beach.  Of course, that’s also seasonal time, since shadows don’t act the same in winter.

Then there’s food.  Meals are a great way to show time.  Breakfast makes it obvious it’s morning.  I’ve seen some books where a character is a prisoner and they have no sense of time because the meals are served irregularly.  Or they identify it as a frame of reference for time.

How about the type of meal?  Turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie sets its own time of the year.

The Editor’s Blog had this interesting bit about how aware we are of time:

People are almost always aware of time in their daily lives—time of day or month or year; time in relation to a job or task that needs to be completed; time in terms of religious holidays or seasons; stages of life such as infancy or teenage years, school years, years of fertility, and old age; era, such as the Roaring Twenties or Regency England or the frontier years on Mordant Five; or time as it relates to anticipation of either a dreaded or an eagerly anticipated event.

It’s both a simple and a complex topic, depending on how it’s used.


Desert Storm: The Food at Dhahran

Army food’s always been known for how bad it is. Just watch any episode of MASH and Hawkeye complaining about the food. But I’ll let you in on a secret: When I was growing up, my mother eliminated using salt when she cooked. The meals were so bland that when I ate my first army meal in Basic Training, I was shocked at how good food could taste.

That soon would change, especially during Desert Storm. The war not strained the logistics side of shipping food out to us with hot weather and multiple services vying for items, but also strained the abilities of the soldiers cooking the meals. There were times when Hawkeye ate better than us!

Breakfast and Dinner

We got hot food for both these meals. I no longer remember what was served for breakfast, but it was probably the standard food and didn’t change much.

Dinner had a protein, a green salad, and a desert. It seems like there should be one more thing, but I don’t remember. I do remember that I never liked the salad because it was very bland. At the end of the line, we also received a can of soda. Those were very strange. They were the name brands like Coke and Pepsi, but they were the Saudi Arabia version. The cans had the name in Arabic on them, and they were short. Our cans 12 ounces, and these were about half. Now, over two decades later, the companies are selling the smaller cans!

Bangladesh contractors cooked the meals and served them to us. I remember them as nice guys. They were friendly with all the soldiers because that just seemed like who they were. Sometimes they would give me an extra piece of yellow cake (chocolate frosting … mmm).

The meals were very repetitive. The menu only consisted of three entrees for dinner, so we got chicken every three days. This was probably due to the availability of the food. The logistics of getting food out to us on the desert was very challenging because anything fresh spoiled very quickly. Still, it was hard for us to not have any variety, and it got old very quickly. Everyone complained about the meals and especially about having so much chicken. As it turned out, these were actually the best meals we ate over there. We would have much, much worse later.


The lunch meal consisted of MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat. We called them Meals Rejected by Ethiopia (at the time people were starving in Ethiopia). The MREs consisted of 12 packets of different meals like Chicken Ala King, Spaghetti with Meatballs, and scary food like Omelet with Ham. Each packet had 1,200 calories (really!) and consisted of an entree, a side, crackers with a topping (peanut butter, jelly, or cheese), a desert or snack, and powdered punch. Hot sauce came in only a few of the packages and was always the most popular item because it hid the flavor.

We would file into the mess tent and wait in line. At the end of the line, one of the cooks stood next to a stack of MRE boxes and handed them out. If they didn’t do that, greedy soldiers would rifle through and grab all the popular ones, leaving the ones no one liked for everyone else. That way, everyone had a fair chance of getting a good meal once in a while — but only once in a while because most of them weren’t that good.

The tables started accumulating MRE discard piles. The discards were usually the dehydrated fruit, crackers, peanut butter, cheese, some entrees, and occasionally the entire MRE package. So after we sat down and inventoried what we had, then we checked out the piles for anything that was better.

I always liked the fruit, though most soldiers didn’t, so I could usually get it. The fruit came in a square block about half an inch thick and had the texture of frozen cotton candy. As odd as it sounds, I liked the texture because it was slightly crunchy because most of the food was soft and mushy and the crackers didn’t have any moisture at all. Most of us passed on the cheese, too. It didn’t taste too bad, but the texture was rubbery and unappealing.

This was the MRE menu we had at this location:

  1. Pork with Rice in BBQ Sauce – I never cared much for this. The BBQ sauce had a metallic taste to it that was very unappealing, and instead of flavoring the pork, it dominated the pork.
  2. Corned Beef Hash – Meh.
  3. Chicken Stew – I liked this, but most soldiers did not. So if anyone abandoned the entree or wanted to trade, it was mine.
  4. Chicken a la King – Again another one I liked and most people did not. This was my favorite among the chicken ones.
  5. Chicken with Rice – Again another one I liked and most people did not. This was my third favorite because of the texture of the rice.
  6. Omelet with Ham – Seriously, no, never.
  7. Spaghetti with Meat Sauce – Popular
  8. Ham Slice – a slab of meat. I didn’t think much then about the impact of how the food looks, and the appearance of this just turned me off.
  9. Beef Stew – This also didn’t look really good. Flavor-wise, meh.
  10. Meatballs with Tomato Sauce: The sauce was a deal-breaker for me. It just didn’t taste good. The proportions were off; it had too much sauce and not enough meatballs.
  11. Tuna with Noodles – Meh. Just bland, both in taste and color.
  12. Escalloped Potatoes with Ham – This was only slightly better than the Omelet with Ham. That’s not saying much!

Okay, that was scary. I just typed up this list and there’s only one in here that everyone liked and a whole lot that no one cared much for. I was surprised at typing this list and realizing that a lot of the appeal was not just taste, but the colors and textures (thanks to the cooking shows where I’ve learned a lot about food!).

It seemed like the military had thought of the MRE not as deployment food where a soldier might eat one every day, but as food for training exercises. Soldier goes out for a week, eats five meals, and comes back home. So the meals have evolved quite a bit from the two releases that we ended up eating in Desert Storm. In fact, the military learned a lot about them in those early days. The MREs didn’t last as long as they thought the meals would, nor were they quite as hardy in the hot desert weather. What everyone learned from Desert Storm, the military took back and used to change the MREs for future soldiers, so we broke new ground in food. We ended up being an unintentional experiment.

Military Meals for Soldiers on the Go

I’m having to do some research for a story on MREs, which stands officially for Meals Ready-to-Eat, or as they called it when I was in “Meals Rejected by Everyone.”   The ones I had during Desert Storm are in the second to last rows of this page.  We often had lunch as an MRE, though when I was at Log Base Alpha, the food was so bad at the mess hall that we went to MREs three times a day.  That’s saying a lot!  The MREs were not that good.  They tended to be a little dry, probably from the processing, and didn’t have a lot of flavor.  A list from the site of what we ate:

  1. Pork with Rice in BBQ Sauce – Meh
  2. Corned Beef Hash – I always tried to pass on this one.  I didn’t like corned beef to start with, and adding the military version — no, so no.
  3. Chicken Stew – Most of the soldiers didn’t like this one, but I did, so I was happy to take what someone else didn’t want.
  4. Omelet with Ham – Absolutely no one wanted this one.  The eggs had a very strange, unegg-like consistency.
  5. Spaghetti with Meat and Sauce – This one was pretty popular.
  6. Chicken Ala King – Again, another one most people didn’t like, but I did.
  7. Beef Stew – Meh
  8. Ham Slice – Meh
  9. Meatballs, Beef and Rice, in Tom. Sauce –  The sauce had a metallic taste to it.
  10. Tuna with Noodles – Meh
  11. Chicken and Rice – Again another one most people didn’t like, but I did.
  12. Escalloped Potatoes with Ham – Ranks with the eggs.

We also got very creative with all the ingredients.  Boxes would be filled with parts of meals people didn’t want.  Hot sauce always went fast (to hide the flavor the meals, of course), but I could always find cheese or peanut butter.  I even bought some nacho cheese dip from the little shoppet and used that in most of the meals.  Cheese made a lot of them more palatable!  Except for the Omelet with Ham.  Nothing could make that better.

I think the army was not prepared for the fact the meals were really not very good.  They were okay if you had them for a few days out in the field, but on a regular basis, it was pretty bad for morale.  After Desert Storm, they revamped the menus, and have continued to make updates.  I believe now they even have vegetarian options.

Seriously, are meals in the military as bad as MASH portrayed them?

A female food service specialist serves food across the counter to another soldier
Photo courtesy of U.S. Army

This time of the year is always about the food.   We go over to family’s house and load up on turkey, stuffing, cranberries, and my favorite, pumpkin pie, and repeat again at Christmas.  The food’s always delicious.   But what about the military?  When I was growing up, I watched MASH and saw Hawkeye Pierce inciting a strike because the food was so bad.  Was it really that bad?

The field is a challenging environment even for the most experienced of cooks.  The Next Iron Chef recently aired where the chiefs all had to cook on a beach.  They had limited resources, which not only included the types of food available, but the equipment, and environment.    These were extremely experienced chefs, and they struggled with the environment at times.  Now imagine someone inexperienced in the harsh environment of the desert, where food spoils quickly and they’re using portable stoves.

We left Dhahran after about six weeks, leaving our catered food behind.   Our cooks had to prepare the meals for our battalion.  The battalion had two active duty units, one National Guard, and one Reserve.  The latter two met once a month and trained two weeks a year, so not much experience cooking in the field.

In a logic only the army could have, the battalion pared the two experienced units on one shift and the two inexperienced ones on the other.  The result was two meals that were great, and two meals that were … well, bad seems kind.  How the heck can you botch up  hamburgers and hot dogs?!

Then there was the chili mac, which was the most common army meal.  Tim Dugan, an army cook, notes:

Sometimes we get to change it up, but as a whole, we are required to follow the recipe card exactly.  As a result, when you eat at an Army quality dining facility, you get the same product.  Cooks want to “flex” and make the product a little different, taste a little better, or have a little more flavor.  However, a good shift leader, first cook or DFAC [Dining Facility Manager] manager will keep his or her eye out, and will prevent that from happening.  Non-cooks should know that the Army sets these standard recipe cards to limit cost, control nutrition and prevent allergens.

As a result the soldiers will add hot sauce.  So we’re having chili mac in the mess tent.  We sit down, and there’s this guy across from us pouring on the hot sauce.  He eats a spoonful of it and then takes off his hat and slams into the table.

Oh, dear.  Seems someone got a little too creative with the seasoning …

Yup.  Military meals can have their moments of serious badness.

Linda Adams – Solider, Storyteller

Cover for A Princes, A Boatman, and A Lizard, showing a silhouette of a princess holding a lizard in the palm of her hand.Yay!  My short story “Six Bullets” is now available from Starcatcher Publishing in the the anthology A Princess, A Boatman, and A Lizard.  The story is about a princess who enlists in the military and then must battle her way up a river with only six bullets.