Bobbing for Shrapnel

“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.

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  1. Wiz on October 31, 2011 at 7:40 am

    The Army Medical Department has been trying to shed the M*A*S*H image for years. I sat in an auditorium full of Army Medical officers when a former Armor officer, acting as a make-shift company commander, told them it was time to get rid of the AMEDD (Army Medical Department)reputation. They were Army officers first he said sternly with his square jaw and bad haircut.
    Later a Colonel with multiple combat tours as an Air Medevac pilot and commander was informed of what the Armor officer had said to this group of medical officers. His response was classic,”Shit, when was the last time that m*^%$ F*@#$ hit 97-98% of the shit he aimed at?!” He was referring to the soldier’s chance of survival on the battlefield and how these military health care providers are the best at what they do.

  2. Victoria Dixon on October 31, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    God, you know I’d forgotten how much I loved that T.V. show – and I was a kid at the time. I guess I’ve always enjoyed stories with that edge. Thanks for the reminder! Maybe I’ll Hulu or You tube an episode tonight. ;D

  3. Lela Corkery on April 29, 2022 at 3:33 am

    The Bobbing for Shrapnel scene in The Unrewarded Hero is one of the most memorable— and disturbing—in the story. It’s a good example of how author L.E. Woolf makes us feel uncomfortable when we should be feeling sympathy for the characters. I read that complete novel when I was assigned to express my opinions on it. After learning more about the EduBirdie via article I will also take their help for assessing the characters of this novel and writing my assignment. The scene also describes how when we’re in a desperate situation, it’s hard to think clearly about what’s going on around us.

  4. James Jordan on August 4, 2023 at 4:49 am

    I enjoyed reading your analysis of the novel and how it portrays the insanity, boredom, comedy, honor, death, and life-changing choices and consequences of war. I agree that MASH is a masterpiece of black humor that balances the horror and the hilarity of war.
    Masonry contractor in West Palm Beach

  5. amanda the adventurer on November 30, 2023 at 2:15 am

    Nice post!

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