In the Still of the Night

On February 28 1983, M*A*S*H ended. For 11 years, we sustained our disbelief and didn’t ask “Wait, how long was the Korean War?” We watched Hawkeye, BJ, Hot Lips Houlihan, Colonel Potter, Klinger. And on February 28 1983, we said goodbye to them. The last scene focused on the two main characters, BJ and Hawkeye, as they pour out their hearts. 139 million people cried. And then the two biggest alcoholics in television history said goodbye and went home to Crabapple Cove and Sausalito. And 139 million people wondered what exactly they were going to do on Monday night at 9 o’clock. They’re still wondering.

Though producers and writers have been trying to replicate the show since then, there’s no saying what the magical equation and alchemy were. For so many years people tuned in to watch the doctors and nurses suffer and laugh. We were there when Henry Blake’s death was reported. We were there when Klinger broke the PA system. We were there.

Or, at least, I was there roughly. As an obsessive fan during the rerun period (i.e. 1983 until an hour ago) I watched and rewatched the episodes roughly 7,000 times. I won a game of M*A*S*H Trivial Pursuit in the late 1990s, receiving the question and giving the answer in Pig Latin. To this day, when I read about a celebrity if I can place him or her to an episode of M*A*S*H, I instantly know who they are. The DVD and now download age have made M*A*S*H a constant part of my life whenever I so desire. This very fact makes 12 year old me squeal for delight at every remembrance.  

I bought GI issue boxer shorts and named my bedroom The Swamp. I went out for Halloween as Hawkeye Pierce so many times that the kibosh was finally enforced by my disconcerted parents. As if a bloody surgeon walking around our neighborhood was an odd thing. Pbbt. I called people ferret face and was boggled when they didn’t get angry. They simply had no idea what I was referring to. And then there were the martinis.

Alcohol was a major character in M*A*S*H. It drove plots and storylines. It was the cause of mistakes and fights and embarrassment. Hawkeye Pierce was a surgical and medical genius, but he was an alcoholic by any interpretation of the definition. Week after week, they drank beer and whiskey and gin, or at least that’s what they called it, from their still. So I quickly decided that a still, which I did not know was a shortened version of distillery, in my bedroom. This was achieved by lining up some empty pickle jars and sticking twisty straws into them. The effect was distressingly similar to that of the prop distillery on the show. Mine actually might have been better. All I knew was that I wanted to make homemade hooch. I wanted to drink gin, since they called it gin. I’d fill my still with Kool Aid (cherry, to hell with the clear liquid authenticity, I liked liquid sugar) and then I’d pour that into the cocktail glass my parents had. I would then sip it while trying to make Hawkeye-esque barbs to my 6 year old brother and the dog. Neither seemed terribly perturbed.

As I got older, I wanted to know – what alcohol did they make in their still? Hawkeye and BJ’s still was a pretty basic contraption made to look complicated, probably for the magic of TV. A bunch of coils and beakers made it look like the invented genius of two proto-MacGyvers. In reality, the original still, conical tin (think a bigger version of the tin man’s hat), was probably the most accurate. But what kind of homemade hooch did they make in it? Gin. But it’s probably not gin. Juniper was available in Korea, but the chances that Hawkeye was tracking down junipers in a warzone is unlikely. Not even Radar would do that. So, they were probably drinking baijiu.

Proto-alcohol has been imbibed in China since the Neolithic age. The Chinese and Koreans have been drinking proto-Baijiu since the Tang Dynasty (618-907). When something has a proto, that thing is old. Hawkeye and BJ were drinking a liquor that is so old is has a “proto.”

I don’t know what if anything this detail adds to my obsession, but it warms me that the Swamp Rats were drinking an ancient Korean liquor. It’s hard to imagine one of them saying to the other “What do you think this liquor is called?” But who knows. There’s a brief hug between BJ Hunnicutt and Hawkeye Pierce as the show ends, the helicopter awaits Hawkeye, BJ’s motorcycle too, the whole world was waiting for this moment, and if you look closely they seem to be saying something to each other very quietly. Maybe that’s what they were talking about.

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