The Drinking in M*A*S*H

I enjoyed a healthy obsession with MASH when I was a kid. Of all the reruns that wouldcome on in the early and mid-1980s, none excited more attention from me than Radar O’Reilly (pre)noting the arrival of wounded people on helicopters. My parents were sure that this would become less of an obsession after a while, but when I got to high school I found some similarly minded friends. One of which arrived on our last day of school before summer with a pile of video cassettes. M*A*S*H. All M*A*S*H.

My summer revolved around M*A*S*H and only M*A*S*H. I was hooked. I named my bedroom the Swamp, bought olive drab boxershorts, and brought a pitcher to my room that served as a still. I was a pre-binge binger.

On February 28 1984, M*A*S*H ended for good when I was nine years old with the specially long episode Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen. There was lots of crying in my house. Probably because M*A*S*H was gone forever, only to be seen roughly 1,000 times a week in syndication. How sad.

As I was nine, I had no idea what a cultural event this was. 121 million people watched the last episode, the most ever and the most that would ever be. As cable TV became more prevalent over the next couple of years, no other TV show ever had the chance again to command that kind of -at-the-same-time viewership. And of course though zillions of people have watched The Sorpanos and Game of Thrones, they didn’t do it at one time. Obviously streaming allows people to watch newer shows whenever and wherever they’d like. A year ago, a stomach flu kept me close to (aka living in) my toilet. It’s there that I binged True Detective.

One aspect of M*A*S*H that I couldn’t understand when I first saw it as such a young age – the booze. If you have ever seen M*A*S*H, you’ve seen a lot of drinking. Almost every episode features a heavy amount of alcohol intake. In contrast to other shows, which might occasionally use alcohol as a vehicle to that episode’s plot, booze was simply a part of every episode. On occasion, booze intake was directly addressed. They talked about surgery, argued, delivered good and bad news over beers, whiskey, vodka, and shots. Most of all, they drank alcohol made in their homemade still.

What exactly they made in the still is up for some speculation. Experts in the field suggest that they made a bastardized gin out of rice, as it was probably most available. And they probably jazzed it up with local ingredients or things they could snag as a hospital or an army base. In one episode they flavor the gin with sweat socks.

M*A*S*H introduced America to its first alcoholic main character who wasn’t a joke. Other alcoholics had been in radio shows like Duffy’s Tavern and during M*A*S*H’s tenure other shows like All in the Family or Mary Tyler Moore portrayed drinking characters. These were usually the gruff blue collar characters. In other shows they were decoration and used to deliver slurry quips to gain a laugh.

But Hawkeye Pierce was different. He was a brilliant surgeon who loved chasing nurses and drinking. He clearly used alcohol to cope with the horrors of war.

Another aspect of M*A*S*H is that it puts on full display the soldier’s ingenuity for finding or making alcohol during war. In the U.S Civil War, Southern soldiers were cut off from supplies due to northern embargoes and as a result they were forced to make do by making moonshine. In the much more well-heeled north the alcohol was brown. It didn’t stop at the Civil War. Perhaps it was because the American army wasn’t given a ration of daily alcohol like soldiers in other armies.  

In World War II, all bets were off. Who’d have thought that watching your friends explode would require a drink to recover. In the European Theater of Operations, men could get alcohol at pubs and cafes that were in the towns they came through. But in the Pacific, men had to show some ingenuity. They made wine called raisin jack or swipe by mixing up canned peaches, plums, or pineapples, and two handfuls of sugar and leaving them in the sun in the middle of the jungle. Jungle juice was made from fermented coconut milk. Men on Guadalcanal combined Aqua Velva aftershave with canned grapefruit juice. The effect was evidently like that of a Tom Collins and understandably in demand.

It wasn’t without its drawbacks. Sailors used a 180 proof grain alcohol that was used to fuel torpedoes. Navy authorities added unremovable poisons to keep sailors from drinking it, but that had about as much effect as telling kids not to have sex. The hangovers were legendary and the poison caused reactions that probably included explosive diarrhea and the knowledge that you were drinking motor oil. The torpedoes were powered by a small scale engine burning 180 (or higher) proof ethyl alcohol as fuel. The ethyl alcohol was denatured by a blend of dye, methanol, and other ingredients. Sailors tried to remove the methanol, which causes blindness, and were largely unsuccessful. Later, croton oil was added to the neutral grain spirits which powered torpedoes. Drinking alcohol with the oil additive caused cramps, internal bleeding and a violent emptying of the bowels. To avoid the Croton oil, sailors devised crude ‘gilly’ stills to slowly separate the alcohol from the poison. The army says that 188 soldiers died between January and July of tainted alcohol.

As a doctor, Hawkeye Pierce was more adept at making hooch and, as far as we know, nobody at the M*A*S*H 4077 went blind (except a marine who drank tainted alcohol from someone else). We assume that when he left Korea and got home to Crabapple Cove, Maine, he went to a bar and had a real drink. And he surely deserved it.   

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