Sergeant Rowena Martens stood five feet three inches in her stockinged feet and weighed one hundred pounds almost exactly. Despite her petite size she was strong, fast, and had a talent that gave the men in her platoon quite a surprise when first encountered.
She was twenty-four years old and from the city of Mountain View in California, where her parents’ extensive house and gardens gazed up at the Santa Cruz mountains, and where she’d discovered an aptitude for rock climbing.
Her father, Heinz, was a German who had worked on V-rockets in the war and subsequently found a niche at NASA and then in Silicon Valley. The fact that he’d been a member of the Nazi party and, through his rocket designs, responsible for thousands of deaths was dismissed, like someone brushing a few crumbs from their jacket lapel.
Rowena had the same quick intelligence, and when her friend, Natalie, said she wanted to join the army, her surprise gave way to acceptance and then enthusiasm to do likewise, to everyone’s amazement.
Natalie opted for the Finance Corps as a ‘cushy option.’ Rowena applied to the Signal Corps, and, in the time before joining, worked on her physical fitness and fighting skills.
“Well, lookee here, we’ve got ourselves a midget!” laughed Tanner Sutherland, standing behind her in the dinner queue on her first day.
Rowena turned around. “Well, lookee here, we’ve got ourselves an ugly moron!”
There was laughter and a few soldiers gathered around to watch the scene. Tanner’s face was red with rage. “There shouldn’t be no women in our army, especially not little shortarses, you’d be no good in close combat.”
Rowena pulled out of the queue and stood facing Tanner, balancing lightly on the balls of her feet.
“Hey, lay off her, Tanner,” said Norton Breakspear, “it’s brains, not brawn we need in the Corps. You seem to be lacking in the first department, bud.”
Tanner ignored him. “Looks like we got us a feisty one!”
Rowena knew she’d have her work cut out to beat up this creep. “Tell you what, soldier, you know anything about pie-eating?”
Tanner’s eyes almost popped out of his head. “Pie eating, I’m the platoon champ for God’s sake. Tell me you didn’t know!”
“Actually, pal, I didn’t know but I’ll take you on. Loser cleans the latrines for a week!”
A look of disbelief crossed Tanner’s face. He laughed; how could he lose? Then this little runt could work her sweet ass off all week in the toilets!
“OK, OK, settle down, peeps!” It was Lieutenant Rushmore. He addressed the dining room in a booming voice. “I heard all that and I’ll get Sergeant Shiner to set up the competition. Breakspear, it’s your lucky day. You were down for latrine-cleaning duty next week, now it’ll be Martens … or Sutherland, of course,” he added hastily. “Also, listen up, peeps, we need a candidate from this camp for the National U.S. Army Pie Eating Competition in Atlanta in the Fall. I propose that the winner of this Eat Off be that candidate. Anyone got any objections to that, come and see me afterwards.”
Rowena sat, gazing out of the train windows as the fields and woods flashed past. In the far distance, she could see the first foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains. She was going home. She’d given it her best shot but at the end of the day, the army was all about killing people, no matter how they tried to dress it up. After much soul searching, she’d handed in her dog tags and was heading back to her parents’ house. She stroked her belly where new life was beginning.
Her mind flitted back to the contest. The evening of the competition came and Rowena and Tanner sat side by side, with hands tied behind their backs. Rowena had eaten a huge meal eighteen hours earlier, mainly easily digestible fruit and vegetables, high in fibre. She’d eaten for nearly an hour, then after ten minutes, she’d drunk water until her stomach was at bursting point. After a night punctuated by toilet visits had followed a light breakfast of pancakes and frequent drinks of electrolyte and a protein shake during the day. At 4 p.m. she’d gone for a light two-mile run. Now her stomach was empty again, she was hungry as hell and ready to chow down!
All she remembered after that was the shouting and hollering of a couple of hundred GIs, oblivious to everything apart from the next pie being placed before her and burying her teeth into the crust and apple filling. She never wanted to eat another apple as long as she lived!
Whilst in the rock-climbing club, she’d perfected the art of competitive eating, chewing gum constantly to strengthen her jaws and maxing out on big meals and water to stretch her stomach to the limit, even having her teeth filed to bite through tough fillings more easily.
But the army was a harder taskmaster. When the final whistle blew, she’d eaten the fillings and most of the top crust of four and a half pies. The bottom crust was not to be disturbed. Out of the corner of her eye, she’d spotted Tanner chomping like a man possessed and tried to put him out of her mind, battling the clock only.
Now, she was dismayed to see he had almost finished his fifth pie. Her heart sank as her hands were freed and she was able to wipe the muck off her face. A week cleaning latrines – shit!
Then she heard Tanner give a large belch and smelt vomit. There it was on his chin. Before he could wipe it off, a huge cheer went up as a judge waved a red flag above Tanner’s head. Disqualified for vomiting. Rowena was the platoon pie eating champ!
However, Rowena was petrified of flying and the army baulked at paying for her time off to travel to Atlanta and back by rail. So, to her dismay, her pie eating career had ended and Tanner was reinstated as camp eating champion.
She patted her belly. She didn’t know or care which of her ‘well-wishers’ the father was or whether the baby would be black, brown, yellow or white. Nor did she care what her parents would think. The army was history. This was her job now. To be the best mother she could be. She brightened up. Anyway, thinking about it, wasn’t it nearly time for the rock climbing club’s annual pie eating contest?
Featured in the book, Letters from Reuben and Other Stories: 40 Little Tales of Mirth
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