Over my lifetime I have devoured hundreds, if not thousands, of hamburgers. The hamburger is one of my favorite parts of Americana when it comes to food. They are so simple and yet so complicated. On the surface it is just bread, meat, bread. In essence, it is a sandwich with two big pieces of bread. I have had beef, pork, chicken, turkey, and fish hamburgers, some better than others. Many of these burgers have included a cornucopia of seasonings included into the meat from jalapenos to Thai spices. I have had a menagerie of add-ons and condiments on my burgers. My personal favorite combination is simple: bread, meat, cheese, tomato, mustard, bread. Simple and elegant.
Of all the burgers that I have had in my life only one stands out over all others as the “Greatest.” In the second quarter of the year 2000 I was on my first field deployment in the United States Marine Corps. We had made the trek from Camp Pendleton, California out to the Godforsaken land mass known as Twenty-Nine Palms, or as we Marines referred to it: “The Stumps.” The name is a complete misnomer. With all the times that I spent on that base, the only trees I saw were Joshua Trees; and those were located elsewhere from the portions of the base that I saw regularly. The Stumps is a vast desert and mountain region with nothing but sparse scrub vegetation found intermittently about the base. The only place that I have ever been that was more desolate and foreboding was the home of my step-grandparents when I was around the age of eleven or twelve years old.
So, there I am, out in the middle of the desert for thirty days traveling from one local to the next. Over this period of time I am reduced to eating Meals-Ready to-Eat (MREs) and field chow. MREs are packed meals for between fifteen hundred and three thousand calories each. Pretty nice when you manage to sweat out close to one hundred calories an hour just sitting in the shade due to the extreme one-hundred and twenty degree heat. Field chow is a whole different ballgame, but still played in the same park. It is generally canned vegetables and fruit served with either canned or dehydrated meat products. I was never sure of the caloric content, nor do I think I want to know, of these meals, but like the MREs, some were pretty damned tasty if you like the taste of cardboard and Tabasco Sauce.
Again, I survived on this fare for thirty days. It is not that hard to do. After the first few days, though, you begin to miss a few small things. At first I missed fresh eggs. The powdered egg product they served us in the field was just as I described it earlier, cardboard flavored with a hint of Tabasco Sauce. The sauce was provided courtesy of my MREs, at least those that did not need the sauce for those meals. After eggs I began to miss just about anything that was not prepackaged months in advance or powdered. I was going crazy. I traded cigarettes for candy bars, sunflower seeds, anything that was not military food.
Finally, after thirty days of culinary hell, we were told that we would be making a trip to “Base Camp” for a quick resupply at the Post Exchange (PX). I was happy; I had run out of cigarettes two days before and the life expectancy of my squad mates was dropping by the hour. When we pulled into Base Camp an hour later I noticed a building with smoke pouring out of the roof. I looked at my assistant driver and asked the question that would change my life.
“What the hell? Is that place on fire?”
“No way, dude. That is the base burger joint. Let’s go get some smokes and then head over there” was his reply.
After standing in line for cigarettes, and then puffing two in a row down outside, we walked to the burger joint and made our way in. Upon entering I was confronted with two things. First, the sight. This burger joint was just sheet metal stretched over a frame with a kitchen in the back separated from the masses by a half wall with two registers on a desk behind it. The floor was nothing more than the poured concrete foundation. Picnic tables were arranged in rows from front to back. The second confrontation was with my nose. I smelled that great, glorious aroma of cooking flesh. It filled the air, permeating every molecule. It forced its way into every nook and cranny. I was drunk on that alluring smell in seconds. I practically ran to get my butt in line to order.
After sometime in line I finally was able to place my order and receive my ticket number. I walked away from the counter, giddy with anticipation. I joined my squad mates at one of the picnic tables and wait for my number to be called. And waited and waited and waited. The actual wait time was no more than fifteen minutes, but to a man deprived of burger for so long the time seemed like hours. I watched, jealously, hungrily, greedily as Marine after Marine that was not me was called to the wall and handed his plate. Finally they called my number. I do not remember the walk up to the wall or the walk back. All I do remember before the first bite was the sight of two quarter pound patties of one hundred percent beef, three slices of bacon and two pieces of melted American cheese, all on a standard, store bought hamburger bun.
My hands trembled as I brought the burger, my precious bit of American culinary delight, up to my gaping maw. I bit into it. My taste buds were washed over with a tsunami of flavor and grease. It was ecstasy. It was Heaven. It was Nirvana. It was almost orgasmic. All was right with the world. Had I been looking in a mirror I would have noticed my pupils dilate like those of a heroin addict when they spike their vein. Each bite was more delicious than the last. Each crumb more scrumptious. Each artery clogging taste was pure rapture.
Gone was the taste of cardboard. Gone was the need for Tabasco Sauce. This burger had not been made and packaged more than six months ago. It was not made from anything dehydrated. It has not come from a can. The patties had been hand patted and cooked on a grill that had probably not been cleaned in two years; just more fat for the flavor.
Soon it was all over. I took my last bite and savored every chewing motion. As I swallowed the last of that great concoction I turned my head to see that the line for ordering was even longer than when I had first arrived. I checked my watch. Only ten minutes before our convoy rolled out for another fifteen days in the desert. Not enough time.
I walked away from that table, from that burger joint, content with a belly full of beef, pork and American cheese. When I sat down in my truck to await the signal to start it up my assistant driver looked at me and asked what I thought. I conveyed my sentiment to him at which he laughed and called me a weirdo.
Shortly thereafter the signal to start our engines was given and we drove away, back into the blazing, sandy inferno from which we had emerged only an hour before. I still remember that burger to this day, more than a decade later. No other burger has ever been able to taste as good. This knowledge has brought me to the edge of tears more than once. Never again will I savor that delectable, artery clogging, cholesterol raising symbol of a greater power than mankind. If only you, the humble reader could experience that burger. If only you could truly understand how unfortunate you truly are. If only I could remember which entrance we used to get into Twenty-Nine Palms that lead straight to the damned burger joint.