The Human Vacuum Cleaner

“Eat it and beat it, privates. Swallow your food and chew it later. Move it maggots!” These imperatives from my drill sergeant reverberated through the chow hall, causing me and the other assembled Army recruits to stuff our faces as fast as possible and may have contributed to my long habit of eating quickly, usually faster than those with whom I dine. This is not a bragging point, mind you. It is simply a matter of fact. The other day at lunch, though, I had to really re-examine how fast I actually eat.

My mother has long complained that I eat too quickly, but the ironic thing is that, to my memory, she—not my drill sergeant—was the initial instigator of my rapid consumption. She had a rule at suppertime that no one leaves the table until their plate was clean. I would be outside down the street at my friend’s house when my mom would holler for dinner. Children don’t like coming home to eat since it interferes with playtime and kids don’t like stopping to eat. Who needs food? Kids are indestructible anyway. At least they think they are. So it was with a grumble and a groan that I dragged myself to the dinner table. I would sit there staring at the cauliflower or asparagus and quickly feel my stomach rebelling at the idea of welcoming such fare into my body.

When I was 11 or 12, we were living in Newport News Virginia and we had our family meals around the brand new table in our dining room. I wasn’t eating particularly fast at that point, but I do remember that brussel sprouts were on the menu on one particular evening. As a child, I was quite picky about what I would eat and toward the top of my “not-in-a-million-years” menu was Brussel sprouts; right behind asparagus and okra. My mother insists that she didn’t prepare that meal, and she doesn’t remember serving brussel sprouts. We may have had one of my grandmothers visiting at the time and perhaps she served it. Either way, this memory is way too ingrained in my brain to be just a figment.

It sat there, staring at me with its leafy eye, mocking me, daring me to eat it. It knew I despised it, sitting on my plate in the juice from the steam pot like a swollen miniature head of lettuce. Even the smell wrinkled my face into the mask of tragedy. And it was a tragedy as I was forbidden to leave the table until I had consumed that nauseous vegetable. So, I sat. And sat. Minutes seemed like hours as I engaged in a staring contest with a vegetable. It was an epic battle of wills, to be sure, but not so much with my grandmother who imposed my sentence, but more so with the brussel sprout.

Finally, my butt sore from the eternity of sitting at the now-empty table, I stabbed the morsel with my fork, taking out my frustrations with the violent act, and put it in my mouth. I had a plan. I would not eat it, but I would hold it in my mouth until I could spit it out. My grandmother must have surmised my plan because she told me to sit until I swallowed it. Being the willful young man, I refused and I breathed through my nose while holding the sprout against the backs of my teeth with the tip of my tongue so as to avoid having it come into contact with the taste buds. Another eternity passed.

Finally, my grandmother relented and I bolted to my bathroom and spat the offensive vegetable into the toilet bowl with the force of projectile vomiting. I flushed the toilet and watched with satisfaction as the sprout rolled in the swirling water, spiraling down to its final end. An end not in my stomach.

So, when it comes to dinner, I can be a little willful and when my mother said I could not leave the table until my plate was clean, and as long as we were not having asparagus, okra or brussel sprouts, I would become a human vacuum cleaner and suck down whatever was on my plate as quickly as possible so I could get back to whatever activity dinner was interrupting.

As time passed, I was usually the first one finished at any meal, even if I had nothing pending. The playtime of kids gave way to the sullen activity of teenagers and I was no longer in a rush to finish eating. Even so, however, I still consistently finished before anyone else. Once I joined the Army, the ever-present imperative from the drill sergeants drove me to eat even faster. My mother expressed concern on more than one occasion—the latest being two months ago—about how fast I eat. My wife shares her concern and, lately, I have been making an effort to slow down my eating, particularly when eating with other people. It seems that shoveling food into one’s mouth in a manner akin to raking in the winning pot at the poker table is a tad on the rude side.

The other day I was having lunch at Chipotle with two VIPs from the corporate office. I always have the Barbacoa burrito (Shredded beef in a spicy sauce) and my companions had fajita burritos. I was engaging in the conversation just like any other meal when I noticed that both of them were almost done with their meals and I was not even half-way through mine. The woman, who was about a hundred pounds soaking wet, finished first, followed by the man who was taller than me but about the same weight. They politely sat there talking, waiting for me to complete my meal. This has never happened to me. No one since the incident with the brussel sprout has finished a meal faster than I. Perhaps all those years of my mom nagging made a subconscious impression. Or maybe my wife voicing her concerns has changed me. Or…maybe those people were just that hungry.

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