The pancake race

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The pancake race

Post by Erik_Kowal » Sun Aug 28, 2016 7:53 pm

Responding on the Quora forum to the question "What is the most satisfying passive-aggressive thing you have ever done to a really mean or rude person?", Tamás Polgár responded thus**:
Not to a single person, but to an entire army battalion, back in 1998.

Nah, this wasn't the US Army. It was the Hungarian army, and we'd been drafted. Conscription was abolished some 3–4 years later, but we still got the opportunity to serve our nation, mostly by performing menial tasks like washing up and digging ditches. I served in a signals regiment which had already been almost disbanded: it only had two battalions. (Oddly, they were numbered 1 and 3; there never was a number 2.) Battalion 1 was a full-strength one with three complete companies and a support squadron, but ours consisted of only 30–40 men, divided into two companies. This barely made them a squad, but for some reason they were still called companies.

Somehow, Battalion 3 was always forgotten when it came to the good things, including food. There was never enough for us. Battalion 1 usually went to the mess first, devoured everything, and left us only the scraps — maybe some canned fish. It was ridiculous, but we either had to buy our own food or starve.

One day, I was on company duty. This meant that for 24 hours I was in charge of maintaining the company’s schedule, right from waking up the soldiers in the morning to taking them for meals, reporting whenever the officer on duty wanted a report, and calling whoever had to be called in the event of an emergency. It was also my job to tell the guys if a war happened to break out that day. (It never did.)

My company duty coincided with the weekend, and (for whatever reason) most of the battalion was away from the base. Only two or three men from each company remained, so there really wasn’t much to manage.

Being a sly old fox, I took some precautions to prevent Battalion 1 from snatching our food again. First, I called the kitchen and asked what was on the menu: if it was something nasty, we wouldn’t have to worry. "Pancakes," they said. WTF, pancakes!? Are you kidding, mate!? ...No, he wasn't, it was real friggin’ pancakes!

O.M.G. — we had to get us some of those! I told the lads that we’d go to lunch a bit earlier than usual that day, to arrive before Battalion 1. Of course, they were all up for it. So we assembled ourselves, 5–6 lads and me plus the lance corporal, and marched off to the mess, tightly formed up as per the stupid regulations. We looked silly marching in battalion formation, but at least no-one else was around to see it.

It so happened that I was not the only old fox in the forest. As we approached the quarters of Battalion 1, which lay halfway along the road to the mess, we saw that they were also streaming outside and forming up. There were some 300 of them. They finished emerging just as we passed them, and their corporal gave the order to march. So the head of each formation was marching side by side for a while, the big battalion and the tiny one. But we both knew that whoever reached the mess first would take all the pancakes. It was on!

A formation can only march at a certain speed without falling apart. The larger it is, the harder it is to keep it in line. It may be difficult to believe for anyone who's never been a soldier, but goose-stepping has to be practiced to achieve a smooth-looking result, and the process of getting there takes some time. Keeping the whole company in sync requires concentration.

It may sound odd, too, that in order to be able to eat we first had to march as if we were on parade, but that was the rule. And we had a good reason to stick to it. A few hundred meters away, right before the mess, stood the building of the officer on duty. The major who was in charge that day was a particularly strict fellow who had mistaken our army for the Prussian Royal Guard as it was back in the late 19th century. And I had already spotted him standing outside.

I sped up, and so did my little battalion. We broke step. How was that possible? It was because Battalion 1 was screening us from the major’s vision. He couldn’t see us, and so we were able to gain on Battalion 1.

Seeing this, their corporal also sped up. Battalion 1 followed him, though their steps were not as regular as before. But they were still in formation.

The other corporal looked, and saw me smiling. “Forget the pancakes,” was the message in his eyes. I looked at him. We stared each other as we marched. I had a good reason for matching his gaze. He couldn't both stare at me and look ahead.

“Battalion 3, on the double!” I said calmly, into his face. My guys heard me, and we quickened our pace.

Battalion 1 did the same thing. Their steps now sounded like rain. The major was already looking in our direction, but the corporal from the other battalion was still staring at me. The tension rose. The soldiers were all staring at each other. Pancakes, man! It’s about the bloody pancakes!

I let Battalion 1 gain on us a bit, and then: “Battalion 3, run for it!” I didn't need to say this loudly, as I only had six men. We ran!

Battalion 1 saw us running, and immediately broke formation in order to race us. All discipline was lost as they rushed towards the mess like an out-of-control mob. Some of them even yelled “Hoorah!” as if they were storming the enemy.

Then suddenly I said: “Battalion 3, halt! Into formation!” In a split second, Battalion 3 was a tight, neat little formation again. But Battalion 1 had already lost all command of itself and was scurrying down the road in a very, very unmilitary manner…

… until it was brought up short by the loudest and angriest yelling I’ve ever heard in the army — and I seriously don’t understand how the major did not explode from shouting so furiously: “BATTALION 1, HAAALT! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU THINKING! WHO IS IN CHARGE!? YOU’RE ALL GOING TO JAIL RIGHT AWAY! WHAT ARE YOU, THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION STORMING THE TSAR’S PALACE!?”

Battalion 1 got no pancakes.

Instead, they were on the receiving end of the longest disciplinary speech they’d ever heard, plus a week of particularly menial jobs throughout the base with no weekend leave. As we went past them, the major took the time to point us out as exemplars and note how we were marching in perfect formation as I stiffly saluted him. He also lectured them about how possessing this ability — as we did — was something that was expected of soldiers, quite unlike the case of the badly trained, lowlife mob they were, the shame of our military, apes from the bloody jungle, etc.

Half an hour later we were marching back to our quarters, our bellies full of pancakes, carrying a few trays of them in our hands as well. We took them all, even though we could never eat so many. The other battalion's soldiers were still standing to attention in front of the major’s office; their stares in our direction probably violated the Geneva Convention.

**The text has been lightly edited.
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