I’ve said that books are friends that move with you and I’ve got a few that have done that for years. From high school to college, to the Air Force, then marriage and apartment to house, about 100 stories have followed me around the country in boxes and trunks. My husband swears they’ll get packed into my coffin. That’s fine with me. I can spend an eternity with M*A*S*H.
Okay, for anyone whose read this far, if you know the TV series M*A*S*H but not the book, withhold your judgment. Same deal if you know the movie but never picked up Richard Hooker’s novel. If you haven’t read the book, you don’t know M*A*S*H and you can’t really appreciate how the story morphed from one incarnation to the next. I know all three and they are different. I loved the series, I never miss a chance to re-watch the movie but the book….the first time I read it, I nearly ruptured myself laughing.
The time is spring of 1976 and I’ve just undergone an unexpected appendectomy. My best friend had left me some post-op paperbacks to while away the recovery time with (those were the days when people recovered in the hospital) and the top one was M*A*S*H. I picked up the story and fell in love with the schemes of Hawkeye, Trapper and Duke, a/k/a/ the Swampmen. When they noticed patients were more likely to survive when Chaplain Dago Red administered last rites, they incorporated the ritual into their surgical plan, and I managed to snicker. My surgical incision snickered back. Not good. I kept at it until the Swampmen decided to thank Dago for his contribution to Public Health with a human sacrifice and kidnapped his Protestant colleague, Shaking Sammy. I put the book down for twenty minutes and clutched my side with both hands while I laughed and wept silently, praying my stitches would hold. Never before (and never since!) have I needed to laugh even though laughter caused incredible pain. After half an hour I was sore but calm. Only sixteen-year-olds are this stupid, I picked up the book again.
I got as far as Dago finding the triumphant Swamp Men lying drunk in front of an unlit bonfire and Shaking Sammy suspended behind them from a cross. Then Trapper intoned his prayer.
“Whether it rains or whether it freezes, Sammy’ll be safe in the arms of Jesus”
I really don’t remember much after that. I screamed from a combination of laughter and pain, the nurses came running and I got some extra sedation. I think it widened the scar.
The thing is, the book came in handy a few years later when a bunch of us in college watched a horror film together. We were all scared afterward and some of us (no names!) were afraid to go back to go to sleep. Nothing calmed me down until I started reading M*A*S*H and, of all things, I went to the chapter where they were working constantly. All the blood and gore that had frightened me in the movie were just exposed blood and guts now and it was the doctors’ jobs to put them back. The killer with the knife was replaced in my imagination by doctors with scalpels. It worked and I was able to get to sleep. There’s nothing like real life trauma, even fictionalized trauma, to put demons to flight.
I can’t recommend the rest of franchise (yes, there are many sequels) because none of them achieve the same balance of zany behavior and serious medicine that the first book has. Sometimes, lightening strikes just once. Nevertheless I am glad I ran across this one, even if it gave me a wider surgical scar and another day in the hospital. It’s a fitting souvenir for any book too funny to be read following surgery.