HOMEMADE ICE CREAM IN VIETNAM

While guarding the Song Beh Bridge, we had some spare time to think about the good times back home. One day Billy McDaniel (Georgia) and I were talking about the things we missed the most. We talked about Sunday dinners, fried chicken, pies, cakes, hard work on the farm, our parents, and then about homemade ice cream. We both had grown up in Georgia where homemade ice cream was a tradition. It was usually made on the weekend when family members had time to talk about old times while turning the ice cream freezer. Billy said, “I sure would like to have a bowl of good old homemade ice cream right now.” We thought how silly it was to be dreaming of such a wonderful thing while sitting in the heat of Vietnam. Finally, one of us said, “Well darn it, let’s just figure how to make some.” And that we did.

   Now for those of you unfamiliar with the process of making homemade ice cream, let me explain how this all works. In a normal ice cream freezer there is a tub (traditionally made of white oak), a smaller covered metal container for the ice cream mix, and a dasher that scrapes the inside walls of the metal container to keep the liquid mixed with the frozen material as it freezes. There is a geared device at the top with a handle sticking out the side to turn the metal container inside the wooden tub. Which side, you ask. It don’t matter. If you are left handed, just turn it around, but be sure you still turn it clockwise. People use do tell the kids not to turn it backward because that would unfreeze the ice cream. And, of course, most ice cream freezers now have a motor that turns the device.  The dasher turns in the opposite direction or on some models just remains stationary. The wooden container (some are now plastic, of course) has a hole in the side for water to drain out. The way it works is this: ice and salt are put into the wooden tub around the metal container which contains the ice cream mixture. Why salt, you may ask. Well, the salt lowers the freezing point of the water in the ice. Yes, Yes, freezing point and thawing point is normally 32 degrees Fahrenheit. But adding salt lowers that freezing point (thawing point) so that the ice cream will freeze. The hole in the side of the wooden tub carries the heat out of the ice cream mixture. Heck of a refrigeration process if you ask me. It is really very simple. So this is the process and the device that we were going to try to mimic in the heat of Vietnam. Well, if you don’t understand this, email me and I’ll try to explain a little more. You are probably thinking ‘Yankee Ingenuity’, but for some reason Yankees just did not seem to care for or appreciate our simple delight. Anyway, on with my explanation of our mental gyrations to reinvent the ice cream freezer.

   We decided that we could indeed figure out how to make the ice cream. We talked about the process of making the ice cream, what had to happen to make it, and what parts there were to an ice cream freezer. We needed a clean container for the ice cream to be frozen in. We needed a dasher to scrap down the sides of the ice cream container, and we needed a large container that would hold the ice cream container and a salty ice bath. We quickly decided that we could use a mortar illumination canister to contain the ice cream mixture. These containers were clean, made of aluminum, and skinny enough so that the heat would transfer out of the mixture quickly. We decided that a 8 inch ammo container would be large enough in diameter to contain all the necessary parts. The only problem was that the 8 inch container was too deep. We found a used coffee can and turned the coffee can upside down in the bottom of the 8 inch container. When we placed the illumination canister back in the 8 inch container, it was just right. The illumination container was sticking up about 3 inches above the 8 inch container. We figured we could turn the illumination container with our hands. Next, we had to find something to use as a dasher. The dasher in an ice cream freezer removes the ice cream from the sides as it freezes and mixes it with the ice cream mixture thereby lowering the temperature of the mixture. Eventually the temperature of the entire mixture decreases until the entire mixture freezes.

   We started a serious search for the parts for the dasher. About mid afternoon, Georgia showed up with a solution. He had come up with a small piece of metal that he stole from some ordinance stockpile. He had a wooden handle on which to attach the metal piece and some wire to lash on the metal to the handle. The process was going to involve at least three people. One would turn the illumination canister, one would hold the dash handle and scrap the sides, and one would keep the device loaded with ice and salt. We knocked a hole in the side of the 8 inch container about one inch from the top to let the water drain from the container carrying the heat from our mixture. We were in business. Now all we needed was the ingredients for our ice cream.

   We had a small tent mess hall at the bridge. They usually had some milk. We went under the back wall of the tent and found the milk stored in a cooler. We stole a bag of sugar, a pretty large chunk of ice, a bag of salt, and some vanilla flavoring. Back at my sleeping hooch we mixed the ingredients together in the illumination canister. By now a couple of guys had come along asking what we were doing. At the time I had a sleeping position on top of an old bunker. It opened our toward the perimeter. I had a poncho swung up for a shade, and that is where we did all our strategic planning for this mission. It was also where we assembled to carry out our rendezvous with one thing we missed from home. I remember that Slim Eubanks was one of the people who came to see what we were doing.  Now Slim was from Alabama and also knew all about homemade Ice cream. Slim offered to turn the canister. He was eager to invest in this new enterprise that Georgia and I had devised. I am not sure who else was there. Jimmy Elliot and Clint Reed may have been there also. We were having a hell of a great time. Finally the mixture was frozen. It was like Christmas time for a bunch of boys from the south. We were so excited that we were giggling. We started pouring up the ice cream into Styrofoam cups (also stolen from the mess hall). We tasted it and Oh My God we were in heaven. About that time Captain Jones had walked up on the other side of the bunker. Now he thought we were up there smoking some whaky baky. Captain Jones said, “What are you guys doing up there?” We got very still and did not know what to say. Slim said, “I think we better tell him.” I then said, “Sir, we are making homemade ice cream.” Jones said, “Bullshit guys, what the hell are you doing up there?” At this point Slim said, “Come on up here Captain and have some homemade ice cream.” The captain crawled up on the bunker, walked around back, and we gave him a cup of the best homemade ice cream that had ever been produced in Vietnam. He tasted the concoction and said, “Well I’ll be dammed. Man that is great. How did you guys make this stuff?” At this point we were pretty certain that we would not get in trouble for stealing from the mess hall!

   Several times during that year in Vietnam, we made our delicious concoction. It was always exciting and almost as though we were consuming forbidden fruit. We made our ice cream at least one time after Lt. Mike Russell came to the mortar platoon. Mike is from Louisiana and also appreciates good homemade ice cream.

   Through these many years since my tour in Vietnam, I have dealt with many memories of that war. Most of those memories are terrible remembrances of a dark time in the history of our nation.  But the one memory that always warms my heart and the hearts of all my buddies who had the honor of sampling it is the fond memory of homemade ice cream in Vietnam.

When I tell this story, I think I fail to give Billy McDaniel the full credit he deserves for this invention. Every time Billy and I would come up with a need for our device, Billy would take off and be gone for a while. He would then show up with some improvised contraption to make it all work.

Posted by Randall at 9/28/2008 4:50 PM

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