Volume 30, Number 1

MASH Reenactment Guild

Ron Burch

I bought a bottle of Jack at the LiquorMart down the street. Carried it outside, opened it and then threw it in an orange trashcan. Dug it out and tossed it back in. I tried to stop but grabbed it again, hands shaking, and threw it to the sidewalk, shattering it. Quickly I walked away because I was afraid that right there on Glendale Boulevard, in front of all the cars and pedestrians, I'd kneel down on the sidewalk and try to slurp it up despite the broken glass.

The problem, I figured, was I had too much time. Too much temptation even with all the hours spent working my day job at the National Bank Credit Card Call-in Center. I had cut ties with the old crowd and the usual places. Stayed away from clubs and bars. I wouldn't even enter a restaurant if it kept a bar inside. I'd attempted different activities: exercise groups, hiking groups, book clubs, movie clubs. Even crashed a crocheting club once but "knit one, purl two" was like trying to dance, something else at which I've never succeeded. I finally joined a therapy group but quickly stopped attending because the other members depressed the hell out of me.

To occupy my time, I threw my savings at cable television, On Demand movies, Netflix, as much entertainment as I could afford, and spent night after night flicking through the blue television guide. Watched reality shows for awhile. Old reruns of I Love Lucy and Andy Griffith. Maybe CNN or, if things were really grim, the local news. I watched documentaries about pyramids falling to the unforgiving force of time and subways muscled out of the ancient rock below our feet and guys with bad haircuts looking for elusive ghosts in abandoned jails deep in the woods of New England. Two months passed but I could feel the old pull: thought I smelled hops in the air, tasted rum in my coke and ogled frosty beer mugs from afar. I had to do something else.

Dino was the one friend I kept in contact with. Actually, he wasn't so much a friend as someone I'd encountered in AA. We relied on each other after his sponsor chugged a whole bottle of blue mouthwash in an aisle at CVS and ended up in rehab. Dino attended different substance abuse programs and still occasionally dragged himself to our AA meetings, but he, like me, was fucking with temptation. After the meetings, we started hanging out, watching TV together at my apartment overlooking busy Glendale Boulevard.

"I wish we were more active," he said, slouched across my green couch. The dirty white socks encasing his large feet dangled over the arm of my couch, his black Red Lion t-shirt pushed up, heavily-hairy belly protruding. Dino had very little motivation; he worked the same job he'd had in high school at the copy shop on Hillhurst even though he graduated with a B.S. in Marketing from UCLA.

"You mean like we should start jogging?" I clicked fast through the channels, trying to find anything new. I wasn't having much luck.

"Nah, nah," he said. "Just something else instead of sitting in front of the TV every night watching reruns of Cheers and makeover shows."

"You're the one who likes the makeover shows."

"Just that one," he replied.

"Maybe we should start acting them out," I said jokingly. "That would get us off our asses."

"Yeah, right, Mike."

I realized the joke wasn't a joke. "That's what we should do."

"You want to start a theatre company?" He shook his head and ate a handful of greasy chips.

"Nobody cares about the theatre," I replied. "All our friends watch TV."

Dino said it still sounded like community theatre, which scared the piss out of him. I told him the important part was the passing of time.

He stopped mid-chew. "What the fuck does that mean?"

"We find a TV show to perform," I said, dropping the remote on the glass table.

"You mean like a cop show, Mike? Those are pretty heavy."

"No," I said, "a sitcom, something fun."

We decided to make up a list of long-running sitcoms that we thought might be appropriate: The Office, Parks and Rec, 30 Rock, Scrubs, Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond and even Big Bang Theory.

"What about Cheers?" he suggested.

"Too frivolous," I replied.

He suggested Married with Children. Too cartoonish and not enough real emotion.

"Cheers had real emotion," Dino said.

"Will you get over Cheers? What about Scrubs?" I suggested. It's funny, had love stories, and sometimes heart.

"Too ironic," Dino replied.

"What about M*A*S*H?" I asked.

"A show about doctors who drink heavily all the time while at the Korean War? Uplifting," he replied.

"Exactly," I said. I told him that the relation of our lives to the two main characters, Hawkeye and Trapper, was perfect. Hawkeye and Trapper drank constantly in the show. They talked about drinking. They fantasized about it. They drank at all times of day. They drank when they were getting up. We knew that life.

"But," I said, "we're not going to drink, and we're not going to hide ourselves from the problems of drinking. We're not running away."

Dino nodded, considering it. I said we were all walking wounded when it came to love, and M*A*S*H seemed even more to be the appropriate metaphor for us. We decided we would only reenact the early episodes from 1972 to 1975, up to the episode right before they killed off Henry Blake, the commander of the unit. We both felt that the episodes after that became too serious and somewhat saccharine when the show tried to humanize all the characters. Understandable but not important for our needs.

"Wait," he said, "there's only two of us. We can't act out all the roles."

"No," I said, "but we know more people like us."

* * *

At our AA meeting, the first few people, whom we didn't really know, shrugged us off, and the guy who always mumbled said he might think about it. We approached a couple of them that we usually saw, and Dino and I sat with them and pitched the idea. We had come up with a title—MASH Reenactment Guild—to make it sound official.

"This a fuckin' joke, Mike?" asked Kevin. "I'm not in the mood for fucking jokes."

Kevin was a hard case. Big-bodied with sleeves of tattoos decorated both arms. He had short tight hair and wore flannel and torn jeans with a wallet chain. He'd been recently dumped by his girlfriend of three years for her dermatologist, had lost his bouncer job over it and did nothing now but sit around in his apartment, trying not to drink Four Roses bourbon straight all day.

"No," I said. "We're being serious."

They all eyed one other like we were trying to run some scam on them. Melanie drank down her coffee and threw the cup on the floor. She had an overbite and wore glasses too big for her face. She shrugged.

"I like the show," Chad said. He was short, probably about 5'2". He worked as a tech nerd for one of the Hollywood studios and wore black-frame glasses and a scraggly beard to look older. He favored black Polo shirts and orange Nike running shoes. Chad, barely surviving a deteriorating marriage, had hidden bottles of Bacardi rum all over his house before he started coming to our meeting.

"Could I please bring someone?" he asked.

I looked at Dino, who shrugged. "Sure," I said. "The more the merrier."

"Would I still have to fucking come to these shithole AA meetings?" Kevin asked.

"Totally up to you," I replied.

Everett, usually late, sauntered over. "This is Amber," he said introducing the tall blonde woman in a business suit and heels. We all said hi. Everett was some kind of hotshot insurance executive downtown who used to binge drank, disappearing for weeks at a time. He was so good-looking, with his slicked-back black hair and expensive Armani suits, he could actually bring attractive women, his dates like Amber, to AA meetings.

We told him what we were thinking of doing.

"Count me in," he said.

"What's in it for me, Mike?" I turned to see Melanie staring at me. She was a blackout queen; she'd lose consciousness after drinking and find herself in disastrous situations. At the last meeting she loudly stated that she had found God to help her get through, but I'm not sure even He believed her.

"Same thing that's in it for all of us," I replied. She didn't seem to like that.

"It'll be fun," Dino said to her. He smiled. She didn't smile back.

"I'll think about it," she finally said.

Melanie bothered me. She had a reputation for only caring about herself, but Dino seemed to like her, so I didn't protest as the meeting prayer started.

* * *

We set up in Dino’s garage. It was a 1920s wooden white box with only one window and big barnlike doors that locked with a padlock. Since Dino didn’t have a car and used the garage for storage, we weren’t taking up valuable space. We all spent the weekend cleaning it up: taking down cobwebs, sweeping up the dirt that scattered across the cement floor from when it rained. We broke apart empty cardboard boxes and recycled the rusted paint cans.

"This better not be an excuse to clean this fucking garage," Kevin said, working some dirt into a dustpan.

I had bought a large green army tent, and we hung it from the ceiling, stretching it over the walls of the garage to approximate the main set of the show, the barracks of the lead characters: Hawkeye, Trapper John and Frank. It was called "The Swamp." Since we had no other rooms, any other locations from the show, such as Henry's office or the mess tent, would have to be performed in the same space.

We tried to decorate it like the show, salvaging materials from one another. I bought a cot from a surplus store. We gathered items from the dumpsters inside the huge apartment complex where Everett lived, finding wooden crates, old blankets and other things that weren't totally right for our set, but that we liked and found useful. When the tent didn't stretch far enough to cover the walls, we decided to nail up some old green fabric that Dino's mom had in her attic. Moths had chewed numerous holes in it, but perfection didn't matter to us. Melanie barely helped with the set-decoration part, but the rest of us loaded in even more props donated and found by the group into the area for verisimilitude: Frank's Bible, Hawkeye's collection of nudist magazines, Hawkeye's and Trapper's letters from family. Chad surprised us when he brought in Hawkeye and Trapper's still.

"I made it at home," he said, putting it down on the table near the cots. We all stared at the still. It had been made with a glass vase, some duct tape and thin tubes. There was clear liquid inside it. We all had the same thought.

"What's the liquid?" I asked.

Chad laughed. "Dudes, relax, it's just water."

We finished setting up and scheduled our first rehearsal for the next evening. Dino and I had found scripts to the early episodes online and had printed out a couple of the episodes, distributing scripts to the others.

That night I had trouble sleeping. This whole venture made me uneasy even though it was my idea. Last thing I wanted was to make life worse for people who already had problems. Didn't need to give trouble to people who have enough trouble. There were things we couldn’t control. We tried. We told ourselves that we could handle it. That we wouldn’t do this or that. We called friends who tried to talk us through, but as soon as their words faded, we were back to holding onto ourselves. There were days when I couldn’t seem to breathe. Like God had a foot on my chest. Go on, God said, work for it. We told ourselves we could control things. But we lied. Maybe this was another way around the lie.

At work, I grew excited about the first rehearsal that night. I had a craving because I wanted to celebrate, but the celebration was a lie. I'd use anything as an excuse. Instead, between phone calls, I went over the scripts, anything to get my mind off it.

Everyone showed up on time, which must have meant something since no one showed up on time to the AA meetings. We talked about if we should do the episodes in order but there were characters who were later cut from the show, so we decided to jump around and have fun.

We didn't even consider casting roles when we were asking people to join, but now we had to work it out. I let Dino play Hawkeye because we were using his garage. I settled for Trapper John since it wasn't worth getting into a scrap. That wasn't the point. Everyone else was flexible. We assigned the commander role, Henry Blake, to Kevin, because he was the oldest and had gray coming in. Because he enjoyed being a pain in the ass, Chad wanted to be Frank Burns. Everett had never seen the show so we screened part of an episode on Dino's phone, and Everett chose cross-dressing Klinger. Kevin asked him why he would want to do that, and Everett said we should all be trying to have some fun. Melanie chose Hot Lips even though she didn't seem happy playing the love interest of Chad. We were short a role but, luckily, Chad brought in Helen from AA to play Radar. We thought the gender shift was refreshing. Helen was a former heroin addict and also had an affection for any wine that was red. I think Chad might have been sleeping with her and actually invited her to join so he could keep an eye on her, but I could've been wrong.

We settled in old camping folding chairs, the metal rusted, the seats worn and thinning, and decided to do the episode where Hawkeye’s trying to replace his broken boot during winter.

"We're just going to read?" Melanie asked. I don't think she liked reading.

Dino nodded. "For now. It's rehearsal."

"Maybe I should come in drag," Everett suggested.

Kevin glanced over. "Why would you do that?"

"To get in character."

"Whatever you need to do," I said.

Helen glanced at her script and turned to Chad. "I thought you said this was a new AA meeting place."

Chad turned red and stammered: "Well, it's kinda like that."

"You fucker," she said, opening the script. "You're lucky I like this show."

I started to read the stage directions.

After a couple hours of rehearsal, everyone was tired and went home. Dino and I remained behind to clean up. "How'd you think that went?" Dino asked.

"Okay," I said, "better than watching TV for hours and hours."

"Yeah, they seemed to enjoy it."

"Except for Melanie," I replied. "She didn't really seem interested."

"Why do you say that?"

"She kept falling asleep. We need to have someone who will at least stay awake to read her lines. And she yells at people for no reason."

"She's probably having problems," he said. "We can't cut her loose so early."

I didn't say anything.


I shrugged. "Okay."

* * *

The idea was to try this a couple nights per week and see how it went. Because we needed more locations than first realized, we divided Dino's garage into a couple sets. We established The Swamp on one side and constructed a one-table operating room on the other, and combined that with Henry's office, which also subbed for any other locations. We kept the garage doors closed for the rehearsals. But when we finally decided to perform the Boot episode we'd been rehearsing, we opened the garage door for a change. Since the garage sat right on the street near the sidewalk, people walking their dogs or couples going to dinner would take a look at us as they passed by. Occasionally, someone stopped and watched. The first time it happened burly Kevin got irate and asked the guy what the fuck he was looking at, running off the young jogger. I told Kevin to relax because that was not why we were here.

After a Guild night, I would go home and crash. I was tired, refreshingly tired, and I didn't crave those things that I shouldn't crave. I felt normal. Like a regular person who didn't need something to get him through the day, the week or sometimes the hour. I'd watch a little TV, grab something to eat and go to bed, usually with a script so I could polish up, and was asleep in minutes.

This was what it was like to be awake to the world.

* * *

Dino and Melanie started having a thing. After the Guild, they'd walk off together, talking. It seemed harmless but then more and more during rehearsals they sat next to each other, whispering. I didn't want to ask him because it was their business, but I was concerned because she had a reputation for sleeping around, and I didn't trust her in general. Not that there's anything wrong with sex. It's a free world, but Dino was sensitive. He hadn't dated anyone in years, and he fell hard for her, so hard he actually lobbied for her to get more roles. That was fine. We had plenty of minor roles that everyone pitched in to read when they came up. My main concern was that if she dumped him or slept with someone else, Dino would be devastated. It might send him back to the bottle and shatter everything we’d worked for.

During our break one night, Melanie and I were the last two left in the garage. Everyone else was out getting water or talking on their phones.

"You know he likes you, right?" I said.

"I figured you were going to bring it up eventually."

"I have to."

"Maybe you shouldn't be sticking your nose in our business," she replied. She slipped her pack of cigarettes out of a hidden pocket. Since God wasn't working for her anymore, she had taken up smoking to help her not drink.

"I hope you know what's at stake if it doesn't work out," I called over from the cot.

She turned and lit her cigarette. "You know," she said, "there's stuff at stake for me too if it doesn't work out. Okay?"

"Long as we have a meeting of minds," I replied, studying my script, not really taking in the words but pretending to try. Having her here was a mistake.

* * *

The Guild didn't always run smoothly. Not everyone showed up for rehearsals and performances. Sometimes they let me and Dino know. Sometimes they would appear the next time, and we'd start as if they never missed. Wasn't our place to ask them why they didn't show. They knew their responsibilities and how the group depended on them. If someone did miss, another person would volunteer to read his or her part. Eventually the entire group agreed to a rule that if an individual missed three straight times, he or she would be replaced. That was only fair to all of us.

We were doing an episode from the middle of Season One, getting ready to rehearse the "Chief Surgeon Who?" episode, which was Everett's first appearance as the cross-dressing Klinger, but he had missed two previous sessions. Chad had found out that he’d disappeared from work about a week ago.

"He's on a bender," Dino stated.

"Poor guy," Melanie said. She stood outside the garage since smoking wasn't allowed inside.

We were supposed to start in a few minutes, and no one had heard from Everett. Chad left three messages and a text on Everett's phone but there had been no response. Checking his phone again, Chad shook his head. "So, what do we do if he doesn't show?"

"We have to replace him," I said.

"That seems kind of mean," Melanie responded.

"He knows the rules, Melanie," I replied. "We all agreed to them."

"Yeah but what if he needs help?"

We looked around at each other. We knew what it meant. We'd all been there at one time or another. On both sides of it—the ones who had to cut someone loose or the ones cut loose. We had all been cut loose.

"He knows the rules," said Dino. Everyone else nodded in agreement.

"Well then," I said, "let's start."

Fifteen minutes later, Everett's black 5-series BMW pulled up right in front of the garage. He got out, shaky and pale, his hair matted and uncombed. He wore a dirty wedding dress torn at the hem. Smudges of dirt marked it as he wobbled on black high heels.

"Sorry I'm late," he said, putting a little ring of plastic flowers on his head. "Something came up."

"You resolve it?" Dino asked.

Everyone was quiet because normally we didn't ask. Not our business.

"Yeah," Everett replied, taking a yellow-highlighted script out of his briefcase. "I couldn't miss my first official appearance."

I gave him a fist bump as he took his seat.

* * *

After three months we were still successfully going at it. But people were grouchy with each other. It wasn’t easy. The group didn't want to have rehearsal and shows as often as we did during the week. They wanted to do other things. Dino and I talked about it. We told them they could take a leave and see. We felt it was too soon to let up, that we were in a good place and needed to keep it going. Chad wanted some time off as his divorce was finalized, but he didn't want to leave the group. Helen had stopped coming to the Guild and the AA meetings, but that's sometimes how it went. We all took turns playing Radar's part, not ready to get someone new yet. Everyone else was clean and sober, even Everett, and that was the important part.

During a performance one night, I was giving Hot Lips, meaning Melanie, some grief about Frank Burns, her boyfriend. She was crabby, more interested in texting on her phone, in the middle of the show, than the script.

"You know we're all here for a reason, Hot Lips?" I adlibbed.

She grabbed her script from underneath her chair. "Where is that in the words?"

"Why don't you stop texting and pay attention, Hot Lips? Cell phones don't exist in the 1950s."

"Why're you picking on me?" Melanie turned, pouting, to Dino.

"Okay, stop, stop," Dino said. He turned to me. "What're you doing?"

His tone was odd. I looked around the group but no one said anything. Melanie walked over to the window and lit a cigarette, putting it on the other side of the glass so the smoke remained outside.

"I'm playing my role," I replied. "The reason we're here."

"He's never liked me," Melanie said quietly, inhaling and blowing the smoke out the window.

I picked up my script and offered it to Dino. "Remember why we're here?"

"I don't need to be fucking reminded," he replied, pushing it away.

Outside on the street, we had an audience of about thirty to forty people gathered. The crowd seemed to be getting larger day by day. They started whispering to each other.

"Why're you doing this?" he asked.

"It's her role. If she doesn't want to play it, she can quit, Dino."

He crossed his arms at me and then walked out. Melanie sullenly followed him.

"Is this a bathroom break?" Chad asked.

I walked to my car and sat there. I really wanted a drink. No, I really wanted a couple drinks. The thing I created to stop from drinking made me want to drink even more.

* * *

I called Dino and left a message: I was quitting the Guild. I told him why, and I figured word would spread. He never called me back.

Another week passed.

I got a call from Everett. The group really didn't know what to do next. They came over to my place, squeezing onto the couch and sitting on the floor. Dino and Melanie weren't with them.

"You have to come back," Chad said.

"I don't know," I said.

"We need to keep going," Chad implored. "I need this, man. You need to be there. We're missing rehearsals."

The others nodded.

"Yeah," Everett said, "Dino's not that great of an organizer. We've haven't met in over a week."

Kevin, who had been quiet, leaned forward. "Seriously, I'm fucking afraid what I'm going to do if we don't fucking start up again."

I didn't know what to say.

"I got a new fucking job working the door at Sunset," he said. "I can't fuck it up."

Everett nodded. "We should replace Dino and Melanie."

No one responded.

Finally, I shook my head. "If he wants to keep it going, you all should too but it's too much for me."

"C'mon," Chad said. He was sitting right next to me. He put his hand on my arm.

"I'm sorry," I replied. "I'm out."

* * *

Back at home, I fell into my old routines. The urge to drink wasn't as bad as it had been in my last days with the Guild but it was there, a shadow. I flicked through the TV channels. I should have known not to depend on others to help me. Relying on other people, especially troubled ones, just set you up for more trouble. I guess that didn't change. A couple days later, Chad texted me saying that they were still going at it. I didn't respond. I wasn't sure what the Guild accomplished, except to merely kill a little time.

I started driving around in my car. For hours. It kept me busy. It cut down on the temptation I began feeling at home. After doing this for several weeks, I found myself driving down Dino's street after work one night.

As I approached his garage, I noticed a group of people standing outside it. I cruised around the block twice, trying to figure out what was going on. I saw Dino and Melanie talking to a couple of people in the crowd. The garage door was open and people were looking at the items, at our sets that we used for the reenactments. Melanie pointed at the cot outside that was on the sidewalk, the cot I used as Trapper John.

He was having a garage sale. They were selling off our stuff. My stuff.

There was nowhere to stop so I went up the side street. I parked and walked down the block and up to the garage.

I blew past the two of them and grabbed my cot. I had bought it, and I wasn't going to let them make money from it. It might be good if I ever had guests over again.

Dino grabbed my arm. "Mike, what're you doing?"

"I'm taking my cot home. I don't want you to sell it."

Dino looked at Melanie, and they laughed.

"This isn't a garage sale," he said.

"What?" I asked. "Then why're all these people here?"

"They're waiting for the show," Dino replied. Melanie nodded.

"What show?"

"Our show."

"This many?"

"Every day now they wait outside the garage."

"Some of them want to join," Melanie said.

I looked around the crowd.

"I've been meaning to call you," Dino said. "But there's been a lot going on."

Melanie nodded.

"We're getting married," he said. Melanie held up her ring finger, and there was a nice silver band there.

I didn't know what to say. I didn't think this would happen between them, that Melanie would ever do that. But they looked happy, like a regular couple.

"That's fucking awesome," I said. I meant it. Good for them. I dropped the cot to the ground and gave them each a hug.

"You gotta come," he said. "You're the best man."

I was surprised. "I was wrong," I said, looking at them.

"It happens," Dino replied. He smiled and then Melanie smiled.

Unsure of what to do, I picked up my cot to take it to my car, but I looked around as the people, the audience, waited patiently. They started to sit on the sidewalk. Some had brought folding chairs. They were waiting for us.

"We could really use the cot," Dino said. "There are other people who need this as well."

I nodded and brought it back inside the garage. Our tent was still set up, the Swamp still there. Everyone was there ready to do a show. Kevin nodded at me. I turned back to the street and could see more people coming down the street, more people than I think I've ever seen over here. Dino walked in and offered me a script. I shook my head and sat down on my cot, ready. I didn't need the script because, even with the time away, I knew all the words by heart.