Precision helps Chuck Wagon Gang

By Ken Brodnax
Odessa American

FORT IRWIN, Calif Today, Odessa’s Chuck Wagon Gang is feeding thousands of troops who recently returned from combat duty in Iraq, but the 55-year-old group known far and wide for its barbecue has to have some military precision of its own to pull off such a feat.
In fact, it takes quite a chain of command to be able to serve up 7,000 meals in an hour’s time.
So when the Gang’s, and Odessa’s, thank-you gesture to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment is completed, feed boss Jerry Hensley, the gang’s equivalent of company commander, will be grateful that the chain of command worked, as it always does.
And that’s appropriate because Hensley served with the 11th Cavalry, also known as the Black Horse Regiment, as an officer during the Vietnam War.
This year’s gang boss, Keith Patton, who would be the general if military titles applied to Gang infrastructure, said the feed is Hensley’s baby. “Jerry’s military background really comes out,” Patton said. “He’s the guy on this feed. He brought the idea a year-and-a-half ago, and we let him run with the ball.”
A former Gang boss concurs with the similarity between what the Gang does and what troops are expected to accomplish. A 55-year history of cooking for large groups has left a set manner for approaching big tasks. “It’s all regimented and programmed,” Atkins explained.
Feed bosses generally get to pick the people that fit his expectations. “He picks his line bosses to accomplish all the things that have to happen,” Atkins said.
And Hensley said he expects to introduce his key people to the troops today by using military comparisons so the soldiers can relate to the Gang efforts.
Atkins, who was boss in 1970 when the Gang started feeding patrons at Nashville’s Fan Fair, said the comparison goes beyond mere procedures. He said the Gang throws a lot of people from varied backgrounds into a common task. “Most of us aren’t that close to each other personally,” Atkins noted. But the duty of being a good Gang member is the common thread.
“We kid around a lot and have a lot of fun when we go on feeds. But the guys take it serious when it comes time to do the job because we represent Odessa and West Texas, and in this case, Texas.”
Pride and history are big factors with the Chuck Wagon Gang, just as it is with the Black Horse Regiment. “We have a lot of history,” Atkins said. “A lot of good men have come and gone through this group.”
And on Friday, before the heavy lifting for today’s feed got all-consuming, the Odessa contingent took time to visit with Black Horse veterans and those currently serving in the regiment and tour the 11th Cavalry’s museum.
It was one well-honed organization’s appreciation for the efforts through the years of one of America’s most storied military divisions.