Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving, 25 Years Ago

I almost hate commenting on the season since I'm sure that there are an infinite amount of personal stories related to Thanksgiving, given as to how it lends itself to themes of nostalgia what with the family aspect of one's childhood, of relatives and friends long gone and such, but I suppose since I was out at the Grocery Store last night and for a brief moment of looking at aluminum foil drip pans I became momentarily overwhelmed by a kind of emotion, I figured I ought to add to the record another story of Thanksgivings past.

Time: November, 1985

Conditions: Grey skies, intermittent snow and sleet, around 35 degrees.

Place: A quaint looking Farmhouse overlooking a harvested cornfield, now brown and littered with the remains of dried out cornstalks, just outside of Ayer, Massachusetts which is in turn just outside of Fort Devens, Massachusetts.

The Players: Six, 18 year old soldiers from around the United States learning Morse Code and two, 21 year old guys doing the same thing.

Opening scene is in the barracks at Ft. Devens, Wednesday before the four day holiday, right after "school".
Robert Nelms and Matt Calloni in the Foreground, Doug Dry middle fingering and others in background

Enter Robert Nelms, the slightly older, much cooler, leader of our gang.  Very nonchalantly, he tossed a pair of unfamiliar keys up into the air only to catch them again and again, as he strolled into our day room.

"Guys," he announced, "I've got the ticket out of this depressing situation"

All of us looked up at him, with a brightness in our faces as it appears that we were to be saved from the collective gloom that had been our situation, which was to be young, far away from home, and missing our families on Thanksgiving.

"Mike and Annette are going to Indiana for Thanksgiving, so he gave me the keys to their apartment off Post, so we are going to have the greatest Thanksgiving dinner since the Pilgrims got to this miserable state!"

Yes! We were sold, no need for any cajoling or persuasion, we were 100% on board, anything, ANYTHING to get away from these goddamn barracks and away from Captain Chang and First Sergeant Willis.  I crammed into the back of a red and rusted 1974 Ford Pinto, a car that had apparently been at Ft Devens for generations of soldiers, passed down from someone who was graduating to someone in the class behind them for about 50 bucks each time.  We drove slick and slippery roads to the local A & P Grocery stores and proceeded to act like idiots as we tried our best, with what money we had, to buy the ingredients and accouterments needed to put together a Thanksgiving feast.  I'm more than a little bit sure that we were followed at a distance by the store manager, as I'm sure that our actions of youthful, goofy excitement, yelling to each other across aisles, and the reenactment of scenes out of the movie Animal House where we faked putting various staples down our pants gave him something to be suspicious about.

Now unless you've never been 18 and male, you might not be able to appreciate that putting together a Thanksgiving dinner is not exactly something that comes naturally.  Odds are that in homes across the USA, even today, the teenage boys are not exactly involved with the cooking process.  This thus explained the series of long distance calls that were made over the course of the day made to towns in Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, and others to Moms and Grandma's and Aunts to ask what went into the Turkey stuffing, what went into the corn, the potatoes, etcetera, etcetera.  The Kitchen became a whirlwind of activity, young guys cutting, chopping, and sauteing, bouncing off of each other like heated molecules as they opened kitchen cabinet doors and reached for measuring cups, knives, bowls, frying pans, whatever it would take to make this dinner happen.

Believe me when I say I offered to help, I really did, but I was summarily dismissed from the kitchen for blatantly ethnic discrimination reasons.  "Get out of here Rodriguez, you don't know anything about Thanksgiving, you're Cuban! Go back into the living room and watch Football or pop in one of those Porno tapes we rented."  So I obligingly went back into the living room and watched a young, (as it would turn out, an entirely too young) Traci Lords do some of her best work.  Who was I to complain with that kind of mandate?  Strange note, to this day, I always seem to have a ridiculous smile on my face whenever I smell of Turkey in the oven.

Now I know that nowhere in that iconic Norman Rockwell image of Thanksgiving is a TV in the background showing hard core pornography, but maybe it's on in another room who knows.  (Look at the smiles on these people's faces, it can't be just about the Turkey, am I right?) Anyway, despite the porn, the scene from windows of that second story farmhouse living room couldn't have been more idilic.  The sun was nowhere to be seen, hidden by indistinguishable layers of low hanging, slow moving, grey clouds.  On any other day it would seem gloomy but for some reason on this day they didn't.  Snow lightly fell into the empty fields where cornstalks lay strewn about after the harvest, frost formed in the corners of the panes of glass set in the wooden frames of this old house, and the smells of things being cooked, boiled and baked were very heavy in the air.

Finally, night fell, and we were STARVING.  Since we had all been in the apartment throughout the previous night and into the day, we hadn't eaten anything.  Away from the barracks also meant being away from the Mess Hall and free food, and of course with the kitchen fully employed at the effort of making dinner, nothing else was had to eat.  Imagine that while at the same time being in a room thick with the aromas of food being cooked.  It's a wonder the Turkey came out of the oven in one piece.
The moment had to be preserved, so I took out my camera, a very nice Pentax that I had yet to afford to buy a flash for, so everyone had to remain absolutely still for several seconds posed around the Turkey, much to the annoyance of my friends.  "Goddamn Rodriguez get a real camera next time for fucksake, I'm starving already!"  Sadly, that photo no longer exists, but it's blurry colors, those overly extended smiles on people's faces, and perfectly hued Turkey are something that remain with me and always will.

For a brief moment, we transformed into gentlemen.  We gathered around the table, we bowed our heads in prayer and thanks, and we toasted to each other.  We then proceeded to have a some of the best Turkey I've ever had, and probably ever will have.  In reality I'm sure the Turkey wasn't perfect, but rarely is Thanksgiving about the food, it's about the moment, and this was as fine a moment as I'll ever have.

I was especially proud of my contribution to the dinner, without which it could not have happened.  The Tin Foil Drip Pan that the Turkey sat upon, that was me.  The day before at the A & P among the chaos and merriment I spotted what was the stores last example.  Thanksgiving Dinner's success or failure depended on procuring this critical item.  As I reached for it I realized I was in a race for it with some other woman.  Realizing what was at stake my reach became a lunge, and I snatched it out of it's display shelf mere milliseconds before she could grasp it. I smiled and walked away not looking back at what I'm sure was her heart broken face.

Last night, at the Grocery store, I saw a large stack of these drip pans and was for a moment, overwhelmed by a surge of nostalgia.  I became momentarily weak kneed and weepy.  Seriously my eyes became moist I kid you not and I'm not afraid to admit it!  I thought, "Damn, I'm doing the same thing I was Twenty Freaking Five years ago."  Today, the company I keep and the circumstances under which I live are light years and 100's of miles away from that time, yet I suppose if there was a point in sharing this story was to point out how THANKFUL, I guess, I am for having had that experience.  I'm thankful that I was young, immature, naive, and all those things I'm not today (well, somewhat), because without those experiences I wouldn't be who I am today, and I wouldn't be sharing these experiences with the people I love today, so again, I have a lot to be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving Y'all.

Post Script:

The rest of the weekend, Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday morning, well, you can bet that any semblance of a orthodox Thanksgiving went out the window when we invited a bunch of other people who were stuck at the barracks, along with some local girls, and a kitchen sink filled to the brim with fruit punch and several different clear grain alcohols.  The Sunday morning clean up, the racing back to the barracks, the sheepish apologies for the mess we had made are legendary and still reminisced at get togethers to this day, but those stories are for another day.  Maybe Tomorrow since after all it was 25 years ago this week....


abcde said...

Well, Andy you've done it again. My wife said, "Well, it was too much swearing for my delicate ears (wait, I thought she read it), but for young soldiers with nothing to do it caught, in a moment, the character and nostalgia we all have as youth." "It was touching." "I felt like I was a fly on the wall of the lives of these soldiers trying to create their own Thanksgivings based on the experiences of each of their own americana experience." Of course, you couldn't contribute, you're Cuban!!.

Mikey said...

A well written, and even heartwarming Thanksgiving story. However I think the postscript that you breezed through, is probably worth a post by itself.

Chang and Willis... now there is a pair I'm not nostalgic for!