My most memorable Thanksgiving dinner was also my first. I was sixteen and after living thirteen years overseas had just gotten back to the U.S. the month before.
I was stuck on a very remote post. There was no commissary, PX, snack bar, housing, nothing except a few million very tall pine trees. Only eight people lived on that post year around and I was going to be one of them. The Army said they had to move a trailer in and it could take six or more weeks. The nearest town was miles away and had no hotel. Plus we had no car, so there was no way for my hubby to get back to post for work.
The post was a remote training post for Special Forces and my husband was one of six MP’s that lived there all year and patrolled the post. The Lieutenant told us we could live in the barracks with the Special Forces training unit, until the trailer arrived. And he put my husband straight to work, working 18 hour shifts, 22 days in a row and then getting 48 hours off. That is how it was going to be for the next two years.
So I was pretty much stuck alone in the barracks except of course for the Special Forces unit. I have to admit at first I was nervous sharing the barracks with 18 other soldiers, all of them male. We slept on army cots, each of us had an army blanket, and we shared one bathroom. There was no privacy at all, except for the hours they were training.
I have to say those soldiers were great, I had nothing to worry about. Even better was the fact they just accepted me in to their group, and shared their Army provided food rations with me.
To welcome me back home, the area had the coldest winter in ten years. The barracks was a long wooden building with one lonely, small wood burning stove for heat. It never got warm in the drafty old building; the stove provided just enough heat to keep the water pipes from icing up.
The Sergeant had taken me under his wing and gave me his cot closest to the stove. In the weeks that I lived with them he was like the dad I never had.
One particular frosty day the soldiers seemed in festive spirit and tried to go out of their way to make me feel more at home. I could not figure it out, but it was nice. They did not have to train that day and spent the whole day in the barracks. My hubby, being an MP, had to work his regular 18 hour shift. The previous night when he left for work he had given me a card.
We were married for three months and I had not told him that I could not read or write. So I accepted the card and thanked him for it, while trying to figure out what it all was about.
The Sergeant called me over and the soldiers had laid their Army blankets all around the old stove. On top of the stove they had dozens of little green cans of Army rations. As bare as it was it looked festive. All the soldiers seemed to have pressed their uniforms, and shined their boots to a high shine.
Confused, I sat next to the Sergeant close to the stove. He handed me a warm can of, what later was explained to me as, stuffing and wished me a Happy Thanksgiving. And the soldiers old cheered in, as the Sergeant gave me a fatherly pat on the back.
I had to tell the truth, I could not go on pretending that I knew what was going on. I asked them why they made it so special that day, and then I had to explain that I had no idea what Thanksgiving was. No, I had no idea what a turkey looked like, did not know anything about the holiday, or the story behind it. I admitted to them, that day, that I could not read or write. Although I lived on post my entire live, I never went to school.
Concerned about me, the Sergeant put his arm around me and asked me the same questions over again…. then they fully understood. Quietness fell over the barren room, the only sound came from the relentless falling snow outside. That day I found out the meaning of Thanksgiving.
I had stuffing for the first time, with mashed potatoes; I passed on the Turkey because I am a vegetarian. There where candied yams and each of the foods were explained to me with a story of Thanksgivings long ago. The entire meal consisted of Army rations and the soldiers shared their meal with me as they always did.
We sat around the old, warm stove on green Army blankets, eating food from green cans that we heated first on top of the old iron stove. I listened to their stories of Thanksgivings, and it was wonderfully cozy in the old drafty barracks. The Sergeant was looking all over for a picture of a turkey so he could show it to me. He saw the card that my hubby left me the night before, laying on my cot, and exclaimed, “Oh here is a turkey”. He picked it up and handed it to me. And then puzzled he asked “does your husband know that you cannot read?” Sadly I shook my head.
That night the Sergeant read out loud all the cards and letters my hubby had written me over the last few months. My hubby was more on the shy side, but in his letters he told me how much he loved me and that he wanted to make all that happened to me right again.
After the Sergeant was done reading all the letters and cards to me, and the other 17 soldiers, he gave me some fatherly advice while another soldier opened more cans and heated them on top the stove.
We sat around the ancient cast iron stove, the small fire bathing the old barracks in a warm orange glow. We had hot coffee and warm apple pie, and we sat in peaceful silence. Through the frost covered windows we could see the hills and trees being covered by a deep blanket of snow. Tomorrow, these soldiers were going to have to go back out. And if I had to step out for more wood I would sink several feet deep in to cold, wet snow. But today, right now, all was right with world.
Twenty-eight Thanksgiving dinners have passed since then. But I will always treasure my first Thanksgiving on a remote post, deep in the snow covered hills of Virginia. That night 18 soldiers, in a cold and bare barracks, made me believe in humanity again.
God bless our Armed Forces this Thanksgiving Season.
Editor’s Note: A Thanksgiving Story first appeared in Military Brats Online in 2009 and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.