We were on alert, the midnight sky charcoal black, odd noises coming from the distant jungle beyond the perimeter. My vision battled reality vs. apparitions in black pajamas. I was ready to kill, not so much an enemy, but the aggressive mosquitoes attempting to construct a housing project inside my left ear. I dared not slap or even curse my ear tenants for fear of exposing my so-called fighting position.
My "fighting position," a rickety, open-air guard shack that I swore was built of balsa wood that could easily have been penetrated by a BB, sat in the middle of nowhere near the north end of the flight line.
My buddy, sporting a protracted nose, scraggly whiskers, and piercing eyes, was rather small for his type. Petrified, his gaze remained on me, the giant, armed with an M-16, who had recently occupied his home, as if the giant might be hungry, too. After all, it was Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving dinner was a C ration, probably a leftover from World War II, sort of a cross between a cake and hardtack. I was the intruder and the one with the food, so I shared a small piece of my Thanksgiving dinner with the little mouse. He didn’t wait for dessert. Grabbing his portion of the cake, rodent and food quickly disappeared into a mouse house.
So, there I was, sharing my C rations with a mouse on Thanksgiving Day, plus trying to fight off an incredible hankering for a slice of my mother’s homemade pumpkin pie.
Here’s the kicker: I hate pumpkin pie. For me, an offer of pumpkin or possum pie would be a difficult choice. Let’s just say my craving for pumpkin pie was born of homesickness.
My next Thanksgiving Day in Vietnam was a feast worthy of a king, or at least worthy of my Brothers and Sisters "in-country."
My base at Tan Son Nhut was the bastion of American political and military assistance in Vietnam. So, with all those generals and admirals and politicians to feed on Turkey Day, we underlings ate very well, too. My buddies and I even took a cab into the environs of Saigon to find a cold beer for dessert.
Nearing the infamous Tu Do Street, I caught sight of refugees who had nothing to eat on the traditional American day of Thanksgiving; indeed, their homes were built from flattened beer cans. There were row after row of Bud or Black Label or Schlitz dwellings, no larger than 10 feet by 10 feet, aluminum habitats with dirt floors, no plumbing, overcrowded with humanity. I had shared my previous Thanksgiving with a wily rodent, yet this Thanksgiving I didn’t have food to share with hungry refugees.
I had money; I could have stopped to offer something, but misplaced kindness in Vietnam could bring forth undesirable results from the needy, as well as from a shadowy enemy. So I gave silent thanks that Thanksgiving Day, for thus far surviving the war, for the abundance of food available on base, for being born in the United States of America.
We are lucky, you and I, to be Americans, to be the recipients of our founding fathers’ far-sightedness and that concept proclaiming that all men are created equal. For, you see, our freedom to even enjoy a day of turkey and pumpkin pie came at a high price.
Union soldiers in the Civil War had an edge over the boys down South. On Thanksgiving, the boys in blue, if on the lucky end of a supply line, could feast on turkey and chicken, vegetables, and maybe a cookie or nuts or cranberries sent from home. One year, the citizens of New Jersey raised $1,500 for cigars and tobacco. Hardtack, or, as the Union boys called it, "worm castles," was appreciatively not served on Turkey Day.
Southern boys ate what they could, rummaged mother earth, and loved or hated their staple of cornbread. One mush of a meal was nicknamed "Cush" or "Johnny Cake": a passel of cooked beef fried with bacon grease and cornmeal. Coffee was scarce; chicory was not. Sweet taters were cherished.
Johnny Reb stayed hungry. When Stonewall Jackson’s troops spotted a herd of Union beef at a Manassas Junction supply depot, they attacked without fear. The astonished Union guards didn’t consider cattle worth dying for and fled the field. Barefoot and wearing tattered clothing, the Confederate boys feasted on lobster salad, Rhine wine and too much steak. That day was most likely the only time Johnny Reb had to loosen his belt after dinner.
Our boys in World War I and World War II, Korea to Vietnam, and into our continuing War on Terror, seldom had to worry about their next meal. Marines on Guadalcanal or those fighting for their lives on the Frozen Chosin would tend to disagree on the subject of readily accessible chow, but, for the most part, woe be unto the commander unable to give his soldiers a turkey leg and cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving.
Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, are always thankful for a good meal, especially on Thanksgiving Day. But giving thanks on a battlefield or ship is not the same as giving thanks for a job or money or health or material things while stuffing down the stuffing on Thanksgiving Day at a dining table covered with white linen.
You see, on the battlefield or on the ship, we gave thanks for just being alive. Part of Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation Oct. 3, 1863, in the midst of our Civil War: "I do, therefore, invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving."
May you and your families have a safe Thanksgiving