Holiday Meals

In 1969, I spent Thanksgiving in Casual Control at Lackland Air Force Base, along with 1,500 other Airmen.  We all pretty much knew where we were going:  to technical schools as follow-on to our just completed six weeks of Basic Training.  However, most of us didn’t know when we’d be moving on.  Not a thing of that special day’s meal comes to mind.

Four weeks later, though still in Casual and still not knowing when I would depart, I had my Christmas meal at home in Spokane with my family.  Those of us long-termers in Casual were give a ten day leave because the USAF knew we’d not be sent to schools until at least the following January.  That was an especially great meal for me despite it being our families’ regular Christmas Day feast.  The most special part of that day, meal, and gathering occurred when the family sat down to dine.  It started to snow.  The timing was perfect:  right out of the closing scenes in White Christmas.  So totally cool.

A year later, we were all in Saigon, Republic of South Viet Nam.  Life was different, huh?  These two holiday meals I remember vividly as the end of 1970 approached and we neared the two-thirds point in our one year tours of duty.  All the environmental and cultural acclimation had occurred.  Relations with family and friends back home were well into routines or totally in chaos.  We’d all seen the short-timers leave and were no longer making comments on the new people arriving in-country because there were relatively few of them.

As Thanksgiving approached, most of us were pretty well turned on/off about our military situations and lives in Viet Nam.  Then, as has happened to me many times over my following thirty one years in the USAF, the military threw me a curve.  I think a lot of us had a similar experience.  This Thanksgiving meal in Saigon became my most memorable.  Well, perhaps right up there would also be when the toilet backed up gallons of effluent in a slow, but unstoppable geyser in our apartment our first Thanksgiving in Cairo in 1987.  I’ve been lucky to have had Thanksgivings in a lot of places over the years.

Thanksgiving 1970 found me sad, confused and homesick despite the camaraderie of my fellow Palace Dog language teachers.  I think we worked that day because I recall returning to the St George/White/Capital Hotel complex as it was darkening outside.  So it must have been around 6:30 or thereabouts because I think our afternoon shifts at Tan Son Nhut (TSN) School as well as the other two schools in Saigon were 1-6.  Those of us at TSN had the longest bus ride home so we sort of pulled up the rear at meal time.

Our dining hall was on the second floor of the Capital Hotel, which also served as a noncommissioned officer (NCO) bachelor enlisted quarters (BEQ).  It had these two winding staircases from the lobby on up to the hall, which must have served as a ballroom or banquet room when the hotel was designed and filled with tourists and business people.  That was before the war escalated and the US contracted such facilities for the huge number of military people in Saigon.

I wasn’t really excited about this meal.  Feeling sorry for myself, I was probably not even going to partake of it.  One of the guys – Tom?, Ralph?, Fred?, Bill? – pumped me up and got me to go.  After walking down that alley east of the Capital from where the bus dropped us off, going through the lobby of the St George and getting our key to Room Sic A Teen from the girl at the desk, stashing our M-16s and (for me and few others) single short-filled magazines in our bandoleers in our 1/8 inch thick veneered plywood room lockers, I went down to the Capital to go in for the meal.

Since it was an NCO BEQ, the Capital was off limits to us junior enlisted folks except for the beeline we made from the door to the bottom of the staircase and on up to the dining room everyone in the three hotels/BEQ complex used.  As I went up the curved stairway, my spirits soared and my attitude changed quickly.  Years later, when I saw the flashback part at the closing of the blockbuster Titanic, I flashed back myself to how I felt that Thanksgiving evening entering the Capital dining hall.  Remember how the camera followed the recreation of the ship from its sunken silt covered decayed mess to its original splendor, and then Winslet was ushered into the grand ballroom and ascended the grand staircase?  Melodramatic, I know, but, boy, that’s the way it was for me that day.

The US Army had pulled out all the stops to make a Thanksgiving holiday feast for us.  The walls were decorated n orange, black and white.  Even crepe paper three dimensional turkeys were hanging as mobiles.  White tableclothes adorned every table and were changed every time the diners left so the next group of four would have a clean and ironed cotton table cloth.

The meal, oh, the meal.  It must have been everything any of us had ever had for Thanksgiving meals around the US.  Each of us had had some of the things, but none of us had had all of the things at a single setting.  Collard greens?  Not me.  Pecan pie?  Not me.  Through that diversity, the essence of what we all knew to be a Thanksgiving meal was there.  And it was there in great quantity even though we were coming in near the end of the serving time.

Turkey, of course.  White or dark meat, or do you want both?  Dressing, whether as stuffing from the birds or baked in the oven.  Whole or jellied cranberry sauce.  White potatoes (mashed or boiled).  Sweet potatoes and yams.  Green beans with shredded almonds, bright frozen peas, Julienned green beans, even cauliflower.   Sliced ham for those who preferred it, or wanted it in addition to the turkey.  Pies:  had that new-to-me pecan, also pumpkin, apple and minced meat.  Ice cream:  the traditional vanilla, strawberry and chocolate.  A bit melted, but still cold and edible with a spoon, not a straw.

It was all served by the cooking staff and others of the support service unit who volunteered to make the meal special for us (and probably help themselves take away their own blues too).  No self-serve that day.  To me, despite the lavishness of the meal, the icing on the cake (hey, I don’t recall cake being available with the meal; just about the only thing not there for us) was when we went to our table.  Each table had silverware, cloth napkins and four quarts of egg nog – one for each diner.  I’d never had egg nog before and here I had a quart of it!

I don’t recall how the meal ended, but I must have waddled out of there and stumbled down the staircase en route out of the Capital.  I have no idea how I climbed the seven floors to get to my room – 618 – at the St George.

I’m in my mid-sixties now.  I’ve eaten meals for a variety of holidays in countries throughout Asia, the Middle East and the US.  No meal holds a candle to the one I had that Thanksgiving with close friends in 1970.  Then, we did it all over again at Christmas!

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