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My War - Those soldiers . . .
Our Family's Thanksgiving 1990 in Saudi Arabia
When you have forty people to a holiday dinner at Fort Lewis, Washington, or Fort Stewart, Georgia, or on any Army post in America, you borrow card tables from the neighbors, party-sized coffee pots from the Officer's Club, and set up places for people to sit in bedrooms, car ports, even patios if it's a nice day in November. When you have a large crowd to your villa in Saudi Arabia, you call the warehouse and ask them to come take away your living room furniture and bring you another dining room table for twelve. A handy option! When my parents came to visit in 1994, they took away our downstairs den furniture and brought us a complete bedroom set.
I turned my permanent dining table into a buffet, pushed it to one end of the room, and filled the rest of the space with six round tables for six each. Thanks again to the warehouse and its workers. Each family who was to share in the feast brought something to add to it. In a military community this means you might have Korean Kim-chi and German potato dumplings along with your traditional turkey and dressing. Only makes it better. We even had a Warrant Officer nobody had ever seen before show up at the door about an hour before we ate. He had a covered cheese server for a hostess gift in his hand, and said he'd shown his military I.D. at the gate and asked the guard if there was a place on the compound where he could celebrate Thanksgiving. The guard pointed to our villa, the one nearest the gate. So we welcomed him to join us. After all, it was Thanksgiving, and he was an American soldier who was far from home. By the end of the day we were best friends.
A couple of our regular geographical bachelors asked what they could bring for the meal that they didn't have to cook. Off the top of my head, I suggested they run down to the local Baskin Robbins (yes, there was one in Riyadh in 1990) and pick up a couple of ice cream cakes to add to the dessert buffet. So they did. I was humiliated to learn those suckers were shipped, already made, all the way from the States, and cost forty-five dollars each! I felt so badly for bilking the guys for that much of their hazardous duty pay! They couldn't have cared less. One of the soldiers said it was worth it to have a real homemade Thanksgiving with a family – even if it wasn't his.
Those soldiers. How can I put into words what it was like to share a holiday with them? They set the tables. They took out trash. “Hey, I'd be doing this for my wife anyway if I was home!” They played Nintendo with the boys and discussed my daughter's favorite books and authors with her. I think she fell a little bit in love with each of them in her pre-teen heart. My thirty-something heart fell a little bit too.
But, oh my God, the Piece de Resistance of all time was the surprise they had for me when dinner was over. I was buried in the far back corner of the dining room at one of the last tables to fill up. I saw some of the guys getting up and carrying their plates into the kitchen and thanked them for clearing their own tables. “Oh, don't get up,” they said. “We're just taking our plates into the kitchen.”
Well, it was easily an hour later when I finally finished talking and eating pecan pie. I took my own plate and glass into my kitchen, and what did I find? Not every dirty pot I'd cooked in, not all the left over food, and not a stack of forty eaten-off-of plates and trash. I walked into a spotless kitchen. The dishwasher was running. Left-overs were neatly wrapped and put in the fridge. The trash was taken out. Even the floor had been swept. It hadn't been that clean when I started cooking at O-Dark-Thirty that morning!
It was the best thank you those soldiers could ever have given an exhausted hostess. Twenty-one years later, nothing has ever come close to it. They said they knew how their wives would feel at the end of a day like this, and they thought it was a good way to say thanks. The soldier who first came up with the idea for Operation KP ended up a four-star General. When we heard the announcement of his final promotion, we were not a bit surprised. A leader is a leader – even in the kitchen. Maybe – especially – in the kitchen.
It's funny. When you are far from home and family and all that is familiar to you, and the holidays are coming, you dread them. You over-plan and over-spend and over-eat and really over-drink, just to get through them. But years later, when you look back on your family's history, those are the holidays that have the warmest corner of your heart.
After we retired from our military service, we were going to spend our first Thanksgiving at my mother-in-laws. My nine-year-old son got up early that morning and came running into our bedroom. “Are we going to that place for dinner that has all the tables covered in candy and nuts?” He was referring to an Army mess hall.
“Oh, my God,” I said to my husband. “I've raised an Army Brat!”
The story of my family's experience being stationed in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm is recorded in the memoir, "MY WAR - A wife's story" now available on Amazon.