Author’s Thanksgiving Story featured in “Museum of the American Military Family’s, Winter 2019, MAIL CALL publication.
Thanksgiving in Germany without Dad
As I slumped into my seat, I turned to look out of the window. The late evening dew had frozen on the tops of the grassy knolls. The dew hid the fallow fields from view. The usual, colorful, panorama was murky. The sunlight was obscured by the clouds, which cast a gloomy pall over the hinterlands. The massive fields of hay had been cut and rolled into neat, cylindrical drums. I looked for the old man we had passed on our way to school. I didn’t see him or his mangy, old nag. I guessed the rickety wagon he pulled, which was usually filled with fresh compost, had finally broken down. He had pushed its limits as far as they would go. I told myself all things break down eventually.
It was an unwelcome but sobering thought. My mind took a break. I let the drone of the school bus engine calm my nerves. I slouched into the corner and drifted into a welcome daydream. I pictured distant, faded memories of home. I yearned to walk along the railroad tracks in Big Island, Virginia, again. I had not found the solace I sought in my dad’s tour-of-duty in Germany. Those dreams had not come true; our family had paid the price. I was angry that we were always moving from place-to-place. I tried to suppress the feelings, but I couldn’t. I was a military kid in Germany. The year was 1958. Our family was caught in the middle of world-changing circumstances that I didn’t understand.
I looked down the aisle and surveyed the other military kids sharing the ride home. Some of them were catching a cat nap before disembarking after a long day. Others were reading or recalling the day’s activities with friends. I knew they were all subject to the same fate as I was. None of us controlled our own lives. We were dependents of American fighting men. We moved to wherever our parents were stationed. Our lives were their lives. It was the price we paid for being part of a military family.
The roar of the bus engine waned as we neared our bus stop. I was jolted back to consciousness as the bus slowed down and came to a halt. I waited for the other kids to exit the bus. I missed my good friend, George. He was on a trip with the Nurnberg High School football team. I was headed to my job at the bowling alley. Our paths would occasionally cross at school and on the weekends. It had been my choice to quit the football team. Our family needed the money, and I felt obligated to help. My dream of making my dad proud of me, as an athlete, would just have to wait. It was an honorable sacrifice. I didn’t want to ask my parents for pocket change. Besides, I felt good being able to share the little I earned with my family. I was growing up. It was time.
I got off the school bus feeling unsettled and tired. I expected my mother to quiz me about my school day; I wasn’t ready to give her the usual cheery answers she would be looking for. I climbed the stairway and reached for the front door handle. The door opened before I could grasp the knob. My mother stood in the doorway looking as forlorn as ever. She greeted me with a forced smile and reached to take my coat.
“Go wash your hands, Buddy,” she insisted. “I fixed you a snack.”
She didn’t mention that I would be late for work unless I hurried. I scuttled back to my room and changed my clothes. I didn’t think anything of the languid welcome I had received. I was too far into my own funk to notice hers.
My mother placed a bowl of tomato soup on the table. She followed it with a sandwich adorned with crisp lettuce leaves, fresh red tomato slices, and two thick cuts of crispy, fried bacon. I reached for the glass of milk she sat next to my plate, then I realized I had forgotten to bow my head and bless the food. My hesitation was all the opening my mother needed to start in with her bevy of questions. She stopped abruptly after I bowed my head to pray. I finished saying my prayer and heard a hearty “Amen.” It was my mother’s way of letting me know she approved. I tried to stuff my mouth with food as quickly as possible. It was my way of staving off the impending questions. I used to look forward to talking with her, but the strain during the last few months had tainted that memory.
“Where is your sister, Bernadine?” Mom queried. I could tell she was patiently waiting for me to offer something to the conversation.
“She was right behind me,” I said. “I expect she stopped to talk with her friend, Megan; they are probably trading crochet patterns again.”
The words came easily enough. Mom was glad for the thaw. It was always hard for me to leave the house with my mother in a sullen mood. It wasn’t her fault that our lives had become frazzled. She was doing the best she could to hold it all together. It was two weeks before Thanksgiving, and Dad was away again on maneuvers. This was his fourth time away in the past two months. I might have understood better how my mom felt, if I hadn’t been so focused on myself.
Bernadine knocked on the door, and my mother went to let her in. It wasn’t her normal routine. Usually, the door was unlocked, but that had changed since the incident with an overly, aggressive saleswomen. My sister greeted Mom with a hug and proceeded to tell her all about her day at school. That took the pressure off me. I finished my sandwich, downed my bowl of soup, and dismissed myself to go to work. They hardly noticed me as I left. The two of them were gabbing away as I closed, and locked, the front door.
It was a slow night. I finished my tour at the bowling alley early and left for home. I would normally have stopped, at the main guard’s station, to check on my friend, Justin. He had been teaching me some new chords on the guitar. I would have enjoyed playing a few bars of “Honky-Tonk” with him. That wasn’t going to happen this night; Justin had been transferred to Stuttgart, Germany, a month earlier. I walked past the guard’s house not bothering to acknowledge the new sentry inside.
“Where y’all coming from?” a rough voice accosted me.
“Just coming from work at the bowling alley,” I replied. “On my way home.”
“Carry on,” the rough voice ordered.
I could hear his breathing; he was that close. The query was routine. The interrogation didn’t faze me. I left the sentry, with the rough voice, braced against the doorway of the guard’s house and headed down the hill. As I descended the hill, wiry dark shadows fell across the road. A cold wind worked its way under my frayed jeans. I hadn’t remembered to wear a jacket; I began to shiver and clutch my thin cotton shirt. I thought about running the rest of the way home, but I quickly put that thought out of my mind. Why should I be in a hurry? I didn’t have any homework, and I was sure my dad would still be gone when I got there.
For the past two months, his absence had weighed heavily on our family. Sure, we were used to regular, military maneuvers, but these were different. Dad had become more detached and secretive. Mom tried not to worry herself, but we could tell something was wrong. Not even she could hide her apprehension about his new, heightened level of preparation for combat. We could not have known that her worse fears were well-founded. A post World War II crisis was brewing. The fight for a new world order was escalating. Tensions in our region of the world were rising and would soon boil over.
The Soviet Union seized control over areas which were thought to be free after World War II. Their aggression caused problems for the fragile peace in Europe. The result was a military arms race. The race accelerated in October of 1957, when the Soviet Union placed a satellite the size of a basketball into space. It was named Sputnik I. That satellite was followed by a second one named Sputnik II, a month later. The dual accomplishment was impressive. It caused Americans to fear that the Soviet Union might be able to deliver ballistic missiles, with nuclear warheads, from Europe to the United States.
Another development put pressure on our troops in Germany. In November 1958, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev delivered an ultimatum to the Western powers of the United States, Great Britain, and France. He demanded that they pull their forces out of West Berlin. This ultimatum precipitated a three-year crisis over the future of the German city. It culminated in the construction of a physical barrier to isolate East Berlin from the West. The structure was known as the infamous Berlin Wall.
All of this seems like ancient history now, but it was frightening in the fall of 1960. The entire world was threatened, with the possibility, that a confrontation by major powers might result in a nuclear war. Our dad was a military pawn in the middle of this chess game. He, and his team, was expected to hold the
line against any enemy incursion or aggression in Europe. It wasn’t until after Thanksgiving that we expected to see him again. It was the darkest Thanksgiving we had ever experienced.
When Thursday arrived, we sat at the Thanksgiving table and held hands. I took my dad’s place at the head of the table and said a prayer for him, and all the military service men and women in harm’s way. It was the most that I could do to calm the anxiety growing inside our family. My mom had roasted a small chicken for Thanksgiving. It took the place of the turkey. She knew it would be more than enough for us. We had cornbread stuffing, candied yams, and cabbage. Fresh collard greens were hard to find in November. The dining room was filled with the scent of fresh homemade rolls. We all knew what that meant. Mom had made cinnamon rolls with the leftover dough.
Our evening meal was solemn. Mom double-wrapped some of the leftovers in aluminum foil. She placed them in a paper bag, and gave them to my younger brother, Mercer. He put the bag in the corner of the dumpster. She knew an elderly lady would be coming by soon to retrieve it. The elderly lady would be pleased with what she found that evening. The giving ritual was no longer a secret. Our neighbor opened her door just as my brother stepped into the stairwell. She handed him her own bag of leftovers, to share with our less fortunate, local citizen. There was going to be a double blessing for someone less fortunate on this bleak Thanksgiving Day.
The night ended with us playing games in the middle of the living room floor. The hours we spent playing games together lightened our hearts and helped us get through the holiday without Dad. That night I said a special prayer for our family at home, and in the field.
“Please, Lord,” I pleaded, “let our dad come home soon. We all miss him and need him; with love from his family.”
I know that God answers prayers because our dad came home that very weekend. It was a joyous weekend homecoming. It even topped the one we celebrated when our dad received his first promotion. He had survived the rigorous field exercises. He was weary and exhausted, but that didn’t keep us from surrounding him with hugs. I would learn years later about the hours he spent hiding, in camouflage, from mock enemies during the day. I would get chills listening to him describe how he, and his team, infiltrated enemy campsites in the dark of night. Our dad had done his duty. He deserved all the admiration and praise we could give him. When Dad finally rested, he slept for the next twelve hours. None of us made a sound. Silence was the order of the day.
Bernard N. Lee, Jr.
Author: “A Look Back in Time: Memoir of a Military Kid in the 50s – Vol. II”
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