In 1962, my family lived on the island of Okinawa, now a part of Japan. The US Military still occupied this sliver of Pacific coral, having paid for it with the blood of 12,000 dead sailors, soldiers and marines in June of 1945. In 1962 it was still home to a large contingent of US military personnel, with a sizable garrison of Special Operations troops and Air Force folks. Dad, an Airborne officer, shuttled back and forth between the the newly formed 173rd Airborne Brigade and 1st Special Forces, units he loved. I was a 12 year old kid, trying to grow up in the unique environment of military dependency. Thanksgiving in the Armed Forces is always a big deal and November 22, 1962 was true to form, a Thanksgiving I will never forget.
As was the custom in military units back in the day, the officers and senior cadre were permitted to bring their families to a military mess for Thanksgiving dinner. As I recall, all dependents were welcomed, but few enlisted folk’s families were on the island. We lived in military quarters in an area named Kishaba Terrace in the Sukiran sector on the island. The quarters were of concrete slab construction to fend off the typhoons that frequented this region. Dad was a Battalion Commander back then, and dinner with the troops was an automatic for our family. We dressed accordingly, which for me meant a bow tie, creased trousers and a whitewall haircut. Life was good, however; I had no idea what was in store for me on this holiday.
Seasoned combat veterans are usually no strangers to strong drink. Dad did not, as I recall, have a drinking problem, but I can assure you he did drink and could hold his liquor with the best of them. On this Thanksgiving, several of the officers and the Battalion Sergeant Major had begun the festivities at our quarters where dad polished off a couple of, number unknown, drinks called a Rusty Nail. The Nail was comprised of scotch whisky and a liquor named Drambuie, a heather honey infused scotch whiskey jazzed up with spices and herbs. We were driven to the big, appropriately decorated, mess hall and seated at the head table with the other officers. It is also customary for a unit Chaplain to deliver the blessing, but our Chaplain was not present, for reasons that escape me. It was up to the Colonel to deliver the blessing and dad stood, slightly out of kilter and brought the several hundred troops to their feet. Mom and I exchanged knowing looks, as dad had not entirely bought into Christianity, as a result of his combat experience. The troops were silent and dad was trapped between scotch whiskey and a lack of preparation. In a style befitting a man used to dealing with trying circumstances, dad turned and passed the honor of blessing the meal to his son……..me.
When I, in turn, looked at dad, he was smiling. I am not sure if it was the scotch or his confidence in my ability to pull off my first public speaking event. Strangely, there was no panic. I had a few seconds to organize my thoughts, bowed folks heads and gave thanks for the following things. Our President, John Kennedy, who I knew that dad adored, the “soldiers” all around the world who kept us safe, our families, military family and finally the food we were about to enjoy. It was far from a barn burner, but I had made it without passing out.
After the meal, the Sergeant Major shook my hand and suggested I had done well and had just made a life long memory. I have not nor will I ever forget. So it is that I thank God for our country, the military and anyone who wears a uniform in the name of peace and prosperity. Blessings at Thanksgiving are not simply a part of the ritual, they are an opportunity to thank the Almighty for what we have and for those who lay it all on the line for the common good. Dad and Christianity? Later in his short life, he got it together. If anyone deserved the opportunity to make amends, he did. Thanks, dad.
Happy Thanksgiving, and God Bless you and your families.