Thanksgiving with a Veteran

Sgt. Les Applebee (retired) surveyed his troops: three generations of Applebees all present and accounted for, a few in-laws and a neighbor who sometimes acted like an outlaw thrown in for good measure and laughs. All fourteen of them were seated at the homemade table Les assembled every Thanksgiving: two four-foot by eight-foot sheets of unfinished plywood supported by four-inch by four-inch posts of scrap lumber from his workshop. A red and white checkered plastic table cloth covered the table. Les pulled his masterpiece, a twenty-seven pound Tom turkey, from the oven and whistled at it.
“Now that’s a bird custom made for today,” he announced as he set it in the middle of the table.
Dressing oozed from the cavities he had stuffed eight hours earlier. His secret recipe of bread cubes, celery, raisins, giblets, wild rice, parsley, walnuts, cranberries, and onion was locked away in his head, along with plans not to pass it on until he lay on his deathbed, which now was at least a few days sooner thanks to the ungrateful attitude he thought surrounded this feast. The youngest one seated at the table pointed at the turkey.
“Look, Mommy, the turkey’s going poo poo.”
Her mother blushed. “That’s called stuffing or dressing dear, not…” Her search for words was drowned out by laughter and hoots.
The laughing helped soothe feelings and calm nerves frayed by an earlier argument on who was to blame for the current mess in the Middle East. Everyone at the table forgot the angry words from ten minutes ago. As usual, Les had retreated when the other eight adults had squared off, with four blaming “you pointy-headed liberals” and the other four yelling about “you dumb Tea Party radicals” being the cause of the world’s ills.
I’m the only one of them here that’s a vet, Les had thought when he abandoned the argument. What do they know about the military and what it has to do just so they have the luxury of going at each other like they get to?
He turned to his wife. “Can you say the blessing, Jane?”
She bowed her head. “Thank you for all of our family and friends, Lord. Please bless this feast today. In Your name, amen.”
By his second helping of turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, and yams, Les’ rising blood sugar revived his mood enough to talk, even though his feet still ached from standing on them since four a.m. making and baking pies before preparing the bird and loading it into the oven. All the side dishes he delegated to his wife. He decided to ignore his wife’s annual plea of: “please keep your conversation nice this year, dear,” made as she had mashed boiled russet potatoes and simmered the gravy.
To try and prepare his guests, he raised his glass of cider and offered a toast. “Here’s to the brave men and women who are stuck in God only knows where today so we can be free to eat feasts like this one.”
The other adults raised their glasses. Two of them said, “Amen.” The five children took the toast as their notice that they could wander off to the den to watch TV or communicate via their phones. Only Les objected to their absence.
“Just when I was getting ready to give them a history lesson.” Les set his empty glass on the table so hard that it bounced with a “thud,” which he hoped would keep the rest of his audience captive to his tale. “I remember two or three Thanksgivings when we were keeping the damn Russians from pouring through the Fulda Gap. We were The Third Herd, Third Armored Division. I was infantry. When we weren’t doing that, we were on maneuvers down at Graf or Hohenfels. Once, we even went up to Wildflecken and it was so cold that the captain made us get up at midnight and run our engines in our vehicles for twenty minutes to keep the oil in them from freezing up.”
“Uhh, I think we heard you tell us this story already, Les,” his brother-in-law said. “Besides, you weren’t in any real war.”
“No, just in a place where I had to patch up guys who tried to kill each other over women, money, and drugs. Or kill themselves because they got a Dear John letter from their woman back home.” Smart aleck punk, Les thought. “There were over 200,000 U.S. troops in Europe when I was there. You know what that means?”
“No.”
“Just that from 1945 to 1990, which is how long the Cold War lasted, millions of Americans served over there. Do the math.”
When his brother-in-law shrugged, Les decided to up the ante. “Okay, wise guy. Let me tell you instead all about my father-in-law and after that my dad.”
Jane, who had begun to reach for her husband’s forearm in hopes of corralling his “war stories,” pulled her hand back. Hearing about her dad was okay, no matter how many times Les told it, as long as he did not embellish his retelling of her father’s stories too much. With her dad deceased and not at the last eight Thanksgivings, any remembrance was welcome.
“My father-in-law had it pretty good at first during the big one.”
“World War II?” asked his neighbor. Fifteen years older that Les, he often wanted clarifications.
“That’s right. He was a desk jockey with the Army Air Force there in England. Then after D-Day he had to drive some officer around who was surveying the bomb damage done by our B-17s. He said they once got lost behind enemy lines. Some of Hitler’s SS troops almost caught them and then–”
Jane coughed. “Dear, you know Dad said they got back to friendly troops without too much trouble.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll tell the short version then. But I know for a fact the part about your dad seeing German civilians shake their fists at any of our planes or the British planes flying overhead is true. He told me that part at least twenty times before he croaked.”
One of the children, an eleven year old, came running from the den. “Uncle Les, Uncle Les!” He grabbed Les’ arm. “Come quick. There’s a movie about you on TV.”
Les blinked. “Huh? Well, it’s about time. We would have never won the Cold War if it hadn’t been for us being stationed there in Europe. The Berlin Wall would still be standing if it weren’t for us.” He followed his nephew to the den.
Jane smiled as she and her sister and sister-in-law turned to a different conversation. The four men still at the table rose and followed Les.
“When did they make a movie about when Les was in the army in Germany?” asked his brother-in-law.
The other three shrugged. When they stepped into the den, Les was slapping his forehead with hand. “The Big Red One? That’s your great grandpa’s war, not mine.” He frowned at his nephew. “That’s World War II in that movie. I fought the Russians in the Cold War, boy.”
“But the movie has tanks just like you always tell us about.” His nephew pointed at the screen as a German Panzer rolled toward the American troops. “And the American soldiers said they’re going to Germany just like you did.”
Les sank into his easy chair but sprang back to his feet before his plump rump had settled on its cushion. “That does it.” He stomped over to the television and turned it off with a swat. “We’re going outside for some exercise. Grab your backpacks, kids.”
The three who had brought packs went in search of them. The two oldest, teenagers, stared at each other.
“Come on, come on. You’re not getting out of this. You have to set an example for the younger ones, you know.” Les led them to his workshop. He tossed gear from a large barrel. A sleeping bag, mess kit, duffel bag and canteen attached to a web belt lay on the sawdust covered floor before he found a field pack. He tossed it to the oldest teen.
“You’ll have to share this. Take turns carrying it, troops.”
Five minutes later, Sgt. Les Applebee felt thirty years younger as he stood in his faded fatigues in front of the children and their mothers on the sidewalk by his home. The other men had returned to the warm den to watch football games.
“All right, let’s get going. We’re going to force march all the way to the mall and then back here.”
“The mall?” Jane shook her head. “But it’s three miles away. They’ll all freeze to death before you get half way there.”
Les’ head bobbled. It always did when he was ready to answer any question he deemed unnecessary. “Then we’ll go double time to keep warm.” He growled when Jane shook her head. “Okay, okay. I’ll stop off at the donut shop on the way and warm them up with some hot chocolate. How’s that?”
“It’s too far.”
“What if we just walk, no double time?”
“Let’s drive there instead, Les.” His sister gently nudged him and pointed at her SUV.
Les turned and stared at the eight-seat vehicle. “You sure it’s big enough?”
“I’m sure,” she said as she herded the shivering children into it.
During the drive to the mall, Les grumbled about how “traveling in six-bys and tracks is a lot more fun than these dang cars they got nowadays. Nothing but smog equipment and computer parts waiting to go and break down on you. Sometimes just the parts cost hundreds of dollars.”
“What’s a six-by?” his sister asked.
“A five ton truck. Don’t you know anything?”
She smiled as she remembered similar scenes from their youth, big brother trying to educate his little sister in the ways of the big bad world. “What’s a track?”
“An APC, armored personnel carrier. Now, that’s even better than a truck. They can go just about anywhere that a tank can. Looks sort of like a tank without a gun barrel.”
***
Three hours later, the Thanksgiving Day shopping expedition returned. By then, the kids were ready for pieces of pumpkin, apple, and pecan pie. The men had started to watch their third football game as Jane packed up leftovers to send home with her guests. At least her husband had found another topic for conversation, she thought.
“Lord have mercy, you should have seen the crowds at the stores,” Les said. “First and last time I’ll ever go shop again on Thanksgiving Day or any other holiday. Never again.”
“You’re supposed to wait until Black Friday,” his brother-in-law said. “You know, tomorrow.”
“Black Friday? That reminds me of those terrorists at the 1972 Olympics. They called themselves Black September. They killed a bunch of Israeli athletes there in Munich. We were on alert and couldn’t go off post and…” His words trailed off as four pairs of eyes turned to watch football instead of listening to him.
What do they know? Les thought as he sighed. I was there and they weren’t.

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