Everybody Has a Story: 1950s Icelandic Thanksgiving was plenty cozy for military family



Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving feast of the 1940s illustrates “Freedom from Want.” That theme resides in my memory of Thanksgiving 1956, when 17 servicemen, one of whom was my dad, plus my mom and four siblings, circled the Thanksgiving table that stretched from dining room to living room. Our family resided on the NATO base in Keflavik, Iceland.

Dad knew the loneliness of being away from home. He had waited six months for Mom, me, my two sisters and my brother (ages 10, 8, 6 and 2, respectively) to join him from Washington state. By Thanksgiving that year, we had lived four months in Iceland, so its raging winds, Quonset hut buildings, and volcanic rock outcroppings just past our living quarters seemed normal.

The base housed men of the Air Force, Army and Navy in the barracks, plus 99 family quarters. Our two-story building held nine apartments, with a hallway and entrance foyer that prevented icy winds from blasting us. We had a downstairs apartment.

Dad wanted to invite as many men from his squadron as possible to our place for Thanksgiving. He extended an invitation to 16 men whose families were not with them. Mom, who had been active with the NCO (Non-Commissioned Officers) Wives Club, called base housing to present the idea.

The housing office offered to supply and deliver the tables, chairs, pans, dishes and silverware needed. Mom and Dad ordered three rectangular tables to seat the guests for dinner and moved living room chairs,

tables and lamps to the bedrooms. Their extreme organizing stretched our tiny kitchen’s cooking capacity.

Our neighbors across the hall offered their oven when they heard my parents’ idea. The Bailey family perfectly embodied the military philosophy of “We’re all one family.” They offered to cook the ham, two casseroles of extra dressing, candied sweet potatoes and corn in their small oven. My parents stuffed their own roaster with a 26-pound turkey and its dressing, cooked 20 pounds of potatoes, crafted the gravy and browned the rolls. Mom and Dad baked five pumpkin pies the day before. They readied tins of cranberries and four pounds of butter to enrich the meal.

On Thanksgiving, the roasting turkey smells wafted through the apartment. We exchanged “Happy Thanksgiving” wishes across the hallway and through the neighbor’s opened door. At 2 p.m., servicemen began to arrive, shaking hands with Dad and greeting my brother, sisters and me. We looked up to grins, and joking compliments about brassy curls, shy smiles and blushing cheeks. At 4 p.m., the group claimed seats at the tables ensconced with serving dishes. Many big hands dished out servings of turkey, ham and favorite trimmings.

The hum of warm conversation, compliments to Mom and Dad, and “yes, please” electrified the air. After dinner, three or four men at a time got up from the table to clear, wash or dry. Mom orchestrated the cleanup like a maestro. Dad laughed and joked with the men, pleased to host such a happy occasion. All the while Mom kept a sharp eye on my young brother, my sisters and me. A stern look could squash the most boisterous outcry in the midst of any activity. I listened to the men’s stories about their own families, and smiled back shyly when they named a son or daughter around my age in the states.

Pumpkin pie ended the meal, but not the conversation. Again men rose to clear plates. Slowly some men left, patting my siblings’ heads with a teasing remark, and all thanking my parents. The satisfied glow from the room would not be diminished by the windy chill outdoors.

My mother’s favorite moment of the day was when a young man asked after the small amount of leftovers in one of the serving dishes: “Would it be OK if I ate the rest of the potatoes?”

“Oh, sure, I’ll heat them up.”

“Oh, no ma’am, I want to eat them just this way,” he replied. He finished the potatoes to the last spoonful.

Dad retells this story each Thanksgiving. I always wait for his hallmark ending: “And we had real whipping cream on top of the pumpkin pie.”