Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Unlike other holidays, it is remarkably free of hype — no gift exchanges, no particular religious significance, no special sales in the stores, no decorations. And it’s more than a feast. It’s a day when we are asked to be as thankful as it is possible for us to be for whatever we have. Communities across this country go to great lengths to provide turkey dinners and companionship to solitary senior citizens, to the homeless, to pretty much anyone in need.
To be sure, I’ve been fortunate. Growing up, my Thanksgivings were full of the four F’s: family, friends, food and, of course, football. But my Thanksgiving of November 1968 was very different.
It was my first year as a Peace Corps volunteer teacher in the Marshall Islands, where there was no Thanksgiving holiday. We worked that day like any other Thursday. Most of the 44 people in my contingent of teacher-volunteers, all recent college graduates, were already at their schools on the far-flung outer islands and atolls of the Marshall Islands, but a few of us were stationed in Majuro, the government center.
Two teacher-volunteers — a married couple named John and Jane — were still waiting for a ship to take them to the most remote of all the inhabited Marshallese atolls, Ujelang. (That is where the people of the Enewetok atoll had been relocated prior to the atomic and hydrogen bomb tests of the late 1940s and early 1950s.)
John and Jane had been given a small government house to stay in while they waited. Their house had electricity and running water, unlike the houses the rest of us lived in with kerosene lamps and stoves, and rainwater caught off tin roofs and kept in 55-gallon drums. We volunteers were paid approximately the same as our Marshallese counterparts, $80 a month. That covered rent and food and not much else. We ate what the Marshallese ate — rice, canned food, coconuts, ramen, occasional fresh fish, breadfruit.
We had been in the Marshalls since July, so culture shock was beginning to wane, but the Thanksgiving holiday we were used to celebrating back in the USA was going to pass us by this year. We were missing traditional Thanksgivings, and our families and friends. But we decided to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and at least get together for some sort of dinner.
John and Jane said we should bring whatever food we could muster and come over to their house on Saturday evening to create our own version of Thanksgiving.
There were eight of us — or there should have been. My roommate, Ron, was not there. Ron was not a teacher, he helped local businessmen with organization, inventory, bookkeeping and so forth. No one knew where he was.
We put our motley provisions on John and Jane’s small dinner table — ramen, sardines, Chef Boyardee, corned beef, pork and beans, mixed vegetables, tea, rice, and … Spam. Maybe we could carve one of the Spams into the shape of a turkey?
We were hungry, but we were waiting for Ron. Where was he?
Then, just as the sun was going down, here came Ron, a huge smile on his face. He had waited for the weekly flight from Honolulu and then walked from the airport, carrying two large shopping bags. Ron had prevailed on one of the businessmen he worked with to place a special order for us, and it was in those shopping bags: a small turkey, potatoes, fresh vegetables, cranberry sauce, and a half-gallon of Chablis. We poured that into a variety of cups and glasses (with ice!) and drank to our health, our hosts, our families, the Marshallese and Ron’s businessman friend. Then, we put together the most memorable Thanksgiving any of us had ever had. We were thankful for so much. I still am. Cheers!
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