It was almost 40 Thanksgivings ago to the day that I arrived in Vietnam in November 1968. The Tet Offensive was still fresh in everyone’s mind and US troops all moved about the city fully armed and ready for violence to erupt almost anywhere.
Not knowing anyone and feeling desperately homesick, I was seeking a place to eat supper before the 7 p.m. curfew. The streets were nearly deserted and almost every place was closing.
It was then that I spotted the one place where I thought I could have a Thanksgiving turkey dinner—the USO center in downtown Saigon which was open to anyone deployed with the U.S. military. The lights were still on, so, looking out for any would be urban guerrillas, I nervously dashed across Nguyen Hue Boulevard and into the storefront shop hoping for a taste of home.
It was empty and the staff was cleaning up preparing to close. But I must have looked hungry, because they agreed to reopen the cafeteria line and feed me. The ambience was anything but what would make one feel like he was in Iowa. No fireplace with crackling logs; no smell of turkey roasting or pumpkin pie to fill the air.
Rather, I ended up sitting alone under fluorescent lighting sitting on a folding chair at a bare Formica table, eating off a paper plate. And the food wasn’t much like my Mom used to put on our holiday table. It was pressed turkey loaf, watery gravy and lumpy instant mashed potatoes.
I was feeling very lonely, but then, I looked up and saw a series of big envelopes attached to the distant dull green wall, each with a state name on it. Wondering what they were, I stopped eating, got up and walked over.
When I looked in the “Iowa” envelope I saw that it was filled with dozens and dozens of letters written by school children and sent to cheer up a member of the military who was far from home. I reached in and took out a few letters and brought them back to my table and read them as I ate.
I wish I could remember the names of the young students who wrote them, or even the town where they went to school. But I don’t. But what I do remember, as intensely as if it happened yesterday, is the uplifting feeling that surged through me as I read their words of encouragement and appreciation and love. Written in a penmanship that suggested the students must have been in just the second or third grade, those simple sentiments filled me with a warmth that is hard to put into words. Those feelings remain with me to this day.
I have experienced many wonderful holiday celebrations over the years, and two of our children will be home this Thanksgiving so I know we will have a marvelous time being together again. But that meal in Saigon so long ago will always be a special memory.