Thanksgiving, 1999 – Algona, IA
“Thank goodness we’re here. I don’t know if I could deal with eating my own knees any longer.” Smalls exclaimed as he struggled to climb out of the car. “Who’s idea was it to rent a Yaris for a two hour drive, anyways?”
Chris held back a laugh. “Hey, I was only trying to save us some money and apparently Des Moines International Airport doesn’t have a huge selection of economy cars. But it got us here, didn’t it?”
“Yeah, but it’s gonna be a week before I can stretch out of the fetal position.”
“I don’t wanna hear it. Let’s get inside. It’s cold and I’ve been looking forward to mom’s amazing green bean casserole for months.” Chris loved being around Smalls’ clan. They treated him like a member of the family.
The Smalls’ house was a charming two story colonial with a white wrap-around deck. Its wooden siding had been well maintained throughout the years and had a fresh coat of white paint. The dark trim around the deck framed the front door beautifully communicating authentic hospitality would be found within. The house sat on almost eighteen acres, most of which was covered with rows upon rows of corn.
They hadn’t even had a chance to knock on the door, when it swung open and Alessandra exploded into Smalls’ arms, kissing him.
“Alright, I’m gonna give you two a minute. I’ll be inside when you’re done,” Chris said with a smile, as he walked past them into the house.
Alessandra whispered into Smalls’ ear. “Are we still good?”
“Yes. How much longer? I need to get it off my chest.” he replied as he squeezed her in his arms.
“Soon. Come on, it’s chilly out here.”
“Ugh.” Smalls released his bride and held her hand as they walked into the house.
This was the second time Chris had spent Thanksgiving with the Smalls family. He enjoyed watching the women hustle around preparing the food, while the men sat around salivating over the smell and catching up on life. The antique wooden table in the dining room was filling up with traditional Thanksgiving food; turkey, ham, cranberry sauce, rolls, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, and Chris’ favorite, Sarah’s green bean casserole.
The pies and desserts wouldn’t bless the table with their presence until after everybody had gorged themselves with the main meal. It’s usually several hours after the main meal and consists of pumpkin pie, apple pie, ice cream, cherry cobbler, and chocolate pecan pie.
Every item consumed on Thanksgiving was home cooked and prepared in the Smalls’ kitchen. Sarah had a gift for country cooking. When Alessandra joined the family, she added some Brazilian spice to the traditional meal, making Salgadinhos for a main course and Pavé for dessert.
“Do you guys need help with anything?” Chris asked as he walked into the kitchen.
Sarah waived both of her hands dismissively. “No, sweetie. Relax and enjoy yourself.”
Alessandra walked to Chris with both hands held up, until they lightly collided with his chest. She continued pushing, forcing him to retreat. “Go spend time with the guys. Relax.”
“Okay, okay. If you insist.” Chris held both of his hands up, just above his shoulders, complying with the demands and walking backwards out of the kitchen.
In the living room, Chris made himself comfortable on the couch, at the opposite end from Smalls. Henry was sitting on his old, worn recliner, with his feet propped up. The fireplace was crackling and giving off a warm wave of comfort, while the television displayed the college football game quietly. “Aahh, come on! He never stepped out of bounds!” Henry proclaimed his dissatisfaction for the recent play.
A commercial came on the television and Henry twisted his head towards the couch where his son and Chris were sitting. “You boys deploying anytime soon?” He said with a casual tone. His face betrayed his underlying emotion.
Smalls quickly responded before Chris had a chance. “There’s a possibility, but nothing set in stone. Why do you ask?”
“Ah, you know. I see things on the news. All this stuff in Iraq… …and now it’s starting in Afghanistan. I may be old, but I’m not stupid. Some of our country’s boys are already headed over there, and with you two bein’, you know,” then in a whisper, “recon, I figure it’s only a matter of time.”
Chris looked at Smalls with a half tilted head, and the corners of his mouth pulled back.
“Yeah, I’m sure it’s probably coming, dad. But we don’t know anything definite.”
“Alright, I was just curious.”
Sarah walked into the living room, leaned over the back of Henry’s recliner and kissed the top of his head. “The food is on the table boys.”
The sturdy hardwood floors creaked under the weight of everybody walking as they all shuffled from the living room to the dining room, where the table was covered from edge to edge with large plates and bowls of food. At once, the whole family dragged out the antique wooden chairs surrounding the old table and shuffled to find space.
There was barely enough room as everyone sat shoulder to shoulder, and Chris relished every bit of it. He was sure his family had enjoyed similar holidays in Florida, but they were buried in memories that he couldn’t pull to the surface.
After a moment of silence, the room erupted in a chorus of praise to Sarah for her cooking accomplishments. Chris marveled at the coordination that it must require to have all of the food prepared and finished at the same time, steaming hot and filling the air with the most wonderful smells.
Sarah thanked everyone and directed attention to Henry at the other end of the table. “None of this would be possible without your father’s hard work. It hasn’t always been easy, but he has always provided this family with everything we ever needed.” Her eyes began to fill with tears of joy. She quickly grabbed a napkin and wiped them. “Honey, would you mind saying a prayer?”
“You bet, momma.” Henry reached his hands out to the sides, grabbing Alessandra’s right hand with his left hand and Chris’ left hand with his right.
Everybody followed in suit, holding each other’s hands in a circle around the table as Henry’s deep voice began blessing the family and food with prayer. “…and in Jesus’ name I pray, amen,” he ended and the feast began.
After everyone had eaten more than their stomachs could hold, conversation continued for an hour. Everyone shared the role of beginning a story, and then each person in turn would make corrections as they remember the stories differently. Laughter erupted spontaneously as Sarah described stories of her “little” boy Smalls. Chris smiled, trying to picture his best friend as a little vulnerable boy.
There came a pause in the stories, and Chris spoke up. “Um. I need you all to know. Well, you probably already do, but, you are my family. I can’t quite describe how it feels to be included.
“When I first met our boy Smalls here, he was a grumpy, proud oaf of a man,” he paused while everyone shared knowing smiles, “But through my hard work and persistence, he is now a presentable member of society.” Everyone smiled but waited. They knew that Chris hadn’t finished. “And beyond just a friendship, he is my brother.”
After a few more stories, festivities began to wind down with everyone at the table breathing deep sighs of contentment, and Alessandra interrupted the silence by tapping the side of her glass cup with a spoon, calling for everybody’s attention. “So, there is something that we would like to tell all of you,” she said looking to Smalls. A grin of anticipation dominated his face.
“What’s going on?” Henry inquired.
Alessandra placed both of her hands on her belly. “You’re going to be grandparents.”
Sarah gasped. “You’re kidding me! That’s wonderful news! When are you due?”
“June fourteenth.” Alessandra couldn’t stop smiling. “We’ll find out if it’s a boy or girl in a few weeks.”
“Congratulations, son. Congratulations to both of you.” Henry said proudly.
Chris leapt to his feet and raced around the table to embrace Smalls, “Congrats brother,” he said. Then he gave Alessandra a huge hug. “This is awesome guys. I’m gonna be an uncle!”
After dinner and desserts, the activities slowed and everybody found a cozy place to sit and socialize in the family room. The smell of freshly brewed coffee filled the air as they all held their warm mugs and took small sips. Sarah and Alessandra had hijacked the conversation and began going back and forth, bouncing baby name ideas off of each other.
Chris’ cell phone vibrated in his pocket. He pulled it out to check the incoming number. His smile faded a bit, but was quickly replaced again. No one noticed, except Smalls. Smalls saw and knew. “Excuse me,” Chris said stepping from the room. “I need to take this call.” The smile was replaced by a foreboding look of gloom as he accepted the call and walked out of the room. “Hi Staff Sergeant, what’s up…” His voice faded as he turned the corner into the kitchen.
Smalls counted to thirty before moving to join Chris, creating distance between their departures to avoid drawing attention. He walked into the kitchen to see what was going on. As he rounded the corner, he could hear Chris talking again. They made eye contact. Chris’ facial expression was now grim. Whatever the call was, it wasn’t good news.
“…right. I’ll start calling the guys in the morning and let them know.” Chris said in a somber tone. “I’ll let them enjoy the rest of the day.”
Smalls held his hands out in front of himself and rotated his palms upwards with shrugged shoulders and a look of curiosity.
Chris held out his right index finger, indicating that he would tell him in a moment. “Yes, Staff Sergeant. You’re welcome. Goodbye.”
“Dude, what’s going on?” Smalls inquired.
Chris shook his head. “That was it, brother. That was the call.”
“On Thanksgiving? They called on Thanksgiving to deploy us? What kind of shit is that?”
“The call was intended just for me. I’m supposed to tell the rest of the squad tomorrow. He didn’t know I’d be here with you.”
“Whatever. Now I know.” Smalls looked down at the ground, then back at Chris. “I guess we better tell the family and get back to base.”
“Yeah,” he said with a deep sigh of regret.
As they both entered the family room, all of the talking stopped. The looks on their faces grabbed the attention of everybody in the room.
“Why do you both look like you’ve lost your puppy?” Henry asked.
Smalls felt overcome by what had to be shared. He leaned against the doorway to support himself. “We just got some news that sucks.”
“You boys are getting deployed.” Henry said.
“Yeah, dad. We won’t be leaving for another couple weeks, but we just found out for sure.”
Chris tapped Smalls on the arm. “Look, you don’t have to come back from leave until Monday. I’ll catch an early flight back and I can meet you there. That way you can spend some extra time with your family.”
“Are you sure? I can go back with you.” Smalls asked with concern.
“Yeah, I’m positive. I’ll have to start working on some stuff, but you don’t. There’s no reason we both have to miss out on a few extra days with the family.”
“Okay, I guess you’re right. I’ll see you back at the barracks?”
Henry spoke up. “I can drive you to the airport.”
After long hugs and tearful goodbyes, Henry and Chris left. They drove together in silence. The Buick came to a stop in front of the airport entrance. Chris could tell Henry wanted to say something, but was struggling to get it out.
Staring out the front window, Henry found his voice. “So, the truth is that I’m a little scared. My only child is being deployed and the inherent dangers of military deployments are daunting. Then there’s you. You’ve been much more than my son’s best friend. You have been like a second son to Sarah and I. Alessandra loves you like a brother and so does my boy. We all love you very much…”
“I know. I love all of you too. You guys all are the most important people in the world to me.”
“I’m not gonna put the responsibility solely on you…and I’m gonna tell my boy the same thing.” Henry paused and swallowed. “You look out for each other over there. Watch each other’s backs. Okay? I want both of you back. Come home safe. I’ll be here waiting for you.”
“We will. We always do.” Then Chris added cautiously, “Thanks dad.” They sat for a moment together, unsure what else to say. “I’ll see you when I get home,” Chris said. Then he opened the car door and marched into the airport.
Tears streamed down Henry’s cheeks as he watched the young man walk away. “Take care of yourself, bud,” he said softly. “Take care and come home safe.”