Thanksgiving is a holiday so laden with ritual that once you get enough of them under your belt, they all start to run together. From my earliest memory until my 20s I spent just about every Thanksgiving in the same place with the same people doing the same thing. Thus, I could tell you everything about Thanksgiving in my youth — the cast of characters, the menu, the Lions game, my grandfather’s annual wine-fueled rendition of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” But I could tell you nothing, other than a few changes in the cast list, that would distinguish say Thanksgiving 1987 from Thanksgiving 1978.
Then there’s Thanksgiving 1991. I was a 19-year-old lance corporal serving in the 81mm mortar platoon of the First Battalion, Eighth Marine Regiment. We were two months into a six-month “float” around the Persian Gulf, deployed aboard the helicopter carrier USS Saipan. For Thanksgiving we had, we were told, the honor of being the first Marine unit to get “liberty” in Dubai. It was a dubious distinction. At the time Dubai was a sleepy, if fabulously wealthy, Arab port decades away from becoming a cosmopolitan destination for the jet set. You could get a drink, but only in an expensive hotel bar surrounded by European businessmen and British Airways flight attendants — none of whom were interested in the company of an exuberant gang of Marine grunts.
Our pre-liberty briefing by the platoon gunnery sergeant consisted of a thorough recitation of the horrible consequences — up to and including non-surgical removal of limbs and other appendages — that awaited us at the hands of the locals if we got too drunk, talked to a woman on the street or acted “too American.” When I raised my hand to ask Gunny where I might find “The Gut” — a generic term for the sleazy red light district in any port that you’re always told is off limits and where you inevitably run into your entire chain of command — he was not amused. In fact, I was advised in no uncertain terms that I was not to come crying to him when I got myself “beat, shot or (I’m paraphrasing here) subjected to unwanted sexual contact” on the streets of Dubai.
And so it was, on Thanksgiving Day 1991 that I found myself eating rubbery chicken and overcooked rice garnished with mint leaves in the company of my buddy Ed Sieber and a bearded guy in a shalwar who was eyeing us suspiciously. We were the only Marines around; our buddies had long since departed from the bar at the big hotel across the street in order to catch Thanksgiving dinner on the mess deck of the Saipan. Being young, hardheaded and under the influence of the arrogant disdain for homey traditions that sometimes afflicts young hardheaded guys far from home, we opted for a few more beers and some “local flavor” at a neighborhood restaurant.
I’d barely tucked into my boiled chicken when I realized we’d made a mistake. Sure, Thanksgiving dinner on the mess deck surrounded by hung-over Marines arguing over who that British Airways flight attendant was really into was no great shakes. But at least it was Thanksgiving: turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, an approximation and reminder of holidays at home. And we missed it. It was a glum meal, and a glum cab ride back to the port. I don’t think we spoke a word as we made our way up the gang-plank, past the officer of the deck and into “Marine Country” — the bowels of the ship where the scent of our missed Thanksgiving dinner still lingered in the air. Compared the fetid atmosphere that commonly permeated the air in the cramped enlisted quarters where we lived in coffin-sized “racks” stacked four high it was a pleasant change. It wasn’t the only thing different about Marine Country that evening.
As we paced the buffed red linoleum floors towards our quarters we noticed an unnatural silence. The berthing area was typically a cacophony of boisterous voices, slamming dominos, shouted oaths, cries of “Big Mo!” from the never-ending game of spades and a disorienting blend of rap, rock and country music blaring from cheap portable tape decks (jazz too until some unknown jazz hater gave a sergeant’s ammo can full of prized recordings a Jonah’s Lift into the Red Sea). Tonight, though it was disconcertingly quiet. At first I thought somebody must have slipped a porn film into the rec room VCR. Naked female flesh — so I thought — was the only thing that could command the undivided attention of my disparate group of comrades in arms.
When I rounded the corner into the large cage that passed as a lounge I found something else entirely — something so weird that it stopped me in my tracks. The entire room was crowded with Marines staring transfixed at a television where the Grinch was about to embark on his epic Yuletime burglary spree.
How The Grinch Stole Christmas! was on and every last Marine not on guard duty seemed to be crammed into that lounge intent of catching it. When someone piped up with commentary, Rashid Miller, a towering character from Brooklyn who appeared carved from solid onyx, uttered the immortal line, “Shut the fuck up. We’re watching the Grinch.”
And those were the last words spoken until the credits rolled. When they did, I plotted a rapid retreat to my rack, in fear of the epic ball-breaking that would ensue if anyone noticed a telltale wetness in my eyes. Then I looked around and noticed that all of us — Sieber, the rowdy semi-reformed skinhead from Florida; Miller, who may have enlisted in the Marine Corps infantry because it seemed safer than Brooklyn; the scout sniper who dreamed of the day when he’d put his crosshairs on a target not made of paper — were misty-eyed, if not crying outright. Of course we were. Because beneath the crotch-grabbing swagger and our devoutly held belief that we were the finest killing machines ever unleashed on the world, we were kids. Young men just a few years removed from the days of tumbling down the stairs on Christmas morning hoping for a new bike under the tree.
What I learned that day, and what I hope all of you already know, is that there’s some part of us that’s always the kid on Christmas morning. Even if your childhood sucked (for the record, Mom, mine did not) there’s still that kid you wished you were on Christmas morning. Most of us carry around deep reservoirs of emotion tied to home and family. As we get older they get deeper, buried under anxiety about holiday bills and awkward family gatherings. But sometimes, if you’re lucky — usually when you’re far from home, away from family and by most objective standards miserable — you’ll find all of those feelings are still there, just waiting to be tapped. For me and a bunch of homesick Marines on a Thanksgiving Day 22 years ago, all it took was a cartoon about a felonious monster whose heart grew two sizes that day.