So… I admit this post is a little late. But I am telling this story anyway, because I think it perfectly illustrates what I consider to be a VERY important point. So deal with it.
As I am sure most of you are aware, we here in the U.S. celebrated Thanksgiving last week. Thanksgiving, by the way, and no matter what anyone may try to tell you, is NOT a religious holiday. I recently came to the shocking (and somewhat disturbing) realization that there are a number of Americans who live under the mistaken idea that Thanksgiving is somehow tied to Christmas… it is NOT … so … just wanted to set the record straight. Because last week I heard a guy at a local convenience store, after the clerk behind the counter told him that he was working on Thanksgiving, reply with “Man, I would NEVER do that. That’s against my RELIGION.” What religion might that be? Are you a Puritan?
But I digress… as this is not the story I am here to tell.
Every Thanksgiving, I listen to people rattle off lists of stuff for which they are thankful. I it usually runs along the same general guidelines: family, home, food, healthy children, a loving spouse, blah, blah, blah. I mean, I am not being critical. There is certainly nothing wrong with being thankful for what you have.
HOWEVER, every Thanksgiving I eventually get asked the question “What are you thankful for, Nathan?”
My answer usually confuses people at first: “I am thankful that I once met a young farm-boy whose name I can’t even remember, who was from some town in West Texas I’d never heard of, when I went to Marine Corps boot camp.”
Usually, this answer provokes any number of new questions, but these are usually just different ways of asking me “Why?”
The story I tell to answer this question is one that often comes to my mind at those times when I find myself upset about feeling like I do not having enough money, or in those rare moments when I catch myself wanting to whine about something I want but can’t afford (note that I said want …not need).
This is a 100% true story, one I seem to tell to at least a few people every year around Thanksgiving:
I first met the young farm boy when I, along with a group of about 5 other new recruits, were leaving the Dallas processing station for the airport to board a plane to the Marine Corps boot camp at MCRD in San Diego, CA. He was among them. I often refer to him as “Huey,” though I must admit that I do not remember his real name, mainly because when I first saw him the way he looked brought to mind the old “Baby Huey” cartoon character (for those of you who don’t know what “Baby Huey” is/was, you can Google it) … regrettably, I don’t know that I ever bothered to ask a name of him. I wish I had, because I doubt he will ever realize the impact that he had on my life.
Anyway…it would be an understatement to say that Huey “stuck out” from the group. First of all, he was ENORMOUS. He stood at least 6-foot-5-inches tall, and was nearly as thick. His shoulders were almost inhumanly broad. Even under his layer of chub, you could tell that he had some serious muscle power behind his size. He wasn’t fat … he was just REALLY BIG.
But it wasn’t just his size that made him stick out (though that alone probably would have been enough). He wore a ratty, baggy old pair of nearly threadbare denim overalls … and that’s it. No undershirt. No hair (to be honest I couldn’t tell if he’d already shaved his head or if he was just actually bald). Not even socks... well, he didn’t exactly have shoes on, anyway. Unless you count the pair of cheap flip-flops strapped to his feet, which looked like they had been repaired more than a few times with generous amounts of duct-tape. The flimsy foam soles were the only thing between his feet and the bare ground. And, to top it all off, in his mouth he held a piece of wheat. Seriously… Huey could have stepped right off the set of a community theater production of The Grapes of Wrath.
As we were being driven to the airport, I actually asked him about his clothes …more out of concern for how the drill instructors were going to react than out of curiosity (showing up to boot camp looking like a hayseed plowboy was a sure-fire way to provoke more than a few choice insults from Drill Instructors, I knew).
“These are work clothes,” he said with a tone of pride, and not a hint of shame to be found in his voice. “Why would I muck up a pair of my nice clothes when they're just gonna slap a uniform on us when we get there, anyway?”
I have to admit… I could not argue with his logic. So I dropped the subject.
I remember that some of the guys in our group had a laugh about the way Huey was dressed as soon as he left to find a bathroom when we first arrived at the airport. At least now I knew who the cowards among us were. These guys would never have had the balls to scoff at Huey’s appearance when he could actually hear them.
When Huey came back, he was proudly brandishing a newly bought pack of Marlboro’s and the piece of wheat that had dangled from his mouth was now replaced by a bright red piece of licorice.
“They’ve got a store in there,” he announced to everyone, as if none of us knew there were conveience stores in airports. The tone in his voice reminded me of a little kid who just found out there's a 'bouncy house' at a birthday party. “My Papa gave me five dollars when I left. Just enough for some smokes and a piece of candy. Never had my own pack a smokes.”
He broke open the cigarettes, and only then realized that he didn’t buy anything to light them with. I offered him my lighter and he took a long, happy draw of smoke. As he exhaled, he explained, “Papa usually shares one of his smokes with me once the day is done.”
About an hour and way too many cigarettes later, Huey’s facial expressions started to betray hints of anxiety and anticipation. His mood went from happy to excited to antsy and back again. And I could tell that he was doing all he could not to make it obvious...though he was failing miserably.
“Wish we didn’t have to wait so long,” He said, at first to no one in particular. Then he turned to me. “I never been on a plane before. You?”
“Twice,” I told him. “Back when I was in school. But it’s been a year or two.”
“I’ll bet it’s great to be up there,” he said, his eyes drifting off to the sky as a wide grin drew across his big round cheeks.
Once we got to the Recruit Depot and began processing in, I found myself assigned to a different platoon than Huey. I would not see him again for several weeks, on the day that both our platoons were going through supply in order to be fitted for our first issue of combat boots. Even now, that moment is among my most vivid memories.
I was handed several pairs of boots by a supply clerk (despite the fact that I insisted I wore a 10 ½ Wide, which I knew well after having spent years in both the Naval Sea Cadet Corps and Military School), and was firmly told to grab a spot on one of the benches outside. I was told that I had to try on all three pairs so that I could choose the ones that fit best. I accepted the situation, grabbed a spot on a red wooden bench outside, opened the first box of boots, and began lacing one up. As I leaned forward to pull on the boot, I noticed one humungous boot-clad foot on the ground in front of me.
Sitting at the bench directly across from me was Huey, trying on his boots. I started to say something to him, but the words caught in my throat as he lifted his face where I could see it. His cheeks were so flushed that at first I thought he was sunburned. Then he looked directly into my eyes and I saw a torrential stream of tears flowing down his big, round face.
“Hey man,” I said to him gently, genuinely concerned at seeing this gigantic guy suddenly bawling like a baby. “You okay? Don’t worry, the homesickness gets better after awhile. I promise.”
“No,” he said, sniffling and wiping his tearstrewn face on his BDU sleeve. “Did you know that we get to KEEP THESE?” (I always get choked up when I tell this part… I just can’t help myself).
“Keep what? The boots?”
“Yeah,” he replied, letting out what sounded like a sigh of relief…or maybe it was satisfaction I heard. “I never had my own new pair of boots.” And then Huey let forth with yet another fountain of sobs and tears as he said, “Even all these clothes is brand new…took ‘em right out of the plastic and everything. I just never been given so much new stuff before.”
“Well,” I told him. “Now you have.”
As we tried on boots together, Huey finally got a grip on his emotions and proceeded to tell me as much about himself as a human being can in about 15 minutes.
Huey, I learned, was the second-youngest of 9 children (yep, you read that right…NINE). His family owned and operated a farm in some little town in West Texas. His entire life, Huey explained to me, every bit of clothing he’d ever had were hand-me-downs from his older siblings: shirts, shoes, pants, and even his “Sunday clothes.” Not once in his entire life had he ever been the owner of a single piece of new clothing.
“Remember those overalls I was wearin’?” He asked me. I nodded. “Those were the old work clothes my Papa would wear for stuff like painting and working on the combine. Ya know, so he wouldn’t mess up his other ones. I gave all my clothes and shoes to my little sister when I left. She’s got more clothes than she knows what ta do with, now.” He smiled and sniffed a bit when he said that last part. Meanwhile I just sat there with my mouth open and tried to process what he’d just said about leaving his clothes to his LITTLE SISTER. I was absolutely dumbfounded by the sudden realization that my life had been an absolute cakewalk in comparison to his. I thought of, with more than just a little guilt, about how my brothers and I sometimes complained about the brand of new clothes our mother would buy for us… while this poor kid never even HAD new clothes in his entire life.
“And,” he continued. “Have you seen how much FOOD they give us here?”
I guess it’s hard to stretch a meal that divides up well for a family of 11 (2 adults with 9 kids), especially if even half of Huey’s older brothers were as gargantuan as he was.
I milked trying on the last pair, buying myself a few more minutes so I could listen to the last thing Huey said to me.
“And we sleep until 6! Can you believe it? That’s nearly sunrise! And we go to bed the same time every night. I even get to say a prayer and go to church every Sunday and everything.
“I tell you, brother,” he said as he stood up tall in his first pair of brand new boots, his shadow shading me from the hot afternoon sun. “This is the life for me.”
And with that... he was gone.
I never saw Huey again. But my experience with him that day changed my life forever. I find it much harder to feel sorry for myself, having known how life was for him. I have a hard time feeling like I don’t have enough when I have seen, with my own eyes, a giant of a young man brought to tears over a pair of new boots.
That’s being truly thankful for what you have…and I will be forever thankful for the valuable lesson he taught me that day.
Huey … wherever you might be these days … and even though I am pretty sure that you will never have a chance to read these words … I want to tell you that I am thankful to you for opening my eyes, and that I am a better person for having met you.
Happy belated Thanksgiving, everybody!