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Not home, but as close as can be…for now

coastguard1Thurm Corson had to hold back tears when he met Cheyenne. It had been a while since he’d seen any dog, let alone his own at home in Maine and the simple wag of the Labrador’s tail and the slurp of her tongue on his smoothly-shaven face brought forth all the bittersweet emotions of the day.

It’s Thanksgiving and the aroma of roasting turkey is heavy in the air at the City of Cape May’s Veteran’s of Foreign Wars (VFW) post where 54 United States Coast Guard recruits — Corson among them — assemble to share a Thanksgiving feast, far from home.

coastguard22They come from places like Corpus Christi and San Diego. Cleveland. Seattle. Oklahoma City, Johnson City and even Horseshoe Bend, Idaho. Places most Cape May folks have never traveled to, places we can only imagine. Towns and cities across America these Coast Guard recruits call home.

One woman sits alone on the steps outside the small building, head in hands, tears staining her face. She has just called home, her first conversation with family since joining the Coast Guard.

Holidays are rough for these young men and women away from home, some for the first time, and difficult even for those used to being away.  Holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas mean family, and friends — tradition.

coast_guard_4The United States Coast Guard has called Cape May home for fifty years. All recruits, nationwide, must attend boot camp at Cape May’s Coast Guard Training Center. But the plight of the green recruit at holiday time does not go unnoticed in town.

Many organizations like the VFW and others like the Sunset Beach Sportsmen’s Club — just south of Cape May Point — serve a traditional dinner, offer free pool games, shuffleboard and most importantly, free phone calls home.

Two female recruits are talking excitedly in the corner.

“My parents bombarded me with questions the minute they picked up the phone,” Jessica Paxton from Annapolis, Maryland tells Californian Amanda Hennings. “I haven’t spoken with them since I joined up. I could barely keep up with them,” she says.

coast-2Though Jessica did live away from home for a while before joining the Coast Guard, she admits she really misses her parents — and her friends.

“I called my friends in Annapolis, too,” she adds a little tearfully. “I miss them just as much if not more. Is that bad?” she questions.

Amanda says no. She feels the same way and tells Jessica she cried the entire length of her phone call home.

“If we graduate,” Amanda says, “it will be December 22 and we will all be able to go home for Christmas.”

coast_guard_6“When we graduate,” corrects Jessica.

VFW commander Ed Hudson says the phone calls are the most important part of the day. Traditionally, the VFW foots the bill for the calls which can be placed as far away as Puerto Rico, California and, two years ago, even Australia.

Says Hudson, “We literally turn the place over to the recruits, furnish them with quarters for the juke box, pool table and shuffleboard game. We’ve developed a ‘slush fund’ over the years to pay for their phone calls home. We don’t let them spend any money at all.”

The money allows them to call members of their families without having to reverse the charges for “mom and dad to pay” and alleviates the need to dig for change.

coast_guard_3Above all, it is respect for the young recruits’ duties in the military groups like the VFW and Sportsman’s Club hopes to offer.

Transportation to and from the Coast Guard base is provided by volunteer members who pick up the recruits at 9 a.m. and return them by 10 p.m. Coffee and doughnuts begin the day, followed by snacks and dinner served at 1 p.m.

Basic training means basic fare. And standing in line with a tray, day after day.

“The highlight of the dinner itself could be that it is served sit-down style,” said Hudson. “And it’s real turkey with all the trimmings.”

“They do enough standing in line at the base,” Hudson says. “Our ladies’ auxiliary serves them family-style and even sends them back to the base with leftovers.”

Over 140 pounds of turkey are cooked, served with “all the trimmin’s” followed by traditional pumpkin and mince pies.

Though the recruits are “stiff” at first according to Hudson, it doesn’t take long for them to relax. “They are so used to protocol, they arrive following proper procedure. Soon though, the hats come off, and the ties. It’s such a warm atmosphere they begin to relax. The ladies help with that, too. Last year, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house with all the hugs and kisses when it was time to leave.”

Sportsmen’s Club president Jack Cummings says his club wanted to participate to show their appreciation to the recruits as well and says, “We have three turkeys cooking simultaneously at different times during the day,” Cummings says and adds with a grin, “that way they can eat continuously.”

There are also televisions available for watching those proverbial Thanksgiving Day football games and one year Thanksgiving Day cards were made by children at the Vineland Achievement Academy, greeting the recruits during dinner.

coast-3 coast_guard_5

Many wished them well, trying to understand the rigors of basic training. One particular card read, “Thank heavens it’s not Hamburger Helper” — its meaning perhaps not as trivial as it sounds. Thurm Corson left with a turkey sandwich stuffed into a pocket for a late-night leftover treat, a far cry from the mess hall. Cheyenne made out pretty well, too. Many an animal fancier sneaked “treats.”

Owner Linda Steenrod says Cheyenne expects turkey every year, as well as all the lavish attention. “The dog helps many of the recruits feel like they’re as close to home as they can be given the circumstances. I’m determined to bring her every year that I can.”

Says Hudson said with a big grin, “Every recruit here petted that dog at least once, and she showed affection right back with a slurp and a wag of her tail. Everyone who’s here becomes part of an extended family including Cheyenne. And it makes for a very good Thanksgiving for all.”