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Holidays with the Coast Guard

On any given holiday, the Coast Guard Training Station in Cape May has about 800 recruits who would rather be home. In the spirit of giving, many residents from the Cape May area volunteer to host recruits for a traditional holiday dinner. recruites2

I’ve always wanted to have a couple of recruits at my house for Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Two things have prevented me from picking up the phone and extending the invitation. Number one: Fear (Fear of ruining a holiday meal in front of strangers – homesick strangers at that) Number two: No phone number.

So, I was sitting around the office last month trying to figure out what to do for my “On Assignment” piece for December when I got the idea that this could be the year.

billcarsonI still didn’t know how to go about it, so I called the one man I knew at the base Bill Carson, the public affairs officer at Cape May’s U.S. Coast Guard Training Center. He sent me to the Cape May County chapter of the American Red Cross. After I answered three questions for them (Is it a smoking household? Do we have pets? How many recruits would I like?) “Operation Fireside Thanksgiving 2004” was in the works.

In about a week a letter arrived saying I would be hosting two recruits. They were to be picked up at the U.S. Coast Guard Chapel at 9am and returned to the front gate of the base no later than 8pm.

9 A.M.??!!!! What was I going to do with them from 9am to 8pm? We probably coastguardonphonewon’t eat until about 4 or 5 o’clock.

Panic sets in. This is when living in a small town really pays off. You can ask around. No worries, everyone said, “coasties” basically want to do two things – use the phone and watch football. Yeah, but what if I get two girls and they don’t like football? What if I get two guys and they don’t like football? What if..

OH I don’t have time to worry anymore about that – I have some serious cleaning to do. Because you know – there’s no cleanin’ like company cleanin’. And this is the military. I’ve seen “An Officer and a Gentleman.” I’ve seen “Private Benjamin” – like about 20 times. I know the drill. These recruits probably spend most of their day scrubbing bathrooms with toothbrushes and shining their shoes. I just know they’ll be looking for cobwebs and dust. Furiously, I start cleaning those #!%#* wooden slat blinds I have in the living room windows. I figure I’m ok so long as the sun doesn’t shine through them reflecting off the dust. After about a half hour of this cleaning, they still look dusty and yucky. I figure I have at least another hour to go – so, I opt for Plan 2 – close the blinds. Tell them it’s because the glare on the TV makes it too hard to see.

All righty now. What’s next? Ah. The rest of the guest list.

Well, I’m not exactly “Ozzie and Harriet” for sure. My boyfriend, Aaron, will be there and his 11-year-old daughter Megan, whom I’ve known since she was three. My two very best friends, Chuck and Lester who used to own a restaurant in Cape May, and my estranged husband Barry. That’s 6 men, Megan and me. I like the odds. Men never have opinions about how you cook, what you cook or where they’re going to eat. Their only concern is when.

Next? The menu. Well. the turkey. I’m guessing a 16-lb turkey. “Are you crazy?” asks Aaron “You’re going to need a 22-lb turkey just for Barry.” Right. Check one 22-lb turkey.

There’ll be stuffing of course.

cookinwithsusan

Susan in her kitchen

“You’re going to cook the stuffing outside the bird aren’t you? Bacteria you know,” Lester advises. “I’m making it the old-fashioned way. I’m stuffing the bird. That would be the same way I’ve made it for the past 20 some years.”

So, it’ll be turkey, gravy, stuffing (stuffed inside the turkey), but I’ll make a side dish of dressing that’s not in the turkey. It’ll be like dry flavored bread, but it’ll be an alternative for the bacteria-phobes…. Now where was I? Oh yes, the rest of the menu – cranberry relish (thanks to Chuck) mashed potatoes, and praline sweet potato casserole – the recruits might be from the South. And succotash. I saw a great quick recipe for it on PBS.

Off I go the next morning to get the turkey. I plop it in the freezer and press on with the house cleaning.

On Sunday my real panic begins. I’m casually reading the The Press of Atlantic City and they have an article on turkey preparation including a chart on how long to thaw the turkey. There it is in bold letters. 20-25-lbs FIVE TO SIX DAYS. Oh my gawd. I’m going to be like that commercial with the woman standing over the turkey Thanksgiving morning with a hair dryer and then a blow torch. I rush to the kitchen and pull the turkey from the freezer. Thus, begins the four day turkey vigil. I check the fridge about every two hours to feel the package to see if it’s thawing. I ask Aaron every four hours what he thinks.

“I think you should relax.”

“Relax! We’re going to be eating stuffing (dry stuffing!) and succotash for footballThanksgiving. You don’t understand. These guys or girls or guys and girls will be homesick. I want this to be the perfect Thanksgiving!”

“It’ll be perfect,” he says.

“You’ve got turkey. You’ve got football. That’s a perfect Thanksgiving.”

Flash forward to Wednesday morning. I take the turkey out and put it in the sink and stand there looking at it. I feel like saying a prayer over it or something. Aaron comes into the kitchen and squishes the bag “It’s fine.”.

“How do you know it’s fine?”

“I can feel it. See?”

“Do you think it’s too thawed? Maybe I went too far?”

I have to focus elsewhere. Like moving the extra couch to the garage to set up the table. I’ve got to get a bigger house if I’m going to do this often!

By the end of the evening, the table looks great, if I do say so myself. I’m beginning to feel a little more confident. I mean, when have I ever ruined a dinner? Hhhmm, there was that standing rib roast that I decided to cook on the grill…

T-Day. Megan and I make sure we arrive at the Coast Guard Training Base ten minutes early. Of course about 15 or 20 other people made the same notion and the Coast Guard doesn’t open the base until precisely oh-nine-hundred.waitingforcoasties

Megan and I wait in the car line until we are ushered onto the base, passed the Chapel and into a parking lot. We see tons of civilians walking into the chapel and tons more walking out with recruits – young recruits – at their sides. I listen to hear every little word because these civilians seem to know the drill.

“I know you guys want to stop at a Wa-Wa so we’ll go right there,” I hear one man say.

Wa-Wa? I wonder why they want to stop at Wa-Wa.

“I know how you guys can eat so we made two turkeys this year.”

Two Turkeys? Two? Uh-oh…

As we’re standing in line inside the chapel, I’m handed a card which has my name and the words “non-smoking, one pet.”

Before we know it, we’re standing in the Chapel facing a room full of recruits. The officer at the podium is announcing the next civilian. “This is (the whatever) family,” he says “And they’re looking for (how ever many) recruits. Non-smoking, no pets.” And hands go up all over the room.

recruites3Holy mackerel! So this is how it’s done. What if they don’t like us? If this were junior high, no one would be picking me for their team. I hope this isn’t like that! I should have checked my hair and put more lipstick on. Too late. It’s my turn, our turn. Full disclosure.

“Actually, it says non-smoking but it doesn’t really matter,” I say to the officer.

“This is the Tischler family, smoking or non-smoking and one pet dog.”

I’m afraid to look but hands go up all over the room. Whew. They like us. Megan and I move forward toward two young men.

“Hi,” I say. “What do we do next?”

They shake their heads. Oh… They don’t know either.

“Well, let’s start by leaving.” A nice woman takes our cards, both mine and theirs and soon we’re outside in the sunshine walking toward the car.

recruites

Joe and Brandon

Recruit Joe Tankersley is 18 and comes from a small town in Indiana. He is one of 7 kids. (I think – I know there’s lot of Tankersleys somewhere out there in Indiana.) Brandon Yingling is 20 and is from the Harrisburg, PA area. Most of the units have 40 recruits in them but Bravo 170 has 85 recruits. Joe and Brandon like being part of a large unit.

As we’re leaving the Coast Guard Base, Joe asks if “we could please stop at a convenience store ma’am.”

“Sure.” We stop at the Wa-Wa on Texas Avenue which, it seems, is a very popular place for Coast Guard recruits.

“I wonder what they want in here,” asks Megan as we watch them disappear inside Wa-Wa land. Megan and I adopt a “don’t ask” mode but fortunately Joe and Brandon do tell all. They stopped to buy phone cards so they can call home.

They’re very curious about the town and I can’t figure out why because they’re half-way through their training. They’ve been in Cape May a month.

Well, the reason why is simple. This is the first time they’ve been off the base and they know nothing about Cape May.

Mandy

Mandy

When we get home, Aaron has had the foresight to secure Mandy, our three-year-old Cocker Spaniel. Unlike me, she’s a little high strung and is particularly smitten with men so it’s great that’s she’s been leashed. Aaron says something about doing the same to me if I don’t relax. I ignore him and show the guys the phone.

Brandon takes the wireless phone outside. Joe watches as I begin the stuffing process.

“You really take a lot of care with your stuffing,” he says. “You put apples and nuts in it and everything is freshly cut.”

“Oh yeah.”

“You like to cook?”

“I do yes.”

That’s when Joe tells me he’s been cooking since he was 11 and at one time thought of specializing in food service but he took a job as a baker and quickly burned out. If he were home, he would be cooking the Thanksgiving dinner.

“What’s going on in the news?” he asks.

I’m stumped. I can’t think of anything other than turkey and stuffing and getting it into the oven. I grab a newspaper – two of them in fact.

“Is Bush still president?”

I stop – my hand half way up – well, you can only imagine.

“Yes. George Bush is still president. You don’t know that?”

“We’re not allowed to watch television, listen to the radio or read anything other than the Bible or the Coast Guard Training Manual. On Sundays we can read our mail and we have about a half-hour to write letters back home. I arrived Nov. 2 and I haven’t heard anything from the outside since.”

“So no one from home has heard from you in four weeks?”

“No.”

“Wow. What do you do all day?”

Train, of course, hence the title Coast Guard Training Center. Still, I’m floored. I would have thought they could at least make a phone call on the weekends. Brandon told me later, that phone calls from the base aren’t permitted until I think the fifth or sixth week.

As the turkey goes into the oven, the light bulb finally goes on in my head. This day is special for reasons I had never thought of. It’s not really about the food, or suestablethe table setting or whether the turkey is stuffed or not stuffed. It’s all about family – their families – and the fact that they won’t be with them on this holiday except by phone. They are off the base for the first time in a non-military setting. They can use the phone all they want. In a couple of hours there will be all the football they can watch. In 4 or 5 hours there will be all the turkey they can eat. The phone works. The cable TV works. I’m feeling a lot more confident about the turkey and besides Chuck and Lester will be over soon to help me. I think I can relax.

I sit on the rocker, Aaron has flipped the TV onto a channel showing the movie “Southern Comfort,” not my choice but hey it’s a movie about a unit of national guardsmen lost in the Bayou. Joe and Brandon seem to like it.

It’s Joe’s turn to use the phone. Brandon is sitting quietly on the couch with Mandy at his side. She’s being particularly good today. There is a calm about the house that will stay in place until… Barry, Chuck and Lester pull in the driveway.

They’re here.

As I’m about to go on overload again Chuck hands me a drink, “Have a Marguerite!” I knew Chuck would come through. Then I’m asked why I couldn’t find an easier way to do the meal like buy it ready-made or get pre-made stuffing or store-bought this and that…

“OK. Look, I stuff my turkey. I cook the turkey on Thanksgiving or on Christmas and I don’t ever let someone else do the cooking. I know it’s nerve racking. That’s why I do it. That’s my gift to everybody. The perfect turkey dinner.” End of speech. “Cheers.”

At this point I do give up control and the ridiculous assumption that I can do this without help. I put everybody to work except Joe and Brandon, who are busy watching TV and dipping and munching chips.

groupshot2As Aaron takes the turkey out of the oven – Chuck determines whether it is done or not – Lester reheats the side dishes in the microwave – Barry entertains the troops. It is my most perfect turkey, a glorious sight which in my panic I forgot to get a picture of – so you’ll just have to trust me on this.

I’m told that everything tasted wonderful. I, myself, have no recollection of it and indeed 22-lbs was just enough; 16-lbs would have left us wanting.

By the time the turkey has been carved, the temperature outside has dropped to about 40 degrees. As we launch into dinner, 50 MPH winds are howling around the house like a pack of banshees and I have visions of the roof coming off and the turkey attempting a final flight. No such thing happened.

Chuck’s famous carrot cake, attended by pumpkin and 2 apple pies were served around 6:30 and by 7:30 Joe, Brandon, and I had to get to back to base.

Whew!

barryandcoastiesI hope Joe and Brandon had a good time. They certainly said they did. And I hope they have good and safe lives. I’m sure all the recruits are wonderful but for my first Coast Guard visit, I couldn’t have asked for better guests than Joe and Brandon. They will graduate Dec. 22 and be home with their own families for Christmas.

I learned two things from my experience. Never put off doing a good deed – the loss is yours. And men have just as many opinions about how to have perfect Thanksgiving as women.

And to Joe and Brandon who will not be able to read this until Dec. 23 – Merry Christmas from Sue, Aaron, Megan, Chuck, Lester, Barry… and Mandy!

If you would like to invite a Coast Guard recruit home for the holidays call the American Red Cross Cape May County chapter at 609-465-7382.