A SUDDEN rain didn't help. It was cold enough already, a numbing, nasty wind coming hard across the Great Lakes Naval Training Center not far from Chicago. And now add rain.
He was waiting for a distant cousin named Cleo, an older cousin he had never met. He stood inside a small, foul-smelling wooden building, near the busy main gate of the training center, the collar of his Navy peacoat pulled around his neck and chin. The sun had not shone in days; a gray, somber pall hung over the earth, darkened even more by how he felt.
He knew he was staring, this time at a spot on the floor, his thoughts churning and angry as cars passed. He hated where he was, in the Navy at boot camp, a thousand miles from home, exhausted all the time from the physical rigors and what he perceived as harassment by officers. In letters home he struggled with the age old questions, who am I?, what am I for? Maybe he should have been a conscientious objector, or fled to Canada as so many other young men had done.
He looked up when he heard the beep of the horn. It had been at least two months since permission had been granted to be off the base. Even though he wanted to be alone, he had accepted her invitation to spend Thanksgiving together.
He guessed the family network had clicked in; his mother had called her sister, who in turn had called her brother-in-law who had called his daughter. "He's in the Navy and miserable. See if you can get him away for Thanksgiving."
When he got in the car, she held out a big hand to him and grinned. "Happy Thanksgiving," she said. He knew he looked angry, a condition he justified because of what was happening to him. If I grin too, he thought, will we grin back and forth all day? He managed a half-smile.
She saw a gaunt, exhausted-looking boy/man with a kind of perturbed shyness in his eyes; she guessed he would eat like a horse. With weariness she wondered if the whole day would be a series of questions from her followed by three or four word answers from him while he ate and ate. Later she would give him the small gift stuffed in her pocket.
Her ratty coat seemed to bury her, even though he could see she was tall with a long neck and undecided blond hair. The car was a mess, paperback books, newspapers, empty Frito bags, gum wrappers, a few sweaters, a blanket all scattered on the floor and back seat. She'd never make it in the military, he thought.
"Do you like doughnuts?" she asked, as she drove away from the base. How long had it been since a doughnut had passed through his lips? Three months? It seemed like a year.
"Yeah," he said, wondering if she meant turkey instead of doughnuts. "I've got to be back by nine or...."
"I know this great doughnut factory," she said. "A friend of mine works there. It's a surprise." It didn't take long to realize that her driving style was somewhere between maniacal and bizarre, lots of plunges down on the gas pedal followed by jams of the brake.
While she drove he looked away at the people on the streets. Normal clothes, he thought. Look, a man with two kids, a woman with a shopping cart, a man wearing a red hat and a beard. He felt himself beginning to relax, the tightness in his stomach loosening.
At the doughnut factory, he was introduced to Ollie, the owner, a man in white who looked like Hardy of Laurel and Hardy with a pencil-thin mustache. "Ten thousand doughnuts a day," he said, laughing, "even on Thanksgiving."
Flour was in the air; he watched a half a dozen men in white shirts and pants feed huge batches of dough into rumbling machines that punched out raw doughnuts, balanced them on a wide conveyer belt that moved toward a baking oven. On the exit side of the oven the men splashed on glazes, powdered sugar, chocolate, coconut, and cinnamon. They all grinned, moved quickly back and forth, and spoke loudly in Slavic languages.
He could feel a sort of residual hostility in his heart begin to fade. He couldn't help it; the inherent humor of being in a doughnut factory on Thanksgiving was working quickly on him. He had escaped the undertow. And when a bell rang, and the conveyer belt slowed to stop, he and Cleo followed the men to a large, windowless room off to the side where a surprise, lavish Thanksgiving dinner was waiting.
The men cheered; two of them broke into a folk dance when one of the men began to play an accordion. Women and children appeared and danced. Cleo danced too. Ollie bustled back and forth between the tables and a kitchen; more women and children appeared.
Taped to the walls were homemade drawings of Pilgrims eating doughnuts or turkeys with doughnuts in their beaks. Orange crepe paper hung in swirls from the corners of the room. Two enormously fat, steaming brown turkeys were waiting to be carved.
Okay, he said to himself, Thanksgiving in a doughnut factory. He was happy enough to cry. One of the men leaned over to him at the table and said with blue-eyed pride, "Sailor, our new country, Hamerica, we like."
Cleo gave the sailor a gift: a small, cheap harmonica. For the next three hours, he alternately ate, sang, played the harmonica, danced with women, children, Cleo, even Hardy. The turkey, gravy, and mashed potatoes were so good he wanted to laugh. The corn on the cob reminded him of his Uncle Ted who used to come to his family's house on Thanksgiving in California and eat five cobs every time, and nothing else.
The pumpkin pie he smothered in whipped cream; the apple pie he smothered in ice cream.
When he and Cleo left, he couldn't stop talking even though he was exhausted and bloated. His confusion, anger, and happiness poured out of him in bursts and fragments while she drove and listened. Wind and rain lashed the car. She asked him what he wanted to do next.
"Canada," he said, and they laughed.
"What I would like to do is go somewhere quiet, sit in a comfort-able chair, and look out a window at trees."
She drove to her apartment at the edge of the city. They climbed the stairs slowly while he continued to talk about Vietnam, the pressures and harassment of boot camp, of Canada, and missing home. He thanked her for Thanksgiving in a doughnut factory, and said he felt better because he realized he had forgotten himself.
INSIDE the apartment, she moved an old armchair close to a window. He sat down, and she went to make popcorn. Within seconds he was asleep. It was the supreme accolade of trust from him to her, to fall asleep out of great resuscitating need, to keel over in instant sleep because he felt at home. He slept for four hours. At eight o'clock, she gently touched his shoulder. He didn't apologize for sleeping, and later she wrote to him that she saw him as a weary brother far from home. She drove through the ra i n back to the base while he played a melancholy harmonica.
When he said goodbye, he knew that on the other side of the gate that nothing would have changed. He guessed he was a little different now for having been reminded that one of the reasons to endure a hardship is to celebrate the memory of it even before it's over. You escape the undertow by going up.
And someday he would do what she had done; take in a waif and fatten him or her for a new day. This hope added to his well-being, which was no longer so low that he couldn't feel his worth.
"Say thanks to anything," is what his mother and father used to say to him as a boy to remind him of his part in the balance between easy and hard, freedom and constraint. Say thanks now and then, say it to anything. Sparked by this as he walked back to the barracks in the nagging rain, he mumbled, "Thanks."