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Friday, November 29, 2013

Thanksgiving past

International Thanksgiving in Alaska 1976
Ft Richardson Army Base, near Anchorage, AK

Being stationed in Alaska from 1975 to 1978 was a great thing for an outdoor type like myself, with a wife, little girl and dog to keep me company. We had each other and our shared hobbies and interests.
For those Air Traffic Controllers who worked for me it was quite different, they were alone. Stanley did bring his wife up and had a house to go to, but their families were far away, just like the others. We needed each other to make our own family group.

The idea started out simply as a Thanksgiving meal where everyone could gather and not be by themselves. A good plan, but as we added people to the list it began to show a different color to me. The names that I wrote down on the page were what did it.

There was the Southern boy, with an Ohio wife and a Georgia born daughter in the house already. Add to that a Japanese kid from Hilo, Hawaii, and Polish guy from New Jersey. A German man from New York City with his British imported wife. A Czechoslovakian from Michigan, a French Canadian from Wisconsin, a pair of Nebraska yuppies of mixed Scandinavian ancestry, and a nutball from Guam by way of Puerto Rico.
What we had was a U.N. meeting without the politics. From that realization came the theme of: International Thanksgiving.

I called upon my second-in-command, Stanley, to assist me with finding cultural dishes from each ethnic group represented. This could prove to be a strange conglomeration of dishes, but that would just make it more interesting.
For our Hawaii born Japanese son, Clifford Mitsuo "Mitch," we decided that octopus was a good representative offering. There were none to be found in the commissary, so we headed into town and stopped at the big chain grocery store. The man at the meat counter laughed at me when I asked for a whole octopus. I guessed that was a no to my question as to whether they had any.
As is common in remote parts of the world, everyone listens to everyone else's conversations and Anchorage was no different. An older Chinese gentleman heard our question and was too polite to interrupt the rude grocery man, so he waited until we turned to leave to summon us to his side.
 He was dressed in traditional Chinese clothing and looked to be very ancient, but he spoke better English than the clown we had just dealt with. "Gentlemen," he said, "You may find what you seek at this market" and handed us a card. It sounded like a line from a James Lee Wong story!
We drove to the market and went inside a small building with a huge shop stuffed inside. It truly looked like a black & white movie from the 1930s with all of the stuff hanging in that shop. There were live chickens in crates, canaries in bamboo cages, eels in pots of water and more of the little ancient Chinese guys smoking pipes. The place was a trip!
I couldn't find the cash register, which is where every American shopper goes to find out about anything, so I asked the youngest looking man in the place if he spoke English, and he said, "No, but my grandfather does," pointed at a really old guy and left. What?!

The man in charge came to our rescue and told me that the others were a bunch of jokers and asked if he could help. I explained what I was trying to find and he lead us around and through the maze of shelves to a big deep sink. Covering the sink was a sheet of glass with bungee cords holding it in place.
I thought that was odd until the moment he unhooked the cords. A tentacle pushed under the edge of the glass and kept growing in size until the body of an octopus appeared. Evidently they are supreme escape artists that can and will get out and slip into the most inconvenient places imaginable, and probably some that we couldn't imagine. The shop owner deftly grabbed the creature by the head with his fingers in the eyes and breathing openings. He said will this one do?
“Well, yeah!” we said, thinking how the Hell, and what the Hell do we do with this thing now?
The man had already figured out that we didn't have a clue so he took us farther into his shop to a free-standing butcher block. There he grabbed a wooden club similar to a belaying pin on a sailing vessel, and whacked the life out of the beastie in one stroke. He then took a meat cleaver and had the beak and the internals out of the octopus before we could really focus on what he was doing.
The gentleman gave us instructions on how to wash the creature to properly prepare it. He suggested that we dunk it in boiling water, and then steam cook this meat. Why didn't we remember that they have McDonald's on the Big Island? This was going to be a lot of work. “Hey wait a minute,” we thought, “let's make Mitch do it!” Cool, this was going to work after all.

Stan kept fussing that his German food was next, but at least it wasn't so hard to get. He wanted Bratwurst, Sauerkraut, and German beer. The man was actually a pretty good cook too. I guess it was his bachelor years between wives.
His first wife didn't like him being on the road all the time playing bass for great jazz horn man Chick Corea and had emptied his bank account, filed for divorce in Reno, (Hey!) and driven off in his brand new Cadillac. So Stan had to fend for himself.
When he married Geisla (Geese-La) in London, he didn't realize that he would still have to do the cooking if he wanted to taste anything. Even though she was born in Germany of German parents, she was raised in London by relatives who had made her into a complete Brit. No flavor in her food at all.

Our man Andre was a French-Canadian transplant to Wisconsin. He was born there and was a US Citizen, but all of his family lived in Canada. When he joined the Army, his parents and siblings went back north to live where the rest of the clan was.
His contribution was Canadian duck, a really tasty meal, which used chopped up duck meat, ham, onions, celery, some kind of green peppers, a lot of butter, flour, and all kinds of spices. He fussed around with it in the kitchen all morning singing stuff in French and being just a happy chef. It required a lot of stirring, I do remember that, and it was awesome tasting.

Scott was a unique individual. He was the crudest, rudest person that I have ever known. We couldn’t take the man into a bar with us, because a fight would start within five minutes of his arrival. He was also one of the most brilliant electronics technicians that ever lived.
He could look at any piece of equipment and know what it did and how to deal with it. If textbook fixes weren't possible, he would invent something that worked. I can't tell you how many times he made something out of nothing for me. Of course this was the same guy that lit his hind end on fire lighting flatulence too. Can't have everything I guess.
Scott was only allowed to bring alcohol. No cooking should ever be consumed if he had anything to do with it. He could somehow cause food poisoning in an unopened can of peaches. He brought about 3 gallons (No, I am not kidding) of hard liquor and we called it good.

My number three guy, Jerry, was of Polish extraction and had been raised in New Jersey. He right away jumped on the idea of Kielbasa and a surprise, which he wouldn't tell us until he brought it. It turned out to be six large pizzas with anchovies on every one of them.
He was a sick individual. He knew that if he said "anchovies" before hand, only he and Mitch would say yes. This way no matter which pizza he got to, it would have his beloved little dead, sea creatures on it. The Kielbasa was very good though, and it was cooked in some kind of seasoned oil that his grandmother told him to buy.

Alexander was the only boy of six children in his 100% Czechoslovakian family from Upper Michigan. He was never in the kitchen growing up to do anything but eat. He chopped a lot of firewood and did all of traditionally male oriented chores, but didn't have a clue about cooking anything.
We told him that we had lots of food and we just wanted him to join us and enjoy. He finally settled on bringing the staple of every American gathering, potato chips… bags and bags of potato chips. He couldn't decide what kind went with our meal (like who could?) so he bought a big bag of every kind the store had.

Alex was a big, sensitive, quiet guy, who I had to coax into speaking into a microphone when he first arrived, but could now hold his own working traffic at the control tower. You were never quite sure what he was thinking, but the man never missed anything going on around him.
When he arrived back at my house after he dropped off his bags of chips and went to the barracks to get cleaned up, he was again carrying a bag. What the Hell is he doing I thought, not more chips! But it wasn't.
His family practiced a tradition which is largely thought to be Russian, but many cultures in the area pursue it; that tradition being that of carving eggs and painting them as gifts. He had two large eggs for Stan’s and my house, and smaller, chicken egg size ones for everyone else in attendance at that dinner.
They were all ornately carved and painstakingly hand painted with a tiny brush, inside and out. We aren't talking Easter egg dye job painting either. Alex had painted scenes inside of each egg and crosshatch patterns with gold paint on the outside. Think Faberge eggs and you would be close to what they looked like.
OK, they were certainly not that same quality, but every bit as precious to us. He had stayed awake every night after work creating these gifts instead of sleeping, because he wanted to contribute something to our celebration. There were a lot of allergic reactions all through the room as the manly men rubbed their eyes and tried to regain composure. It was a very touching gift you must agree.

The last two members of our group were the newest arrivals to the family of controllers. The female partner was the controller, “Can't Cook Kate,” with her husband Sam, who worked in Personnel. The husband told us her nickname when we first met them at their check in to the Company HQ. He was explaining a scorch mark on her duffel bag, saying that she had dropped a flaming pan of something on it and he had rolled the bag to put it out. We all assumed he was joking. Turns out, he wasn't.
Kate was to bring a big garden salad. The two wives had advised us that no one could screw that up, so we gave that assignment to Kate. She asked if she should bring salad dressing too, and thinking of bottles of stuff you pour on your green salad, we said, sure, why not.

Their car had not arrived in Anchorage yet, so Stan and I drove over to the temporary quarters they were in to pick them up. As we walked in the front door, the smoke was rolling out to meet us and a smoke alarm was playing a melody that we were to hear so often at their house.
Kate was coming out of the kitchen towards the metal trash can outside with a pan of blackened something, which turned out to be French toast… after the Revolution, I'd say. Sam was nonchalantly walking out of the bedroom in his country club tennis attire complete with the sweater tied around his neck. I fully expected him to say, "Oh Buffy, shall we go." But he didn't.
There was still a layer of dark smoke hugging the ceiling as Kate came back from changing into her matching tennis outfit, again complete with a sweater around her neck. We started out to the car and I asked, “Weren’t you bringing a salad?” “Oh yes,” she says and runs back towards the next remodeling job for the housing office on base. She didn't pop right back out, so I went in after her.
She was mixing something back and forth between two mayonnaise jars and looking puzzled. I should have known that was a bad sign, but I was in a hurry and didn't. I picked up the bowl of salad looking stuff and she carried the jar in her own hands.

We had pans of food everywhere there was space to set them down. The octopus was still in the pan of water it was cooked in, the duck was in a big pot on top of the stove, the Kielbasa on a cookie sheet in the oven, as were the bratwurst, with the sauerkraut on the back of the stove, stinking up the place.
The pizza was delivered in a snow storm by a goofy looking guy from a ratty old pickup truck, and Mitch met him at the back door and took delivery. Mitch was funny; he would not allow anyone to walk into our house wearing their shoes. There was quite a pile of boots, shoes, coats, etc., piled up just inside of our back door.  
My daughter Jenny, who was three at the time, decided to help and threw all of it down the basement stairs, and then brushed her hands together and declared, “There, that’s better.” She had done such a good job that later when people were trying to leave, no one remembered her comment and didn’t have a clue what happened to all the gear.
The six pizzas and the big salad occupied the dining room table, so we just grabbed plates and did the buffet line thing and filled up with goodies.
This brings us to the actual meal time and a very touching moment where each person said something in the form of a blessing in the language of their heritage. It was truly a special moment and I had no idea how much we would need those prayers.
As we all started with the salad, being the more or less traditional beginning to American meals, it was predestined that we should all react in the same way at the same time. We put the salad in our mouths at the same time, and we all spit it out at the same time. 
Kate had poured the entire quart jar mixture on the bowl of salad and saturated it really well. It was primarily a whole bottle of vinegar and an unknown type of oil which she had found in the cabinet in the kitchen in a clear bottle. I for one didn’t think that I would ever get it off of my tongue, even though I was licking a kitchen towel.
Moving right along, we tried to stab a piece of octopus and found that one could not stab the pink morsel, you must scoop it up. Mitch grabbed his with his fingers and drug it through the soy sauce and popped it into his mouth. We all did the same thing eventually. Then we chewed, and chewed, and chewed a lot more. If these were pink pencil erasers they wouldn’t have been any harder to chew up and swallow.
The Canadian Duck was excellent, what there was of it. We told Andre not to make a lot of it because we had so much food and he did as instructed. The brats were good, but very greasy, and the Kielbasa was good but spicy as all get out. The sauerkraut still stunk like crazy, but we ate on it.
Jerry was happy as could be eating his anchovy pizzas, and in fact ate so much of it that he had to go outside and unload some it, well, and tequila and beer, before he could start eating more.
By the time the evening was over, we had consumed all of the duck, most of the brats and Kielbasa, all of the alcohol and all of the potato chips. Four large pizzas were gone, and two whole ones were left. There was lots of salad and octopus to be had. Maybe we should have mixed the two together; the oil might have softened the meat to where it could be chewed. We did learn that we had over cooked the octopus a teensy bit. OK, ten times the amount of time we were supposed to do, but who knew?
The only thing we remembered for sure was that we had all been together for the day and evening and we enjoyed each other’s company immensely. No one was alone, or left out, and that was tremendous in a place where being alone can be fatal to your mind and well being.
It was a good day.

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