Today we celebrate the American holiday of Veterans Day, established back in 1919 to honor those brave men (and, later, women) who have served in our armed forces. It’s one of one of the handful of days each year that I feel especially proud of my American heritage (one of the others — Memorial Day — originally celebrated the end of the American Civil War, in the way that Veterans Day originally marked the end of World War I).
My own family had a scant few (known) veterans. Both of my grandparents on the Chapman side of the family served in the U.S. Navy during World War II (Grandma didn’t receive official recognition — or benefits — until almost thirty years after the end of the war). My father is a veteran of the U.S. Army, spending much of his military career as a missile instructor, firing Nike-Ajax projectiles into the stark southeastern New Mexico landscape while stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, in the 1950’s. But his most interesting “war stories” involved smuggling cheap liquor purchased in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, across the border under the dashboard of an Army Jeep.
My military career was a non-starter. I was a cadet in the Naval Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (NJROTC) unit at my northeastern Kansas high school for three years. We were undergoing boot camp at Naval Station Great Lakes outside of Chicago (freezing our butts off during a blizzard) when the Argentinians invaded the Falkland Islands. We closely followed the developments and I remember wild cheering in the barracks when the Royal Navy arrived and soon began sinking opposing ships.
Other ROTC memories include participating in many basketball and football games as a part of either the color guard or drill team, the Secret Service locking up our non-firing drill rifles (1903 model rifles with a lead plug filling the barrel) prior to President Ronald Reagan‘s visit to our school, and then Reagan sending the troops to invade Grenada while we were on a training deployment at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego (which included a cruise on the USS Fox).
Alas, my high school grades weren’t good enough for me to earn the sought-after appointment to Annapolis following graduation. I attempted to enlist in the U.S. Navy but that, too, was denied me. You see, I had the very serious medical condition known as pes planus. This simply means that I have flat feet (no arches). Despite all the marching I’d done in my high school ROTC days (and attaining the rank of C/CPO – Cadet Chief Petty Officer), this wasn’t good enough for the Navy Recruiting Command. They were concerned that if I developed further medical problems as a result, I’d be liable to sue the government. This was during the Reagan years, arguably the best time to be involved in the U.S. Navy since Teddy Roosevelt was president!
Still, my father tried his best to obtain a military waiver for me. Indeed, my case even reached the hallowed halls of the Pentagon. Friends in high places… I often wonder how my life would have been different had I been allowed a naval career. I’m not bitter, just curious. And I did stumble into a much different way to “serve” my country in the waning years of the Cold War.
All of this helps explain why I am still extremely patriotic, despite my living outside the United States for the better part of the past decade. I do have old “friends” (read, those who I went to high school with and who have never moved outside of Kansas) that believe the word ‘expatriate‘ is akin to ‘anti-American‘. They believe I’ve completely turned my back on America and all she stands for. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, living outside of the States has made me appreciate and understand what it means to be American more than I ever did while I was there. While I am no longer “brainwashed” into believing that the U.S.A. is the “greatest nation on earth”, I hold many of our traditions and history even closer to my heart than before. I may not have any great desire to move back there (I am enjoying my life in Southeast Asia too much to contemplate such a long-term return) and I am increasingly perplexed by our government (particularly the NSA and it’s “power”), that doesn’t change my country’s ever-fascinating past.
While I have always been a major history buff, I’m finding that my hunger for U.S. history is currently at an all-time high. Perhaps it’s my physical separation from America (and the ease at which I can download ebooks) that is allowing me to fill the gaps in my knowledge.
I tend to “study” historical events and people just prior to important anniversaries. This month of November seems to be especially ripe for that with several notable dates upcoming within the next fortnight.
The first of these is the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln‘s famous speech given at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery near the famous battlefield in southeastern Pennsylvania. I had to memorize this for several classes in high school (not only for American History but also in Social Studies and Speech/Debate). I can still recite most of it from memory. I’ll write more about Lincoln on the 19th (and it’s too bad I didn’t think to create a Muang Phuket Local Post issue until just now; perhaps there’s still time…)
November 22nd is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in the city of my birth — Dallas, Texas. (I was born in the same hospital that both Kennedy and his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, died in — Parkland Memorial.) I have already designed several local post stamps to mark that tragedy but still need to decide which one to print and “release”. As I didn’t arrive on the scene until two years later I don’t have any personal memories of the shooting but will share those of my father and mother. I have a few books about Kennedy and the assassination but have only read one so far (Bill O’Reilly’s).
November is also the month that I tend to miss my family the most. This s due to the holiday of Thanksgiving, occurring on the 28th this year. When we were very young, my sister and I both participated in school pageants where we recreated the first Thanksgiving meal between the Pilgrims and the Indians (now known as Native Americans). I got to play Squanto one year and Miles Standsh another while I remember Marilyn annually assigned the role of a tiny squaw.. Memories from junior and senior high school seem less extravagant, simply making cut-out turkeys (something I’ve continued in my classes to this day — yes, even in Thailand).
Oddly, we never studied the Pilgrims much beyond their harvest feast celebration other than a brief mention of their journey on the Mayflower and subsequent landing at Plymouth Rock. Interestingly enough, the very first “Thanksgiving” feast in the Americas occurred many years prior to this in what is now New Mexico.
I didn’t realize it when I was growing up but somehow Thanksgiving became my favorite family-oriented holiday and it is the traditions surrounding it that I long for the most of all. Not to mention the food. Oh, glorious white-meat turkey, mashed potatoes with brown gravy, warm pumpkin pie topped by a heaping dollop of Cool Whip, the open-faced hot turkey sandwiches (complete with bread-crumb stuffing) made from leftovers the following day. Real milk to drink. I haven’t drank “real” milk since arriving in Thailand and, lord, do I miss it (despite my being lactose-intolerant).
Of course, Thanksgiving also means afternoon games of American football and the beginning of the Christmas shopping frenzy on Black Friday. I think I miss that build-up to the December holiday season with the changes in weather (snow!) and the colorful decorations that seem so different in America (and differing from the big cities to the small heartland towns) than in anywhere else I’ve found myself around Christmastime (that list includes London, northern Norway, Canada, Singapore, Penang, Bangkok, and Phuket).
Yes, I feel particularly American this month, more so than I have in quite some time. That feeling began at the end of October when my language school held a two-day Halloween party and I attempted to explain not only that day’s background and traditions to colleagues and students alike but also the nearer-to-my-heart holiday of Dia de Muertos which is more adamantly and uniquely celebrated in Albuquerque than in any other American city. That was coupled with the pride I felt with my sister running in the U.S. Marine Corps Marathon through our nation’s capitol of Washington, D.C.
Finally, this is the first time in many years that I have seriously contemplated a return to America, albeit for just a visit rather than a permanent move. I feel so confident that this will happen that I have already announced my plans to key family members and friends via email and Facebook. Tentatively set for mid-2016, I am looking forward to a 50-day coast to coast journey (primarily via Amtrak) in which I plan to see as many relatives and old friends as possible while immersing myself in the scenery, food, and history of the United States of America. That will truly be an “American” month more than any other.